Tiffani Faison

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Tiffani Faison

RestaurantSweet Cheeks Q (Boston)

Background: Multiple Todd English restaurants (Boston); Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas (Las Vegas); Straight Wharf (Nantucket)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
I learned how to cook with my heart from my mom. I wasn’t a big cook at home, but she did this incredible home-style food. I loved her cooking more than anyone’s.

But Todd English taught me the brass tacks. I never went to culinary school, so working with him was kind of immersion by fire, quite frankly. He taught me all the basics: how to season, to make pasta, gnocchi, how to work with a light hand and heavy discipline.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
At home, my brother and I made fettuccini alfredo for my parents one day. We were very young; I was probably in sixth grade. We were living in Oklahoma, and we were not a particularly learned culinary family. We were following a recipe that called for a quart of whipping cream. To us, that meant Cool Whip. To this day, it remains one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever put in my mouth!

And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
The best dishes force you to slow down and do one thing really well. Sometimes people get caught up in trying to do too much, making four things for a four-course dinner, and get frustrated. Find one thing you’ll enjoy, like pork chops or steak. A well-seasoned piece of meat will teach you timing, seasoning and how to pay attention to your food. When you don’t have a million other things going on, you can watch the caramelization, what happens to the fat, how the meat relaxes when it rests. You can let the food talk to you.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Joy of Cooking, because it all works.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
My barbecue restaurant hints at my style, but it’s more meat-laden than my usual plated stuff. We do a brussels sprouts salad with roasted brussels sprouts, fresh Brussels sprouts leaves (the outer, thicker ones), farro, arugula, candied hazelnuts, Parmesan and grapes. It’s about balance, finding fresh ways to look at something familiar, and hopefully aiming towards the lighter end. As you get older, you kind of figure out you can’t eat cheeseburgers all the time. Fresh brussels sprouts leaves are also unsung—the outer leaves are beautiful, they hold up well and they have a great horseradish-y quality.

One technique everyone should know.
How to hold and control a knife—a knife that’s right for you. I see a lot of women choose small knives, because their hands are small, which makes no sense. I recommend women use the same knife I recommend men use—a 10-inch chef’s knife. It’s the most versatile. Find pictures of chefs holding knives or watch someone on TV who knows what they’re doing it. Choke up on the blade, and get your hands out of the way. Becoming comfortable with them is so important. I’ll see people doing their miss en place with a paring knife and it makes me want to cry! I think it’s one of the reasons people think cooking is so time consuming! Go grab some carrots and celery—they’re cheap, so you can practice! Just let go of the paring knife. Let go! Utensils don’t have a gender attached to them.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Technical baking—how to make brioche, or the perfect baguette. I almost said I wish I had the time, but that’s a cop-out. I have the time. I wish I had the attention span and the discipline!

What is your current food obsession?
It’s always the same, always fried chicken. But my wife has been lecturing me, because my cholesterol’s through the roof. I’m at that time in my life when you realize you’re not a kid anymore. So now I’m obsessed with how to make satisfying, cravable meals that are good for me. I did something yesterday that I patted myself on the back about—I love blue cheese dressing on salads, so I took a tablespoon of blue cheese and mixed it into yogurt with a little olive oil. You couldn’t tell it wasn’t all blue cheese!

Do you have time to pursue any hobbies outside of cooking?
I make time. I think it’s important because they provide balance. I’m a political junkie, so I’m constantly reading and probably watching too much political TV. I read a lot. I’m such a movie geek. And I’m trying to exercise more.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Lately yogurt. It’s replaced sour cream and cheese. I’ll flavor it pretty heavily, whether with herbs or Middle Eastern spices, black pepper or citrus. Then I’ll hang it and press it. It gets the consistency of a fresh cheese with a lot more benefit and a lot less harm. Sometimes I’ll form a log and roll it in herbs, like goat cheese. Or I’ll turn it into balls.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I make condiments at home a lot. I usually always have a homemade harissa and muhammara in my fridge. When I was in Europe last year, I stocked up on curried ketchup. I prefer the European versions to American—it’s interesting, they obviously have less sugar than here, but they also have this darkness, almost this aged quality to them, with more cinnamon and mace-y notes that I love. They remind me of when I was a kid, when we lived in Germany.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
We do a lot of Negroni drinking at my household. We’ve been steeping moonshine in things like apples and cranberries, whatever we find that interests us.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
The thing is, if you have one backpack of food, you’re probably going to die anyway, so I’d probably load it up with guilty pleasures, and eat them, pass out and wait for the zombies. I’d pack fried chicken with honey and spice, a backpack full of gummy bears, Bud Light Limes. I would just white-trash it up, honestly.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Not much anymore. I’ve tried to be really disciplined about it and turn things around. But Chinese takeout, the next day I’ll eat it cold straight out of the container.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
At this point, I’m interested in how people build their businesses, how their food speaks to them and who they are, more than who’s foraging the most interesting thing in Norway. I really like what Ethan Stowell is doing in Seattle. I like how Suzanne Goin has built her business in L.A. I would probably just have them over for dinner.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
Thailand, hands down. It’s the getting there that’s expensive. Aside from that, you could eat until you threw up every day and not spend $10. I hope I don’t sound like a total glutton. I’d recommend going to Bangkok, the islands, and Chiang Mai; those are your three big hits. Bangkok has the best street eats hands down—and everyone eats from the street there. You’ll see guys in suits sitting next to entire families next to teenagers, all eating in the streets. Bangkok has restaurants, of course, but we always felt like chumps eating in them. Chiang Mai is northern, so it’s earthier, and has more mushrooms and other mountain ingredients that you don’t see as much in the south. It’s still bright in its own way, but definitely got an earthier mood to it, which is amazing.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I’m not a souvenir person, so I think it would have to be my engagement ring from Montreal.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
Something that wouldn’t have to make money? I think I would invent a fully functioning room-service restaurant, a beautiful hotel room where you could be cooked for three meals a day. The food would be fresh and cooked à la minute, not stale and cold rolled up in room service cart. Room service is always so tempting, but it’s rarely as good as it sounds.