RESTAURANTS: Table 52, Chicago; Art and Soul, Washington, DC; Lyfe Kitchen, Multiple Locations; Southern Art, Atlanta, GA
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
I was raised in an agrarian family, so there was always lots of food on the table. I learned to cook by watching my grandmothers, aunts and mother cook. I was also raised by an African-American woman, Leila Curry, who became my second mother. She taught me how to make fried chicken at a young age.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I love breakfast and my first dish was fried eggs, grits and house-made sausage from our farm.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Annella Schomburger, the Florida governor’s mansion manager, taught me how to cook for large amounts of people beautifully. I was taught classic cooking from two French chefs, Pierre Vivier and Albert Ughetto, each of whom were personal chefs for celebrities.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie Kenning Rawlings.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Knowing how to cook is very important, but being a “Jesus” in the kitchen to enlist others is more important. Many great cooks fail because of poor management skills.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
As a personal chef, you have to learn how to do everything, because billionaires request everything.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Catfish, I just served it at the Monterey Aquarium Festival. Yes, it’s an old standby, but it’s American, sustainable, and terrific fried in GMO-free cornmeal.
What is your current food obsession?
Anything Asian and vegan.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I admire Noma, for its talented young chef who focuses on his Scandinavian roots.
I’ll go back again to Next because I like anything chef Grant Achatz creates. I haven’t been to his restaurant Aviary, but I’d love to go.
I love chef Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, and his fried chicken is some of the best ever. I’ve never been to French Laundry, but I’d love to go.
The hottest ticket in Chicago is Grace, and Curtis Duffy is a very talented young chef. Even with everyone going more casual, he chose to keep elegance in this economy. That shows a lot of courage.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I loved my trip to Jerusalem, where there was lots of amazing Palestinian street food in the Arab Quarter, the best hummus ever and falafel like no other. It’s inexpensive and fun, and walking the Old City is like every great historic movie you’ve ever enjoyed. In Tel Aviv, I ate amazing chicken schnitzel pita sandwiches. I adore street food and people watching.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Bay leaves I picked while hunting for white truffles outside of Pisa with my friend Renée Frigo of Lucini Italia. I use them to add a taste of Italian countryside for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other amazing meals.
What do you consider your other talents besides cooking?
I am very good at kissing babies and engaging world leaders through cooking and charm.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d like something that focuses on street food, with a healthy bent. We have this amazing melting pot of people in our country. I love to see cool Southeast Indian street foods with great breads and dips. I love Middle Eastern food, too, and would present it in a way that is fun and sexy. Music would be a big part of it.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would it be?
Chef Keller would be great! He is an amazing human being and a talented chef. I would take him to my home in north Florida and have my mother and aunts cook for him. He strikes me as a man who would enjoy a beautiful home-cooked meal, cooked from scratch, all from our farm.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d pack White Lily flour, mayonnaise, Lucini extra-virgin olive oil, Burton's Maplewood Farm maple syrup, kosher salt, dried heirloom beans and dried ham. I love great beans simply cooked with olive oil, ham, maple syrup and salt. I’d serve them with my grandmother's Great Depression biscuits. They didn’t have butter, so they mixed self-rising flour and mayonnaise.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
The more the population grows, the more important sustainable foods will become. That’s what we’ll be talking about in five years.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Straight out of the fridge: Southern fried chicken, left over macaroni and cheese, homemade breads like biscuits, yeast rolls and focaccia, and homemade desserts like hummingbird cake, 12 chocolate cake and upside-down cake.
As a snack, I love low-calorie mozzarella sticks, all kinds of mustard on cold turkey and chicken breast, and cold fruit. I love fruit throughout the day as a snack. I love coffee, so much so that I have three different kinds: cappuccino in the morning, Turkish coffee mid-day and espresso in the afternoon.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Walmart rotisserie chicken is pretty great torn into salads or eaten right off the bone. It’s probably the most affordable, high-quality rotisserie on the market. I love my Nespresso coffee machine, because it’s easy, delicious and high quality. I adore Lucini Italia Cinque e Cinque Chickpea Farinata Mix. You can make a quick falafel out of it or make a wonderful vegan chickpea cake.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
These are more rules than superstitions or rituals, but here are my mantras:
Always have plenty of food. To run out of food is a sin, to throw it away is a bigger sin. What you don’t use, you share and give away. Don’t cook in my restaurants if you’re in a bad mood.