© Nick Berard
F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: L’Etoile, Graze, Estrellón, Sujeo (Madison, WI)
Experience: Eleven Madison Park, Judson Grill (New York City)
Education: French Culinary Institute
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My biggest chef-mentor was Bill Telepan, when he was the chef at Judson Grill, my first kitchen job in New York. We’re still good friends. The most important thing I learned from him was the importance of combining or layering flavors and seasoning. The way that he would use butter and vegetable stock and salt and herbs to flavor vegetables, it’s something I’ve brought with me everywhere I go.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Probably eggs on the flattop at my grandparents’ restaurant, The Park Inn Diner in Racine. Either that or a cheeseburger.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Poached fish in olive oil. I’ve given this recipe to people before, because everyone’s afraid of fish. I tell them to buy a nice flat fillet of white fish, like fluke. Plop it in a small sauté pan and cover it with olive oil. Bring it just to a simmer, until the oil starts to bubble. Turn it off and let it stand for 15 minutes, 20 minutes tops. (The best doneness test for me is to touch the fillet and look for a little bounce. Also, if you see a lot of white creamy stuff coming out of it—those are the proteins, and that’s when your fish is fully done. If you see too much of that, it’ll be overcooked.)
The fish comes out super succulent, and you can season it once it’s done. You end up looking like a genius when you barely had to turn on the stove. At the restaurant we throw in fresh herbs with the oil and serve the poached fish with cucumbers and tomatoes, lemon juice, dill. It’s super delicious.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I was better at everything. Specifically, I would love to learn how to make a baguette like in the movie Ratatouille—the shattered, crispy, airy kind. I think about that baguette all the time. I’ve made baguettes before, and I always pull it out and do the crust test, and I’m often disappointed. It’s amazing how bread is made of only four ingredients—flour, yeast, water and salt—and yet if you don’t do it right, you end up with ridiculousness.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
I hate to say it, but the old standby: bacon. Although lately I’ve been using pastrami. Really, anything smoky and cured that can flavor your entire dish in very small amounts, whether soup or rice or farro or whatever. I’m actually doing a house-made veal pastrami right now with a lettuce soup; it’s super tender, smoky, salty—it’s just awesome.
Name two restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
1. Brooklyn Fare. Because whenever you can see a chef cook for 18 people and do whatever they want, you know you’re going to get inspired.
2. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. It’s exciting food, it sounds like a beautiful restaurant, and I like the backstory between the husband-and-wife chefs.
3.The French Laundry. It’s not new, but I’ve never been to the Laundry. Even if it’s only out of nostalgia, I would be sad if I never got to go.
What are your talents besides cooking?
DJing. I have zero time to do it, but I love to make beats and mash-ups on my computer. Day to day, I listen to a lot of hip-hop and rap.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Probably the 50 kilos of salumi I snuck out of Turin. I almost got caught; there was a situation at Customs. This was in the early 2000s, when not everyone was curing their own stuff here, when that didn’t even seem possible. I brought it all back and thought, We’ve gotta be able to do this.
In Italy, they don’t Cryovac any of their cured meat, since it’s all air-cured. I’d bought everything at random little stands. I went to this giant grocery store, and I talked the girl behind the counter into Cryovac-ing it for me. At first, she refused; she said it would ruin it. I explained how I was flying to the States and would take it out as soon as I got home. Once I got back, we just feasted. It was truly inspirational. There was culatello, and a really good mortadella, and this one goat salami that they smoked and aged on these planks. I can see it and taste it in my mouth right now, it was so good. The whole thing set me on the path of doing all this house-made stuff.
Recipe you’re most famous for?
We make a chicken broth with the rinds of this Wisconsin Parmesan-like cheese called SarVecchio. We add a prosciutto leg or mushroom stems, onions and herbs like sage and rosemary. We strain it and we use it for our agnolotti, a filled pasta with black truffles and mortadella. It’s one of those flavors that’s super simple yet incredibly delicious.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
I’m a cookbook fiend. But the most used cookbooks in our kitchen are Charcuterie by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman, and On Food & Cooking by Harold McGee. I’m looking at them right now. They’re just destroyed.
One technique everyone should know?
