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Nov 20, 2017
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Posts Tagged ‘Niche’

Ones to Watch 2017: Sam Witherspoon of Sardella

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

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Title: Executive sous chef, Sardella
Age: 27
Why watch him: He proves good guys can get ahead.

Sam Witherspoon’s resume reads like a cutthroat careerist’s: the New York Culinary Institute of America to Danny Meyer’s Maialino to Donald Link’s Cochon, then Gerard Craft’s Niche and now Sardella. The lineup may evoke a sense of cold-bloodedness, a ruthless master plan, but that impression would be wrong for the guy Sardella executive chef Nick Blue called his “softer side.”

“I’ve never really had a plan,” Witherspoon said. “I always just kind of go where I want to go and I figure it out when I get there.” He’s gotten where he is simply by aiming high, giving it a shot. He secured the job at Niche with a cold call – an effort that would seem laughable if it hadn’t worked. “I have the attitude of start at the top,” he said. “Because it’s easier to start there than it is to start down and try to move up.”

This strategy, of course, only works if you have the skills to support it. “He has a really playful sense of food … an ability to translate comfort food into modern food,” Craft said. Take, for example, Witherspoon’s recent special at Sardella: a pastrami-spiced brisket and squash agnolotti served with pickled and butter-braised cabbage. “It doesn’t taste like it’s just a riff [on a Reuben],” Craft said. “It is its own dish – something nuanced and unique.’”

But for Witherspoon, being a chef has as much to do with how you treat people as what you serve them. “It’s almost impossible not to smile when you see Sam. He boosts everybody’s mood,” Craft said. “He’s a very positive spirit in the kitchen. That’s totally separate from cooking ability, but almost more important sometimes.”

He learned this during his externship at Maialino, where it wasn’t just the high pressure or long hours that impressed him. “These guys were very serious about what they did, but they walked in every day, they shook your hand, asked you how you were doing,” Witherspoon said. “They really invested in you, and that’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my entire career.”

A focus on hospitality in and out of the kitchen may sound peripheral, but it’s something that sets Witherspoon apart. A lot of people with serious culinary talent don’t make it past sous. “To be a great leader, there’s a certain amount of positivity that has to be there for people to want to work for you,” Craft said. He was equally impressed by Witherspoon’s ability to interact with guests. “If you’re going to do your own thing, you’ve got to have it – or you better hire somebody who does.”

There’s no doubt Witherspoon will have a lot of people working for him someday. For now, aside from having his voice heard through more dishes on Sardella’s menu, his goal is simple: “I would love to be able to give Nick Blue a day off.”

Photo by Carmen Troesser

 

 

Ones to Watch 2017: Jen Epley of Vicia

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

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Title: Assistant general manager, Vicia
Age: 31
Why watch her: She knows what you need before you do.

Jen Epley has her eye on you. Where did you sit, what did you order and what was your favorite dish? If you don’t like cilantro, you won’t see it – now or the next time you dine with her.

For Epley, successful service means everything appears effortless. Wine keys, pens, lighters and birthday candles are accounted for before the night begins. Guests are greeted warmly, treated with friendly respect and watched carefully from the moment they’re seated until the last glass of wine is consumed.

“You have to know something about them. They are there for that experience of connecting with the food, the servers, the beverages. They want to feel everything that you put into that restaurant,” Epley said. “You have to be part of it. … If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be there because that resonates with all the guests that walk in.”

This is something she’s learned from hospitality pros in some of the best restaurants in the city, starting at Five Bistro five years ago.

“She’s really one of the unsung heroes of service in St. Louis,” said advanced sommelier Andrey Ivanov. He trained Epley on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern wine when they worked at Olio and Elaia. “She’s so technically sound that she can do everything better than most people on autopilot, and meanwhile … look around the room and anticipate what’s next.”

“So many people treat serving as ‘Same job, different apron,’” said Sardella general manager Chris Kelling, who worked with Epley at Niche. “She has goals to ascend in the industry and be amongst the best. That is something I’ve only recently seen in St. Louis, that people are taking hospitality as a career.”

