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Periodically Inspired Interview – Christian Gill

Christian Gill Periodically Inspired Headshot

A real good biscuit recipe can change your life. Just ask Chef Christian Gill. 

The culinary force behind Cincinnati’s Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey has made his mark on the culinary scene by serving up elevated comfort food that – according to him – is a “sloppy, sensual mess of unctuousness.” 

Last year brought the pandemic to Boomtown’s doorstep and temporary closure of its doors. It also brought the devastating loss of Boomtown Co-Founder PJ Neumann. Fast forward a year later and there are finally signs of hope, healing and growth; both Boomtown and Christian are thriving with the expansion of a second Boomtown location with an even larger menu. Not to mention Toast Malone – Boomtown’s official biscuit van slinging some transportainment. Yeah, you read that right.

We sat down with Christian for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity. Read the full interview and get to know Christian below: 

People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“I find inspiration from travel. It’s not just from experiencing new restaurants, it’s more of the immersive experience – the entire city, the weather, the vibe. It could be the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn or the super chill nature of NorCal in Napa. As a chef who was a musical theater major, the entire experience matters to me and how I draw little bits of inspiration; I hope to inspire others.

One of my favorite places to go is the Smoky Mountains – there’s a lot to be gathered in the mountains and on the trails. When I’m foraging, maybe having a simple conversation with a friend, I’m able to step back and take it all in. It’s that breath of fresh air and reinvigorating environment. It clears my mind. When you get to the Smokys, the humidity changes and you immediately feel this shift of peace and tranquility. 

I try to do that with my food – take you away from whatever your reality is for a moment. I make elevated comfort food, it’s food you already know – memories of senses, smells, tastes. At Boomtown, the biscuits are the vehicle for those memories; I trigger something in your head that brings you back to a memory that you loved. I draw from my own family and memories – it’s shareable and it’s very different from a high-brow restaurant, it’s rooted in tradition but still elevated.”

Chicken fried steak

When did you first find a love of cooking? 

“In my Grandma’s kitchen. I remember the first time she let me add chili powder to something cooking on the stove. She taught me to season with confidence. I grew up in the country of Kentucky, and I spent a lot of time helping her cook for large events, things like biscuits and dumplings, and helping her wash chitlins. I loved seeing the ingredients go from a raw state to a finished delicious bowl of gold. I learned that if you can feel it, it’s right and you hit a level of confidence in your cooking.”

What’s your dish ideation and creation process? 

“Creating becomes a habit and reflex. The first thing I do is put myself in the kitchen with the key components of the dish and then I just GO. I don’t write anything down the first time – I do it by feel. Then my staff will try it and based on their feedback, I’ll dial it in.”

How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art? 

“How I approach plating really depends, but it’s 100% an art. If it’s for Boomtown, there has to be levels of comfort and elements on the plate to draw you in; the dishes are hearty and very ‘from the dirt’ – every position of each ingredient matters. But with every dish, it’s the flavor that comes first and then plating comes second. 

At Boomtown it’s ugly delicious. We’re giving you a sloppy, sensual mess of unctuousness. It’s a delicate and direct mess in a cast iron. There are three things I look for: plate, color, and finish. Our finishes or garnishes serve a purpose – they’re utilitarian and functional.”

Cheddar baked biscuits

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?

“I didn’t go to culinary school. For me it’s trial by knife, not trial by fire. Don’t be afraid to humble yourself to the technique, there will always be someone who can do it better and quicker. We’re all different and bring our own things to the table. Do not be afraid to humble yourself.”

How do you experiment with flavor?

“Oh man. By isolating the sense memories I have, and looking at specific ingredients I may not have a memory for or haven’t used before, those are the ones I f*ck with. It gets me in trouble sometimes (laughs), sometimes people don’t want grapes with fresno peppers. But again, I’m humbling myself to the technique. 

The biggest way we get to get creative at Boomtown are the jellies, preserves and compound butters. We also make our own kimchis. That’s on brand for us: on the frontier they didn’t have sh*t, and it was and is still all about cross utilization. I will ring every ounce of flavor out of an apple that I can.”

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

“Yeah. I feel competitive. I was told in one of the first shows I competed in that you’re not playing against everyone else necessarily – you’re playing against yourself. Whether it’s who has the best kimchi or who has the best process. Can I do my best to defeat myself? But at the end of the day, the competition is friendly. 

Everyone is in their own lane. And then I look at things like The Gray, and what Chef Mashama Bailey is doing there is phenomenal. It’s the best meticulous southern food I’ve ever had. But there is now a string of African American chefs receiving recognition that was previously only available to white male chefs – when that’s happening you set aside the competition.” 

How do you see restaurants operating in 2022? 

“I feel like it’s cliche to say, but I’d say restaurants will be operating very carefully. Now there’s a wider array of price points – from super unstable revenue to produce and beef costs – the unstable nature of vendors as we recover and recoup from Covid will have restaurants operating cautiously based on the current state. I’ve been cautiously optimistic. This past year, I had to take the key components of the Boomtown brand and decide if labor was worth going under for. After crying for a week, I switched to a drop biscuit, which presents itself in a different texture. It was hard, it was a cautious decision I had to make and if I didn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to open back up.”

Biscuits in cast iron skillet

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why? 

“MSG! Because it’s literally a flavor enhancer! We dive so deep into the fact that MSG is not what people think it is, and that bad rap is based in systemic racism to a T. But MSG is my favorite – it’s a Jedi lightsaber of umami. It thrives in savory dishes, but you can put it into sweet things, as well. The same way that I feel like I’m a support structure for my staff and a backbone to make sure they have what they need – MSG is that backbone you don’t know you need.”

What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use? 

“Letting ancient grains and stone-ground grains rest in the process of cooking. Turn the burner off, seal them tightly, and let them rest. Turn off the heat, and let those grains rest like a very nice piece of steak. Stop rushing it in order to achieve big grit energy.” 

What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?

“To be Grandma. The way my Grandma was to me and neighborhood kids, classmates, being that wizened soul that doesn’t have to say a lot, but where people come to heal. You’re doing your best to hire from the community and show them that they can do more than they imagined. You’re providing more benefits for your staff, and sometimes it’s you taking the backseat. You’re actually sharing recipes with people and chefs who want to better their food. As a chef, we want our food to exist beyond us – so share! Be the Grandma.” 

What would you consider a defining trait of the Cincinnati food scene and chef community?  

“The cohesive industry we have here in Cincinnati, it exists beyond just social media and having chefs of all facets promoting others stuff. We’re constantly supporting each other – and that was before COVID, and there’s just not a lot of room for cattiness. We want the passion for the food of this city to come through.” 

Sliced flank steak with lemon grass, galangal, charred bok choy and pickled fresno

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“Drunken noodles are my ultimate comfort food. I’ve been on Whole30 and Spiceology saved the day. I’ve been messing around creating and picking flavors I’ve never had before and it kept me driven and inspired. For my drunken noodles I make zucchini noodles and – fun fact – fish sauce is Whole30. Also, now I don’t want people to yell at me, “THAT’S NOT WHOLE30!” 

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“My dirty rice. I use livers in it and we get all nice and dirty. From the level of spice and heat and type of rice – there’s a thought process put into every single ingredient – from the dice to the flavor complexity. Again, it’s about seasoning with confidence.”

What’s a spice you consider under-valued?

“Dried thyme. People sleep on thyme since it’s considered one of the classics, but it exists in a lot more things than people realize. There’s this great bite on the finish, and you can push the boundaries of the herbaceous experience with thyme, especially when you pair it with citrus.

