Charlie Hallowell

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Charlie Hallowell

Restaurants: Pizzaiolo, Boot and Shoe Service, Penrose (Oakland, CA)

Education: UC Berkeley

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
Cal Peternell, the head chef at Chez Panisse. I worked there forever and I learned how to be a restaurant cook there, but Cal taught me more about home cooking. I was a 21-year-old single dad and I spent every day off I had at Cal’s house. He had kids my son’s age and we cooked dinner together every night when we weren’t working. He taught me about eating and generosity as much as cooking.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I’m really good at cooking food like an Italian grandmother: good ribollita, pasta, grilled steak, fritto misto. I have a certain simplicity and honesty to the food I cook. I don’t like to touch it very much. If I had a friend who was sick, I’d cook them ribollita. I’m not the most amazing technical cook in the world and I don’t know how to use an immersion circulator, but I’m a really good shopper. I buy the best food I can buy and I try not to mess it up. A lot of what I cook is based on trying to intuit what people are longing for in their experience of eating.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I cooked with any kind of regularity was because I was responsible for cooking dinner for my brother, who’s six years younger. I made a suburban version of Bolognese: ground hamburger and ragù sauce, bacon, chopped onions, and I stewed it for a long time. If you do it right, none of the ingredients loses its integrity, but you get a transcendent flavor that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I was blessed with that insight when I was pretty young.

Being able to roast a chicken well is really essential for a neophyte. It’s key to season it with more salt than you think you should, on the inside and outside, and to put yummy things like garlic and thyme and a half lemon in the cavity. Make a chicken twice a week for a month and pay attention: what happens if you use fennel instead of thyme? See how things change.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
April Bloomfield is a mentor. I love her food. I learned a lot about work ethic from April, and having a certain kind of focus and integrity. There is no good enough; there is just if something is cooked right or not right.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
For a long time, it was The Splendid Table, which is all about the food of Emilia Romagna. I don’t really cook from recipes, but I love that book. I also really love Simple French Food by Richard Olney. I love Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse and Cooking by Hand. I think the Momofuku cookbook is awesome.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
The thing that makes the difference is being really present: boil the water you’re cooking vegetables in, season it, taste the vegetables—you participate in the act of cooking instead of thinking that it happens despite you. It happens because of you. Your ability to be present and to find some joy in the moment is critical. When you’re prepping the vegetables, you’re paying attention to them and seeing how beautiful they are, and thinking about how you’re going to cut them and put them in the plate.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I really wish I were better at cooking Asian food. I’d love to be really proficient at making my own miso or soy sauce. I wish I was a little better at butchery. I like the basics, I’m a super simpleton. We are killing things and devouring them so we can keep going, and it’s an amazing and gnarly process that we’re all a part of it.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
It’s got to be salt or herbs. They make everything taste better.

What is your current food obsession?
My food obsessions usually have very little to do with what I’m doing at the restaurant. I’m obsessed with short grain Japanese white rice, but I’m also eating the short grain brown rice a friend of mine is growing in the Central Valley.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Bones in Paris. One of my previous cooks is working there and I think what they’re doing is cool.

I’d love to go eat Massimo Bottura’s food in Modena. I love that the Italians have held the line, keeping traditional food, up until this guy. I’d love to see if he’s successfully translating the ethos of Italian food into something new and interesting.

Asador Etxebarri. I’d like to see what he does and how he does it.

I’m not a big eater-outer. I mostly eat Korean food or Pho noodles.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Vietnam, mostly because anywhere you can go where eating is still one of the fundamental parts of life, not an after-thought, is appealing to me.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I have a beautiful knife that I brought back from Japan, and a beautiful indigo-dyed winter kimono, padded, that I brought back for my daughter from Japan. When I travel, I’m almost always treated with such amazing hospitality and kindness. That’s why I travel, to have these moments of humanity with people of totally different cultures and backgrounds.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’m a pretty big talker. I surf whenever I can. I’m a massive reader, mostly fiction. I try to spend a lot of time with my kids and to work in the garden.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, or Mario Batali out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I’d invite them all over to dinner at my house and make whatever I had in the garden and some meat. I’d get oysters and I’d grill a steak in my yard. In my garden, I have beautiful oak leaf, red mustard greens and flowering cilantro, and I’d make some kind of salad with citrus, avocado, mirage peppers and cilantro. I’ve been distilling my own whiskey, so I’d try to get them to stay up late to drink whiskey and tell me stories.

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 bring a sleeping bag and a bottle of miso soup, hard-boiled eggs, salt, a good book, an iPod with a solar charger and a lot of music, a cozy pair of pants, socks, a nice wool blanket and my knives.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
People do goofy things. Right now everyone’s making pasta with uni. I’m not into food trends. Anything that’s new is just being recycled in some way.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I always have rice around. I’ve been eating a lot of rice right out of the rice cooker, wrapped in seaweed. I just got amazing almond butter from Full Belly Farm and I eat that on any fruit I have. We eat a lot of dried mangos in my house. My kids are fanatical for dried mangos.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I just brought back two giant bags of katsuobushi, finely shaved bonito from Tsukiji market in Tokyo.

Who do you love following on Instagram?
I’m bad at social media; I look at my phone once a day. If I could live without a cellphone, I would.

I do follow Brett Cooper; he’s an amazing chef and I love him and follow him on Instagram. Also William Hereford, the photographer.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I have a cigarette every day after work, which I wish I wouldn’t do. I don’t drink very much, so my main chemical vice is a few cigarettes every day.