Chicago has some great farmers markets. What are the best ingredients we should be using that are in season now?
Right now it’s corn, blueberries, peaches and plums. We’re waiting on tomatoes because we haven’t had any rain so it’s been a little iffy here and there for what we can get from the farmers. Yellow squash and zucchini are booming and so are green beans. But blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and all of the berries are in the height of their season right now.
Is there any ingredient you hate to work with?
I don’t like white pepper. I don’t allow it in my kitchen. I don’t like how it tastes. I just don’t like it at all.
What did you prepare tonight for Chefs and the City at The Ritz-Carlton?
Cherrywood smoked duck. It’s got a corn johnnycake, blueberry salsa, freeze-dried corn, duck cracklins’ and a little micro cilantro. It’s on our menu.
Last failure in the kitchen?
We just did a dish the other night where we had these amazing marinated white anchovies from Italy but we couldn’t sell one to save our lives. I have amazing servers but for some reason people are a little iffy about anchovies even though these were mild.
Go-to junk food?
I truly don’t eat fast food. I do like Chick-fil-A but now I can’t eat there anymore. For obvious reasons, that’s not going to happen anymore. I love the whole philosophy of Chipotle but I think all chefs like junk food every now and then.
Sometimes when cooking, by the time it’s finished it’s hard to tell if the end result even tastes good. Does that ever happen to you?
I think that happens all of the time! Listen, nine times out of 10 I don’t like anything I make but other people love it. I’m always so self-critical thinking maybe it could use something else. There is nothing that I ever make where I’m like, “Oh, this is amazing!”
We have to admit, after watching you on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Texas” we were slightly intimidated by you.
I’m a nice person! The thing is, I’m intense. I have a really strong personality, especially at work. I am very opinionated and I know exactly what I want and in an environment like “Top Chef” it’s a competition.
Have you remained friends with the other contestants?
I’m very close with Sarah Grueneberg and Lindsay Autry. We were actually all just on vacation together over the Fourth of July.
When you watch the show and hear someone say something about you for the first time is it awkward?
No. I mean it’s TV. It was great for TV and it’s been amazing for my career. There was a rough patch there for a while, everybody thought I was a Beverly [Kim] hater but I really was not. I said all of those things, I never backed down, I owned up to all of it and I was certainly my true self. So take it or leave it! It is what it is.
Is the competition on the show really as stressful as it comes across?
It is very stressful. It was very long days. It’s unscripted, it was all very real.
How do recipe ideas come to you?
I have a notepad by my bed! I am constantly thinking about food and ingredients and what goes together and what is in season. Travel really inspires me, regional cooking and I read a lot and get every food magazine there is. I think about food often. I think about what would work, what doesn’t work and how to take things that are classic and twist them.
Do you have a favorite Chicago chef?
Oh gosh, that is so hard to choose. I really respect Sarah Grueneberg from Spiagga. I became really close with her on “Top Chef”. Until that experience we probably wouldn’t have become such great friends. We became more like sisters than friends.
When you have your chef friends over do you cook or just order a pizza?
We do cook! But there’s no judging.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Maybe I’ll retire. I think the ultimate goal is to keep cooking and traveling. I don’t know, maybe have a restaurant, but who knows! I definitely want to write a cookbook.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Julia Child. I wish I could have met her. She is such an inspiration. I used to watch her on TV when I was little kid.
Photography by Neal Agustin
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