It seems only natural that Epley’s next step is to help open Vicia under co-owner and general manager Tara Gallina, who was service captain at Blue Hill at Stone Barns – a restaurant lauded as much for service as culinary talent. Before a recent wine tasting meeting, Epley pulled out a tote bag filled with polished stemware and ever-present spiral-bound notebooks.

“When I write things down, it’s easier to remember than typing,” she explained, rifling through pages filled with impeccably written wine tasting notes and potential front-of-house hires. Epley loves the puzzle of it all, carefully sorting each detail into its proper column. “It’s a fun game of Tetris,” she said.

“She’s always two steps ahead, which is what you have to be, and seeing the big picture at all times,” Gallina said. “She really just gets it.”

Photo by Carmen Troesser

What I Do: Nick Blue of Sardella

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

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Gerard Craft’s text message asked for a vegetarian dish, done Niche-style. Unbeknownst to Nick Blue, he was in the preliminary stages of a job interview for executive chef of Sardella, the concept that will replace Niche, Craft’s first restaurant and the one that earned him St. Louis’ first James Beard Foundation Award. Blue certainly has the resume to head up Sardella when it opens later this month. He began working with Craft in 2009, bouncing around between Brasserie, Niche and Taste before working his way up to executive chef of Brasserie. Here, Blue shares what he’s learned so far in the Niche Food Group.
 

First week on 
the job
“I was walking through the (old Niche) dining room carrying two cases of eggs by the handles and … one bottom fell out and the whole case just breaks in the middle of the dining room. … I was like, ‘Oh God, this is my first true professional kitchen.’”

From-scratch kitchen
“(Brasserie) was a well-oiled machine already. … To start over from scratch – it’s been a little nerve-wracking, to say the least. I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what to do every single time, but I try to make that call and ask for forgiveness later.”

Attitude adjustment
“The whole kitchen culture (at Sardella) is changing. … We can go back to having fun and start cooking the food that’s why we started cooking. It’s going to be a little more casual (than Niche).”

Most important meal of the day
“I’m a breakfast fan, but not at breakfast hours. Recently the Sardella kitchen management team has been hooked on Original Pancake House in Ladue. We get the breakfast sandwiches to go. It’s on sourdough with egg, ham and I add American cheese.”

His sweeter half
“When (my wife, Sardella pastry chef Sarah Osborn and I) cook (at home), we both do it. I’ll do something savory, and she’ll do something pastry. … I have a huge sweet tooth. The two things I usually ask for are tres leches cake or a strawberry-rhubarb pie.”

Retirement plans
“My dream retirement job is to have a taco stand on the beach – somewhere in Key West probably. … I came up with that big plan after a few drinks at Big Star (in Chicago). I was eating their fish tacos and I was like, You know what? I’m going to live on a beach one day and retire and make fish tacos. And Sarah wants to do adult popsicles.”

-photo by Ashley Gieseking

Readers’ Choice 2016: Favorite Restaurateurs

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

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{Clockwise from bottom, Gerard Craft, Dave Bailey, Kevin Nashan, Nick Luedde}

The menus have been printed, revised, reprinted, revised … and reprinted again. The staff has been trained forward and backward. The silverware has been polished until it’s too shiny to behold. Friends and family have flown in for the soft opening with compliments fit for the pope/Shakespeare/Beyoncé of restaurant owners. But when the restaurant finally opens to the public, what’s going through a restaurateur’s mind?

 

Winner: Gerard Craft
Owner, Niche Food Group (Brasserie by Niche, Pastaria, Porano Pasta, Sardella, Taste)

“I think my opening of Niche was way different from any opening you will see today. In 2005, social media wasn’t really a thing. People finding out about new things were not overnight happenings. Now you open a restaurant and a million people line up out your door — definitely not with Niche. No one knew who we were. It was me, one other cook and my pastry chef who I basically kidnapped. We opened to 12 customers, and I think six of those were from the bar across the street, who I think I convinced to come over if I would feed them for free. …

“I was 25. My wife was pregnant. I was doing something a little bit different, which certainly didn’t make it easier. I would work from 8 a.m. until 2:30 a.m. every day. It was intense – a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. … It was this dream, but also so much reality. And I physically remember when we finally got reviewed — (former St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic) Joe Bonwich just gave us this love letter. After, I looked up and … there were so many people, we didn’t know what to do. I almost threw up. I was like, ‘Oh shit, I have to cook for all these people!’”

