James Winberg

F&W Star Chef

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At Travail Kitchen & Amusements, in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, chef-owners James Winberg, Mike Brown and a team of 18 or so co-chefs take turns waiting on tables, working the line and creating some of the country’s most entertaining avant-garde food. Here, Winberg reveals his secret-weapon ingredient, favorite cocktail and desert island pantry staples (read Mike Brown’s Q&A).

Restaurant: Travail Kitchen and Amusements (Robbinsdale, MN)

Education: Bellingham Technical College (Bellingham, WA)

Favorite cookbook of all time?
The French Laundry Cookbook. It came out when I was in culinary school. You could either keep doing what you were doing in culinary school, or look at that book and try to understand the recipes. That became the new goal.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
In high school my friends and I liked to play around with wontons. We’d buy the wrappers, and stuff them with random combinations like Jimmy Dean sausage and cream cheese, or sauerkraut and tomatoes. There wasn’t a lot available to us in northern Minnesota.

What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Rice. That’s the easiest thing to F-up in the world. We run our rice by the knuckle system: You want to start with no more than 2 to 3 inches of rice in the pot—with a pretty big pot, at least 8 inches across. Before you fill in the water, first rest the tip of your middle finger on top of the rice. The water should go to the first crease from the tip. Mike Brown: Once it comes to a boil, we stir it once, then cover the top of the pot with tinfoil, lower the heat and let it steam out. We cook it for 20 minutes until no liquid remains. Then we throw the pot up on a shelf above the burners and let it chill up there until it’s ready. It makes perfect rice.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Cardamom. I love how it works in savory and sweet applications. We put it in a lime broth that we serve with a piece of fish. Or we’ll put cardamom whipped crème fraîche with squash or any rich winter soup.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Anthony Bourdain to Korea Restaurant. It’s this tiny, crazy diner with chairs and tables out of 1972 and it’s on the campus of the University of Minnesota, so it’s hard to find. When you walk in, you’re instantly a minority. You go up to the counter and hope you can describe what you want to eat. An enormous amount of food comes out, and everything’s awesome.

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
A bottle of whiskey, multiple packs of cigarettes and an iPhone for the GPS. For food, I’d have to have some sort of beef, likely a rib eye, and some variety of pasta.

What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
C for carbohydrates.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Wild-foraged moss.

Favorite cocktail?
Sazerac. Or Campari and grapefruit. MB: James and his Campari and grapefruits—every city we go, we’ll visit at least three restaurants in one day then park it in one local place, drinking Campari and grapefruit to settle the seven pounds of food we just ate.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
String cheese!