Also, I’m adding long pepper. It’s hard to find but far superior to black pepper in depth of flavor thanks to the smoke and the roasted notes. Also it’s milder in bite. 

What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Cincinnati? 

“For breakfast I’d say The Governor. It’s pretty slick and they know their way around a pot. But I’m also partial to Uncle Yips – they have dim sum brunch on the weekend and the carts come out. We don’t have a huge amount of traditional Asian street food in the area, and it’s a great time.”

Go to Goose & Elder for lunch. Chef Jose Salazar is a good friend of mine and he’s making baller food. He’s sticking it to the greasy burger concept – be sure to order either the burger, fried bologna or the duck. 

Dinner… this is a tough one! Sotto is a rustic Italian restaurant that has a really fun and chill immersive experience from the food to drinks and service. Like many restaurants in Cincinnati, they’re providing an entire brand experience. It’s a super immersive, friendly, welcoming and high-end Italian restaurant . And if they have the gnocchi in red sauce – get it. This might sound weird but it reminds me of the school cafeteria pizza and I just love it. 

I’ll also say Losanti – a fairly new restaurant from Chef Anthony Sitek. It’s a steakhouse, but approachable with a lot of scratch pasta. Oh and their butter cake? Whooo. I never before wanted to eat the residual pool of butter from said butter cake…”

Follow Christian on Instagram at @foodbrushninja, and if you find yourself in Cincinnati, visit @boomtownbiscuitbar

Periodically Inspired Interview – D’Andre Balaoing

D’Andre Balaoing Interview

Las Vegas might be America’s playground, but for Pastry Chef D’Andre Balaoing, it’s more of a wonderland. Known for whimsical, colorful, intriguing, and utterly delicious desserts (and cuisine… okay, and cocktails), you might also recognize D’Andre from Season 7 of MasterChef, which was a launchpad for his career and an opportunity to highlight him as a LGBTQ+ culinary talent. 

From MasterChef to Pastry Chef at Scarpetta, D’Andre is now about to start something new and big; tapped by Season 7 MasterChef winner Shaun O’Neale, a new Vegas restaurant is on the horizon and will be open this summer… stay tuned for something real sweet. 

In the meantime, we caught up with D’Andre for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, approach to menus, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know D’Andre Balaoing below: 

People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“(Laughs) This is a big question. Right off the bat, I’ll say that I have what I call my ‘flavor memories’; mental health is incredibly important to me, and I’ve struggled with it in the past. Mental health issues can come with side effects, including memory loss and retention difficulty. Oftentimes, inspiration comes from these flavor memories, to conjure a feeling, or time and place. I’ll think about the past— maybe, what it felt like to ask out a prom date. What color was their shirt? What were the smells swirling around that high-school cafeteria?

 I try to associate memories and feelings with flavors and textures to recreate them on the plate – it definitely leads to interesting flavor combinations! Memories have a wonderful thing about them: they become more elastic over time, and in time, they stop belonging to you altogether. That’s really beautiful to me.

I get inspiration for social media, keeping a finger on the pulse of what fellow chefs are doing. Also, cookbook stores – there’s one here in Las Vegas that has rare and hard-to-find cookbooks, and I love seeing the notes in the margins or people using them as a journal. Sometimes pages are dog-eared or stained with a ring of coffee, and it’s like I’m there with them: I know I found a real winner.” 

Dandre Strawberry Tarte

When did you first find a love of cooking? 

“It was learned from my Mom who raised me as a single parent- we couldn’t afford a lot. I remember we used to hang out at the library, and rent old Julia Child cooking tapes. Mom cooked often and was actually an excellent home cook, but she often repeated meals from week to week.

We always had classic leftovers in the fridge like tuna noodle casserole, which I still love, but also Philipino dishes. When I was a kid, my classmates often said the lunches I brought to school looked and smelled funny – I was the only kid bringing adobo and pancit noodles with fish sauce. That made me want to learn more Pan-American cuisine, I wanted to learn how to fit in through food. 

Of course as I’ve grown, my goal now is to not fit in, but stand out. Now people break down my door for the oxtail.”

What’s your dish ideation and creation process? 

“I wish I had a romantic answer for you, but it’s totally through trial and error. (laughs) I still burn things and fail; I take a science-forward approach to my food. I’m constantly questioning the why and why nots of techniques and ingredients. 

I do keep a notebook filled with random thoughts and tasting notes when I’m eating or watching others cook. Once I find a winning idea, I run with it and start looking to see how it can be made more perfect, more tasty, and more honest.” 

D'andre Chawanmushi

What was the biggest impact of living and cooking around Asia on your cuisine?

“I identify as an American, but I didn’t live here until I was an adult. Looking back, the first time I was ever grounded as a kid when I was living in Japan. I’d snuck out after curfew with my friends to attend a night market. I’ll never forget it: the hawker stalls, the glow of the lanterns… it was a real sight to see! We ran around, stuffing ourselves with yakitori and other grilled meats on sticks. I was truly living. It was these early moments of eating and cookery – that helped shape my culinary form-language. Living abroad gave me the gift of having deeper conversations about food – that were less utilitarian and industrial, and more about preserving tradition, and culture. Food can be about much more than sustenance. 

I also saw farming and butchery up close, experienced new languages and multicultural traditions. It forced my horizons to expand, and ultimately made me curious to try new things.”

How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art? 

“Yes, however that doesn’t mean every dish needs to be ‘pretty’ – I take plating as an opportunity to package a meal for you, and stoke what it is that I want you to feel. 

I get plating inspiration from fashion, music, emotions – it’s all about how I want you to take in the meal. Some of the best dishes in American cuisine come from ugly histories – you can express that through aggressive and almost abstract plating. Or you can take a refined, subdued approach and let the ingredients sing. But for my desserts, I always strive for childlike wonder. It HAS to bring joy.”

Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block? 

“I retreat inward because I’m pretty much never home. If I’m in a block, I try my best to stay in; couch self-care is how I get myself out. I spend time with my chickens and my partner – I also enjoy going through old photo albums– old photos are hazy stories and those memories and stories jog my creative senses. I try to reconnect with what’s important.”

D'andre Maui Wowee Pineapple Upside-down Cake

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school? 

“I get this question a lot – and full disclosure: I never went to culinary school, and I’m self taught. 

If you want to be in the culinary industry but aren’t in school yet, or just don’t plan to go – please don’t stop your work, just because no one is clapping. My biggest mistake in my journey, was that it was done in the pursuit of validation, and let me tell you – you already have what it takes. 

There are things you can’t learn in culinary school, and you’re just going to have to experience it in the kitchen. You might not get credit for a dish, people might not like a dish, but please don’t stop. Living for other people broke me down, and I hurting my own feelings because of it. Don’t resent the career path – it’s hard, even if you’re a natural or have a gift. Try to find those moments of joy, and root for yourself.”

What advice for members of the LGBTQ+ community who want to enter the culinary world?

“This question is shaking up a lot of memories; not only do you have to prove yourself, but you have added barriers. I’ll say this – you deserve to be in the kitchen, just like everyone else. You deserve to be fully authentic and honest to yourself, even when people say you shouldn’t. I was told by Chefs to tone it down. No, don’t turn it down – turn it UP. Food is one of the only things we all have in common, and it doesn’t matter how far you go, the barriers won’t go away until you smash through them.

You’ll never be able to share your gift, until you can show up as who you are. If you feel alone, if you ever feel like no one will fight for you— know that I, and so many others are here for you.”

