Looking back over all the thousands of meals they’ve ever eaten, chefs can often pinpoint those that had the greatest impact. These epiphanic moments might inspire them to cook, profoundly alter their culinary philosophy, unveil a deeper revelation about the human experience, or instill a deep-seated love of a particular dish. Here 4 top chefs share the meals that changed their lives.
Cindy Wolf, Charleston, Baltimore, Maryland
“My dad was in the restaurant business, so I got to eat in a lot of fine dining restaurants growing up. In 1984 in Charleston, I dined with my parents at Morton’s in the Vendue Inn – no relation to the steakhouse – a 35-seat restaurant helmed by chef Marcelo Vasquez. I remember he personally prepared a number of dishes tableside: steak tartare, rack of lamb, and côte de boeuf with chimichurri, which no one was doing at the time. It was French-based cooking with Argentine influences. I was so excited after I ate there that I wanted to work with him. I went to culinary school in 1985 at the CIA and did my externship with Vasquez the next year. He became my mentor. He did one dish he called Shrimp Beaufort – named after a nearby town – made with sweet corn, green onions, lemon, butter, and salt. It was super simple. Local everything. It was so fresh. Simple, fresh, and local defined the rest of my career. He also taught me a deep respect for the product. One day, he bought a New York strip steak for us to have for dinner, which cost a lot of money and was a very extravagant thing to do at that time. I didn’t get it cooked in time for employee meal, so I cut them it into steaks and grilled them individually. I can still feel how disappointed he was in me. I’ll never forget that. But he instilled a real respect in me.” Make a reservation at Charleston.
Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Virginia
“My dad was a tour operator in Ireland, so he sold airline tickets and hotel rooms as packages. His firm bought tickets in bulk and sometimes there would be a couple of seats left over. We’d be sitting around the dinner table and my dad would say, ‘Wanna go to Portugal tomorrow?’ He loved cooking, so food was always a part of our family and our trips. When I was six-years-old, we went to Alicanté in southeast Spain. One of dad’s travel agents took us up into the mountains to meet his grandmother. The men went out into the fields and caught rabbits, which they skinned alive. They dug a pit and hung the paella pan over it. It was incredible and made the longest lasting impact as a food memory. Since then, paella has been one of my favorite dishes to eat. However, my father prepared the best paella I’ve ever had in my life. Only about five years ago, I asked him to teach me the way to make it the way he does it. Similar to bouillabaisse or cassoulet, there are layers and layers of flavor in paella, which make a symphony. It’s everything food is supposed to be.” Make a reservation at Restaurant Eve.
Ryan Ratino, Masa 14, Washington, D.C.
“When I was in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, I was a glutton for the Michelin Guide. My friends called me Michelin Man. After I graduated and was working as a sous chef at Todd English’s bluezoo in Orlando, I made my first trip to New York City for dinner at Eleven Madison Park with my girlfriend. That was my first dining experience at a Michelin-star restaurant – and it was three stars. It was next level. When you walk in, they know your name, what you do, where you’re from. The service was so elegant and extremely graceful, but it wasn’t overly pretentious. I feel like you could eat there in shorts and a t-shirt – though you never would – and they would still treat you the same way. We did the big tasting with the honey and lavender glazed duck. I had $1,000 in cash on me to pay for it. That experience made me want to be more refined, clean up my skills and plating technique, and cook with an ingredient focus.” Make a reservation at Masa 14.
Suvir Saran, Tapestry, New York City
“A meal at a great restaurant can be forgotten as easily as it was eaten. A food that’s rooted in society, community, camaraderie, and history will stay with you forever. My favorite meals didn’t happen in restaurants. I remember eating chapati bread with smashed red onion and green chili on a roadside near New Delhi. It was given to me by someone who was clearly very poor, who had to decide whether to eat it alone or share it with a stranger. I’ve learned that it’s always the people who have the least that are the most generous. That meal cannot be forgotten because it teaches you to be a part of a civil society and a global traveler. In my life dining out, there are countless instances of humanity winning over pomp and circumstance. I wish I could say a meal at Per Se changed my life, but that’s about the sterling silver pen you signed the check with and the dish something was served on. It’s about the flourishes. One is experience is pageantry with very little substance and the other is true.” Make a reservation at Tapestry.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credits: Scott Suchman (Cathal Armstrong); Dean Alexander (Cindy Wolf).