Editor's note: Each week on Chow Bella, our food blog, we bring you an interview with a local chef. Visit www.phxfood.com for more tasty tales.
Michele Laudig's Cafe column will return next week.
Christopher Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge understandably asks a journalist to call him Chef Christopher rather than Chef Gross: "I guess it's not the best last name for a chef," he says. Hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the premier cooks in the United States, though.
Growing up, Gross did balk at a lot of foods. He confesses he ate everything plain until he started working in the food industry and tried various European cuisines. He learned his culinary skills at home and abroad, from Arizona to Los Angeles to London to Paris and back again. Now, he has his name on the door and quite a few credits to back it up.
He's been named one of America's top 10 chefs by Food & Wine magazine, earned the 1995 title of Best Chef Southwest from Perrier Jouet and the James Beard Foundation, and was granted a Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence. Still, Gross has his feet firmly planted in the ground. Today, he tells us about how he dodged the bullet of school lunch, the ensuing panic after Food & Wine magazine dined in his restaurant, and the perks and pitfalls of owning a restaurant.
What was your favorite dish as a child? As a kid, I never ate well. From kindergarten to sixth grade, I never had one cafeteria meal. I would go home to my grandmother's house, because it was in a small town. I got a little pass, so I'd never have to eat at school. In high school, it was the same thing. I ate everything plain. I'd never have a cheeseburger. I'd have a hamburger, no lettuce, no tomato. Never ate condiments. Never ate salads. Very few vegetables. Just plain meat. And I guess my favorite thing was buttered toast. Or buttered toast with bacon and cheese. I think the first time I had pizza I was 14. I would never eat Mexican food. I'd go out with kids and they'd get a pile of stuff, and I'd be eating an expensive little hamburger.
What's one thing you will never, ever eat? There are a lot of things. I'll do some traveling with other chefs, when we're doing promotions or being guest chefs somewhere. I've been to South America, Bangkok. And there's things that some chefs say, "Oh, you gotta try this." And I say, "No, no, I don't need to eat that. If you eat it and you start shaking for 30 minutes and feel like you need to smoke a pack of cigarettes, I'll try it. But if you tell me it tastes like chicken, I really don't need to try it." And if it doesn't smell good, I don't feel the need to try it. Canned tuna would fall in that area: It just doesn't smell good.
Best thing about living abroad? Seeing how little you can live on, [laughing] because it was very expensive. In London, I didn't get paid a lot, and housing was very expensive. In Paris, it was a lot cheaper, easier to survive on, but never a lot of money. I loved Paris. On my only day off, if I could get out of bed because it was exhausting work in the restaurant, I'd just go walk around and run into something to eat and drink or something visual. I just loved that lifestyle. And, actually, the people were very, very nice. They always say Parisians are very, very nasty, but every one was very nice.
Do you speak French? I knew all the technical terms from working in L.A. So if it was a cooking procedure, I understood, but a lot of conversation I didn't understand, which was pretty good in the restaurant in Paris for the first six months because the sous chef was very difficult. He was a great chef, but really, really nasty. And when I started understanding better, I made a joke, saying, "I'm glad I didn't understand you better, because if I had known what you were calling me, I would've gotten very upset." But, yeah, I acquired the ability to speak like a 3-year-old.
Best recipe experiment? The chocolate tower recipe. It's been duplicated since it's been made in a lot of different places all over the U.S. It's certainly a signature. Michael Ginor did a book called Foie Gras, and my ABC Foie Gras is in there. And he quoted it as a "modern-day classic."
One place you're dying to travel for food? There's a fun restaurant I want to go to up in Canada, in Montreal, called Au Pied de Cochon. It's very urban. The kitchen wears whatever they want to wear. The food's really rustic, but it's supposed to be really good. I think that'd be a fun place to go see.
Best and worst things about having a restaurant with your name? Best is you can do what you want. Worst is you have to pay for everything that breaks.
Least favorite ingredient? Mustard.
Favorite? Foie gras. Is that an ingredient? My favorite thing to eat is a simple roast chicken. If it's done right, that's the best.
So what's the deal on all the foie gras protests? I think we've had six. I'm always very nice to them on the phone. First, I always ask is, "Are you a vegetarian?" which is okay. They usually say, "Yes." And then my second question is, "Do you eat eggs?" They say, "Yes." I say, "You should go to an egg farm. The ducks on the foie gras farms in the U.S. are at the Ritz or Four Seasons or Biltmore, whereas the chickens at the egg farms are at a sleazy hotel on Van Buren." There's a great book that a journalist wrote, not having any opinion, called The Foie Gras Wars. It's a great book that got started from Charlie Trotter in Chicago not using foie gras anymore, and another chef in Chicago said he was stupid. And it went to New York and Los Angeles. Basically, it just says it's the easy in to get legislation to start on other things, because a) most people don't know what foie gras is and b) if they do, they've never had it.
What's the trick to preparing foie gras? Doing as little as possible to it and not overcooking it. Two many people overcook it. I make a joke if I have a new cook working — and they haven't dealt with it a lot — and tell them it's not a piece of fried bologna. It has to be kind of medium-rare inside. It's also $40 a pound, so you don't want to mess it up.
Famous chef you'd like to cook with? Michel Richard at Citronelle in D.C. He's quite a genius. So many of his techniques or creations are in other people's kitchens, but they don't know where they came from. I've known him for a long time, and [on] one of the first times I went back to L.A., I was sneaking into his restaurant La Citrus one day when he saw me, he grabbed me, and said, "You're having lunch with me today."
He had a glass wall, so you could see into the kitchen, and he got his chef to do a cooking demo on the other side of the wall, showing so many tricks and techniques. One time, I was with him, he said, "This is a great potato to make: 4-1-1. Four parts potato, one part egg white, and one part butter. It's like homemade Pringles." So I was using it. And in the Julia Child cookbook, when we were at her house filming, I said to the producer, "I have to say, I was having lunch with Michel Richard, and he gave me this recipe." Then, after the book came out, we were doing a trip to Italy. And we were waiting for Michel. And the first thing he said was, "I saw the book, and you put my name on there. Nobody puts my name on anything! They just say they did it." He was pretty happy.
What's in the kitchen at home? Olive oil. Pasta. Butter. Chicken stock. Then all you need is something to put with it.