Aaron Barnett

F&W Star Chef

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Education: California School of Culinary Arts’ Cordon Bleu Program

Training: Lumière (Vancouver); Gary Danko and Myth (San Francisco)

Experience: Desert Sage (La Quinta, California); Olea, 23Hoyt, St. Jack, Foster Burger (Portland, Oregon)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Two, really: Gary Danko taught me to cook consistently. Anybody who’s worked with him walks away knowing how to get the best from anything and why. He had reasons for everything he did. That’s the sign of a great chef—somebody who is convinced that what they’re doing is better than the guy up the road.

Rob Feenie at Lumière. That’s where I learned the tools and the techniques, both classic and new. They were working in a slightly modernist way, but without any chemicals. So if you were making some kind of a frothy sauce, they didn’t add powders; they manipulated the fat content. They had two sauciers; I was the second saucier for a time.

Can you give an example of a naturalist way to make a frothy sauce?
Say you’re making a roasted garlic froth. You roast the garlic. Then you hit it with a lot of chicken stock that’s pretty high in protein, gelatin and collagen from the get-go. Then you do a series of reductions: You add, say, two cups of stock and reduce that to a glaze with the garlic. Then do that again and again, until you develop this thick garlic syrup. Then you puree the syrup to make the base for your sauce. You add the base to a pan with more chicken stock and reduce that down. Finally, you add cream and butter. From there, it’s a matter of manipulating the fat content to match the collagen: If the fat content is too high, the bubbles will become too thick, and the froth will be thick and goopy like the top of a milkshake. You can add skim milk to dilute it just a touch. That will allow the bubbles to be more like cappuccino froth, which will hold and drape.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I was a big fan of Cup o’ Noodles. But my mom also taught me to cook Peking duck from scratch. She was a huge foodie. So was my dad, but he was into more old-school French. When we moved from Winnipeg to Los Angeles, she was so tired of wintery dishes; she got deep into Asian stuff. I’d come home from school and there’d be ducks hanging from the ceiling with fans blowing on them. She also taught me how to make the little pancakes, and how to slice the green onions in such a

way where they would fan out; you’d put them in ice water. She was into all of that.

And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Probably not Peking duck! A puree or cream-based soup, since they all have the same basic ingredients: garlic, onions, your vegetable of choice, your liquid of choice (whether chicken stock or vegetable stock or water), then cream and butter. The key is how you finish it at the end. Adjusting the salt, the acid, it’s all a matter of tasting. That’s one of the ways I get my cooks to learn how to work their palate out, by adjusting a soup so it tastes the best to them.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Anything by Louis Diat. He was the executive chef at the Ritz in New York around the turn of the century. His crazy old-school techniques were huge for me. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for this restaurant from him. My dad turned me on to him.

Dish you’re most famous for?
At St. Jack’s, we serve mostly Lyonnais-style bistro dishes. There are two that have triggered people’s attention:

The pied de cochon. It’s a three-day process. The dish was popularized in the ’70s or ’80s in London by Pierre Koffman. He would take all the meat out, but leave the skin and hoof attached. He’d stuff the trotter with roasted sweetbreads, chicken mousseline, mushrooms, and I think he used cognac, though I use Madeira. He presented his in a European way, where they like that gelatinous quality. I tried to make mine a little more palatable for my customers by breading it and slow-roasting it with brown butter, garlic and thyme. You get this nice crunchy coating, then the soft braised pigskin, then chicken mousseline and all that good stuff in the middle.

We do something slightly similar with duck. We get whole ducks, head on and feet on. We stuff the necks with the head still attached. We take out the neck bone, so you wind up with a sock with a head at the end of it. We stuff that with house-made pork sausage, figs poached in red wine and port, pistachios, and little bit of onion and herbs. We tie it up and slow-roast that, so you wind up with a sausage with a crispy duck skin exterior. We serve it sliced, with the duck head attached. That’s one of those dishes where people’s phones automatically come out to shoot pictures of it.

One technique everyone should know.
Searing. Everybody watches the cooking shows on TV with the pots and pans flying and chefs flipping things. But for the most part, you want to put the food in there and leave it alone. Let it cook! Getting a good crunchy sear on a piece of steak or fish? Come on, that’s delicious. Just don’t burn it or undercook it.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I am terrible with dough. I have no feel for bread. I don’t know if it’s a lack of patience, but every time I make dough, it comes out superwrong. Pie dough I can muddle my way through, but if you try to get me to make a loaf of bread, it will turn out the most wretched thing you have ever seen. I’m a get-things-done-now sort of a guy, though, so it’s challenging for me to wait and wait for something to rise.

What is your current food obsession?
Right now, two things make it into the rotation on pretty much everything:

Sriracha sauce. I put it on most of my French food. It’s nuts, except I know for a fact that at Daniel they put Tabasco in most every dish. I like the depth of sriracha.

