(Best New Chef 2009)
Restaurant: The Restaurant at Meadowood (Napa, CA)
Background: Georges at the Cove (La Jolla, CA); Chez Georges (Paris); La Terrasse, Côte d’Azur; Elisabeth Daniel, Campton Place (San Francisco)
Education: BA in Philosophy, Hamilton College
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Trey Foshee. He taught me how to make things good.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I think Trey let me make a beet soup.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
A seasonal soup. It teaches you certain basics like sweating vegetables, dealing with textures and consistency that are pretty applicable to everything else.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
For us, it’s about the little things we find, like yesterday we found some okra that had flowered. They have these beautiful yellow blossoms. We set them in a vase, put a raw oyster inside the flower and made a succulent, awesome little canapé. Now there are only four okra flowers left, so we’ll have to wait until next year. But in a week or two, we might find something else. That’s the fun part.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
There’s one dish that I do on occasion that stems from my grandmother’s brisket dish. We’ve done it using bavette, cheek, short ribs, really aged beef—the flavors are some sort of mustard elements, onion elements and strongly flavored beef. It’s based on brisket with Lipton soup mix and mustard, braised in water. My family doesn’t have quite as fond memories of it as I do. But we always seem to use those flavor memories as a jumping-off point.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You just need to enjoy it.
One technique everyone should know.
Seasoning properly. Just being aware of the seasoning level is an important first step. The biggest thing you find when you get to someone’s house—it’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t even think about it. If people were aware of salt levels, everyone’s cooking would be a lot better.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’m a million miles from mastery on anything. I think Eastern European cuisine is something I’d like to explore, from my roots being there. My ancestors are Polish and Russian. My father was born in Germany after the war. I just think there are interesting flavors there, and I don’t know if they’ve been super well-explored. I think Bar Tartine does it well. And those flavors resonate with me quite a bit.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Cheaper cuts of meat are great. We love skirt steak and hangar steak. And what’s a better bang for your buck than a good vegetable? That’s why I never understand—people talk about how food is getting too expensive. You can go to the store and get nice rice, beans and veg and live well.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Whatever David Chang is using.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
We do a really good eau de vie here that we make with apples from the garden. Straight-up, really cold—that’s pretty good drinkin’. Like Napa Valley moonshine.
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’d bring an inflatable raft, some beef jerky, some element of dried fruit, and a bow and arrow.
I eat a lot of cereal. I mix it up. I wander the cereal aisle for like 40 minutes at a time because I can’t make a decision. Nothing too sugary, but all sorts of different stuff. Recently I bought Frosted Mini Wheats with berries on the inside, and Quaker Oats Squares. I ate them both with almond milk; it was all good. (I don’t drink a lot of milk-milk.)
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Koi Palace in Daly City. You spend like $9 and eat very cheaply and very well.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
My wife. I found her at Pebble Beach Food & Wine. Thanks, Food & Wine!
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be called Cabbage and Porridge, or More, Please. We’d do an orphan cuisine restaurant where all it is is cabbage and porridge; everyone treats you like sh*t; it’s BYOB (bring your own bowl); and everyone serves you gruel out of a ladle. You can’t get seconds and you have to wash the floor when you’re done. I think Danny Bowien’s going to get on board and everyone’s going to love it.