How do you experiment with flavor?

“I experiment mainly with spices – they echo different nationalities, cultures and flavors.  Spices are the first things I reach for when working on something new.”

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

“Yes. Yes. Yes. (laughs) I didn’t go to culinary school, and I was competing with people who did. My career was launched by a competition show (MasterChef), but these days I’m competing with myself. Yes, I feel competitive, but it’s not a bad thing, it’s not born out of toxicity. It means I’m being pushed forward by other people. My circle is made up entirely of people that I want to be when I grow up. I’m so lucky to have them.”

D'andre Key Lime Pie

How do you see restaurants operating in 2022? 

“I see restaurants becoming more necessary. Yes we’re essential, but restaurants have become the main avenue for comfort. In hard times, restaurants are meeting spaces, public commissaries and beacons of normalcy. On the operational level, expenses are going up, which means an increase in cost for diners, but I’m thankful diners are receptive to it and pay it here in Las Vegas. 

There’s been a cultural shift; not everyone’s going to return to work in the restaurant industry after the pandemic, and we have to be proud of our teams wherever they go. But if your staff comes back it’s because they want to be there. The importance of talent has changed and the benchmark for quality is higher. I’m seeing more respect and humanity on the line and in the kitchen; we’re no longer treating each other like machines.” 

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why? 

“I have an affinity for eggs as someone who keeps chickens; I haven’t bought eggs from a store in years. The quality of a backyard egg is amazing. When you have a good one – it up-levels everything in the flavor. 

Also, fish sauce. In an Asian/Pacific Islander API home, we had five to six different fish sauces, and I didn’t understand why. We’d call them ‘messages in a bottle.’ It’s not just fermented fish, there’s a whole lot going on, and it’s the closest thing to bottling a time and place. We would make fish sauce from scratch and from scraps; one year we had onion flowers that we fermented in the sauce for six months, and later when the spring onion bolts were out of season, you could open the bottle and taste the past season. Fish sauce tells a story.”

What’s a technique or trick you learned along the way that even home cooks could use? 

“This one’s just in time for summer: put your peeler away when making a Peach Pie. Blanch and shock your peaches and the peels slide right off. You also keep that beautiful round peach shape and it intensifies the color – it literally looks like peach emoji. (laughs)” 

What would you consider a defining trait of the Las Vegas food scene and chef community?  

“We don’t have a scene, but more of a culture of being more fearless than most cities. Vegas has never really had a problem with authenticity – people feel emboldened to cook here, and there’s an eclectic grab bag nature to restaurants here. You can literally get anything you want, at any time of day… you just need to know who (and how) to ask. ;)”

D'andre Toaster Pastries

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“I always keep cabbage in the fridge to make okonomiyaki. It’s my kind of homestyle comfort; I take yamaimo, any protein scraps I have or seafood, and tempura bits. I make a good cabbage omelet at least two to three times a week. (laughs) I’ll literally throw anything in there: spaghetti, leftover chips, you name it.” 

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“I love a nice braised and stewed oxtail. I cook it the traditional way – my Step Dad was Jamiaican and taught me. Those oxtail dumplings suck up all the delicious rendered fat in the stew and nothing goes to waste. Also, I love a good pie – pies and tarts and especially homemade ice cream.”

What’s a spice you consider under-valued?

“Coriander – it deserves its time in the sun. Like most seeded herbs, I love the different varieties and florality. It brings out delicate flavors in fish, and in pho it can echo spices and really carry a chile, giving the impression of spiciness without being spicy. It’s my MVP, and I actually toast and grind the coriander myself. It goes in everything.”

Favorite cocktail to make for yourself?

“The Aviation: Gin, Creme de Violet, lemon, and maraschino – it’s refreshing, floral and deliciously tart. I’ve been using The Botanist gin which is steeped with botanicals, including coriander! The cocktail has a beautiful color and vibrant flavor that pairs well with grilled veggies, and more delicate proteins. But every cocktail needs a snack, and I love an Amaro cherry. At first the Creme de Violet Flavor was giving me Downy softener vibes, but you notice the nuance the more you sip. Also if you don’t have Creme de Violet, you can buy organic flowers and infuse them in a neutral alcohol to make a flower liqueur. I also love a Ramos Gin Fizz – I brulee the meringue.

Everyone talks about the different techniques a Chef should know… I’d wager that a true Chef worth their salt should know how to shake at least one damned good cocktail.”

Dandre Mango Passion Tarte

What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Vegas? 

“First we’re starting late night and meeting at Herbs & Rye. It’s an off-Strip, speakeasy steakhouse – it’s also the first place I worked and where I learned a love of spirits. It has one of the best mixology programs in the city, if not the country. They have a daily industry happy hour from 12-3 a.m., so there’s no excuse for BOH staff to settle for fast food after work. You walk in there during that time, and everyone’s in crocs, and Dansko clogs. When you walk into any place and you find industry- you’ve found a winner.

For breakfast we’re headed to the Cosmopolitan to hit up Milk Bar since they’re open early and you can get their famous pie and they serve boozy, “fancy” shakes – this is a true breakfast of champions and has never failed me after a night out, to tie one on. Eggslut also happens to be right around the corner. 

Finally, join me for a parade of fabulous Spanish tapas and wine at EDO. Chef Oscar Amador Edo takes an imaginative approach to classic Spanish small plates— through the lens of modern technique and just really great cookery. If you’ve got the room to spare, show up early and share a Paella! 

In Vegas, the nights run long— and they run hot. Whether you’re out for an incredible meal or taking in a Drag show with me: wear comfy shoes, grab your dollars, and bring your appetite for adventure. I’ll see you out there.”

Keep up with all things D’Andre over on Instagram or try your hand at making a few of his desserts with these Spiceology recipes.  

Periodically Inspired Interview – V Spehar

V Spehar blog post

V Spehar is exactly the kind of person the culinarian world needs right now. They’re funny, experienced, respected, considerate, intelligent, and perhaps most importantly not afraid of change. In fact, they’re demanding change, food justice and education, and a new set of rules for the restaurant industry – and they’re putting in the work to make real change happen. 

V is the current Executive Director of EverythingFood, and former Director of Impact for the James Beard Foundation. They have been a decades-long champion for LGBTQ+ leadership in the policy and food space and are a founding board member of Queer Food Foundation and the Host/Creator of @underthedesknews on TikTok, offering 60-second daily wrap-ups of current events, political analysis, and special interest stories “explained”. 

With a deep passion for the democratization of food, V also co-created FoodFarmacy, a HIPAA-compliant software platform that matches chronically ill patients with farm-fresh produce boxes and medically tailored meals delivered straight to their home at no fee to the patient. We recently sat down with V for our Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into the worlds and lives of culinarians and F&B pros – read the full interview below:

When did you first develop a love of food? 

“I have a very clear moment of consciousness when my grandma used to make potato salad. Everyone would always ask, ‘Betty – how do you make it?’ Her potato salad is the first time I remember loving food. I can remember her doing all the steps, and then finally when I was around 5 years old she let me help and showed me how to mash the potatoes and mix everything with my hands. I remember the feeling of mashing everything together – it was a moment of awakening and consciousness. I remember my grandmother standing by me and the smell of perfume.To this day I still make it with my hands – it might be a simple dish but it makes a difference when you’re making something with love.” 

How did your path lead to food justice? Why is that a passion?

