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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.