What was your first foray into the culinary world?
It all started when I was young. My mother often worked as a waitress and eventually as a general manager, and I would eat in her restaurants. During the summers, I would visit my uncle and grandmother, both avid diners. We would eat out as often as five days a week. I spent a lot of time in restaurants, and I liked the excitement and constant movement. So when I turned fifteen and I needed money, I naturally applied to a restaurant.
What motivated you to go from flipping burgers to attending the Florida Culinary Institute?
My friend Jennifer from high school worked at Books A Million. She knew I was into this cooking thing. She gifted me the Larousse Grastronomique. When I opened the book, the floor fell from under me. Ignorance is bliss. The amount of knowledge it contained gave me anxiety and made me feel small. I thought I knew a fair amount, and I was comfortable. I read it, all of it. Then I applied to culinary school. I wanted to be a chef.
Culinary school is often compared to boot camp – an intensive immersion into the world of food. You seem to have been in your element.
My years at FCI were transformational. I grew up in a military family, and I used to want to be a fighter pilot when I was little. I had a flight suit at five years old. I was predestined for this. Clean jackets, shoes polished, discipline. I loved it. I loved it so much. I studied and studied and studied. I didn’t have to try. My mind and body wanted it. I thrived. I was on the dean’s list, student of the month, and I represented the southeast United States in the San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition. They flew me to Napa Valley to compete for $22,000. I was 20. I had Bon Appetit food writers, Lorraine Bracco, and Harold Dieterle (Top Chef season one winner) as judges. I toured The French Laundry. Thomas Keller signed my French Laundry book that I had hauled with me across the country. My suite was worth $2,000 per night. I almost had a heart attack. After three days of competing and interviews and meet and greets, I didn’t win. But it was fun.
How did you make the transition back to your home state of Virginia after school? During school I had a great job working for James Beard award winner Mark Militello at Mark’s Restaurant in Florida. The operation was huge, and it was a great experience, but I was looking to acquaint myself with something different . I came back to be close to my family. I got in my car the day after graduation and went straight to work five days later at The Staunton Grocery. Ian Boden changed my life. Ian’s food was fresh and his technique was amazing. I spent a year and a half there. It was disciplined, focused, and we had all of the tools. Amazing time. I learned a vast amount. It forged my ideals and style that I would carry to Zinc.
Zinc happened by mistake. I was destined to cook in Chicago, but the amount of potential for me at Zinc was crushing. Vu Nguyen offered me the kitchen and said I could have it. I weighed my options. It seemed like it would be a good overall experience to go through, and here I am trying to evolve and fabricate my visions. I still study. I still want to be an honest chef, and I am still mapping out my future.
You have an interesting collection of spoons. How did that come about?
When I was around 6 years old, my mom would steal the silverware off of the table of whatever restaurant we were at. When I staged in Charleston, a chef told me that he stole a spoon from every influential restaurant he ate at. I started my own spoon collection (it felt natural). Thanks, Mom.
Best gift ever received: A copy of the book El Bulli 2004-2005 by Ferran Adrià.
Most used cookbook: The Flavor Bible.
Music in the kitchen: Jazz. Vu only wants us to listen to jazz, but I am on a Kyuss kick.
Cooking philosophy: Understated. Simple. Perfect. Finesse.
Always in the fridge at home: Texas Pete, this is a political question.
Food Network nemesis: Guy Fieri. Not my kinda guy.
Favorite kitchen tool: The spoon is the most overlooked thing in the world. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
Biggest self indulgence: Cigarettes.
Book on your nightstand: It’s not a book but Lucky Peach. It’s the first issue of David Chang’s new print journal.
Best hangover remedy: Tea and aspirin.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Lemon peppered chicken.
What would be the setting for the meal?
In the dining room of my family’s old home in Centerville.
What would you drink with your meal?
Who would prepare the meal?
Who would be your dining companions?
Would there be music?
No, we never played music but we always had the tv on in the background. Yep, I’d have Roseanne on.