 

2nd: Nick Luedde
Co-owner, The Libertine

“We had been in the press and had such a highly anticipated opening. … Ten minutes prior to opening — the staff looks great, and we had 200 people on the books — but I’m looking at my wife (Audra Luedde), afraid no one was going to show up. We had so much money invested. This was everything. … It all comes down to whom you’ve hired. If those people are people you actually want to have a drink with, the rest takes care of itself.”

 

3rd: Kevin Nashan
Chef-owner, Peacemaker Lobster & Crab and Sidney Street Cafe

“Obviously you want to throw up in your mouth. It’s such a big rollercoaster. You just hope people come and are so grateful when they do. It takes a village — everyone contributes to your success. … There are so many variables on opening day. The system you have sometimes completely changes during service, after service.”

 

Honorable mention: Dave Bailey
Owner, Baileys’ Restaurants (Baileys’ Chocolate Bar; Baileys’ Range; Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar; Rooster; Shift, Test Kitchen & Takeout; Small Batch; The Fifth Wheel)

“My seven stages of opening a restaurant for the first time:

Electric shock: Woke up early that sunny morning with no alarm clock with a surge through my body and the immediate thought, ‘I am opening a restaurant today! You’ve been working on this day and night, sleeping two hours at a time on top of the bar. It’s actually real now. Go go go!’

A burning sensation in the back of the head and neck: Is there enough time to get everything done? … What did I forget? Will anyone come? Will too many people come? Why am I doing this on a Friday? Why didn’t I do a soft opening?

Accelerated breathing and hypersensitivity to sound and touch: Almost there; we’re looking pretty good; it’s all about to happen; this is going to be amazing!

Calmness and solidarity of purpose: Ready. Everything looks right; everything feels right; everyone is in position.

Panic and self doubt: Why wasn’t there a line at the door? Is anyone going to come? Was this a terrible idea in the first place? I can’t afford for this not to work.

Total absorption in work and an extremely narrowed focus: Wow, it’s really busy. Everyone seems happy. We are almost keeping up; we need to go faster; we need to go much faster. Touch more tables … make them happy no matter what.

Complete relief and a feeling of having learned and grown more in hours than in the past several years: It worked. We built it, and they came. We are going to do an even better job tomorrow.”

-photo by Ashley Gieseking

Extra Sauce: In case you missed it…

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

From major changes at one of St. Louis’ top restaurants to big moves for an area coffee roaster, here’s what went down it the St. Louis dining scene last week, in case you missed it…

 

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1. Gerard Craft is closing his flagship restaurant, Niche. The Niche Food Group owner announced on June 2, that after 11 years, he will close Niche on June 11 and launch a new concept, Sardella, in another four to six weeks.

2. The newest member of the Sasha’s Wine Bar family will open to the public on June 2, when Scarlett’s Wine Bar opens its doors for service at 4253 Laclede Ave., in the Central West End.

 

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3. South City coffee roaster Sump Coffee will open a second location in Nashville, Tennessee this fall. Sump’s space in the OneC1TY development in the West Nashville/Midtown neighborhood will be next door to Pastaria.

4. Lilly’s Music & Social House, located at 2321 Arsenal St., at the corner of Jefferson Avenue, closed its doors on Sunday, May 29. The restaurant and entertainment venue was open almost one year.

 

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5. Sauce Hit List has three new must-try restaurants this month, including Big Baby Q and Smokehouse, Five Aces Bar-B-Que and Stubborn German Brewing Co.

6. Eureka is getting a sweet new addition this summer as Sarah’s Cake Shop plans to open a cafe, Sarah’s on Central, into the old Central Hall banquet center at 127 S. Central Ave.

The Scoop: Gerard Craft to close Niche, Sardella to open

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

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Gerard Craft is closing his flagship restaurant, Niche.

The Niche Food Group owner announced today, June 2, that after 11 years, he will close Niche on June 11 and launch a new concept, Sardella, in another four to six weeks.

