Restaurant: Sepia (Chicago)
Background: 2Senza (Red Bank, New Jersey); Park Hyatt Chicago, Mod, Del Toro Cafe, NoMI (Chicago)
Education: French Culinary Institute (New York)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Renato Sommella. He taught me to trust my instincts—in a brilliant way, I suppose. He was a classical Italian cook, from Italy. We’d been cooking together for a relatively short time, when one day he came in very excited, because he’d decided we were going to serve branzino that night. We were the only two cooks in a small kitchen, doing 100 to 120 people per service. I had four or five things I had to pick up, plus this branzino. I’d never cooked a whole fish before. I knew they weren’t cheap, and I knew that he was really into it. So when the first order came in and I put it in the oven, when it looked ready I said, “Renato, can you take a look at this and tell me what you think?” He said matter of factly, “You know very well whether it’s done or not.” The way he said it, there wasn’t any room for me to doubt him. And as it turns out, he was right. That continues to be one of the most important things that I had to get my head around. There’s a lot of minutiae to cooking, between following recipes and weighing things out on gram scales. But at the end of the day, you need to know if it’s right or not.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Shrimp étouffée. I was 16 or 17, and I really liked spicy food. I had a brother ten years younger who was an extraordinarily difficult eater. My mother would make stuff mostly geared toward his taste. I was sick of eating bland food. I had remembered seeing Paul Prudhomme in TV growing up and was curious about Cajun food, so I went out and bought Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. I can still see my copy from my desk. I opened it and fell onto the crawfish étouffée recipe. Getting crawfish in New Jersey wasn’t as easy as getting shrimp. So I got shrimp, and I made shrimp stock with the shells, and followed all of the other steps. It turned out well. It was spicier than my mother liked. I found you have to dial back on the black pepper and cayenne in that book. And it’s atrociously buttery. I can look it up—for eight servings, it calls for half a pound. My man was not shy of the butter.
What should a neophyte home cook try?
They should roast a chicken. I recently did some consulting work for a company, and they were explaining how people don’t really cook anymore, they assemble. They go to the grocery store and they buy stuff that’s mostly already done—a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, and some famous chef’s salsa, and tortillas, and cheese. If you baked enchiladas with all of that, you would call that cooking. But for me, that’s like assembly. And I don’t want to sound like a jerk about it, I get it. If I didn’t cook professionally, if I worked at some other job all day long and then went home, I’d just want to relax. I’m not expecting people will go home and make this big extravaganza. But everyone should know how to roast a chicken. It’s the most underrated thing, and they’re really good.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. The intro has some of the best writing about professional cooking that’s also applicable to the home cook. There’s a great roast chicken recipe. Of the hundreds of cookbooks I have, it’s the only one that I make cooks read when they start working with me. At least the intro, so they have a frame of reference.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
We do a sweet potato tortellone with matsutake mushrooms, kombu dashi and spruce salt. It’s ostensibly an Italian dish treated with a Japanese aesthetic—and no fusion pretense about it. It’s just that I love Italian food and Japanese food, and I found a way for them to work together in the same place. On the one hand, it’s the Italian classic tortellini en brodo. But it has a vegetable filling instead of meat. The matsutake are wonderfully piney and aromatic. We use kombu dashi instead of meat stock, because it complements the flavors of the mushrooms. The spruce salt is also piney, which reinforces the mushroom flavors and works with the sweet of the sweet potato. It’s not Japanese, it’s not Italian, it’s not fusion, it’s just all the things that I like filtered through 15 years of cooking.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
A palate, and courage. You need to be able to taste a dish, adjust it, taste it again and adjust it again. Take the chicken: Let’s say you roast it and err on the side of undercooking it. If it’s a little raw, don’t freak out, just take it off the bone and finish it in the oven. It will still be juicy and delicious.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
If I could spend ten years learning to make sushi rice properly… I don’t know if that’s a good use of my time. But man, that would be awesome. I was in Japan over the summer, and their devotion to the minutiae of perfecting one thing is enormously admirable. I love the idea of a two-star Michelin tempura restaurant where all they do is fry things.
What is your current food obsession?
Gochujang. It makes almost anything tasty. I had to do a five-ingredient dish for an event and water counted, as did salt. It was brutal. So I did a stew of smoked pig’s tongues and potatoes, water, gochujang and ginger. The gochujang carried the day. It’s fermented, so it’s got layers of flavors beyond that hot chile taste.
Best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
Jean-Marc Montegottero vinegars. I use the cider, citron and honey the most. They’re some of the best vinegars I’ve ever had in my life. We use the cider vinegar in a sweet and sour braised red cabbage. It’s heartbreaking because you pour an entire bottle into a batch, but it’s worth it. We use the citron vinegar in a pecan and citron vinaigrette for a pan-roasted trout with candied bacon. We use the honey in a charred eggplant puree. They’re good in anything where you want impactful flavor and balanced acidity. Usually vinegars are aggressively acidic with little flavor. With these, you get the best of both worlds.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Beer would be Commodore Perry IPA from Great Lakes Brewery in Cleveland. It’s refreshing, bitter and slightly fruity. Other friends say it’s too horribly bitter. But that’s OK, more for me.
Cocktail-wise, I like a proper daiquiri. It’s so straightforward: rum, simple syrup and lime juice. It’s like a simpleton’s margarita. They’re supereasy to throw together and to knock back. I like to make mine with a gold rum instead of white, to get some age-y flavor on it.
Wine-wise, if I had the money, I’d stick with either a Sassicaia, or a gratuitously expensive Barolo. Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona is a fantastic Tuscan winery that makes a Brunello di Montalcino that I love, with good cherry and smoky—I don’t know, I just like it.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Lately, giardiniera. It’s spicy, salty, acidic, a little sweet—it hits all of those things in one bite.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip – where would you go and why?
Devon Avenue in Chicago. It’s the Indian and Pakistani neighborhood. I love Udupi Palace, a Southern Indian vegetarian restaurant where for like eight bucks I can get a masala dosa as big as my head. Or I can get rasa vada, this fantastic lentil doughnut in this peppery rasam broth that’s always satisfying and dead cheap and easy. Add a lassi and you’re done. Or Khan BBQ, or Hema’s Kitchen, and then a host of grocery stores where I can buy all the spices I would ordinarily pay more money to buy elsewhere.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
My bonito slicer from Tokyo.