RESTAURANTS: Blue Hill (New York); Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, NY)
EXPERIENCE: Michel Rostang and Apicius (Paris); Campanile, La Brea Bakery, Joe's Restaurant (Los Angeles); Bouley (New York City)
EDUCATION: French Culinary Institute
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
I didn’t have one teacher who overrides all the others, but I learned a lot from my aunt, who is an exceptional cook. She grew up partly in France and was partly French-trained. I remember being sick with strep throat and she cooked me scrambled eggs whisked over a double boiler. I remember them sliding down my throat as if I’d never had eggs before. It was a real revelation. My mother died when I was very young, and my father would cook me these horrible, overcooked dried strands of eggs. Both my father and my aunt were teachers. I would never have appreciated my aunt if it hadn’t been for my father’s cooking.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I like to think that a series of dishes defines my cooking style: a meal that represents or connects to a cultural food context where the food carries and is tethered to something with higher meaning. Pleasurable food is a worthy goal, but if I think about my cooking, I hope it succeeds because it draws in something much larger than just a plate of food, and to do that you need a whole series of dishes, flavors, textures and diversity in gastronomy. It’s hard to pick out one for a style and it depends so much on the time of year.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I think in 1977 I made an omelet from one of my aunt’s recipes.
For a neophyte, I’d go with an egg. If you screw it up, it can still really be delicious. But to make it baked or poached is really precise, so if you perfect an egg, you’ll realize you have technique. It takes discipline and practice to make an egg correctly, which is a metaphor for all of cooking. A good thing about making an egg is there’s not a lot of ingredients and you can’t screw it up.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I don’t really have a mentor, but I worked with chef Michel Rostang in Paris for a long time. He wasn’t a mentor, but he comes from a long line of Michelin-starred chefs. You see in his cooking and technique a real lineage that was humbling for me and informed my whole career. To be an apprentice for someone like that makes you realize you’re a speck on the timeline.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
It’s not a cookbook, but Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner presents a way to think about cuisine and cooking that amounts to a cookbook.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Discipline: physical, mental and emotional.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Bread baking. That’s how I started my career, but it was cut short when I forgot to salt 12,000 pounds of rosemary dough at La Brea bakery in Los Angeles.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
If you could get your hands on incredible wheat variety and have it milled for you on the spot, I’m drawn to that. The flavor is explosive and if it’s grown right, is the right variety and milled right, if you treat it as you would treat a tomato, superfresh and eaten at the perfect moment, there’s a high culinary return. I’d bake bread, or one of the great dishes we make is cracked wheat, like porridge. It’s about as peasant as you can get, but when you can actually taste the differences between wheat varieties, it’s pretty revelatory. Not many people associate wheat with different flavors.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m obsessed with creating new flavors with breeders, making better, tastier vegetables that have characteristics of heirlooms but are married to newer varieties to create newer flavors.
Name two restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Attica in Melbourne and D.O.M. in São Paulo. They’re both developing and discovering authentic cuisine. Their food is linked to a history and culture. They’re doing what I would love to be doing, moving the bedrock of authentic cuisine forward and modernizing it. I’m doing some of that, but I also wish I had more of a food culture to tether to. What is American cuisine? We don’t have an enviable food culture of that length.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
I’d go to Peru. There’s incredible cooking going on there and Gastón Acurio is leading a revolution. There are also 80,000 culinary students there as we speak. If we weren’t so Euro-centric as a country, we’d know a lot more about what’s going on there. It’s so exciting.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
From Peru, I smuggled some potatoes to plant. They’re in the field right now. I took back Pierre Hermé macarons from my trip to Paris. They lasted as long as my trip to the airport. I got a mixed box, and one flavor’s better than the next.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’m really into the grain thing, so one of my dreams is to do a fast grain shop where you go, pick your grain, get it milled, take it home and bake your bread. I’m going to call it Grainbucks, instead of Starbucks.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I could live a long time on gorp.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think people will be talking less about heirloom ingredients and more about tomatoes, potatoes and wheat, bred by breeders who are selecting for flavor.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I love a cold apricot to eat straight out of the refrigerator and it’s also my favorite snack.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post-shift rituals?
After a night of service, I’m usually really wound up, and for my drive home I grab a large handful of petit fours—sometimes two handfuls. I've been doing it long enough that it feels ritualistic, though it’s a ritual I’m not particularly proud of. It makes it a sweeter way home.