Lissa Doumani

Won Best New Chef at: Terra

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Terra (Napa Valley); Ame (San Francisco)

Experience: Spago, 385 North (Hollywood); Spago (Tokyo)

Recipe you are most famous for?
The one that I like that I’m doing the most right now—and have been doing for a while because I can change it up—is pastilla, but fruit pastilla as opposed to savory. Right now it’s apple. In two weeks, we’re going to change it to apricot. It has an almond cream in it. It’s phyllo dough and butter and cinnamon, like a savory, but it’s for dessert. People are pretty crazy for it. It’s either served with crème fraîche or Greek yogurt and local honey.

What ingredients, techniques or trends are your current food obsessions?
I’m so old-school. Ice cream is probably it. There’s so much of a wider range of things you can do with ice cream now. We’ve figured out how to infuse all the things that you don’t necessarily know that you want to put into an ice cream, but we can do it. I find that really freeing in that we can create a lot more flavors—I always do ice cream with a dessert, not as a stand-alone—so that they pair to a dessert more fully. They give it more depth. Aside from herbs and things like that—which I think that we all did—we’re infusing ice creams with things like popcorn or toast, something that gives it that kind of flavor.

Secret-weapon ingredient?
The cocoa nib tuile. People don’t know what it is because they haven’t run into cocoa nibs. Everybody knows cocoa and chocolate and things like that, but not the nib part. I use that in other ways in desserts like ice cream, and I find that it’s the funniest thing because it’s crunchy and it’s chocolate and they don’t realize what they’re eating.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product and why?
The things I like are really, really weird. This isn’t a new product, and it isn’t even that big a deal, but it’s a Japanese product that I adore. It’s savory. It’s kind of like pressed, little teeny, teeny, teeny fish into a sheet. You toast it and you eat it when you’re drinking sake. It’s called tatami iwashi. You can get it at Japanese grocery stores. It didn’t used to be that available, so you’d only see it in restaurants that could order it from Japanese food companies. Lately, in San Francisco, I’ve been able to find it. You put it gently over a grill so it just toasts and it gets really cracker-like. There are some places in New York that serve it.

Then there’s this other product called mentaiko, which is spicy cod roe. I buy it in not its perfect form—it’s called a mash, because the sacs themselves have broken. I make pasta with that, which is kind of traditional. Also, potato salad with that mixed in; it’s not eggy, really, it’s not fishy-eggy. It’s really spicy, and it’s an odd color of red. I love that. It’s really good in things—a little bit in mayonnaise, and you can season something with that. It’s very strange. It’s always in my refrigerator. They have one that’s not spicy, but I prefer the spicy one.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Pickles and cheese. Four-year aged Gouda, the ones that have all the little crystals and they’re almost a little bit sticky. If we have sherry in the house, it’s just perfect.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
That would be Nancy Silverton. I never intended to do pastry; that wasn’t why I went to work at Spago, but they asked me if I would help her out because they were shorthanded. I was trying to intern on the cooking side, and they asked if I would go to pastry and work. I certainly wasn’t in a position to say no, but I did say, “But the deal is that I get to come back to the savory side someday.” Other than being able to bake at home, that wasn’t something that I was interested in, so the fact that that’s what I’m still doing now means that she’s pretty good at what she does in teaching and growing people. Aside from being one of my closest friends, it changed the direction of what I do.

Spago was a great place because anything that was new came there. The first of anything came there, and we would get to use it, so that was a great place to learn. Nancy and I do events together now, we travel together, we hang out. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll call her or she’ll call me and say, “What was that thing?” We’re both too old for that question now! We don’t get to truly cook together as sometimes we’d like to, but when we do events together, it’s fun because we help each other out. That kind of takes us back. We used to argue and fight in the kitchen because we’re good enough friends that we can do that. We still do, to this day. If she gives me a measurement, I’ll go, “No! That doesn’t get doubled like that. I know that’s not right.”

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I think the one that I’ve had the longest in my life is an older Joy of Cooking, and while I can’t say that I really pull recipes from it, it’s a great research tool. I like to look at things from the past. I like to try and incorporate older styles of desserts or techniques. Newer books don't have those, for the most part. In that way, the older, pre-’50s Joy of Cooking is really cool.


