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Restaurant: The Meatball Shop (Multiple NYC locations)
Experience: Le Bernardin (NYC); Palladin (Washington, DC); Napa (Las Vegas); Campton Place, Jardinière, The Fifth Floor, Aqua (San Fransico) Formerly chef of: SPQR in SF; Axe in Vegas, Inn of the Seventh Ray in Los Angeles
Education: Culinary Institute of America
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Every single one of the chefs I worked for—and the people who were working for them—taught me to cook. Discipline and patience were the two most important things I learned.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I used to make chicken stir-fry with soy sauce. The sauce would stick to the pan; it was a total nightmare. Rotelle noodles with cottage cheese and ketchup was another favorite, or rotelles with tuna, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise and celery. They are both so delicious, by the way.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
If you’re really good at following a recipe, there should be nothing outside of your grasp. If you prefer to do it on your own, those rotelles with cottage cheese and ketchup were pretty killer. I like to mix the cottage cheese and ketchup together, cook the rotelles and toss them with the cheese. I was very healthy with the ketchup.
What’s a technique everyone should know?
Knowing how to chop saves so much time. If everyone knew how to use their knives just a little bit better, it would unlock so many mysteries and turn a chore into a pleasure.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Roger Vergé’s Vegetables in the French Style, or Roy Andries de Groot’s Auberge of the Flowering Hearth.
Vegetables in the French Style was such a mind-changer for me, realizing how perspective changes over time. For example, he has a Swiss chard dish that he says is odd because it uses the leaves. He writes how normally, in dishes like Swiss chard gratin, they discard the leaves and prefer to use the stalks. It was so funny to see that, since now, of course, we almost only use the leaves. It made me think, whenever I want to learn a new dish, I want to find the oldest recipe of that to get to the authentic origin.
Auberge of the Flowering Hearth is about this little hotel in the valley of Chartreuse. It’s a story, a cookbook, a journey and a romantic vision of a world that’s no longer there, that makes you want to forage and cook. He opens up the book with the funniest line—he talks about being an American journalist trying to learn about the secret restrictions of this monk order that makes the liqueur. He called the French exchange to call a foreign operator, and says, “Yes, I’m trying to get in touch with the monks from the valley of Chartreuse, would they have a phone number?” The lady on the other side of the line is silent before she says that obviously they don’t have a phone number, since they’ve taken a vow of silence.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
The first fancy dish that I ever cooked for anybody was lobster à l’Amoricaine. I made it for a French girl I was trying to impress; probably at that time I was hoping to get her to kiss me. It probably worked out. I was working at Le Bernardin. I looked it up in Larousse, I think.
At SPQR, I served a deep-fried game hen for two, with salsa verde. It was a push 100 percent in the other direction—a whole deep-fried chicken on a plate and that was it.
And then a bowl of meatballs, come on! I would pick the spicy pork meatballs. They only have five ingredients. They’re our number two best seller, right behind the beef.
How did you go from fine dining to meatballs?
My partner and I were planning something fancier and more chef-driven, but the location we’d picked out had a side window. We thought, What could we serve late night after the restaurant closed? We came up with a bowl of meatballs and focaccia bread. When the location fell through, we felt lost. He looked at me and said, “Why don’t we do that meatball idea?” And it really stuck. I had worked at some Italian restaurants, but it was really more that I wanted to do something simple and inexpensive, yet delicious. The goal was to create a fast food restaurant for our generation, something that had the values that we have come to feel are important. Being local and seasonal and organic was very important, but everyone was saying those were worth spending more money on. I thought that was rude to people who can’t afford to. We thought, Can we create a restaurant with aMcDonald’s price point and food prepared well? We saw it as a slow food-fast food kind of thing. Meatballs were in the zeitgeist. They worked perfectly because they’re inherently inexpensive, customizable—every bit of it worked because of meatballs.
What’s your current food obsession?
Apparently Bradley Ogden’s bread and butter pickles. When I cooked at Campton Place under Laurent Manrique, we had these amazing bread and butter pickles, made by our Cambodian butcher. I’ve been doing a lot of fermenting in my house—hot sauces, citrus fruits, spring vegetables, garlics and onions that really turned out amazingly well. They got so delicious. Number one were my fermented sunchokes - they came out spectacular because they retain their crunch. I left the skins on and did something like 5 percent salt and a cup of vinegar per gallon of water, and fermented them for about 11 days. Then I canned them at 180 degrees for 30 minutes. They came out completely great. So recently I wanted to make these bread and butter pickles, but I didn’t have the recipe. I called everyone I know, but no one could give me the recipe. Finally someone said he was using a recipe from Bradley Ogden’s cookbook. So I bought the cookbook, but I can’t find them in there! I’m going to have to call Bradley Ogden.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you’d like to master?
