This is part two of my interview with Aaron May, chef-partner of Praying Monk, Over Easy, The Lodge, Mabel's on Main and May's Counter in Tucson. If you missed part one, where May talks about whether he's a chef, a restaurateur or a party boy -- and what I learned (full disclosure) in a year of working for him -- read it here.
Most under-rated ingredient: Salt. There are dozens of types of salt I like to use, but people are scared of it so I think it's often overlooked.
Something always found in your kitchen: Cottage cheese. I eat plain, load it with jalapeños and radish. I also put it in the robot coupe and use it as a base for sauces and dips. It's another versatile ingredient that's too often overlooked.
Something never found in your kitchen: A microwave. It takes only a few minutes to heat up a pan or turn on the oven. People should really stay away from them.
Something always found in your fridge: Butter, Sriracha and black seedless grapes.
Favorite thing to eat growing up: Kraft mac and cheese. I still love it.
Favorite thing to eat now: A Chicago-style hot dog made with Vienna Beef and a poppy seed bun.
What's your guilty pleasure?: Swedish fish.
If your cooking were a genre of music, what would it be?: Punk rock. I pretty much do what I want, how I want, and I don't really care what anyone has to say about it. The great thing about being a chef is: Being a chef.
The tough thing about being a chef is: No one really understands the demands. That's why there is such a camaraderie among chefs.
I think your greatest talent lies in upscale cooking, but in recent years, you have veered toward casual. Other than a rocky economy, is there a reason for that? The economy is definitely a part, but so is geography. The fact is, I live in Phoenix (which I love) and I have to make a living here. There are a lot more people here that are more interested in eating omelets and cheese burgers than turbot and john dory. And that's fine by me. The goal of a chef is to feed people and have them love it. I love to cook at the high end, and I can throw down with the best of 'em. But it's much more rewarding to please normal people every day than a critic once a year.
The most fun I've ever had in the kitchen was when: I was cooking a dinner that someone purchased at a charity event along with Chris Gross, Matt Carter, James Porter and Beau MacMillan. Five courses, loads of Dom Perignon and four chefs betting on whether the souffles would turn out, which, somehow, they did.
Has your cooking changed over the years?: I think I've mellowed over the years and so has my cooking. I used to feel a need to over-complicate things, too many ingredients, too many techniques. Now I am comfortable letting simply prepared, great ingredients speak for themselves. Name a giant in the American food scene and explain why you admire this person: Wolfgang Puck has somehow transcended the celebrity chef cliche. He was the first celebrity chef, and he sells tomato sauce on QVC. But all of that notwithstanding, he has a ton of restaurants serving great food, you never see him on some silly reality show, and he is still amazingly relevant among real chefs.
Name a local chef you admire and explain why: Matt Carter. That guy is a great cook -- hard working, creative and inspiring. I know that I'm going to get a great meal when I go to his places, and if I need a chef to do a charity event, he is always the first "yes." Matt has a love for the kitchen, and it's obvious.
Who would you most like to cook for?: I like to cook for my peers. Nothing makes me happier than when other chefs come in to eat, which they do a lot. They know what they are eating, and their approval means more than anything. You're one of those people other people seem to love or hate. Why?: I'm passionate about everything I do, and I do what I love. There are very few people who live their life that way, and I guess it evokes a strong reaction. I think that the the group that loves me knows me a whole lot better than the group that hates.
If you could have an audience with your detractors, what would you like to say to them?: Fuck them. I wouldn't waste my time.
Last meal on earth -- what would it be?: I'd like a picnic -- blanket in a meadow, blue skies overhead. Live music. Beer on ice. Pate, charcuterie and cheese give way to oysters and caviar. Fried chicken, cole slaw and pickles. Milky white bread, salted butter. And finish it all off with a well-made pot brownie.
What should be written on your head stone?: Here lies Aaron May. This guy knew how to live.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Aaron May of Praying Monk Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles