Krista Kern

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Krista Kern

Restaurant: Bresca and The Honey Bee (New Gloucester, ME)

Experience: Bresca (Portland, ME); Conundrum (Aspen, CO)

Education: A three-month pastry program at Peter Krump

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My mom. The most important thing she taught me was that flavor was paramount. She always cooked with a lot of fresh herbs, and did a lot with the mortar and pestle. She is Estonian and retained that style in preparing foods, and I grew up with her doing a lot of Swedish, Baltic, Russian and German cooking. She was also very organized, and did a perfect mise en place, all the time, pre-measuring and then building the dish.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Kale with six-minute egg, charred bread and kombu butter, which I served at Bresca. It appeared to be so simple, but there’s a lot of technique in the braise of the kale and getting the sauce correct—that typifies a lot of my cooking. The sauce is just butter, water and salt, but the trick is knowing when and how to build the sauce and how to plate it. It was a killer for a lot of my cooks.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I remember making chicken in a terra cotta pot with a bunch of vegetables, some herbs, vermouth and butter, and throwing it in the oven. I was probably between 8 and 10 years old.

I’d say that’s a great one for a neophyte. It’s super-satisfying. There are five steps and then you’re rewarded with something super-delicious and feel really good about it.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Elizabeth Di Franco, who I worked for early on in my career, when I was in my early 20s. She was a chef at The Elms, a private guesthouse for Scott Paper in Westbrook, Maine. We had our own gardens and vegetables. Elizabeth sourced anything she could locally, and her cooking was super-classical. From her, I learned that the elements and skills of classical cuisine will endure, no matter what. She was quiet, but when she had things to say, they were always interesting. I’ve carried that experience with me at every restaurant I’ve gone to.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
For a restaurant cook: organization. It’s so boring but so practical. For a home cook: not fearing veering from the recipe.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Meat fabrication. I spent years as a pastry chef, but I can’t break things down with amazing finesse. Fish I got very good at and love doing, but I’d love to be more skilled at meat fabrication and at using the whole animal.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Kombu. I can use it dried, ground in butter, incorporated in bread dough, and in stocks or braises, used as you would a bay leaf, for a deeper effect of flavor.

What is your current food obsession?
Laminated dough. I’m making croissant dough and laminated brioche, all from scratch.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Yam'Tcha in Paris. The chef blends Asian ingredients with French technique. Tea is a big part of the experience, and her husband curates the tea service that goes with the food. It sounds like a very nice experience.

Next in Chicago. I’ve never been to Alinea. I like the whole modernist thing but with Next, I like the exploration they’re doing—the themes and the full absorption into it.

Joe Beef in Montreal. I really like Montreal, and I like feeling connected to the sense of Europe and the classical sensibility, without having to travel too far.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Montreal. It’s a car ride away from me in Maine. There’s a lot happening there in food, and to go on a trip like that on a tank of gas is amazing. My husband and I got engaged at Au Pied du Cochon. It’s decadent and hilarious and we’d go back. There’s the famous deli Schwartz's that does amazing brisket. I’d go there for lunch.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
My journal from when I worked at Guy Savoy in Paris. I kept it while I was there and was asked to translate their recipes into English, and I kept notes. I don’t ever want to lose it.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
Patience, using it to develop restaurants, and using to train a lot of people. I’m also very visual. I enjoy the process of web design, the visual of a restaurant, and thinking about creating first impressions when people walk into the room.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be very Old World, with one seating and one menu. I’m a sucker for Babette’s Feast, and the formality, finesse, elegance and surprise of a dinner, in a setting you wouldn’t expect. There’s an elegance to it that’s not stuffy. I’d like to put people in an environment where they’re surprised by the elegance, somewhere between a formal three-star Michelin restaurant and a hip Brooklyn place. I’d love to cook a perfect meal, four to six courses of the most perfect, harmonious things and leave people with an amazing memory. Part of it is inspired by my work at The Elms, where people would sit for cocktails in the salon and move into the dining room together as a group, and sit at one table. It was a shared experience where everyone was on the same page.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would it be?
I’ve always loved Thomas Keller’s work and everything he’s done. I’d take him to Joe Beef in Montreal. It’s comfortable, but they still mine the classics. The menu’s on chalkboard; it’s not pretentious; everything is done well; and I think it would be relaxing. Thomas Keller was a huge turning point for so many chefs my age, because of his voice of refinement and reason in the kitchen.

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Chicken farm eggs, Gruyère cheese and porcini mushrooms. I’d make an omelet, one of my favorite things to eat.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think there’s a strong vibe for South and Central American fruits, vegetables and starches. It will be the next step after Noma and Nordic cuisine. For us, it’s a lot of ingredients we haven’t worked with yet. Because we have such a large Hispanic community in this country working in restaurants, it’s a natural shift.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
A cold roast chicken dipped in Hellman’s mayonnaise. It’s also a favorite of my 3 ½- year-old.

My favorite snack is gummy bears. I’m surrounded by them, also because of my daughter.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
My dust buster helps me clean up—especially because my husband’s been juicing and stuff goes flying—and remain sane. I love Fra' Mani Salame Nostrano and eat it all the time. It is delicious and free of nitrates, which I have to avoid due to my pesky migraines!

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I set up my station every night the exact same way. If I’m struck blind in the middle of service, I’m not going to stop working and I need to know where my things are. It’s a superstition thing, and a calming mechanism.