“First I got fancy – working at some of the most idolized restaurants in New York, but I didn’t feel any better as a person. I grew up middle class with a normal childhood. I wanted to be more connected to like-minded people, which led me to food justice and equity. Just because you know french terms and your restaurant wins awards, it’s not everything; it’s what you can do and how you can serve when you don’t have any of those things that matters. I love the physical act of giving people food. I ended up at Hungry Harvest in Baltimore, a produce delivery company that is democratizing the food system. At the time I had no business applying for a job there since I had no policy knowledge – but it was a calling and I knew I’d be good at it.”

V Spehar and Acooknamed Matt Video

What are significant areas the F&B world can help with sustainability?

“Ethics and accessibility and the why behind who gets to eat – what it means to serve someone paying $200 a plate versus serving food in a volunteer capacity. Most of all – taking back control of the LUXURY of dining, whether that’s white table cloth or picking up drive-through; having someone serve you, craft a menu, guide you through an experience, people need to know how to appreciate the experience. The customer is not always right, people have not been trained to experience social dining or service – we have a collective responsibility to re-balancing that power dynamic.”

What would you say are the biggest challenges to accessing healthy eating?

“Interest. We have this idea of ‘treats’ and brand name loyalty built through decades of persistent marketing. Produce is kinda nameless… and ‘diets’ like paleo/keto can come off as polarizing communities that a person seeking healthy eating doesn’t understand or identify with. Food literacy, how to prepare whole foods, how to build a balanced meal… We lost these skills to the rise of fast food, TV dinners, and cuts to public education. Home Economics and High School culinary classes were valuable life skills classes that were cut alongside art, music, and other creative electives.”

People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration?

“My wife is a cellist and incredibly curious person – be it finding natural experiences for us to explore, or signing us up as members of the local historic reenactment village, creating her own music, collabs with her friends. She reads a lot and we spend a good amount of time just wondering about the world and people and talking.”

How do you approach changing the rules of the restaurant industry?

“You have to change the leadership. Changing the leader – you truly can not be the creator of the culture and the state of the industry AND the one to “fix it.” For example, all due respect to Danny Meyer who built an empire in this industry, but he won’t also be the one to fix the inequity. Someone else will have to create and apply the solution, to take control of the experience and train the guest. 

Over the summer, everyone was quick to promise they’d improve equity in their restaurant. The same folks complain that minorities won’t apply for jobs even though they say in the for-hire It’s just as detrimental to pretend that you’re inclusive as being a known toxic space. maybe you can’t be inclusive right now. Chefs and restaurant owners need to look at your history – you might have a bigger mountain to climb when it comes to addressing the systemic issues of inequity in your business. If you make surface-level changes – people see right through it.”

As restaurants begin to reopen fully and hire new staff – how can owners and chefs create an inclusive environment?

“If you believe you want to be inclusive – let’s say in this case to the LGBTQ+ community, you need to imagine what the day in the life of queer staff member would be like. Think, ‘If I were a queer person – what is the person training me like?’ How are your customers and staff treating queer people – what are your policies on leave? Queer individuals can live more complicated lives, and it’s a social dynamic you might not understand if you’re not a member of the queer community. Ask yourself – would you want to work here as a queer person? Inclusivity is not just having equitable policies on the inside, but setting standards for how your staff is treated by the guest.. Don’t recruit if you’re not ready – put in the work. The work toward inclusivity might be uncomfortable and hard, but it does pay off.”

V Spehar with Spiceology Greek Freak

What were some of the biggest lessons learned during your role at the James Beard Foundation?

“I was shocked how people don’t care about awards as much as you’d expect. Awards are designed for a small specific number of people, and the rest of the industry doesn’t even qualify or have the resources to navigate the advocacy and public relations campaigning it takes to be noticed and subsequently juried and nominated. My work was outside the awards entirely and I’m very grateful for that. The impact work I did in the year I was head of Women’s Leadership and LGBTQ inclusion was important and I met some incredible folks who Beard Foundation may not have otherwise been engaged with. In that year we were able to spotlight truth and struggle of being woman or queer-owned, and personally I had an opportunity to do a lot of quality listening on a national scale. However, right as we were beginning to hit a stride the pandemic hit – and the impact programs were the first departments to be cut. 

The idea of having ‘arbiters of success’ – Beard, Michelin, Worlds Best – is a difficult place to be in, what do you do when you built the empire and the empire is problematic. Do we need ‘King Makers’? I think that’s what this year and the rebuilding of the industry will decide. Who and what is ‘the best’ and who gets to decide? 

Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a motivation block? 

“When I’m truly overwhelmed I cook like I’m catering a wedding. (laughs) Cooking copious amounts of food, all the tools and appliances going – it’s absolute chaos, but it allows my brain to work out everything else. Prep is a very underrated time for deep reflection, when you’re chopping carrots or breaking down a cow and just working out all the trauma, fears, and visioning for the future you wouldn’t otherwise have time for. Cooking like that allows your brain to work in the subconscious.”

What advice would you give a student looking to make a difference in the food or hospitality non-profit world? 

“Don’t assume all non-profits are good or all LLCs are bad. At a not-for-profit you’ll spend a lot of time fundraising,  At an LLC you’ll spend a lot of time selling your mission and proving you’re one of the good guys in the capitalism game – I’d advise looking for published outcomes and understanding what “a day in the life” is like before judging if the company you’re joining is right for you and how you do your best work. Also, when you’re new in your career, your chance will come – but won’t come any faster if you’re stepping on other people’s backs to get there. Know what your goals are and plan for periods of rest. You don’t have to win every award, or be the biggest to have a sizable impact.”

Are there any trends from the pandemic shut down that created change for good in the restaurant industry?

“Chefs and owners gained the ability to control the guest and menu more than control of their space during the pandemic. There was a great restart on that. There are a lot of people and guests who have a renewed value for restaurants and staff. 

During the pandemic you saw the breaking down of empires. If you had 40 restaurants it was harder to pivot than if you could transition to take out. People are looking to meet their neighbors more, they missed their local places. Also, since people were stuck at home and found themselves cooking more, they have a better understanding of the cost of food and again have a greater respect and value for the role restaurants play in a community.” 

Where did the concept of @underthedesknews come from?

“Genuine fear. In the first episode I found myself explaining the 25th amendment to Mike Pence during the riots. I have a limited government background, but I thought about what I would be doing if I was in DC. I’m good at taking the scary out of something and a good explainer – people liked it so I started there, and the plan is to keep it going. 

And exciting – I’ll be guest hosting Radio Cherry Bomb – a blessing from Kerry Diamond. I’m a little nervous but it’s important to authentically building representation of Queer folks outside of Pride month or diversity boards.  We are here doing quality work all year round, What’s the saying? It’s hard to hate someone up close.” 

V Spehar Underthedesknews

How can culinarians embrace self care?

“I’m so glad to see how the industry has changed in the last 10 years. Your labor is extremely valuable – the work you do matters. Embrace the self-care – if you helped one person in your day, great, if you didn’t help or serve a single person, you’re still doing a good job. Many of us came to the industry because we were misfits, but now there’s more respect for restaurant workers and within the industry. Many restaurants have taken shift drinks away, since it can cause problems for a lot of people. Back then that Bud Light was therapy, but now we have learned there is importance in showing our staff they are valuable and important with words, compassion, fair wages, cross-training opportunities and creating a safe working environment. Restaurant work is not just something you do in between your next career. Continue to fight unhealthy behaviors in the kitchen because what you do is important work.”

What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?

