Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cathal Armstrong Interview

The best chefs from around the world influence the way we cook our food, eat at restaurants, and inspire us to improve our cooking skills, knowledge, and ability. Chef Cathal Armstrong is one of the best-known chefs in the culinary industry, exhibiting great culinary command creativitiy, technique, presentation, and even business. Here best chef Cathal Armstrong's interviews which tell the story of how he became the great chef he is today.

Cathal Armstrong

Cathal Armstrong Interview | Best New Chef 2006

What recipe are you most famous for?
Probably the pork belly we serve at Restaurant Eve. It was inspired by what my mother called “boiling bacon”—it was basically pure pork belly that was boiled rather than pan-fried. We brine the belly for seven days and then we braise it until it’s tender and then crisp it up in a pan. The accompaniments change fairly often, but the pork belly is a staple on the menu.

What two dishes really tell us your story as a best chef?
Sweetbreads are certainly one of my most favorite things to cook. It used to be that they were only available from the butcher one day a week, when the animals were slaughtered. Since you couldn’t get them every day, they were often preserved, but I learned to work with them raw. I lightly dust them with flour and pan-fry them almost like fried chicken. When you prepare sweetbreads that way, they have a very elegant flavor, with a crispy exterior and a pillowy, creamy interior that is luscious and rich.
There’s another dish that has been on the menu since we opened, which I call OOO—that refers to onions, oysters and osetra. It’s a puff pastry with creamed cipollini onions, a poached oyster and osetra caviar. It is an open homage to one of the best dishes I have ever tasted in my life, Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls at The French Laundry. But it also speaks to the type of food that I like: It has the richness of the cream, the brine of the oyster and the saltiness of the caviar. There’s a lot of contrast of flavors and textures in there, which to me is very exciting.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, has to be very high on the list. I think that book is indispensable, not necessarily for the recipes, but for the techniques and the way it communicates the importance of rules and discipline in food. Another inspiring one is Le Repertoire de la Cuisine, which is from the early 20th century, but it’s still very relevant today—it helps you understand the natural affinities in food.

What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
How to make a good sauce. The art of sauce-making separates good food from great food. It even separates great food from extraordinary food.

What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Dijon mustard, no doubt about it. In addition to the fact that it improves any sauce you can think of, it is also an important liaison in in a good vinaigrette. We use it to make a really awesome steak sauce that we call liquid gold: a splash of chicken stock, a little butter and chives, and Dijon mustard.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
If I had my way, it would be the Randall Lineback. It’s a species of cattle that we buy at the restaurant, an ancient breed that was brought to America about 400 years ago. The meat is very lean. The gentleman we buy from has recovered the herd to 350 head.

What is your current food obsession?
I enjoy eating sausage all the time, from things like saucisson and liver sausage to breakfast sausage, kielbasa and bratwurst. I love the texture, flavor and versatility of sausage. You take a pork shoulder and depending on what ingredients you add to it you can make interesting things that are so, so different from each other.

What is your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
Probably C. I love ethnic food in general, and I when I was a youngster I learned how to make garam masala. It’s an Indian spice that’s kind of like curry, but better. What helps me remember the ingredients is that everything that goes into it starts with a C: cumin, coriander, cardamom, chiles…

Where and when were you born?
Dublin, Ireland; 1969.

Where did you learn to cook?
New Heights, Gabriel, Vidalia and Bistro Bis, all in Washington, DC.

Why did you become a best chef?
"I was in college in Dublin studying computer programming—BASIC and COBOL, which were archaic computer languages even when I was in school. Some friends opened up a restaurant, Da Vincenzo. I started washing dishes, then I became a waiter, then one of the guys in the kitchen was sick and I filled in."

What is your biggest inspiration?
David Lankford, owner of Davon Crest farm in Trappe, Maryland. "He's so excited about farming. When I'm down, David is like my Santa Claus."

What's the best thing about Old Town Alexandria?
"The people here have adventurous palates. Once we bought 10 pounds of sardines and sold them as a special; in 20 minutes they were gone. I couldn't give them away in downtown DC."

Cathal Armstrong Interview | Best Rising Star Chef December 2007

When did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a best chef?
Cathal Armstrong: It was an accidental job. I was washing dishes as a college job, one of the best chefs got sick and they asked me to cover for him. He never came back and I stayed on.

Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today? Do you only hire the best chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
Cathal Armstrong: Culinary School is a great platform from which to start your career. You will get out of it what you put into it. When it comes to hiring, the most important thing for me is restaurant experience and attitude. I only hire people that I feel I might enjoy working with.

Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
Cathal Armstrong: Chef Greggory Hill of David*Gregory, formerly of New Heights, introduced me to the fundamentals and Jeffrey Buben of Bistro Bis and Vidalia taught me how to run a restaurant.

What is your philosophy on food and dining?
Cathal Armstrong: Getting the food from the vine to the plate as quickly as possible, focusing and concentrating their flavors.

Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
Cathal Armstrong: I like working with pork fat. It is very versatile, palatable when hot or cold, and it adds moisture and flavor.

What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
Cathal Armstrong: I love my meat grinder. We do a lot of charcuterie in the restaurant and it ís one of the most fun branches of cooking. Of course I couldn’t live without my best chef’s knife.

What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
Cathal Armstrong: I look at how they present themselves. I want to know that a person is serious about work and dedicated to staying in the kitchen. 

What are your favorite cookbooks?
Cathal Armstrong: Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud and The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. I make all my staff read best chef Boulud’s book. I am grateful to best chef Keller for writing down so many of the rules we use in the kitchen every day.

What cities do you like for culinary travel?
Cathal Armstrong: I’ve been to California twice which I liked, and I was in Paris, Rome and Barcelona when I was first married.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
Cathal Armstrong: Hopefully at the stove at Restaurant Eve. I’d like to open an artisanal butcher shop and bakery as well.

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