How to make a mayo. If you come to my kitchen to do a stage, there are three things you have to do: You have to brunoise carrot, celery and onion; you have to chop chives; and you have to make mayo. If you get through all of that without asking me any questions, you’re on your way. I might still give you the job if you can’t; it just tells me where you’re at. If I tell you to make a Meyer lemon and garlic mayo, yeah, OK, ask me to give you a recipe. But I love mayo and think everyone should know how to make it. My favorite method is with the robot coup, but I also make a lot with an immersion blender.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
In my neck of the woods, it’s Red Boat Fish Sauce. Most people in Madison don’t know the flavor of fish sauce. If you use it right, people don’t say, “wow, that tastes like rotten fish!” It just gives this incredible umami. I make simple dishes with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, mint, cilantro, and people can’t believe the tastes.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
It’s hard not to say Madison or Milwaukee, because they’re both so much cheaper than everywhere I go, and they have so much going on. And I’m not just saying it because I'm proud of where I live.
Especially if you come to Madison in the summertime, you have the outdoor farmers’ market on Saturday, where you can find anything you want to eat. And you have so many good restaurants on Capitol Square. Everything from good sushi to good Vietnamese to good Italian, like Nostrano.
In Milwaukee, you have a lot of next-generation young cooks with the local and sustainable philosophy. You have a lot of sausages being made, meats being smoked, vegetables being pickled, everything made in-house. There’s the longtime standby—the Sanford Restaurant, obviously—and newer places like the Odd Duck, Hinterland, Wolf Peach.
If you were going to take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, where would it be and why?
I would probably take Bourdain to my favorite local family-run little Vietnamese restaurant here, Ha Long Bay. They have amazing stuff, it’s a great family, a bunch of women in the kitchen and so much good food. My favorite thing is the pho and another dish I just call LS 7, which stands for Laotian specialty No. 7. It’s got a name, but I don’t want to disrespect them by trying to say it. It’s like a crispy rice salad with onions, lime, fermented sausage and peanuts sprinkled on it, all wrapped up in lettuce leaves. It’s spicy, sour, crunchy salty—it’s so good.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
If the zombies are a-comin’, I would probably bring a pack of beef jerky, some Wonka Mini Chewy SweeTarts—those are the go-to guilty pleasure—and maybe some liquid aminos. I refuse to not have seasoned food.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Hopefully, there’ll be a new magical animal that can take over the world like the pig did in, when was it, 2005? I don’t think they’ll allow us the horse, but horse is delicious! Maybe rabbit?
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
I’ve been really into this bourbon shaken with maple syrup and lemon juice served over ice. I like that it’s sweet and not overly boozy, so it doesn’t knock you on your tail right away. It also has that balance of the maple and lemon, the sweetness and sourness. It ends up tasting kind of like an Arnold Palmer, which I also like.
What is your current food obsession?
Making our own veal pastrami: We inject it and brine it for a couple of days, then we rub it with peppercorns and coriander and smoke it with a lot of steam in the smoker. It takes a couple of hours, but it breaks down and gets super tender with a nice crust on the outside. My obsessions don’t last all that long; this has been going on about two weeks. Prior to that, I got obsessed with gochujang, the Korean chile paste. I was making everything with it, from mayo to coleslaw. We’re using a brand from Korea, but there’s a new hot sauce called KimKim with a gochujang base that’s super cool.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are (your food dish-story).
Growing up in my grandparents’ restaurant, because it was a diner in the ’80s, we would fry hash brown patties in the fryer. One day, when I was about 5, I watched my uncle take the onions for the burger and chop those up on the flattop with the hash brown. I remember thinking, Wow, you can do whatever you want! I loved the flavor of the crisp potatoes and the sweet onions. It made me really curious. It made me want to go out and create other combinations.
Then when I got to New York in 1998, everything was inspiring. I started at Judson, then bounced around and ended up cooking mostly at Eleven Madison Park. Everything was so new and different. Like making quenelles of mashed potatoes. Just the basics were so fascinating: How do you make perfect creamy mashed potatoes? How do you make a perfect-roasted pork chop? The first meal I ate in New York that was a real a mind-blower was at Blue Hill. I was just a line cook, so I didn’t have any money. I went there with a date. I had all these burns on my arms, and the server said, “You look like you’re in this business.” I told them I worked for Telepan. They asked, “Would you like to move to another table?” All of a sudden, we were VIPs. It was also the first time I got a shot of something—a foamed-up mushroom soup. It was super intense.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles for sure. And mustard. I love mustard and pretzels, so I’ll open the jar of Bone Suckin’ mustard with a handful of pretzels and dip them as I figure out what I want to eat.