“Whatever the chef wants it to be. There’s so much pressure to be this omnipotent creature – be whatever you want. Is it to provide a space of gathering and collaboration? You run a restaurant – you’re the kitchen table of humanity. Or let’s say you don’t want any of that, you’re shy – just make a great breakfast sandwich, that is also enough. Anything you feel comfortable with. Chefs might often feel obligated to be this strong hand – you don’t have to be.”

What are ways “regular” citizens can help fight food insecurity and bolster food access?

“Start small. In what ways can you show up? If you have lots of income – donate. Are you well connected? Use your influence to change minds and build networks. Start locally – your school, mayor, city council. Know who you are in the chain because it needs all different people: listeners, collaborators, etc. On the flip side, if you have power, success and influence – make sure you are listening to the people you’re trying to serve; if you’re not, it’s a waste of resources, you’re just creating a solution AT someone, and it may be a huge waste of time and money if it’s not what folks actually need.”

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“I love using up everything in my fridge, I get huge satisfaction out of making these kinda ‘monster meals’ the odds and ends of this or that all put together. If I was planning to make something I really enjoy cooking big breakfasts, I’m crazy about eggs, scratch-made sausage gravy and biscuits, fruit, maybe beans or grits.”

Favorite movie and book?

“I love musicals, so my favorite movie would be 42nd Street. For books, I love The Lorax. When I was a kid I was sent home with a Lorax badge for talking out of turn. I was the anti-bully bully, so I won the Lorax award. More recently, I really liked Conversations with God – it got me thinking about how I’m approaching the use of religion and speaking directly to God.”

V is often found serving as a culinary personality, podcaster and host you can see more of V in action at Follow them on Instagram and TikTok over at @underthedesknews.

Periodically Inspired Interview – Anthony Zamora

Anthony Zamora Periodically Inspired

It’s fair to say Chef Anthony Zamora’s dining clientele are in a league of their own. Like… quite literally. With a roster of 17 professional basketball players and a support staff of over 30 members, Anthony’s world and menu revolve around fueling elite athletes. But as Anthony says, it feels more like a family. 

And while we’re refraining from mentioning said team’s exact name for persnickety NBA licensing reasons, let’s say they hail from the only state to start with a “U” – but originally started in New Orleans, hence the musically derived name. (Those were some pretty big hints, so hope we’re all on the same page… er, court.)

As a chef and registered dietitian, Anthony implements a “stealthy-healthy” method to keep players excited about food. And as potential playoffs approach, we caught up with Anthony for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, approach to menus, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Anthony Zamora, RD below: 

How is cooking for a team of elite athletes different from any other type of cooking? 

“The cool part about being with a team is that these guys become your family. You know their orders, likes, dislikes – it’s very personal and tight. I travel with them on the road, I probably see the team more than my actual family. And these guys – they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. It’s really all about the relationship I build with each player and the staff.”

Anthony and his staff

People around you, music, books, travel, research – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“I love to ask each player about their hometowns and where they grew up. If they’re from Houston – they’re loving southwest vibes. I then challenge myself on how I can put a healthy spin on that. Also, the cool part about traveling with the team is that we go to 28 other cities and tend to stay at nice properties; I work closely with the chefs at those hotels on the menus for the team. We’re all students of life – any person you meet, we’ll learn from each other – it goes back to relationships and being a good person and humble.” 

When did you first find a love of cooking? 

“My Dad is from Monterey, Mexico and my Mom’s from Michigan. My Mom taught me about cooking with love and getting excited about ingredients and flavor combos. It’s cool to look back now and I see her influence in my cooking today.” 

What’s your dish ideation and creation process? 

“It’s a fun challenge, but different depending on if we’re at home or on the road. During the season I’m responsible for so many consecutive meals, including sourcing everything and coordinating with restaurants on the road. 

When we’re playing home games, I’m giving them two to three protein options and we always make a daily special like grilled chicken with burrata and fresh basil. That dish also had zucchini noodles and pasta noodles mixed half and half to sneak in the stealthy healthy. So, yeah we have a rotating special, plus an all-day menu. My guys they’ve been loving sticky rice and king salmon with a miso bbq glaze. We always do a veggie medley to make sure we’re taking care of what’s underneath the hood. 

On the road I’m talking to the hotels and restaurants and going over each banquet menu then talking with the chef and specifically asking them if they wrote this menu. Asking the chefs what they’re passionate about – I want to see and experience their soul in the food because that passion and love will come across to my guys. You can have a perfect meal plan, but if there’s no love in cooking – it’s all out the window (because your guy won’t eat the food and get all those calories you planned for). I’m challenging and collaborating with the chefs in each away city to see if we can create excitement and passion in the menu and get the team excited about eating the food. For post-game meals we really try to support local restaurants, especially during Covid – it’s been great.” 

Anthony food dish

How do you help the team manage off season eating? 

“When you look at the diversity – from background and age – you might have an adolescent who doesn’t know how to make toast and then guys in their 30s with a family and maybe have already worked with dietitians to build their own knowledge and skills around fueling their bodies. Depending on where they’re at in life, I’ll help support them accordingly. 

For rookies, we do cooking classes with them, grocery store tours, how to use Instacart, even how to order healthier foods off Uber Eats. I do summer visits with players to show them tips and tricks and methods, little things they can do. These players are expending a high amount of energy, and they’re more concerned with getting enough calories in them than if they have a balanced plate. I remind them: color, carb, and protein. Last year we compiled a “Quarantine Cookbook” the players could use and reference – I’d love to continue that. I’d also love to visit the players more during the summer, workout with them, hang, put on music and go cook together. It’s about the camaraderie and family feeling – it’s deeper than just the sport.”

What is your ethos about balancing nutrition and flavor? 

“It’s a blessing to cook for athletes. The main electrolyte they lose is salt, and it takes a lot of salt to make a potato taste good. It’s really fun to be able to season how I like to because they also need it. On the a la carte menu I tend to use ingredients that hold flavor better and then add layers of flavor with sauces on the side.” 

Eggs and Waffles

How do you approach keeping things interesting and catering to each player’s palettes during the season?

“Here’s a great example – this morning one of my guys texted me just one word: “greatness.” Which I know that means he’s wanting oatmeal, french toast and turkey bacon; we’re at the level where players can make special requests. I’m constantly taking feedback and recs from all of the players and staff. I’m listening to their wants and needs, I actually have a mental rolodex of their likes and dislikes and they appreciate those little things and when you remember. I know them enough to know what to anticipate and they appreciate it.” 

Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block? 

“I love going to new restaurants. I also lean on my mentors – I’ll hang out with Alberto Vazquez at his mobile kitchen in L.A. and visit and talk with him. By the way his gremolata is off the chain (laugh). During the basketball bubble, I met Certified Master Chef Shawn Loving who is out of Detroit and most recently was the dean for a culinary school there. I’ve visited him at the school and took classes – just chopping it up with teenagers and attending lectures. I was having fun exploring and getting into a new space where you have to think differently or you see someone else thinking differently. It’s inspiring, and I want to visit them and bring my staff next time. Also, my wife, Fleet, saves me a lot when I have a block and I can’t go anywhere. She’s a rockstar – I just show up (laughs). 

Do you change up the menu during playoff games or finals? 

“I’m asking myself what extra thing I can do to give them an edge. Every game day, how can I help them recover faster and then at the same time keep what’s working routine. Now that we’re vaccinated the players are eating together again, which is a game changer. Before we all had to eat alone.”

How do you experiment with flavor?

