F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: City House (Nashville)
Experience: Tra Vigne, Terra Restaurant (St. Helena, CA); Margot Café and Bar (Nashville)
Education: Scottsdale Culinary Institute
Who taught you how to cook?
My mom and my grandmothers. After that, I worked for a great chef when I was in college, Kevin Fults. He gave me a culinary school textbook and made me cook my way through it, and that helped me head in the right direction.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American. I've cooked out of that book more than any other book. It has great biscuits and corn cakes, and cool regional cuisine, before that was considered cool. And all of the recipes work.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience. That's a relatively new skill for me. It's made life a lot better.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Whole chicken. We make all of our broth from it, use the chicken breast as a menu item, use the wings on the weekend for Sunday supper, and use the rendered fat from the backs.
What's your current food obsession?
Doughnuts. I went into Fox's Donut Den six months ago and got an old-fashioned doughnut, then ordered three more, and still think about it every day. They have a great apple fritter, too.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Puerto Rico. I love the idea of whole roasted pig, the mofongo and roasted plantains.
What do you consider your other talent besides cooking?
I'm hilarious. I tell my friends bad jokes and they look at me and wonder what I'm doing.
If you could invent a dream restaurant, what would it be?
A meat bonanza in Titan Stadium with everything you'd want at a game—all kinds of sausages. A rosticceria.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
Beans, you can grow them or eat them right away, but they also keep forever. Dried corn for the same reason, and salt pork. You give those three things to a redneck and we can survive happily.
Name a dish that defines your cooking.
Our trout dish, which is a play on southern Italian stuffed sardines. I gravitate toward delicious blue-collar cooking. You start seeing similarities between Italian and Southern cuisines: grits and polenta; bread crumbs replacing cheese. It stretches on and on.
Name a dish that defines you.
Corn bread. It's something that I learned from my mom and my mom's mother. I make it at home in my dad's mom's cast-iron pot. I've changed it but am right back where I started. It's not a signature so much as heart and soul, an expression of how things are and how I like them to be.
What's your favorite snack?
Cheese toast. I'll add buttermilk cheddar with pickles, or hot sauce or preserves. It's a canvas for what's in the fridge.
Best new store-bought product?
Hapi Sriracha Peas from Target. They're tasty.
Do you have any food superstitions?
Ever since I worked for Hiro Sone at Terra, I believe in odd numbers. I set my kitchen timer on one hour one minute and one second. And we'll always serve three meatballs. We won't do an even number.