What have you been doing since Top Chef Chicago ended?
I've been on a whirlwind. I'm traveling all over, doing different food and wine festivals and appearances. I've had the chance to shoot some commercials. I have a cookbook coming out, I'm opening a new restaurant, and I'm dabbling in a TV show.
Tell us about the restaurant.
It will be in Chicago, and we're shooting to open next summer. It's just going to be a really fun, casual atmosphere, not super fine dining. I'm very excited about that. People are really into food right now. They're watching the Food Network and paying attention, and at the same time, with the economy the way it is, it's good to have a place where the prices are as low as we can make them while still keeping the quality high.
How do you recommend getting high-quality dishes with a lot of flavor without spending a fortune?
You don't have to use super expensive ingredients to make good food. There's locally farmed produce and all kinds of good stuff out there. I think it's all about what cut of meat you're using. There are cuts that are less expensive and easy to braise. You brown it, put it in some liquid and braise it slowly. You can't overcook it. Talk to your butcher about different cuts of meat. We'll definitely be doing that at the restaurant as well—exploring cuts of meat you can use to save money.
What will your cookbook focus on?
The premise is to get home cooks thinking a little bit in the mindset of chefs, using different flavor combinations or doing a little extra step that home cooks don't always do, like making a great vinaigrette. I'd like to do the same type of thing on television, something fun and unique that home cooks and chefs could enjoy. There aren't a lot of chefs on TV. It's mostly cooks, which makes sense because they're on the same wavelength as the home cook. I'd like to be somewhere in between, still able to connect with the home cook but offer something that chefs can take away, too. Maybe I'll show some of the farmers and travel around the U.S.
What advice do you give home cooks who aren't too sure of themselves in the kitchen?
There are a lot of books out there geared towards people who are intimidated. Jamie Oliver is great. Even Giada De Laurentiis or Rachael Ray. Start with those simple recipes, and then, once you get comfortable, you can move on to different produce and proteins. Keep it nice and simple until you get comfortable.
What are you doing for Thanksgiving?
I like getting friends together so I can do as much cooking as I can. I'm having a dinner party the week of Thanksgiving. I like to have all-pork dinner parties.
All-pork dinner parties?
All parts of the pig. I try to have pork belly or ground pork, pork tenderloin. I've done a savory bacon crème brûlée. Last Thanksgiving I did a suckling pig instead of a turkey. You can get ones that fit in your oven, and it comes out great, with the skin all crunchy and tasty. Curled up in the oven, though, it does look pretty sad.
So, besides pork, what other ingredients do you love this time of year?
I'm a huge mushroom lover. And I use all the squash and root things like celery root. Home cooks get a little scared of it because it's not the prettiest vegetable, but it's great for a nice, hearty soup.
Top Chef contestants never seem completely comfortable with desserts. Do you have ones you make often?
When I'm making dessert for friends, I keep it very simple. My favorite thing is to take figs, add sugar, and caramelize them. Then I mix Greek yogurt with honey powder that you can buy at Asian markets. Swirl that on the plate, then add the caramelized figs and sprinkle the whole thing with a little basil.
And will you make an appearance on Top Chef New York this season?
I'm hoping so. They've finished filming most of it, but they always wait a couple of months before the finale. Maybe I'll get to come back as someone's sous chef, but it would be even better to be a judge.
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(Image: Elizabeth Lynch)