“I challenge myself to experiment. Last week I was looking at the spice wall and decided to crush up fennel and mix with salt – it’s awesome on everything. I seem to always be using the Over Easy blend on breakfast potatoes, and Moss and Oh Canada goes on most of our chicken. Creativity comes in waves, and I get a lot of inspiration from my Sous Chef Ben Maldonado – aka Dr. Ben – he comes up with great combos.”

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

“No, I feel competitive with my staff, but in a fun way. If I move faster, it will raise them to model my behavior. I’m floating to help other people on projects and challenging my staff about what’s exciting. It’s a collaborative competition and I think that’s so good.”

What flavor or menu trends are you seeing in pro sports diets?

“When you look at the level of these athletes, trends will be more relationship based. Give them something you know they’ll like with a little twist – that “stealth health.” If I have octopus on the menu now, the majority of the players are jacked-up excited; we’ve been able to develop an exciting food program. I’m in a position to try new things and combine fine dining / gastro / and sports nutrition and to just make it fun.”

Anthony in the kitchen

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why? 

“(Laughs) It’s a fun question because I love everything. I’m going with eggs – especially Forage Creek Ranch eggs. The egg is just super sexy, and I’m always happy with an egg sandwich. A little Laughing Cow and a soft scramble – that’s my all day any day. Also, just the versatility of eggs; for athletes the yolk is a micro nutrient-dense powerhouse. And of course there’s that pleasurable popping of the yolk – it’s sloppy. I like sloppy food.”

What’s a technique or trick you learned along the way that even home cooks could use? 

“A lot of home cooks are sleeping on the fact that they can sear fish and then finish it in the oven, especially if it’s a thick piece.”

What do you consider a chef’s role to be within the team? 

“It’s so cool because it’s multi-faceted with my background as a registered dietitian. There are different sides from counseling, behaviour change and making choices – it’s the human element. I want a player to walk in here and I’ll take care of them – they don’t have to think about anything. The players have their job – it’s mine to explore how I can support that. On the road I’m a food cheerleader. I’m reviewing menus and restaurants, quality controlling buffets and getting everyone excited about fueling their bodies. I feel responsible for how I put other people in a place to succeed; I try to be a leader and educate my staff, and empower them to get uncomfortable in order to learn and be the best versions of themselves.”

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“I have a soft spot for making my own pizza, right now Bricks Corner is a Detroit-style pizza place and I really just want their pizza now. Also, any type of sandwich – there’s a great James Beard quote: ‘too few people understand a really good sandwich.’ That quote speaks to me.”

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“Mashed potatoes and using the potato starch water so you don’t feel as heavy after eating. All kinds of potatoes, crack potatoes. Also, glazed king salmon that’s ooey gooey. Really anything I can do with love. And I’ll hit it hard on the garnish game.”

What’s a spice you consider under-valued?

“Fennel – it can go on so many things.”

What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Salt Lake City? 

“Have breakfast at Publik Kitchen or The Park Cafe, lunch at Feldman’s Deli or Bricks Corner – that great Detroit pizza place – and dinner at Pago or Manoli’s, Greek and Mediterranean food with a twist.”

Keep tabs or drop Anthony a line over on Instagram.

Periodically Inspired Interview – Earl Gray

Hotel chefs are in a class of their own. Sure, it’s one thing to be a restaurant chef and thus a de facto member of the hospitality industry, but it’s another thing entirely to be a chef for the hospitality industry and run a hotel kitchen. It’s a different world. Just ask Chef Earl Gray. 

With almost 20 years in the culinary industry, Chef Earl was originally French trained but has developed a definitive style of his own where ingredients come first and everything else comes after. He’s also taken a firm stance on sustainability, from diminishing waste in the kitchen to being an ambassador for Revol’s No.W (No Waste) movement. 

As Chef at the Renaissance Hotel in Baltimore, the past year has been one pivot to the next. We caught up with Chef Earl for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, perspectives on school and community, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Chef Earl below:

When did you first find a love of cooking? 

“When I was a kid and spent the night at my grandma’s, I’d wake up to the smell of fresh biscuits, plantains, rice, her recipes from Liberia. I saw her passion for making things from scratch, and it created a passion in me and that’s why I started off as a baker.”

What’s your dish ideation and creation process? 

“It’s all about the mise en place; getting all my ingredients together and building process and structure and shapes – figuring out how I can highlight a certain ingredient. How I can create negative space to highlight that star ingredient and then build around it, while the entire time taking into account the sauces and textural components.”

Earl Gray Fruit Salad

People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“I actually get inspiration from financial reviews (laughs). When I look at what’s going on with the economy, it gets me focussed on creating dishes and how to cross-utilize ingredients. Making sure creative ideas come into line with food costs – it gets my gears going. That could be testing new produce from distributors, sample boxes, whatever’s in season. 

And I’d also say art is an inspiration; sometimes I’ll start with abstract shapes, look at the plate as a clean canvas, or I’ll feel a need to do something circular. I’ll do Google image searches of shapes, art and start to build structure. Also, watching Youtube shows like Great British Menu, or referring to content by other chefs like Marcus Wareing. Or even the Search page on Instagram.”

Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block? 

“There’s a lake by my house, and I’ll go there, look at all the boats and just instantly get a sense of ease, and it will clear my head. I tend to always come back with fresh ideas.”

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?

“Consider if you really want to come into what’s called the ‘hospitality industry.’ Inside the kitchen, it’s not very hospitable. You have to have a good core of principles and be prepared to dedicate yourself to service and sacrifice your livelihood. Not to scare them but fair warning.”

Earl Gray Duck Dish

How do you experiment with flavor?

“Just using one protein with several different spices and building flavors and training my palette. Building sauces – tastings, exploring all the different components to enhance a demi.”

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why? 

“You know, I really love your Smoked Honey Habanero blend (laughs). That with rockfish, skin on, I just score the top, sear gently, baste with wine, buter, salt, honey – it ends up being flaky with a perfect crispy skin.” 

What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use? 

“Don’t be scared of the mandolin! But be careful (laughs). I use it to make one of my favorite dishes, Potato Pave. You can slice the potatoes nice and thin, layer them together with cornstarch and salt, and then bake the stacks with cream.”

Earl Gray Smoked Duck Dish

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“Lomo Saltado – it’s a very simple dish, almost like grub or a family meal.  You have steak, fries, cilantro, peppes, onion, then add hoisin sauce  and serve over rice. I used to work in an Asian restaurant that had a lot of hispanic staff, and this was our family meal. It’s simple but delicious.” 

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“Mac and cheese. The funny thing is – my family loved it, but I don’t eat it (laughs). I worked on the roux sauce over the years and they always ask me to make it.”

What’s a spice you consider under-valued?

“Juniper – I feel like I never see it on menus. I make a Juniper Jus and I’d always need to show the staff how to extract the juniper.”

What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?

“First, to educate your area on what to eat. Setting up a restaurant is hard, and your area or neighborhood might not necessarily be receptive to your cuisine. It’s your responsibility to teach the people how to eat and create and present menu items so they’ll be open to new things. Second, I’d say create products and dishes with as little waste as possible. I’m an Ambassador for Revol Porcelaine’s No.W (No Waste) campaign and dinnerware collection made of Recyclay.”

Earl Gray Scallops

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

“Absolutely. As a male we’re competitive by nature – I think we love to compete. But when it comes to competing, it’s always friendly. Competing with contemporaries helps you learn new things. When you’re under fire and feeling the pressure, you produce a better product.” 

How do you see restaurants operating in 2022? Where do you see the Baltimore food scene then?

