Interview: Chef Curtis Stone

Chef Curtis Stone is an Australian celebrity chef and owner of LA based restaurants Maude and Gwen. Maude was awarded a Michelin Star in 2019. Curtis is also a New York Times bestselling author of cookbooks and stars on numerous cooking television shows including Top Chef Masters, Top Chef Junior, and Master Chef Australia.

We were able to catch up with Chef Stone last week to discuss his restaurant’s transition to carry out during the pandemic, Australian travel destinations, fond food memories and the upcoming season of his latest PBS television show.

The last year has brought its challenges for your home country of Australia. Prior to COVID-19 Australia was ravaged by un-relenting fires.  Can you tell me about your #Commit2One pledge work with the Drought Angels?  

About five years ago, I started my #Commit2One initiative. I was getting approached constantly about donating a cooking experience here, a restaurant gift certificate there, and I just wasn’t sure if it was having an impact.  I decided to choose one nonprofit to partner with each year so I can track the time and resources I was devoting to them and really see the difference I was making.  I’ve worked the National Young Farmers Coalition, Chrysalis (an LA-based organization working to provide second chances and job opportunities for formerly incarcerated and homeless men & women), AdoptTogether, and Share Our Strength.  The Australian wildfires were raging at the beginning of the year and I learned about Drought Angels, a female-founded organization based in Queensland who assist farmers during unforgiving natural disasters.

Of course, we need to discuss the impacts that Coronavirus has had on your restaurants.  Your restaurants have transitioned to carryout in LA. How has the @gwenla pop-up market and grocery delivery service been received by the community? 

The heartbeat of Gwen is the butcher shop.  You literally are at the butcher counter when you enter the restaurant, so we already had that retail component which allowed us to transition rather quickly.  The day before the lockdown started in LA, I was with my wife, Lindsay, and some of her girlfriends who were talking about their fear of getting food and supplies during a potential quarantine.  I went to Gwen the next day and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” It’s been our model for the last few weeks and have evolved into grocery delivery service as well. It really has been a team effort, the staff brought it to life. It’s their baby, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. The feedback and words of gratitude from the community keep us going, keep us fighting.

Are there any causes that you are supporting during the pandemic? How can others help?

I’m still continuing my work with Drought Angels.  Farmers need our help now more than ever.  I just heard that someone made a $500 donation to their website which is super generous during these times.

You’ve had the opportunity to work and learn in some of the most amazing kitchens in the world (Australia, London, LA) however you credit your mum and grannie as teaching you everything you know about food and cooking.  It is so great how families come together with food.  What are you best memories learning in the kitchen with them?  Any family kitchen secrets to share? 

My first and perhaps favorite memory in the kitchen was with my grannie, Maude.  She was from Yorkshire and made the best fudge. It’s probably where I developed my sweet tooth. I think the secret to cooking and sharing time in the kitchen is to have fun.  If it’s not fun, the food isn’t going to taste good.

You clearly try to connect the professional kitchen and the home kitchens and have even developed your Kitchen Solutions kitchenware for home cooks.  What kitchen tools are essential for a home-cook just starting out or maybe a person who is now home for the first time in years because of quarantine? 

Any chef will tell you a sharp knife is your best friend and they’re not wrong. But until you get the hang of cooking meat by touch and feel, I think having a thermometer is equally as important.  There are few things in the kitchen worse than a beautiful and expensive piece of meat that’s been overcooked and is dry.

I believe you have at least six cookbooks published. How do you remain creative and keep the content fresh?  How has the time you’ve spent judging and critiquing other’s cuisine provided you a spark for your own creations? 

Travel has always been an inspiration for me.  There is always something to learn from cuisines around the world, either by discovering new ingredients or learning a different technique.  Surrounding yourself with talented people also keeps the creative spark alive. I know you won’t believe me but judging other people’s food when the cameras are rolling can be just as stressful as having your own food critiqued. You want to be honest, but you don’t want to break hearts or crush someone’s dream.  It’s also a moment to be reflective of your own cooking and an opportunity to learn.

I loved watching Top Chef Junior. It was amazing see how advanced some of the kids were in the kitchen. You also have two children. What is your advice for parents who have kids who may want to try cooking at home? 

Start in the garden.  When kids know where their food comes from and the work it takes to get it to the table, they have a deeper appreciation for it. We’re all spending more time cooped up at home these days and getting some dirt under your nails is a good way to just get outdoors. I also have a rule to try everything.  It’s fine if the boys don’t like something but they should give every food a shot and if it’s not for them, encourage them to try it again later.  My oldest son, Hudson, loves everything and really explores ingredients.  He had his first oyster at Maude a few weeks ago.  I can’t say he was a fan, but I was a proud papa for him diving in.

What is an item you can’t live without in quarantine? 

Rosé 

What is your guilty pleasure dish? 

There are so many if I’m being honest. But to nail it down, I love tacos and anything with chocolate.

For people who may want to visit Australia, what are “not to miss” activities or destinations? 

You know there are the iconic places like Sydney Harbour and its Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, but I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time with Aboriginal people during the course of the last two years and it’s really affected me. They are true stewards of the land in Australia and have been living on the continent for the last 50,000 years. Their deep respect for their environment and how they culturally commune with and respect nature is incredibly humbling. As current events unfold, it gives me a greater appreciation for the indigenous people and their traditions. We all could learn from their outlook and sense of responsibility to their ancestors and our planet.

Is there a specific trip or destination that has influenced your cooking or a special dish that you prepare? 

I was traveling in Western Australia in the Margaret River region and trapped marron, an Australian shellfish, with my mate, Chef Tony Howell.  I took the experience back to my restaurant Maude and created a dish using marron, seaweed, dukkah, and local indigenous ingredients like saltbush.

What is your dream vacation post quarantine? 

I’ve been working on the second season of Field Trip with Curtis Stone for PBS, where I’m visiting different destinations around the globe to soak the culture, cuisine, and wine of the region to bring back to the restaurants.  There are a few spots we’ve talked about going to when we’re able including Chile, Japan, Brazil, and parts of Africa. I’d also love to revisit the places where we’ve already traveled and filmed to check in on the purveyors and new mates I met.  

A lot of music festivals are combining music and cooking with celebrity chefs- who would be your dream rock star cooking collaboration?  

My restaurant Gwen was featured in the VIP section of Coachella the last few years. I get this question a lot and I’ve answered The Beatles in the past, but my wife Lindsay would freak if I got to cook for Beyoncé.

Photo by: Paul Donegan

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