Avenues at the Peninsula, Chicago
What's your favorite new ingredient?
Cattails. I found out about them from a little book on wild edibles that was published about 50 years ago. We forage for them around Lake Michigan. They taste like water chestnuts, and I'll probably serve them with scallops and fish. I'm also really into licorice root and sassafras.
What's the most versatile spice?
I'd say curry or cardamom, because you can use them both to blur the lines between sweet and savory.
What's the most underused spice?
Pink peppercorns, which aren't true peppercorns. They're very floral, and add great color, texture and sweetness.
What kind of olive oil do you use?
We use Olio Verde from Sicily.
What items should be in every pantry?
Kosher salt, eggs and flour. These are the building blocks of everything. Kosher salt, above and beyond everything. When I was learning to cook, someone told me to view kosher salt as a magnifying glass, because you put it on food and it enhances everything. And also Coca-Cola, because I can't work without it.
What's your favorite knife?
My Henckels chef's knife.
What's your favorite pan?
What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
What's your favorite mail-order source?
JB Prince [jbprince.com].
What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
I think the immersion circulator would be pretty cool, if I hit the lottery. But if it comes between that and hiring another cook, I'd go for the cook. There's only so much you can do with an immersion circulator.
If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
A plate with metal coiling built in to keep it warm. And a reverse blow torch that would shoot an extreme shot of cold air.
What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
The foie gras at Per Se [in New York City]. It's almost a mousse of foie gras, topped with pickled cherries and pistachio crumble. I could eat a bowl of it.
What's your favorite place to go for wine?
Rick Tramonto's second place, Osteria Via Stato [in Chicago] .
What's your favorite sushi place?
Meiji, next door to Blackbird [in Chicago]. They have a soup with ginkgo nuts, mushrooms and eel, served in a teapot. The lid doubles as the bowl.
What restaurant in your city would you want to eat in once a week?
Bijan's Bistro [in Chicago], right near Avenues. They do things like an iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing and rigatoni with tomato sauce. A lot of our staff goes there. I love Avec [in Chicago], too. The stuffed dates with piquillo pepper sauce are awesome.
If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of place would it be?
A Mexican place. I'd hire a whole family, do it superauthentic and name it Comida ["meal" in Spanish].
Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
I think cheese is going away. You're seeing a lot of tea menus and even tea dinners. Alinea [in Chicago] sometimes has tea flights, and we're starting them, too. Guests are also putting themselves in the chefs' hands, learning to trust us more.
A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
We're making our own cheese and yogurt. I think that 98 percent of the yogurt on the market is so watery, but you see the difference when you make your own. It's like apples and oranges. We're making our own prosciutto, using pigs from Gunthorp Farm in Indiana. We'd like to make our own tofu.
On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
I used to be at seven or eight, and now I'm probably a five. We don't want to be typecast. Cuisine is so out there that soon it will fall in on itself. I just want to find the best product, whether it's produce from Hillbilly Joe's farm or a bag of Pop Rocks from the grocery store.
If you could upgrade one piece of equipment in your kitchen, what would it be?
I'd probably want a Vulcan oven, which I think would be stronger and a little quieter than what we have now. Our oven sounds like it's going to take off and fly through the dining room.
Which newfangled piece of equipment (i.e., sous vide equipment, the Pacojet, the Thermomix or a dehydrator) do you think will gain a real place in home kitchens?
I don't know if anyone knows how to use a Thermomix. We own one, and we don't know how to use it. With a dehydrator, home cooks would only dry out fruit chips. People aren't really cooking much in their homes anymore, but sous vide might be used for storing things. Pacojet is a great toy, but most professional kitchens don't even have one.
What's your favorite cookbook?
I have two bookcases that used to be filled with cookbooks, but now it's mostly books about politics and government. I might just give this all up and run for office.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I'm inspired by artists who use a limited palette, like painter Piet Mondrian, and the White Stripes, two musicians who create an incredible sound. Our food is starting to go back to a "less is more" style.
Spanish chef Ferran Adrià has been a big influence on chefs recently; what or who do you think will take his place?
I think chefs still look to Ferran Adrià for inspiration. He's always been the benchmark that people rate themselves against. You won't see anyone else for the next 20 to 30 years.
If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
For $1,000, I'd take my team out to dinner at Alinea. For $10, I'd buy everybody in the kitchen a two-liter Coke.
Do you have any food-related superstitions?
I only wear red socks in the kitchen. They bring me luck.