Craft launched Niche in Benton Park in 2005, then moved the fine-dining restaurant to Clayton in 2012, where it adopted a reputation for highly regional, Missouri-focused cuisine. Niche has consistently earned praise as one of St. Louis’ top restaurants, and won Craft the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2015.

“It felt right to move on and this felt like the time to close, while Niche was at its top,” he said.

Craft said he wanted to return to a fun, more relaxed atmosphere, adding that Niche’s reputation as a fine-dining, special-occasion restaurant taxed both his diners and his staff. The team was ready for something different.

“We open restaurants we want to go to,” Craft said. “Brasserie opened because we wanted casual French. Pastaria opened because I didn’t want to take my kids to Maggiano’s anymore. Sadly, none of us want to go to Niche.”

Sardella will leave behind Niche’s Missouri focus, but it will continue to source locally, working with area farmers, coffee roasters, brewers and chocolatiers. Though the name Sardella comes from an Old World Italian fish sauce, Craft said the menu will not be exclusively Italian. Instead, this name serves as inspiration to allow the staff to revitalize forgotten dishes and create “American food with a wink to Italy.”

Renovations will see an additional eight seats, a more intimate space and a larger bar. The menu will see the return of fish and pasta and an expanded beer and cocktail program. The lunch menu includes salads and sandwiches, while dinner will focus on small plates priced between $12 and $20 and larger entrees priced around $27 to $35. The breakfast menu will feature grain bowls and pour-over coffee in consultation with Sump Coffee owner Scott Carey.

Though a bittersweet moment for the Niche Food Group family, Craft said he looks forward to the future of Sardella. “I want to remember Niche at its height,” he said. “This is a celebration.”

 

Catherine Klene, Meera Nagarajan and Kristin Schultz contributed to this report.

 

-photo by Carmen Troesser

Extra Sauce: In case you missed it…

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

From chef changes at some of STL’s top restaurants to new University City’s first brewery, here’s what went down in the STL food scene in, in case you missed it…

 

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1. Niche executive chef Nate Hereford will hang up his apron at the Clayton institution at the end of May. Hereford said he has accepted a position at Hampton Creek as a research, design and development chef in San Francisco.

2. Audra Angelique and Audrey Faulstich have launched A2 The GFCF Cafe and Restaurant, which opened doors on April 11 at 1330 Washington Ave.

 

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3. Drive down Dorsett Road with the windows down and you may catch a whiff of wood smoke from Big Baby Q and Smokehouse. The new restaurant opened in the Fee Fee Center at 11658 Dorsett Road in Maryland Heights on Monday, April 18.

4. After three years on Cherokee Street, Revel Kitchen will close its doors on Sunday, April 24, as reported by Feast. Revel Kitchen’s delivered prepared food service will also be suspended.

 

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5. Former food truck sushi chef Elliot Harris has found a new, more stationary home. Harris, who sold Chop Shop STL in December 2015, is now executive sushi chef at Baiku Sushi Lounge in Midtown.

6. A new tap room and brewery is in the works, looking to open in early 2017. Senn Bierwerks, founded by Dustin and Kristen Chalfant and James Hellmuth, will produce and distribute beers from a facility at 7593 Olive Blvd., at the corner of Olive and North and South boulevards.

 

-Niche Food Group photo by Jonathan Gayman; Big Baby Q photo by Michelle Volansky; Baiku photo by Carmen Troesser 

The Scoop: Nate Hereford to exit Niche, Brasserie’s Nick Blue to take the helm

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

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{The Niche Food Group Team. Chef Nate Hereford is front row, second from left; chef-owner Gerard Craft is front row, far right.}

 

Niche executive chef Nate Hereford will hang up his apron at the Clayton institution at the end of May. Hereford said he has accepted a position at Hampton Creek as a research, design and development chef in San Francisco.

Niche Food Group chef-owner Gerard Craft said Brasserie executive chef Nick Blue has been tapped to take the top toque at Niche, and Brian Moxey has been named executive chef at Brasserie.

“We’re excited as a company for (Hereford) to take on the big picture stuff,” Craft said. “It’s what we drive for in this company, (but) in a bigger way. It’s so awesome that great leaders are taking this on.”

