F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Assembly Hall, Brave Horse Tavern, The Carlile Room, Cantina Lena, Cuoco, Dahlia Bakery, Dahlia Lounge, Etta’s, Home Remedy, Lola, Palace Kitchen, Rub With Love Shack, Seatown, Serious Biscuit, Serious Pie Virginia, Serious Pie Pike, Serious Pie Westlake, Tanaka San, Hot Stove Society (Seattle)
Experience: Café Sport (Seattle); Second Landing (Bainbridge Island, Washington)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
When you’re a cook and you go on a line, you always taste something you’ve never tasted before and see what you hadn’t seen before. You start to build a repertoire. I was never formally trained, but I started as a cook’s helper at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware.
Steven Steinbock, the chef at Second Landing when I was sous chef, was the person who made me see cooking as a lifestyle and not just a job. I was 19 when I met him. He was a more traditional chef and had a real sense for the basics and things like good stocks. I was a more flamboyant chef with a flair for the dramatic. He made the best osso buco there was.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
At the Hotel du Pont, I was put in charge of crab cakes and made tons of them. So that’s really the first dish I cooked properly. And it was lucky: Seattle is full of crab, but when I moved here, you could never find one. I did menial jobs at the Hotel du Pont, making thousands of crab cakes, peeling shrimp and shucking oysters; but I got to Seattle and put a crab cake on the menu, and it was like the second coming. It was a dish that helped me talk about my history and define who I was in Seattle.
For a neophyte, I’d recommend finding a cookbook you love, read it like a novel and get excited about something. Try making roast duck. It makes you feel so much better than roasting a chicken. Once you’ve mastered roasting, try putting potatoes in the bottom of the pan and let them soak up the duck fat, and add some fresh rosemary. Suddenly you’ve got a dish to write home about.
Something I always say to my team: The most important thing in cooking is getting the best ingredients and getting out of the way. What are you going to do the Copper River salmon that the salmon hasn’t done itself? Get your ego out of the way and let the food shine.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
My “idea” mentor is Alice Waters, who taught me to be a more thoughtful cook.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The book that made me dream was Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. She’d write about the dinner parties she made. That book wasn’t heavy on recipes, but it had lots of menus and combinations of food. I just wanted to be at her dinner table.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
For a chef: It’s managing a team and getting everyone in the same direction.
For a cook: Working the hash counters and getting your speed up, and then adding knowledge of ingredients, so you’re mixing speed and deliciousness. Combining passion and technique is really cool.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Patience. I’m always trying to rush things, but a long braise or a slow smoke takes time. I’m always trying to force it by using a pressure cooker. On my day off, I like to sip whiskey and do a slow barbeque and take the time that good food requires.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
I love Asian food, so I think of Chinese barbeque pork (char siu) as an ingredient. In Asia, it’s not typical to sit and eat a pound like Americans do, but you can add a bit to so many dishes, to add fragrance to a wonton soup or a pork bun. I love it as an ingredient, and I love its candied sweetness. It’s just delicious, and it’s only $2 or $3 a pound. If you use an ounce or two, you don’t need any more protein. But it has to be a good char siu, with enough fat, and fresh out of the oven with the crispy edges that are caramelized with marinade.
What is your current food obsession?
I love a good cured smoked salmon, and I think it’s hard to find, so I’ve been looking to buy or make the best cured salmon. There’s also the Chinese barbeque window, selling everything from duck to sausages.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
In Seattle, Sitka & Spruce. It’s been open for a couple of years, but every time I think to go, it’s last-minute and it’s full.
I still love Babbo in New York and Osteria Mozza in L.A., even after all these years, and would love to go back.
In Portland, I just ate at Ox, an Argentinean-style steak house with a great modern flair, and I’d be happy to return.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I don’t want to sound like I’m whining, but I’m sick of the conversation about cheap eats, because someone’s paying for that. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request that people make a living wage, have health care and pay their taxes, so I’m not going to think about trips in terms of “bang for the buck.”
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
We try to bring a platter back from all our trips and serve food on it when we’re home. Having gone to Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in Lyon, I get a chuckle from the picture I took with Paul. I also bought a knife and an ashtray in his shop, and they bring a smile to my face.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’m pretty good with Washington state wines and the wine of Piedmont. I’m a medium golfer and an okay dad.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I still miss a good taqueria in Seattle. I’d love to open a place with a wood fire and organic corn tortillas.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Mario and re-create my trip from Lyon to Fleurie in Beaujolais. I’d not realized how far it was, so we paid 275 euros for the cab. We went to a great little restaurant, Le Cep, run by a feisty little woman. Mario and I would drink voluminous amounts of Beaujolais and eat stacks of butter-fried frogs’ legs and pay another 300 euros for the cab back.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
We have a plan in case of an emergency, and it’s not about grabbing a backpack; it’s about helping your neighbor. We’re not taking off. We’re setting up a soup kitchen and hanging in there.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
At the beginning of the Iraq wars, I thought Middle Eastern food would be popular, as the military brings back food trends. I’m interested in ingredients like Aleppo pepper and sumac. They’re popular now, but will be more so in five years. We’re just starting to explore India, too, and the different kinds of mustard seeds, cardamoms and black mustard curries.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Roast duck. I’m a big duck fan. We sell 50 orders of duck a night. We cure it for two days in a 12-spice and brown sugar combination. We roast it on a rotisserie for five hours until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender. We break it down, put it on a sizzle platter and get black crusty skin on the outside, but the meat side is still succulent. We serve it with a good coconut sticky rice and pea vine salad.
My ginger steamed salmon. I cook it in a Chinese steamer with a mince of green onion and garlic, a touch of earthy mushroom soy sauce and a little tab of butter. In the steamer, I add star anise, orange peel and taro root. It’s a perfect way to eat salmon.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I eat Bavarian Meats’s dried farmers’ smoked sausage. It’s a snack food I like right out of the fridge.
My other favorite snack is barbeque potato chips. Any and all.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product and why?
The Tsue Chong Company in Seattle makes Long Fon rice noodles infused with dried shrimp and salted turnip scallions. I pan fry them in peanut oil and make my own miso-hoisin sauce.
Five people to follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook.
Ed Levine, @edlevine
Canlis restaurant, @canlis
Visit Seattle, @VisitSeattle
Allecia Vermillion, @alleciav
Seattle Kitchen, @seattlekitchen
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post-shift rituals?
I try to eat a Dick’s burger after every catering. Dick’s is an old-fashioned joint near my house. That’s not a ritual or anything, that’s because I’m hungry.
I went to Catholic school for grades 1 through 12, so Jesus has done all the damage he can do to me. I have no superstitions.