“I think we’ll be making a gradual approach back to normalcy. Now we have to do everything in to-go containers for contactless delivery. If we go back to normal, it will be on a smaller scale. As for Baltimore, it’s always been about the crab – that’s not going to change.”

What are your restaurant recs when in Baltimore? 

“For breakfast stop by Miss Shirley’s Cafe – they have a huge menu and it’s a great local spot. For dinner – Oceanaire still has some of the best seafood in the city.” 

Follow Chef Earl Gray on Instagram at @Teatime4.0 and @earlthepearl4

Periodically Inspired Interview – David Ruiz

Chef David Ruiz might call the Land of Mañana home, but you won’t ever find him procrastinating. He’s ideating. He’s experimenting. He’s fermenting. He’s cooking. 

David’s been on Chopped, was named a winner in the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project and ad hoc teaches at a local culinary school. These days you can find the chef busier than ever as Albuquerque emerges from pandemic restaurant restrictions. He just opened Curious Toast Cafe and is building out a new dining program at Vara Winery

We talked with David for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity – read the full interview and get to know David below: 

People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. Last summer my girlfriend kept listening to ‘Watermelon Sugar’ by Harry Styles. I heard it so much that I wanted to make a summer-inspired dish to pay homage to the song. Once I decide on my main ingredient, I start listing out what would pair well with it in my notebook. I look at the science behind the ingredient – what makes a watermelon a watermelon. I explore how I can manipulate the ingredients to make them do what I want them to do. Then I source local ingredients and start to go for it. Every dish evolves over multiple tries – from overall taste to plating.” 

Curious Toast

When did you first find a love of cooking? 

“My Mom is white and Jewish, and my Dad is Mexican Catholic – so growing up, food brought everyone together. My parents taught me to respect the land and they shopped at local farmer’s markets – my Mom would can and jar; I spent summers on my grandmother’s farm where she had avocado trees, livestock and we grew produce and chiles. Being in Gilroy, CA, we had garlic at our disposal, but we could also hop over to Watsonville to pick berries – the area was amazing. As a kid I grew up with farm-to-table meals before I even knew that was a thing. My family were home chefs, and I loved seeing them manipulate the local food. As I got older, cooking was the only thing I was interested in.” 

What’s your dish ideation and creation process? 

“I keep a notebook next to my nightstand because I dream in food; at least a third of my dishes are from my dreams. My team will eventually join in the process, and you get to a point where ideas come collaboratively. Everyone’s creative process is different, and if I’m dictating to them that doesn’t help. I want my staff to bring ideas and take responsibility – cost out the ingredients, research the history, dive into the scientific background, and explore how we can manipulate the ingredients and ultimately make the dish.”

How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art? 

“Plating is absolutely an art and the thing I enjoy most about cooking. It’s like going to a museum and looking at art. I often went to SFMOMA as a kid, and art makes you feel something – and that’s what I’m trying to capture. It’s like that moment in Ratatouille – that moment Anton Ego drops the pen and it’s a sensory memory. I’m trying to capture those moments in my food; I want to make people feel something and give them an experience unlike any other. People eat with their eyes, so my plating is a process. It always varies and depends on the main ingredient, but I actively look to manipulate each ingredient naturally and make things look dimensional. Every design element and ingredient on the plate has a purpose.” 

David Ruiz Plating

Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block? 

“I go to Seattle, I love the PNW and would happily live there because every time I go I’m inspired. Portland and Seattle are on the forefront of pushing culinary boundaries. It’s also incredibly fertile there, so you have amazing produce to work with. I also travel to Dallas, it’s full of every type of cuisine and the chefs there are doing incredible things. Austin is also weird and wonderful and pushes great food. Then the classic – going to New York. It’s a city I would never want to live in, but I love to immerse myself there. I research restaurants and just eat and always get inspired.”

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?

“You don’t need to go to culinary school. Go work in a restaurant and wash dishes before you decide to be a chef. If you can’t fall in love with the nitty gritty of the culinary world – you’ll never love being a chef. And if you’re not willing to do everything from the ground up – this will not be for you. Also, READ! Collect and read cookbooks. Students see Top Chef and Food Network and that’s just not the standard. It took me 10 years to become an Executive Chef because I wanted to know the history of food. Cookbooks were the way I learned. Young culinarians need to know the history of food; I just bought Ferran Adria’s The Origins of Cooking. And finally, find the chef you want to work with in your city and work for free. TRAVEL. LEAVE. Go be uncomfortable. FAIL. FAIL. You need to fail and learn from it.” 

How do you experiment with flavor?

“First, I need to learn the genesis of the ingredient or concept I have in mind. I buy a book, find an expert or lean on people around me. Flavor is about research. I use The Flavor Bible, and I might write out 40-50 dishes to start seeing what works. At some point, you just go for it and start failing, but you’re still learning something and training your palette to know what the dish needs. I like to have a surprise in every dish, it could be something pickled, some heat, something almost too salty, but there’s always something hidden. That really defines who I am as a chef – you’ll always have that one thing you didn’t expect, but it rounds out the dish.” 

Spiced Carrots

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

“It’s taken me a long time to get where I am today, and I see a life coach and therapist. I used to be very competitive, and I wanted to be known as the best. But for me, that culture has died. I want to see everyone around me do well because if we all do well and offer something different, it makes the city’s food scene better. We don’t have enough chefs who’ve come together. I’ve enjoyed success and now want to share knowledge and help the next generation with sustainability. Everyone offers different perspectives and expertise and that is invaluable.” 

How do you see restaurants operating in 2022? 

“The to-go model will stay and I think ghost kitchens will be a massive thing. As far as striving for a Michelin Star, I don’t need that anymore. They have their place, but do I want that? No. Restaurants need to band together more. Here in Albuquerque, we’re partnering and collaborating with other restaurants to promote each other and events. Also, there’s much to be learned from the fast food model – it’s insanely efficient. If money was no object, I would open up a fast fine dining restaurant that offers healthy food sourced from local farms.”

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why? 

“I absolutely love sumac. Native Americans have been using it for a long time, and it grows in harsh places. Sumac has this lemony earthy taste you cannot get from anything else. It’s just awesome and packs a punch.” 

What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?

“I used to hate microwaves and now it’s my favorite thing. I could pretty much cook everything in it, it’s insanely efficient. David Chang did an episode, ‘Debunking Microwave Myths,’ on his podcast, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s the most useful tool in the kitchen.”

What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?

“How can we be successful if our community isn’t? Success is what you’re doing in the community – success is what we as chefs are doing to reinvest in our community. It’s not the awards; our responsibility is to support local and pull together for our vendors. We’re responsible for our local environment – to make sure our kids have a place to eat and grow. I feel chefs also should promote mental health awareness – I’ve lost five friends over the past year, and we need to just normalize mental health.” 

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“Red chicken – a recipe I developed during the quarantine. I buy gochujang and local chicken thighs – rub the paste all over the thighs in a bowl and let it sit overnight. The gochujang cures the chicken a little bit. The next day I throw them in a pan with butter and sear until they’re almost burnt. Fair warning, it makes an absolutely disgusting mess (laughs). Throw them in the oven at 350 for 15 minutes. The chicken thighs come out light red / orange with a beautiful dark and crispy top. You can eat them hot or cold, in soup, over rice, or in between a brioche bun.”

David Ruiz

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“Fried chicken sandwiches. I make homemade bread and butter pickles and use local Korean bbq seasonings. I brine chicken thighs in the pickle juice overnight. Then they sit in a 50/50 flour/bbq seasoning mix for about 12 hours. I add mustard and then fry the thighs.”

