Tommy Habetz

F&W Star Chef

Restaurants: Bunk Sandwiches, Bunk Bar, and Trigger (Portland, OR)

Education: The Natural Gourmet Institute (New York)

Experience: Mesa Grill; Po; Lupa (New York)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Bobby [Flay] and Mario [Batali] were probably my biggest influences, along with Mark Ladner at Lupa and Erica Lutzner, my sous chef at Mesa, though she doesn’t cook anymore.

At Mesa, Bobby and Erica taught me about seasoning and tasting as you go, using salt to get something to taste the way you want it to taste. I’d worked lots of jobs at delis and places like that growing up. But to have somebody stand there and let you taste for yourself, so you understand what exactly it means for something to be properly seasoned, that was such an eye-opener. I did not have the upbringing of someone like Paul Bertolli: I did not have a romantic culinary childhood; I wasn’t picking the perfect peaches off of the branch. My mom hated salt; she was scared of it. I love her to death, but in the ’80s, everybody was scared of salt.

Mario taught me about acidity, the idea of finishing a dish with fresh lemon juice or something like it to brighten a dish, to you take something from being delicious to over-the-top crave-worthy.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
The first thing I ever made was buttercream frosting, which was just putting powdered sugar and butter together. For a beginner, I would say a braise like bracciole or a Sunday ragú. I grew up in the New York area and have always been drawn to Italian and Italian-American cooking. Most people love that kind of stuff; it feeds a group, so you can invite your friends over. It involves all the good things about cooking, and it’s hard to mess it up. It’s supersatisfying to realize you can take a tough piece of meat and gently cook it until it’s falling apart.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
A couple of sandwiches seem to resonate with people: Our pork belly cubano, and our salt cod and chorizo sandwich. They both reflect a little about how I come up with something. I try to draw on my past and make things that are personal to me. I spent a year working for Drew [Nieporent at Lucca in Boca Raton]. If you’ve spent any time in Florida, Cuban cooking is where it’s at. This was also 12 or 13 years ago, when there wasn’t a whole lot other than chains, so finding a good little Cuban diner with a good cubano was the saving grace.

How we go about our sandwiches, we try to make every single component the best we can, without getting fancy or gourmet. We try to balance the artisan and the lowbrow. That’s very important to me: I don’t want to lose the original intention. We think about all the things that go on a sandwich, but a lot of times the best choice is Best Foods mayo and French’s yellow mustard. We use both of those on our cubano. We use a local pit-smoked ham, local Picklopolis pickles, and a good aged Swiss. For the roast pork, in most cubanos, I’d always thought that was the weakest part. They’d use this bland loin or shoulder, although I'm not actually sure what’s traditionally used. But I figured, why don’t we do it with belly? Now I can’t believe how much pork belly we sell. We rotate through a pork belly banh mi and a pork belly Reuben, but the cubano is the most popular. We go through about 100 bellies a month.

With the salt cod and chorizo sandwich, I first learned about Spanish and Portuguese cooking working for Mario. He grew up partly in Spain. His dad was over there when he was in high school and college. Even when he’s cooking regional Italian food, he still draws on that. Take his linguini with clams, pancetta and chiles: That’s not very Italian. It’s an Italian dish, but the pancetta makes it more Portuguese or Spanish. So the salt cod kind of came from that. I also have this theory that pretty much anything that would make a good salad will also make a good sandwich. When I was more of a restaurant chef, I used to do a salad of salt cod fritters with parsley and chorizo. That’s essentially what that sandwich is. It’s a salt cod brandade that we spread on a ciabatta roll. We toast it, make a little fresh salad with flat leaf Italian parsley, red onion, chorizo, black olives, and oil and vinegar.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Open-mindedness. And honesty. Obviously cooking takes skill and knowledge, but if you think that you’re the best and greatest and that you can’t learn anymore, then you’re not going to get very far. If you’re honest and open-minded and willing to learn and improve what you do, then you have a good chance for growth.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I do not have the patience of a pastry chef. I wish I were better at all the delicate things. I have a heavy hand, and I'm an impulsive cook. I sometimes compare it to carpentry: I can do the rough framing, not the finished work. Honestly, there are three things that I would really like to get really good at: pizza, fried chicken and ice cream. Maybe a music comparison works better: In food, there are the four-star, classical symphonic restaurants. I like power pop.

What is your current food obsession?
I’ve got an obsession with Tex-Mex at the moment. We just opened Trigger, which is our take on it. My wife is from Abilene, Texas. That state has everything that I love about food: It’s flavor-packed. It’s a mix of cultures. It’s very much a developing cuisine, so there are no real rules. And it’s—how do I say it? One of the key dishes in Tex-Mex cuisine is queso: melted Velveeta with Ro*Tel chiles and tomatoes. All the experts in the field I’ve talked to, like Aaron Franklin from Franklin Barbecue in Austin, tell me that’s how they would make queso. But sometimes you’ll see recipes in food magazines, or chefs on TV that say, “OK, first you start with your get Monterey Jack, then you take your fresh chiles,” using all these fancy ingredients just for the sake of being fancy. Of course I'm going to use local farmers and support good ingredients as much as I can, but there’s a lot of great food out there that doesn’t have to be artisan or gourmet.

What is the best bang for the buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Chicken thighs. Which is funny, because we don’t have a chicken thigh sandwich. But as a parent, as somebody cooking for my family at home, I’m always grabbing some at the supermarket. At this point, wherever I go I can find some all-natural ones and make people happy. They’re the cheapest part of the chicken but they have the most flavor. And you can do anything with them. You could do stir-fried rice with chicken thighs, or marinate them the day before and grill them, or throw them in a simple salad. They’re easy and delicious.

What's the best house wine or beer and why?
For wine, we're big fans of rosé. There are a lot of great local options—I’m going to get into trouble for picking one and leaving out others—but J Christopher is a favorite. The owner Jay Somers a big Frank Zappa fan and he makes really great wine.

For beer, God, again, we’re so spoiled, but I really like Double Mountain Brewery. Charlie Devereaux is the beer maker there. Their Double Mountain kölsch is sooo good. It’s a great drinking beer.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cold noodles. Whether Chinese or Italian, they can be awesome. I had a concept one time of doing a concept called Leftovers—just serving really good leftover lasagna, cold lasagna or cold fried chicken.

Where would you take Mario Batali to dinner?
Going out to eat with Mario is definitely a fun thing. He’s Mario and people love him, but he’s also supersmart and funny. I’d take him for really good sushi, with a lot of wine drinking. I’d say Boxer Sushi is my favorite in Portland. They do an omakase menu for something like $38, and it’s incredible. That was about the price of the tasting menu at Po when I first got there!

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Mission Chinese Food. I’m about to go to San Francisco and hope to make it. For the first time in my career, I feel a real kinship to what some other chefs are doing, like Danny Bowien, April Bloomfield and the guys from Animal, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. Finally there are some voices that aren’t just gourmet or artisan, but still have love and good intentions.

Anything the guys from Animal do: Son of a Gun, Trois Mec. I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of amazing food, but something about their stuff completely clicks with me. They’re being true to themselves, and I appreciate that. I’ve never eaten at Del Posto, which is nuts. I don’t like super-super-fancy places all that much, but I love Mario and Mark’s cooking.