9 dishes that got top Western chefs cooking

See which dishes changed the lives of these respected Western chefs

Chef Roy Choi

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Roy Choi

Creator of the Korean taco; executive chef and cofounder of the Kogi taco trucks in L.A.

The food: Birria (Mexican goat and chile stew). About 15 years ago, I got to be friends with the dishwasher at a Borrego Springs resort where I was working. Salvador's family had a food stand/restaurant in the Coachella Valley. They'd buy live goats and make birria. Once, he invited me to make it with him. There was a goat there, and we got it in a headlock. We butchered it and took it to the kitchen, and helped his grandma make delicious, wonderful birria. It showed me the deep roots of the culture of cooking.

How it changed me: I was really connected to the earth and where his family came from. At Kogi, we have 100 percent Latino kitchens. After all these years, my soul has become Latino. It's who I am.

Get Roy Choi's birria recipe.

Chef John Scharffenberger

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

John Scharffenberger

Founder of Scharffen Berger chocolate and Scharffenberger Cellars; CEO of Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland.

The food: Laura Chenel's chèvre. I was at a San Francisco restaurant in the late 1980's and bit into this and thought, What a beautiful French cheese. Then it turned out to be made in Sonoma County, and I thought, Oh my god, we really are able to make cheese that's as good as the French stuff.

How it changed me: At the time, I was at an impasse in my sparkling winemaking business in California's Anderson Valley. Trying the chèvre made me realize that the magic isn't held by one geography. It can be replicated. I spent more time in France and ended up changing my pressing technology. A year later, Scharffenberger Cellars won a sparkling wine award.

Chloe Corscarelli

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Chloe Corscarelli

Vegan baker from Los Angeles; won first place on Food Network's Cupcake Wars.

The food: Vegan cupcakes. I took a huge risk by presenting my all-vegan cupcake at a nonvegan competition. But the judges gave me rave reviews. I was the first vegan to win a Food Network competition.

How it changed me: A New York Times article was written about my win, and now I'm writing a cookbook for Simon & Schuster. On my blog, lots of parents who have children allergic to eggs or dairy have written that their kids had a delicious birthday cake for the first time in their lives, thanks to my recipes.

Make Chloe's prize-winning vegan cupcakes

Camas Davis

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Camas Davis

Butcher; founder of the Portland Meat Collective.

The food: Bavette steak. It was gorgeous. Medium-rare, and so velvety it almost melted in my mouth. So little was done to it; it was just grilled, with a little herb butter, salt, and pepper.

How it changed me: I became kind of obsessed with it. I ended up writing a story for Portland Monthly about the bavette and other unknown cuts between the bottom of the sirloin and the flank. And I realized that there was an entire geography of meat that I'd never had access to. I went to France after being laid off from my journalism job, and lived with a family of butchers. They showed me a new world of meat.

Get Camas Davis's bavette steak recipe.

Marcela Valladolid

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Marcela Valladolid

Food Network star; host of the network's Mexican Made Easy; author of Fresh Mexico and Mexican Made Easy (coming in September).

The food: Yellowtail sashimi. I remember trying this like it was yesterday, even though it was 12 years ago. I was on a date at Sushi Roku in Los Angeles. Growing up in Tijuana, I'd never tried sushi and didn't even know how to eat the edamame. My date ordered the yellowtail sashimi. I'd never experienced anything like it: raw fish packed with flavor. It was sublime.

How it changed me: It inspired me to embrace fusion cooking as one of the greatest things about living in L.A. I included a Tijuana-style sushi roll recipe in Fresh Mexico.

Joe Coulombe

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Joe Coulombe

The original Trader Joe; founder of grocery store chain Trader Joe's. 

The food: Jug wine & olive oil. When I met my wife, her father was at Stanford on a professor's salary--the same as a grocer at the time. Bill introduced me to Ruby Hill Winery where you could get gallon jugs of Chardonnay for just $1. Drinking jug wine with my in-laws was a culinary awakening. Dorothy, my mother-in-law, used olive oil in cooking. I had never had it before. Between the two, I began to learn about foods and wines.

How it changed me: TJ's was conceived for people who were overeducated and underpaid, so they could have a certain richness on the table. Many years later, I attributed Trader Joe's basic objective--making good food affordable--to Dorothy.

Nathan Myhrvold

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Nathan Myhrvold

Former chief technology officer at Microsoft and cofounder of Intellectual Ventures in Washington; author of the six-volume, $625 Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

The food: BBQ ribs. They were at a barbecue cook-off in the late 1980's and had unbelieveable flavor and tenderness. I tried to replicate them on my own, and couldn't. Finally I got lessons from the guy who made them.

How it changed me: The ribs remain in my repertoire and are in my book. But they're done in a very different way. They're cooked sous vide (sealed airtight and submerged in a water bath) at 140° for 48 hours, which makes them unbelievably tender.

Pim Techamuanvivit

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Pim Techamuanvivit

Former Iron Chef America judge; member of the food bloggerati at chezpim.com.

The food: Dry-farmed early girl tomatoes. Early Girl is a super tomato variety with concentrated flavor. I first tasted it at a San Francisco farmers' market in 2005 and it blew my mind. I decided to go visit the farm and it was like entering another world. Tomato plants lined the road and tomatoes were all over the ground. They were warm and fragrant, and the smell was all over my hands and clothes.

How it changed me: I got over my "city girl" thing. I grew up in Bangkok, worked in the Silicon Valley, lived in L.A., San Diego, and San Francisco. Now I own four pairs of farm boots and like to get down in the soil. I moved from the computer world to the food world.

Make Pim's quick-and-easy tomato sauce

Ethan Stowell

As told to Margo True and Sophie Egan

Ethan Stowell

James Beard award nominee; Seattle chef who owns 4 restaurants: Anchovies & Olives, How to Cook a Wolf, Tavolata, and Staple & Fancy.

The food: Geoduck. In 2004, Oyster Bill from Taylor Shellfish came to my restaurant to show me what parts of the geoduck were edible, and how to cook it. I like weird things, and I loved this.The siphon (the neck) tastes like seawater butter with a cucumber crunch. The other edible part is the mantle, which you eat raw or cooked.

How it changed me: It made me realize that the Northwest's local food is not salmon and halibut, but shellfish--and it's so good here. I became obsessed with it. I devoted a big part of my cookbook to shellfish.

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