CookWise by Shirley Corriher—reading her book was really eye-opening. A lot of it is baking. We know what we do, but we don’t know why what we do works. I didn’t go to cooking school, and I don't even know if they really teach that. With a cake, you have to have a certain amount of wet, a certain amount of this, a certain amount of fat, an egg and things like that. I can make a cake, I can futz with a cake and still come out with a cake, but I didn’t know that there was actually a plan: As long as you keep to these reasonable proportions, you will have success. That was cool. I just thought it was fly-by-your-pants, keep trying it until you get it right. There is science to all of baking, but because that’s not what I studied, that book was kind of an eye-opener.


Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why.
Ichimura at Brushstroke. Nancy’s chef, Matt [Molina], texted me pictures of every course. I was like, “I hate you! Where are you? Is Nancy with you?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Tell her I’m never speaking to her again.” She won’t eat at Japanese restaurants with us, so I’m like, “What are you doing there?” I think maybe she’s afraid. I’m not really sure. We always end up at steak or Italian, which is fine with us, but it’s really funny: The one time she goes outside the box, she goes to the place I want to go to a lot.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Fugu fins. We bring them back from Japan every year. Now we sell them in fugu fin sake at the restaurant. I love fugu fin sake. You can buy just the fins—they’re not poisonous, although there are parts, obviously, that are. You roast them. You just put them under the Salamander or over the grill for just a minute. They get toasty, and you put them in warm sake and put a top on it and let it steep for just a couple of minutes. Some places can actually light it. You can do it because the alcohol concentrates where the lid is. You can light it as sort of an effect. It’s beautifully perfumed. It has this much deeper umami characteristic. It’s not fishy. The oils in the fin release into the sake and enrich it and then give it a toastiness. It’s one of the greatest drinks.

It doesn’t have to be fugu; we have a friend in San Francisco who’s doing it with snapper. But traditionally, it’s fugu, and that’s what I fell in love with. Hiro [Sone] already knew it, of course. They’re really good. You can’t buy them here, even though technically they would be legal. I don't think anyone’s importing parts of the fugu yet. They should be, but I don’t think they are.

What ingredient will we be talking about in five years?
If I were going to pick one that I would like to see people talking about, it would be fugu, because they’re starting to raise fugu. It is not poisonous. That’s the big thing, bringing it in: Who can prepare it? Really, you’re not supposed to kill your customers. You can get them now—I won’t say all the fish is safe, because I haven’t looked into it far enough, but I know that the parts that we already eat wouldn't be an issue to begin with: the meat and the skin and the fins and the testicles. Getting the USDA to actually approve it is going to be the bigger thing, and then finding a way to get it to the market to start moving it. It’s a great thing. The meat’s okay—it’s like monkfish—but the other parts are really good: the skin and the fins and the testicles. I know that there are a couple of restaurants that are licensed in New York to serve it. There aren’t any here.

Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
At night, I work on the floor. I have to go away from whatever I’ve been doing. I have to go away for at least half an hour, usually even longer, because I have to reset my brain so that I can be with people—not cooking people, not work people, where you’re really directed and concentrated on doing your job. Being on the floor is more gregarious. It’s more fun. It’s more interactive, and if I don’t go and switch my brain over, I’m not as much fun.

Usually, I’ll have something to eat and change clothes and come back to work. There’s not a huge ritual to it—it’s just to get away from everything that was keeping you focused in this direction so that you can go over into another one. Sometimes in the past I used to just change at work and then go be on the floor, and it was really hard to be who I needed to be for our guests, which isn’t somebody else, but it’s somebody who isn’t thinking about food costs or who isn’t thinking about a broken something. You shouldn’t bring the back of the house to the front. That’s not fun for anyone who’s eating there.

We find that as we get older in this business, Hiro and I are the gophers—we’re the only ones who know how to fix things, where everything is and where to find the things. It’s amazing with the younger chefs: They’ll just go buy a new one. And you’re like, “Why would you do that? You can just fix it.” They have no idea how to do that because they haven’t had to grow up in that yet. That’s what we end up doing: We’re the fixers, the gophers. It’s our new job description.

What is your hidden talent besides cooking?
A while ago, one talent that I still appreciate that I don’t get to do is that I have a pilot’s license. One guy I know doesn’t want to fly with me, so it makes it a little hard to use. He keeps saying, “I’ll go if I can wear a parachute,” and I say, “But I don’t fly that high. It won’t open in time!” And I’m a potter. Again, something I haven’t done for a while because, with the two restaurants, it’s hard to find time, but I used to make pottery for the restaurant. When I do square plates for the restaurant, that’s hand-formed, and otherwise I throw on the wheel. That’s one of the things that we’re going to try to do this year is carve out the area that we’ve always talked about—we have a basement that’s actually above ground—so that I can have a little studio in there. We’ll see how time allocates to that.