What’s a spice you consider under-valued?

What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Albuquerque? 

“For breakfast go to The Grove. It was in Breaking Bad and Chef Jason Greene makes incredible English muffins. Hit up Farina Pizzeria & Wine Bar for lunch – they source locally and it’s always packed, so lunch is a bit easier to get in. And for dinner – Los Poblanos’s Campo restaurant. They have an on-site organic farm where they source from there, and I think Executive Chef Jonathan Perno is the best chef in the city.”

Follow Chef David Ruiz on Instagram at @chefruiz and be sure to sample his fare next time you’re in the Albuquerque area.

Periodically Inspired Interview – Shota Nakajima

Shota Nakajima is on the brink of becoming a household name. The Seattle-based chef is competing in the new Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef: Portland, premiering on April 1, 2021, and if we were to place any friendly bets on how things shake out on the show, our money’s on Shota being both a fan and judge favorite. 

Your First Look at Top Chef Portland! | Bravo

Born in Japan but raised in Seattle, Shota began cooking in local Japanese restaurants in his teens. By age 18, he moved to Osaka to attend Tsuji Culinary Arts School and subsequently apprenticed under Michelin Star Chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto. 

After returning to Seattle, Shota opened his multi-course Japanese restaurant Adana in Capitol Hill. In early 2020, he followed that up with a street food concept, Taku, influenced by his time spent in Osaka. And while Adana closed last year due to the pandemic, Shota recently announced the re-opening of Taku under a new concept. 

Shota is a young, energetic chef that truly cares about his roots and really brings them to life on each plate he creates,” said Tony Reed, Director of Foodservice at Spiceology. “ I’ve had the opportunity to cook with Shota in the past. Shota brought energy to the service that made him not only enjoyable to work with but also allowed me to learn a few things from him. I can’t wait to see his success on Top Chef and with his new concept, Taku.”

We sat down with Shota for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity – read the full interview and get to know Shota below: 

When did you first find a love of cooking? 

“It started with my first sunny-side up egg in third grade. It was a lot of fun to make with my mom – she taught me to add a little water to the pan, put a lid on, turn the heat on and sing the abcs.” 

People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“I find inspiration in art and nature; I paint and draw a lot. I also take time to walk in nature every day where I end up thinking a lot about food. I’d also say my friends are another big source of inspiration. I surround myself with people of different perspectives and we banter about cuisine and how they might use ingredients in ways I never even considered.”

What’s your dish ideation and creation process? 

“I start with an ingredient; when I’m hiking or around nature, I’ll start thinking about seasonal ingredients, their smell, maybe focus on peas and then adding elements and structure to a dish,  but not too much. I pull back when the main ingredient isn’t the main focus any more, but the dish is there in my head by the end.” 

Mushrooms out in nature with dog

How does your relationship with nature influence your cooking? 

“Every day I wake up early, walk through the woods, not the city. No music, no phone – this is almost like my meditation time. It’s a good way to wake up and start the day; I like having a ritual. This is the time my mind can wander and start to create.” 

How did having a kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) restaurant limit or amplify your creativity?

“Kaiseki amplified the creativity to the max. At Naka in Seattle, we changed the menu every day, and during dinner we never repeated a menu. When you’re coming up with 100 or more different dishes in one night – it’s intense. I ended up pivoting so the menu was more approachable for everyone; at the time even my friends and colleagues couldnt be a regular to my restaurant because it was too expensive. The more people on your team – the stronger the team is. I learned more about cooking when we shifted to Adana; dishes were more collaborative and we did new things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own – I found a lot of inspiration from my team.” 

Shota in Taku Seattle kitchen

What was the biggest impact of living and cooking in Japan on your cuisine?

“The perspective of what it is, what it means to cook for people. Apprenticing under MIchelin-starred Chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto – there was structure, but at the end of day, the lessons of Japanese cooking they teach you are really life lessons. The lesson and mentality to work hard and care about every tiny thing on the dish. That feeling and energy translates to the guest.” 

How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art? 

“I do. I love plating. It also evolves everyday; back in the day I started with way too much and now I very much scale down. About 80% of my Instagram feed is artists, and I get inspiration from those accounts. To see and feel the colors – it all gets translated on the plate.”

Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block? 

“The pandemic and this Covid period has been hard. I like to travel; the new energy and new vibes help inspire your brain. I try to go back to Japan at least two times a year.” 

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?

“(laughs) If you’re 18 and young – shoot for the stars. Go travel. Get out of your city. Go see something different in a different country. You’re allowed to make mistakes, which is your biggest strength. Your perspective will widen and your travels will help you in your career and life. Don’t stay in your hometown – don’t stay with your friends, they’ll be there when you get back.” 

How do you experiment with flavor?

“In my head. I jot down or draw dish ideas a lot, just to experiment within my mind. I have tasted a decent amount of things and can at this point guess what things will taste like, so i’ll know the flavor combination.”

Octopus dish

Do you feel competitive with other chefs?

“Anyone in the restaurant industry is competitive – it’s community driven, but, yes, you almost have to be with its nature of having to come up with something new to stay fresh. It’s a healthy competition; surround yourself with people you want to become. I don’t try to copy other chefs and don’t do anything that doesn’t feel genuine. (laughs) But yes, in short I’m a competitive person, (laughs) I mean I went on Top Chef!

How do you see restaurants operating in 2022? 

“I see a mix – people are liking to-go, so I think we’ll see meal packaging progressing. Business owners will have a back-up plan of to-go. But I’m most excited for the next generation of first- time restaurant and business owners doing things that none of us would have thought of. I’m looking for that next wave of energy and learning from them, working with them and rebuilding the restaurant economy together.”

What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why? 

“Soy sauce. I love soy sauce. It’s already perfected; Kikoman is working for a reason. Don’t try to fix it. It’s good in anything – in spaghetti and meatballs it adds a great background flavor. Or just rice with soy sauce. Also a soy sauce chaser after a tequila.”

What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use? 

“Buy a nice rice cooker – you can cook stews, sous vide eggs, bake bread and cake – it’s an under-utlized kitchen tool.” 

What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?

“I’m not a politician, I’m a chef. I focus on taking care of my team and staff – people with good integrity and morals and hopefully that rubs off and grows within the community. That’s how I try to contribute – to be a good example for my staff and impact the people around me as much as I can. We’re in hospitality – our job is to take care of people.” 

What would you consider a defining trait of the Seattle food scene and chef community?  

“It’s evolving as we speak, especially with Covid. And it’s evolving quicker than ever; more restaurants should get more love and attention – I love to see smaller places being supported by the community.” 

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“Anything with rice.”

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“Things that go with rice. For my mom and dad I’ll make 10 different tiny dishes that go with rice. And I am so picky with my rice – I hate shitty rice. Do not use cheap rice in your restaurants!”

What’s a spice you consider under-valued?

“Sansho peppercorn – it’s a Japanese-style of the szechuan peppercorn and gives a great numbing effect. People have a hard time using it sometimes, but a little bit in the background is delicious – just a tiny bit.” 

What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Seattle? 

“Breakfast – Jade Garden dim sum. For lunch, pho is the most efficient lunch – I go to Pho Huy. And dinner – Kiku Sushi. It was the first restaurant I worked at; they do great sushi and the kitchen staff are the same family as when I worked there almost 20 years ago – they still come out and give me shit.” 

Follow Shota on Instagram at @chefshota, and if you find yourself in Seattle, visit Taku to sample his (potentially award-winning) wares.