Justin Frederick, who took over D'Amico Kitchen at Chambers Hotel this summer, became a chef in a simpler, or at least cheaper, time. Comparing himself to recent culinary school graduates who emerge with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, he remembers paying about $12,000 total for a two-year culinary degree from MCTC. Over the course of little more than a dozen years, he's worked up from baking bread at the D'Amico commissary to running what he calls "a Rolls Royce" of a kitchen, designed by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
We caught up with Frederick recently, distracting him from prep work long enough to interrogate him for this week's chef chat about why he became a chef and how a landlocked Minnesotan like him came to love seafood.
What is your favorite dish on the menu? Probably the beef carpaccio. We use a center cut of beef tenderloin, we roll it out by hand really paper thin, and then it gets garnished with some nice green olives, capers, shallots, green olive aioli. It's simple and straightforward.
If you could put any dish on your menu, what would it be? At this very moment it'd be something with sweetbreads--a fresh pasta. You really have to have a captive audience to do that.
What is your favorite knife or kitchen tool? My favorite knife is my chef's knife. It's Ittosai, a Japanese knife. Damascus steel. It's very nice.
What are your favorite cookbooks? My favorite cookbook would have to be Culinary Artistry. It helps me get out of a cooking block. It breaks down the fundamentals again on pairing flavors and the different elements of food.
Who is your favorite celebrity chef? Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York, 'cause he's got that great accent and he's a genius with fish. I really enjoy working with fish and seafood. In my mind he's the best at it in his approach and philosophy.
What would you do for a living if you could not be a chef? I haven't had to think about it. I would want to be doing something with oceanic life. I initially went to college to be a marine biologist. I quit it because I realized I hated biology but I liked ocean life.
How long have you been cooking? I started cooking as soon as I could as a kid because my mom is a horrible cook. I pretty much fell into it out of high school when the whole marine biology thing didn't work out. I told myself, what are the two things you need in life? Food and a roof over your head. And I decided I wasn't going to pay for one of them. Either get into construction or food. It was a very fundamental decision in that sense. I went with cooking, and I kind of fell in love with it. If you stick with anything long enough and you're respectful, you start to bubble to the top.
How do you learn about seafood as a Minnesota chef? You have to actively pursue it. There was a seafood company five or six years ago that dissolved after the recession. They were based out of Chicago and had really good-quality product. I won a contest with them, and they flew me up to Kodiak Island during the salmon run.
I don't buy anything farm-raised. You have to really respect things, and there is going to come a time where we won't have the access to wild fish, like everything's going to be controlled. That's a little scary, but it's inevitable. But I have an appreciation when I get product in here that's still wild.
I have a passion for fish because it's pristine to me, it's a gift. Cooking it--it moves me. I love butchering a whole fish. I'll bring in a whole halibut because I like butchering it. I've brought in a 300-pound ahi tuna before to clean it.
Our chat with Justin Frederick continues tomorrow.