One day I’d like to learn how to make a soufflé. I‘ve always failed at it. I’ve never really had the patience.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I train fairly intensely in jiu jitsu, a form of wrestling. And I’ve been super, completely obsessed with photography and printing.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I’m such a simple character; I love overlooked vegetables, like carrots and potatoes and onions and turnips, and elevating them. I think that’s popular now, so I don’t want to make it seem like I’m the only one, but I love that. I also love the idea of using really fancy, special, incredible ingredients in a simple way. Nowadays, because wild mushrooms have become so expensive, people think they have to be the highlight of the dish. Honestly, you can use black trumpet mushrooms and carrots in the same dish and they taste terrific. It doesn’t have to be black trumpet mushrooms and foie gras.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
I just don’t do that. I go 100 percent in the opposite direction. I’m not the balsamic vinegar guy or the truffle oil guy. If there’s something that’s easy for me to cook with, a kind of flavor crutch like that, I won’t use it until I feel like I’ve learned how to cook without it. I went almost a few years without cooking with black pepper. And I refuse to have balsamic in any kitchen. Not because it’s not delicious, but I feel like it’s cheating. Have you ever seen the movie when the cute puppy bites the guy on the balls? It’s a cheap joke. I’d rather challenge myself a little bit. Mind you, I’m not equating my actual sensibility with puppies biting men on balls. But if I ever get a craving for balsamic, I’ll use sherry vinegar and sugar and it pretty much tastes the same. Balsamic vinegar is basically sugar, acid and some caramelized flavor. I’d rather add those three ingredients myself and be able to mess with their ratios. I cook very rustically, so I’m not talking about being a scientist or anything. I would just rather add those components myself than rely on the premix from the bottle.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
At home lately I’ve been using a lot of Japanese and Indian spice mixes, chile pastes and curries, because they’re so foreign to me. It’s so much fun to cook in a way that’s completely different. I literally don’t even know what it is because the label’s in Japanese, but there’s this Japanese oil with fried onions and chiles. It’s not terribly spicy but has little bits of fried onion. I’ve been making these vegetable soups where I poach an egg and put this big dollop of it on top, it’s amazing.
How do you reconcile using spice mixes with your refusal to use balsamic vinegar?
When I cook for myself at home, I’ll use balsamic. But these are also largely undiscovered, so that makes them more interesting. They’re nobody’s crutch.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Oh, shucks—I drink a lot, more than I should. I make a lot of cocktails at home. I drink a lot of bourbon. I’ve been drinking a lot of Lillet lately, not that that’s the most masculine of all cocktails in the world. For beer, I like cheap beer. I’m a Lillet and Budweiser guy, apparently. There’s some sort of a shandy I could make from them both.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
It would depend on where I was going. I’d bring salt unless I was going to the water. Other than that, I think a frying pan is really important. I went on a fishing trip with some friends; we decided we were going to be macho and brought nothing but a box of salt, four lemons and fishing lines. The problem was when we made the fire, trying to cook these fish on a rock really sucked. It was sandy and disgusting. So I’d bring a frying pan.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles. I have a giant one-gallon jug of pickles in my fridge, and I’m constantly grabbing them.
Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
Francis Mallmann. Ideally he’d be taking me somewhere and doing the cooking, hopefully. And hopefully he’d let me help.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year?
I keep hearing amazing things about:
3. Ivan Ramen
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Everywhere I go, I’m all about bang for the buck, but I’d say Mexico. People have been celebrating great food there for hundreds of years. I haven’t traveled enough in Mexico to have one favorite region, but I would say that the Pacific coast, south of the Baja peninsula. I was there a couple of months ago. Just west of Guadalajara, north of Puerto Vallarta, right outside Jalisco, in a town called Sayulita. It’s just like what you would imagine a small Mexican village should be like. It’s a hippie town that’s been hidden from everything. There’s no reason for the drug traffickers to go there. If you grew up with some romantic vision of walking out at night at 10 p.m. and there’s people selling things on the street, and music and delicious food all around the town square, with people cooking over fire and making tacos, it’s like that. One day I was walking on the beach toward the town and came upon these five people sitting around a big bowl of ceviche. I asked, “Are you selling it?” They said, “No, but come and join us!” I sat down and had ceviche tostadas. It was that amazing.