Hampton Creek is a food production company that focuses on making sustainable products that are good for the consumer and the wider food system. It is the company behind Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough.

“I’m really excited to be involved with big picture food sustainability issues,” said Hereford. “These issues are near and dear to my heart. This is an opportunity to make a difference in the food system, (in) our kids’ future.”

Hereford has been at Niche for six-and-a-half years, working his way from cook to sous chef to executive chef of the nationally acclaimed restaurant. Craft said he appreciated Hereford’s leadership on the line and within the company.

“Nate’s a lot more (of) even-keeled person than me,” Craft said. “That’s helped him get through a lot of struggles in the process of developing a new cuisine. I’ve learned a ton from that. Not everything’s the end of the world. His even-keeled attitude has allowed him to take the team through a lot of failure. That’s been huge. I’ll definitely miss that.”

 

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{Chef Nick Blue}

Craft pulled Hereford’s replacement from within the Niche Food Group team, tapping Brasserie’s executive chef to take the top spot at Niche. Craft said Blue was the first person he thought of to take the role, citing his experience in both the tradition and history of food and his forward-thinking creativity.

“You have to have both,” said Craft. “He is his own person and also has a playful side that will be fun to see develop. He has huge, huge shoes to fill, and he knows that.”

Blue said he was excited to take on the job. “What Nate’s done has been amazing,” Blue said. “I’m looking forward to keeping the ball rolling and using local Missouri ingredients.”

While Blue has worked in the Niche kitchen intermittently over the years, he and Hereford will spend the next month working together. Blue will also keep one foot at Brasserie to train its new executive chef. Moxey has spent the last two years as head chef at Perennial Artisan Ales, but he previously worked within Niche Food Group at Pastaria. “I have a respect for classic French food,” Moxey said. “I look forward to working with a great group of people.”

Perennial co-owner Emily Wymore said control of the south city brewery’s kitchen will stay in house. Chef Kaleigh Brundick, who has worked with Moxey in Perennial’s kitchens and has three-and-a-half years at Perennial, will step up to head chef.

“We were lucky to have (Moxey),” Wymore said. “He’s an extremely talented chef. We’re excited to see what (Brundick) brings. She has a great palate and is passionate about local, seasonal, ingredient-focused food.”

 

-Niche Food Group photo by Jonathan Gayman; Nick Blue photo courtesy of Niche Food Group

Best New Restaurants: No. 2 – Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery

Monday, December 14th, 2015

Opening a restaurant isn’t easy. Each year, hundreds give it a shot – and not everyone succeeds. Some, however, aren’t just surviving; they’re killing it. In the last year, we ate our way through newly opened restaurants from Alton to Ballwin, compiling a list of places that serve the food and drinks we can’t get out of our heads. They bring something different and exciting to the scene – and they do it damn well. While technical excellence was a must, the service and ambiance also had to win us over. Office debates nearly came to fisticuffs, but at last we agreed on St. Louis’ 11 best new restaurants of 2015. Clear your schedule and book your reservations; you’ve got a lot of eating to do.

 

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Three years after Sauce published a story on how Ted Wilson was going to change the St. Louis bread scene with a new bakery, we can finally report that we were right. Wilson and co-founder Sean Netzer opened Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery in Botanical Heights at the end of September, a lunch spot serving sandwiches on bread unrivaled in the city.

The key to Loafers’ loaves is fermentation. The bread is naturally leavened, meaning the bakery doesn’t just avoid chemical compounds like baking soda. In all but two of Loafers’ breads, it means avoiding even mass-produced yeast. Instead, Wilson starts with just flour and water, and carefully cultivates the yeast that occurs naturally, watching over it as it ferments – think of sourdough starters or Amish friendship breads.

Aside from the incredible flavor this process produces, Wilson is objectively fascinated by fermentation. The fact that he can start with water and flour and end up with bread makes him giddy. “In some way, it takes responsibility off your shoulders. Your role is to set up this environment … you can only be in control of so much,” Wilson said. “Then you just have to react, and you have to pay attention.”

