Interview with Josiah Citrin
Melisse, Santa Monica, CA
What's your favorite new ingredient?
Whatever's in season. Some of my favorite things are heirloom tomatoes, morels, fava beans and white asparagus.
What's the most versatile spice?
Pepper and also coriander seed. You can get French coriander seed with orangy flavor or the Indian coriander seed with lemony flavor.
What's the most underused spice?
Salt. I've been saying it for 15 years. Any kind from fleur de sel to Japanese sea salt to sel gris. You don't have to use a lot of salt if you season with the right kind. The most misconceived ingredient is salt. People always think you have to use salt at the end, but if you cook with salt it seasons as it cooks. Cayenne and curry are also really underused. Joël Robuchon does so much with curry at the end of his dishes. And piment d'Espelette pepper, which has a little more depth than cayenne. It's still spicy but without as much heat.
What items should be in every pantry?
Extra-virgin olive oil. A good aged red wine vinegar or Banyuls vinegar, which can add so much flavor and pop to a dish. And a good salt. They all need to be high quality. And the pantry items need to be used and changed frequently and kept dark and cool.
What's your favorite knife?
I like the Misono UX-10 Chef's Knife. It's a Japanese knife that's great for the home cook since it has excellent balance. I like carbon, but when you buy carbon for the home and don't take care of it, then it will rust up.
What's your favorite pan?
I like cast-iron enamel coated, like Staub. We do it all in those—roast, sauté, braise.
What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
E. Dehillerin in Paris. Now you can get the same equipment elsewhere, but the first time I went there I was barely 18. I had moved to France and had to get knives. Then I went back when I was studying and bought most of my copper collection there. It's really sentimental for me.
What's your favorite mail-order source?
I like ChefShop.com [chefshop.com]. They have a great newsletter and I buy French olive oils from them. Le Sanctuaire [in Santa Monica, California; le-sanctuaire.com] is an amazing store for spices. Years ago, I was looking for some special sugar and I found it there, so I now constantly use it as a source.
What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
Some kind of system that would filter, cool and remove the fat from stocks and sauces instantly.
If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
We always serve our soups from a terrine and froth them before serving. I'd like a terrine that would blend from the bottom, so that when you get to the table it keeps the soup frothy, airy and beautiful. You would start to pour and push a button so it would blend as your pour it into individual bowls.
What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
There was a mushroom dish I had at Mori Sushi in L.A. It was in a little teapot and the mushrooms were infused with broth. You drink it like consommé and then eat the mushrooms out of the pot.
What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
I'd go to Manpuku Tokyo BBQ in L.A. because it makes my kids happy.
Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
I think supertiny plates are "been there done that." They're popular in L.A. because it's a way for chefs to compete with sushi bars. Wine pairings are popular at Melisse, and I think they'll continue to get more popular everywhere. I think the interest in tasting menus will peak and diners will be more interested in à la carte one day. If we go back to à la carte at Melisse, we'll still keep the prix fixe, though. Another trend is restaurants that are getting more into high levels of service. Everyone is trying to outdo each other with over-the-top china—going beyond what in my opinion should be done. I think this will continue awhile until we're done outdoing each other.
A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
We make our own bread, crème fraîche and, once in a while, prosciutto. We do our own lardo. What I'd like to do is make my own cream and butter so I could have complete control.
On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
One. I do like the science stuff but don't go too far. We use xanthan gum to thicken halibut stock. We drop the halibut in and it takes eight minutes for the fish to cook perfectly, and xanthan seals in the moisture. But I don't want to change asparagus. I'm more interested in what the farmer did to grow it.
What's your favorite cookbook?
Patricia Wells's book, Simply French, on the cuisine of Joël Robuchon. I love how it teaches the importance of seasoning. I've been reading it for years and giving it to my chefs even when they don't know who he is.
Who would you most like to take a cooking class from?
Antonin Carème [the early 19th-century cook said to have been the first celebrity chef] because he's the true creator of everything. I'd love to be able to see what was in his mind at a time when so many things weren't created yet and equipment was so limited.