Restaurant: Eleven Madison Park (New York City)
Experience: Ritz-Carlton (Arlington, VA)
Education: L’Academie de Cuisine (Washington, DC); Kent State University (Kent, OH))
Who is your food mentor?
Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park taught me about balance, how to create a dish with brightness, acidity, saltiness, sweetness for pastry—and a balance of textures, too: crunchy, creamy, airy, sometimes chewy. Or as I like to say, a party in your mouth.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I went to Kent State University to study biology. In my junior year, I had no money and was living in my first apartment, so I decided to bake cookies for Christmas presents, basic ones like oatmeal raisin, and also ones filled with Christmas-colored M&M’s. That really turned me on to baking. Right after that I ended up getting a job in bakery, which sealed the deal.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Something simple like an ice cream base, an anglaise, that you can practice until it becomes second nature. The tiny little details that go into that anglaise—it’s a temperature difference of two degrees! You’re supposed to cook it to 82 Celsius, right? So a degree above and it starts to curdle, a degree below and it doesn’t thicken properly. A beautifully cooked anglaise holds on the spoon, it’s silky and thick but not too thick, it pools on the plate well. When you’ve got those details down, that’s when you know you’ve mastered cooking.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Citrus zest. Citrus generally is great: You can use every part except the pith—and you can even make a few things with the pith. But I use citrus zest in almost in every dish. Just a little stretches so far and it makes such a big impact. Zest is cheap, readily available and people don’t really think about it. They might add citrus juice, but the zest is where it’s at.
What is the dish you’re most famous for?
I think my soda pop dish. I have this affinity for orange soda. I’m from Ohio, where we call soda “pop.” When I moved to DC people would make fun of me for saying pop, so I started making the transition, but fell into this weird phase calling it soda pop. When I moved to New York I finally started calling it soda. Now I go home and people make fun of me for saying soda. You can’t win. The dish is a carbonated tangerine frozen dome; underneath is a bitter blood orange cream, then fresh citrus dice, then some frozen pulp out of a pomelo and a tiny little scoop of Pop Rocks. When you eat it, you crack the dome. Because it’s so cold—it’s frozen in liquid nitrogen—it explodes a little bit or shatters. Then when you’re eating it you’re getting the carbonation from the tangerine, the citrus, and a little snap and crackle from the Pop Rocks.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. I got it as a gift when I first started making cakes. I finally had to get a replacement copy because the first one was getting scary from so much use. She really explains things. And I just love her recipes. They’re beautiful but simple.
What is one technique everyone should know?
How to make a meringue. A lot of home cooks ask me how to make a French meringue for lemon meringue pie, because theirs weeps. A meringue is super-easy, but if you don’t know what to look for, it’s easy to screw up. Whip your egg whites until they form soft peaks, then add your sugar slowly. You can dump in the sugar all at once if everything is perfect. But a lot of people add the sugar too soon or they don’t whip it long enough, or they overwhip it before they add the sugar.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Crème fraîche. It’s a great way to sneak in acidity when you can’t use citrus. I did a malt dish with peanut butter and pretzels that needed some acid, but citrus in there would be gross. Crème fraîche has a lot of lactic acid that brightened the dish without making it icky.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
S is for sugar. Because it’s so transformable: You can sculpt with it, bake with it, caramelize with it and use it in something savory, you can even start a fire with it. You can actually make an explosion with sugar if you really want to. And, of course, you can catch a lot of friends with sugar.
Best new store-bought ingredient or product?
Mohawk Valley Trading Company’s Adirondack Honey (tenonanatche.com). They make six or 10 kinds. They’re all raw, and have wonderful texture to them. I just ordered a case. Their goldenrod honey is super-amazing. It brings me back to growing up in Ohio, where we had a three-acre field of wildflowers like Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. The taste of that honey is like the smell of that field.