This patient relationship with food requires a rare mix of fanatical curiosity and dogged perseverance – qualities reflected in Loafers’ entire team. Some, like chef Brian Lagerstrom (Sauce Ones to Watch class of 2015), left the fine dining world for Loafers to explore the freedom fermentation allows. Lagerstrom, who dabbled at Niche with house bread and cheese programs (not to mention house-made soy sauce, vinegars and fish sauce), was given free reign at Loafers to get as funky as he liked.
No condiment is too small for serious attention; house-made mustard and pickles grace the Cuban-like roasted pork sandwich, and house-smoked beets are piled high with sauerkraut and creamy Thousand Island dressing. Even the rotating nut butter and jam sandwich is taken seriously. Wilson and crew roast and grind the nuts, cook down the berries and churn that creamy butter.

Romantic slow food notions could easily stall when confronted with labor-intensive reality, but not at Loafers. “The work really brings us joy,” Wilson said. “(We have a) great excitement and love for these transformations that happen under our watch. … They’re little science experiments that taste good.”

Union Loafers is waiting on a liquor license to extend service into evening hours and debut a bread-centric bar menu. We’re confident it, too, will be worth the wait.

-photo by Carmen Troesser

Readers’ Choice 2015: Chef of the Year – Gerard Craft

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

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You know a meal is special when you can recall it in vivid detail years, even decades, later. Epicures have traveled from far and near to visit Gerard Craft’s flagship restaurant, Niche, and have departed with memories of exquisitely plated, creative dishes. Craft’s own dining experiences likewise have left an indelible mark on his culinary mind. Here, this year’s Readers’ Choice Chef of the Year – and winner of the 2015 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Midwest – shares the top meals of his life.  

1. The French Laundry, Yountville, California, 2002
“That meal was mind-blowing on every level, especially because I had experienced a lot at that point but nothing unique. I’d been sleeping with The French Laundry Cookbook pretty much at that point. It was a big deal to see it all. The wine service was Bobby Stuckey (now co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado) as a youngster. My dad still talks about the wine service to this day and how amazingly inspired it was. (We started) with five different soups, each one the essence of whatever that ingredient was. (I had) dishes that are now iconic, like the salmon cornet – the ice cream cone, the oysters and pearls … just mind-blowing and fun. Grant Achatz was a sous chef. It was kind of like a dream team in that restaurant.”

2. Le Bamboche, Paris, France, 2000
“It was during the mad cow crisis. Lots of vegetables because nobody was cooking meat at that point. La Bamboche was a tiny little spot, maybe 20 seats. The chef was Claude Colliot. It was him in the kitchen with one other guy and his wife ran the front of the house. It was the first time I saw traditional rules broken. There was a dish of glazed Loire Valley vegetables with fromage blanc ice cream, a savory ice cream. I was blown away. Now, everyone sees ice cream on dishes. Back then, no one had ice cream on dishes. On the dessert side, he had a Napoleon with pastry cream on one layer, a kind of candied confit tomato on another layer and then basil simple syrup. Again, this notion of the rules had been broken: savory food being used in dessert. That meal alone shaped my career and the way I would look at food from then on.”

3. L’Arpège, Paris, France, 2000
“This place was – and still is – a three-star Michelin restaurant. My parents took me there and said, ‘Pay attention. This is your Harvard education.’ It was a spectacular meal, tons of vegetables. I don’t know if I was necessarily blown out of the water. It was just vegetables and light flavors and very good. What I did notice later on as I was cooking was: This green bean is not cooked right; this turnip’s texture could be much better. Every vegetable in that place was so perfectly cooked. When it comes to vegetables, that completely changed my life. I am so picky with our cooks about how they cook vegetables. That stems from this restaurant.”

4. Trattoria del Conte, Orvieto, Italy, 2006
“Our very good friends, Margaret and Carlo Pfeiffer, took me to this place. It was their favorite local restaurant to eat dinner. It’s pretty much a father and his daughters who run this place. They make really casual pastas, all fresh, hand-made. One of my favorite dishes that I still love to make is a ricotta tortelloni with artichokes, lemon and olive oil – an incredibly simple dish, but perfect. The whole thing, the ragus they do, everything made me fall in love with Italian food. That wasn’t my first trip to Italy, but it was a transformative trip for me.”

-illustrations by Vidhya Nagarajan

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