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RESTAURANTS: Recess and Room Four (Indianapolis, IN)
EXPERIENCE: Pinot Hollywood (Hollywood, CA); Rubicon (San Francisco, CA); H20 Sushi and Elements (Indianapolis, IN)
EDUCATION: Indiana University
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
Joachim Splichal at Pinot. Before meeting him, I’d worked in an older style continental cuisine restaurant. When I went out to California, it was the first time I saw modern American cuisine. I’d say Joachim is by far my biggest mentor, even though he didn’t pay much attention to me. Working for him was definitely where I cut my teeth.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Anything with really superfresh tomatoes, lots of olive oil, basil and fennel. Those are the flavors I like, and I learned that Mediterranean style from Joachim.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
One of my favorites was a Lender’s frozen bagel. I’d toast it and top it with margarine—this was in the late ’70s and early ’80s—and then cream cheese and superfinely shaved ham. I remember eating those and watching MASH at night. I was a child of divorced parents, so I had to fend for myself a lot.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him?
Dan Sabka, and he was a life mentor. He was a father, husband and chef, and taught me I could do all three of those things.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
Simply French by Patricia Wells. That book showed me that every little detail has to be precise.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience. You have to let things happen. I’ve ruined my share of dishes by salting too fast or too heavily. It’s important to take a step back and think about what you’re doing.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Baking breads, dough and pie crust. It intimidates me. I’ve never really had a pastry chef for my restaurants, so we do the desserts ourselves, but they’re based on technique and flavors rather than fully developed pies. We serve a lot of disassembled desserts.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I think olive oil takes a lot of things a long way, and so does celery. It adds incredible depth of flavor and is sweet and crunchy. I like to make my daughter a celery heart, topped with olive oil and salt, and some vinegar.
What is your current food obsession?
Right now, the Indiana tomatoes are coming in incredibly, so I have some form of tomato on the menu every day. I love fresh produce, highlighted especially by the tomatoes.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I’ve never been there, but Vietnam would be great for the street food. I love the flavors and spice and the boldness of fish sauce. That would be heaven, to grab a bowl of noodles any time of day.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
When I travel, it’s mostly to eat, so I’d say my growing waistline and my swollen liver.
What do you consider your other talent besides cooking?
Being a father. I really, truly enjoy it. My first daughter was born when I was at Rubicon and I took a few years off when she was born.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be eight people a night, one meal, and I’d have the smallest staff possible. For me, the hardest part of the restaurant industry is the human resource aspect. So it would be four to five courses, very laid-back, and maybe we’d have no servers and people would serve themselves and do the dishes, and I’d just cook with my heart and my soul.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Mario Batali because he seems¬—or at least when he was younger—like a crazy dude, and that seems fun, to walk around New York. I’d let him take me to taco places and noodle bars. I like to eat with my hands and have lots of flavors and experiences rather than one drawn-out meal.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
A cutting board, a knife, all the ingredients for chips and salsa, and that would be pretty filling.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Hopefully not pork belly. I’m tired of the whole molecular gastronomy approach. I’m hoping that the heritage animals continue to flourish and become more affordable. I’m hoping people start to recognize the value of heritage animals and to appreciate them.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Pickles. I could live on pickles. We make them in the restaurant and brine them half-sour. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I want is a cold, crispy, salty pickle.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
At Room Four, we use Muir Glen Fire Roasted Tomatoes. They make a great salsa for the winter. You open them and they’re ready to go, you just add onion, cilantro. They’re a great product.
Five people to follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook.
Jay Mohr, @JayMohrSports
Denis Leary, @denisleary
Dom Irrera, @domirrera
My fish purveyor Carl Galvan, @ChicagoFishDude
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
After service, I’ll grab a beer and go down to my office and start writing the menu for the next day. If I don’t, I wake up and it’s hanging over me.