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Chef: Stella Parks
Experience: Table 310, Lexington, KY; Holly Hill Inn, Midway, KY
Education: Culinary Institute of America
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
No one really taught me to cook. I went to culinary school right out of high school. I learned all the basics, and then I lucked into a scenario where I became the executive pastry chef at a restaurant. When I came for an internship, the pastry chef preemptively quit, and ever since then I’ve never worked under anyone. Looking back, I always wished that I had. It made me incredibly insecure so I worked a lot harder, because I knew no one was going to correct it for me or show me what to do. For a long time, I had impostor syndrome because my career didn’t follow the traditional trajectory.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Pop-Tarts, because they demonstrate what the nostalgic foods of our childhood are supposed to be. In most recipes, Pop-Tarts become turnovers, with a superflaky pie crust, but I think the people who write those are from an alternative universe. Real Pop-Tarts have nothing to do with jamminess or flakiness. The inside should be as dry as a fruit roll up. I use a pâte brisée, like a short bread but a little mealy, with a dried fruit paste filling. You can put mine in a toaster. It’s that solid. I make it as authentic to my childhood memories as possible. My favorite is a strawberry Pop-Tart. I purée apple sauce and dried apples, and flavor it with dried strawberries.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first thing I ever made was biscuits when I was really little.
The best thing for someone getting into baking to make: marshmallows. You mix corn syrup, sugar and water, and boil it to about 250 degrees, which makes it firmer. Cool the syrup to 212 degrees and pour it into a standing mixer along with gelatin, whip it together and pour it into a brownie pan, like you would with Jell-O. And you let it cool, cut out the marshmallows and you’re done. The work-to-reward level with marshmallows is very high. You can flavor them in so many ways, and it’s a good way to impress friends.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
When I was at CIA, my instructor Michael Pardus made a snack for us on the first day: basic Parmesan sticks shoved into Medjool dates. I was 18 and from Kentucky, and it was totally mind-blowing. Two simple items that were the best they could be: chewy, salty, sweet. It tasted totally amazing and it made me realize how much food could be overthought.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Chocolates and Confections: Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner by Peter P. Greweling is a huge resource for me.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You have to be methodical and you have to plan ahead and know you have your ingredients. You have to invest time up front and do the preparation.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Anything yeasty. That’s my Achilles’ heel. I spent three years making ciabatta every day, and I’m still not good at it. I’m not good at making bread or laminated doughs. It’s very shameful.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I’m really into coconut milk and coconut oil. I’m not a cereal eater and I can very easily find myself without milk in the fridge, but coconut milk I can use for making cake, ice cream and candy, so I always have some cans stashed away. You can make cookies with them and they’re better health-wise than hydrogenated oils.
What is your current food obsession?
Nougat. For the [cook]book, we have a section on all the Mars bars—Snickers, Milky Way and Three Musketeers—and I’m finding ways to simplify nougat, which I’d thought was so fussy. You can cream it with butter like a frosting and make it into candy bars. You can alter the invert sugar, making it with maple syrup or molasses, and you can add peanut butter, and that changes the flavor.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Minneapolis. My best friend from CIA lives there, and every time I visit I’m always blown away by their food scene. It’s completely underrated. It’s not crazy expensive and it’s low key, but the food is all amazing and it’s a really cute town. And it’s never too hot.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I got some cherry blossom honey when I was living in Japan, from an area where the bees are only exposed to that blossom. It had a gorgeous aromatic quality. Unfortunately, it’s long gone.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I want to have a dessert bar called Snackreligious and have it all be over-the-top Catholic iconography everywhere and an homage to classic desserts from around the world.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d choose Anthony Bourdain because I kind of had dinner with him once. Right before he went to Vietnam in 2004, a friend invited me to join them for dinner, so I drove up to New York City from Kentucky. I feel like I could have a conversation with him. I’d take him to Tori Sen, a restaurant shack in Tokyo where they only serve chicken, but every part of the chicken. It’s different varieties of chicken, but they’re all slaughtered the day they’re served. We’d have chicken meatballs, skewers, livers, chicken sashimi, and they all taste different.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I hope coconut oil. It’s had a bad rap from the 1990’s, but it was based on biased research. You actually process coconut oil like a carbohydrate, rather than a fat. It’s not hydrogenated, so that’s good, and it’s great for frying doughnuts and it doesn’t get greasy or soggy. It’s a great alternative to lard or shortening. I’m hoping the prices come down.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I make eggless marshmallow cream that I eat straight out the fridge. It’s a great midnight snack. I really enjoy that.
I also have a strong salt tooth: My favorite snack could be sheets of seaweed or Cheetos. I think my seaweed affiliation began when I met a Korean girl in 7th grade.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Freeze-dried fruit. A few years ago it was a pastry chef-only item. There are several brands I like, including Just Tomatoes. And Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have their own brands. You can do so much with freeze-dried fruit, including grinding it up and making a superintense powder.
Five people to follow on Twitter.
Beth Kerby, another Southern chef, always manages to put a unique spin on familiar foods, without being trite or twee.
I feel like Liz Gutman, Jen King and I share a sweet tooth, separated at birth. I want all of their chocolates so bad.
Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian, is always tweeting something eye opening
Max Falkowitz has a great sense of humor, plus he’s a major ice cream guru.
Elizabeth LaBau knows anything and everything you'd ever want to know about the candy-making process.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I’m a compulsive cleaner. When I come in first thing, I have to wash all exposed surfaces and sanitize the hell out of them.