Jacobsen Salt. It’s a local product I found when I moved here. Ben Jacobsen’s a supernice guy. He harvests a bunch of water from the ocean and evaporates it to make this incredible flake salt. In my mind, it makes Maldon salt look superlame. I’ve fallen in love with it. I’ve been using it to cure meats, to roast things in salt, and then we put it on every pat of butter that goes on the table with bread.

What are your talents besides cooking?
I just had my first child. Now from about 5 a.m. till about noon every day I get to be the best dad I can, then in the evenings I feed people. I’m enjoying fatherhood more than I have pretty much anything else I ever have in my life.

What is the best bang-for the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Parsley. Even if you throw it in at the last minute, it adds freshness, brightness and greenness to anything from a deep, dark braise to a simple sauce.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Lemon. It can balance anything out, especially richer foods. I actually eat the nubs of lemons, not the stem end but the pointy end. All the guys think I’m nuts. But those bits contain only peel, only lemon oil, no pith, so there’s no bitterness. After a long night of tasting savory things, you chew on one of those for a while, it freshens everything right up!

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
I feel like game birds are going to make an appearance at some point. People are going to start respecting things other than duck. I love all the little birds: quail, squab, poussin. Poussin are so tender and lovely and marry themselves so well to whatever you put with them; they deserve more recognition.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I am a big fan of different butters. I could sit down to a stick of butter and a baguette and call it a day. Delitia is made from the same cream as Parmigiano Reggiano. It has a lovely cheesy quality, like half butter, half cheese. It’s from northern Italy. The milk is a deep yellow, almost orange. It does have a little funkiness of Parmigiano. The texture is almost chewy, as butter goes.

What's the best house wine or beer, and why?
Beer: Right now, I am all about a couple of local Portland breweries like Breakside Brewery and Upright Brewing. They’ve started doing some Belgian-style and French farmhouse–style beers that are fun and interesting. The French farmhouse ales are so light and refreshing. They’re both so creative with what they make and how they make them.

Wine: Any Bandol rose. I’d swim in a pool of it if I could.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I would bring thyme, garlic and butter. And then I’d roast a chicken with it. Something simple.

What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
M. For Mmmmm.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickled herring. My wife hates it, but I’ll go through a little tub in a day without a problem. Usually right before bed, too, so she’s really pleased when I come in reeking of pickled fish!

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Flour + Water. I haven’t been back to San Francisco since I moved to Portland. Tom’s [Thomas McNaughton] a good friend and I’ve heard nothing but good things. Dill Restaurant in Iceland, in Reykjavik. I’d like to try more of that kind of Noma-style cooking. Their menu looks intensely flavorful, superhyperlocal and their techniques seem more naturalistic, which I like. NEXT in Chicago. Every time I look at one of their menus, every time they change the concept, I’m so impressed by the attention to detail. A kitchen that big and that cool, with that many people cooking in it all dedicated to perfection, I’d love to try it.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Portland! The price point at most restaurants is significantly lower than other cities. And the food carts never cease to amaze me. Sok Sab Bai serves the most incredible Cambodian food. Lucky me, I used to go there three times a week. Now they’re opening a brick-and-mortar shop right next door to St. Jack. PDX671 does food from Guam, which evidently is called Guamanian. (671 is the Guam area code.) I had this lovely simple lunch of grilled chicken diced up, served cold with coconut and chiles, lots of fresh herbs and tons of lime juice. They serve it with this made-to-order tiny flatbread.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
When I went down to San Francisco from Canada and came back with a job at Gary Danko.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’m actually trying to peddle this one around. I want to focus on coastal cooking from Europe and America. Not fish and chips or chowder; the kind of thing where you’re in Scotland, say on the Isle of Lewis in Stornaway, and you’re eating tiny shellfish with a pick and having a beer, looking out over the ocean. Or in Scandinavia eating herring. I want to focus on the bycatches, not salmon or halibut. And I want a huge white wine program, with beer in huge frozen beer mugs—everything to make it not precious. Just a fun, exciting little place to eat great, fresh seafood.

Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
One dish I made a few years back for a special dinner: Milk-poached pork belly with a seared scallop, leek soubise, a crispy pig’s ear and a truffle-soy vinaigrette. It was one of the first times I realized I enjoyed the combination of meat and fish. That texture balance—the pork was so incredibly soft, and scallop had that perfect chew, with the nice crust on top. I also realized I wanted to work with weird things like deep-fried pigs’ ears. The other two ingredients were so normal and lovely; I loved combining them with something that had this rough edge on it.

The pied de cochon I mentioned earlier is another. I’d never put three days’ effort into one dish before. I was nervous how it was going to turn out. If I’d wasted three days on all that hard work! So when I sliced into it, I couldn’t have asked for a better result: the sweetness from the madeira, the aromatics from the herbs, the crusty sweet breads and the mushrooms, a good balance of sweet and savory—it all came together.