This is part two of Amanda Woytus' Chef's Choice profile of chef John Griffiths of Truffles. To read part one, click here. Part three, a recipe from Griffiths, can be found here.
Did your family cook when you were a child? My mother did. She and my grandmother were from Northern Arkansas, so really nice Southern heritage. My grandmother used to make incredible peach cobbler in the summer.
How old were you when you started cooking? Fifteen.
First cooking job? I started as a dishwasher at a country club as a part-time job, and from there, just kept going. It was called Devil's Ridge in Oxford, Michigan. A bunch of friends, we all played football, and we got the jobs together. I was the last one to get promoted out of the dish room to become a prep cook, and now I'm the only one who does it as a profession. I guess I got a slow start.
Did you attend culinary school or college? I did. Schoolcraft College in Michigan.
What do you eat? I eat pretty healthy food. I'm pretty active outside of work. I try to get out of the restaurant as much as I can.
What do you cook at home? It's always something different. I don't really think I have a go-to. I tend to cook a little more Hispanic-style foods. I like things that are kind of spicy, and I've always been fond of Mexican cooking, so I find myself doing that a fair amount, especially during the summertime.
What are your three favorite restaurants in St. Louis (besides your own!)? Sidney Street; I enjoy eating at Niche whenever I can get out, and Modesto. They do a great job. They're pretty under the radar a lot of time. It's not far from my house, so when I do get over there, it's one of those places I know I can sit down, and it's an easy, quick meal.
The local chef who most impresses you? Kevin at Sidney Street. I've know him since I moved here six years ago, and the guy's got a motor like nobody else. He's an incredibly driven, passionate guy.
Your favorite restaurant elsewhere? I don't really know that I have a favorite restaurant. I've had some really good meals in the last year. The best meal I've had in the last year was at Marea in New York City, so I'd have to say right now, that's probably it. I had their octopus and fusilli pasta. Their sea urchin-and-lardo crostini were fantastic.
Your favorite food city? I guess it would have to be San Francisco. It's a little more, I don't want to say slower-paced, but New York's a place I can only handle a few days at a time, but San Francisco is a place where I can spend a week and not feel overwhelmed. New York is just so intense and so fast-paced.
Favorite recent food find? I don't know that there's anything I've discovered recently. There are some things that we use that are eclectic. You've got me stumped. We're always trying to be creative, so we're always looking for new things, but I don't know that there's anything.
Most essential ingredient in your kitchen? Salt.
Favorite local food find, and where do you get it? Again, you got me stumped. We use all kinds of local farmers. I don't know that there's anything crazy anybody's growing or raising right now.
Five words to describe your food. Italian. Regional. Bold. Simple. Refined.
One food you dislike. SPAM. I definitely don't like SPAM. Generally, any kind of processed meat product in a can, I'm not interested in.
A food you can't live without. Peaches.
An ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. A lot of things are not allowed in my kitchen. Food-wise, any chef will tell you that you get people from Sysco like: "Hey, we got this great new thing here! You gotta try it!" Anything with more than, let's say, three ingredients in it, we're not interested in buying it. We bake our own bread, so we're not interested in buying a lot of things. We're not usually looking for processed items of any kind.
Culinarily speaking, St. Louis needs more... Culinarily trained people. I'm sure a lot of chefs will tell you we need a better labor pool.
Best tip for home cooks. Buy quality. A wise chef once said, and I don't know who it was who said it, but, "If you take two chefs of equal talent, and you provide one with better ingredients, he'll be the better chef." You can pull those recipes out of any cookbook you want, but if you go to Save-A-Lot and buy frozen, refreshed pork and stuff like that, you're just not going to get anything near what you envision in those recipes or what you remember in your favorite restaurant. So just buy quality and cook the food simply.
Favorite after-work hangout. I get down to the Bridge a fair amount late at night: great beer selection, good atmosphere and the snacks are good. I'm not a big eater, but if I do go out for a drink or two, it's a good place to get a little nibble before the end of the night.
Favorite kitchen tool. Spoon. I use it for just about everything. Good size, just a large service spoon with a fairly pointed tip. We use it for plating, for saucing, for cooking and stirring. It's just a constant tool.
What's next for you? I've done a lot so far. I've been a chef at some pretty good restaurants, I ran private resorts, I ran a consulting company for a while, and now I'm back in a restaurant doing modern Italian food. I've ran this gamut so far in my career, and luckily, I got started young, so now I've realized I think I want to be a restaurant chef for a fair amount of time.
What inspires you? I think it's just a passion to do better than the day before. I've a real desire to constantly improve myself and to make a difference and impact on the people who we serve and also who we work with. I take a great deal of pride in mentoring and training cooks and chefs and really to inspire people to eat better food and to think about and learn what they're eating every day. I think that's something Americans just don't do enough of.
Chefs who inspire you. I had two big mentors: Dan Hugelier was a certified master chef who I trained under in Michigan. He was a huge inspiration for me. Incredibly focused, intelligent individual. When you go to culinary school and you're a young cook, you're just in awe of people who have accomplished so much. He was the guy who all the other chefs yielded to. He was pure cooking in its straightest form. He never spoke out of place or lost his cool. There was always a reason for everything that he did. He taught me a huge amount about respect for food, for people, for ingredients, for technique, and, in general, just respect for the profession and yourself.
Larry Forgione was a great influence on me as well. I met him a few years after I was on my first chef's position. He was on the edge of everything that now we take for granted. I had a conversation with his son once when we were in New York, this was years ago, and he goes, "My father has forgotten more about food than I'll ever learn." He was transformative both in America and the cultural things that were happening. What he was doing on a day-to-day basis was so much bigger than what most of us do in weeks and months.
Favorite cookbooks? The French Laundry Cookbook. I'm on my second edition now. I don't know if it's so much for the recipes anymore, you just read it because you see this guy who was so clairvoyant about food and philosophy that it's incredible just to read it. Everything just seems to make sense in that book, and I don't think there's another one like it.
Proudest professional moment? I just do what I love to do, and I'm really happy that I've been able to be a one-trick pony and be successful at it and to be able to live a healthy lifestyle out of that, too. I learned what I wanted to do early, and luckily for me, I've become successful at it.
Favorite music to have in the kitchen. Actually, we don't have music in the kitchen. It's weird, and I won't put on the radio at home when I'm cooking either. I like quiet. It's calming and soothing to me, so there's no music in my kitchen.
What's on your pizza? Not much. I like traditional marinara pizza with tomatoes and some anchovies.
What's in your omelet? I don't really eat a lot of omelets. I try to eat a little healthier, so when I do make omelets, I can't go total egg white, but I'll put one egg and then a couple of egg whites in there. Usually just cheese, a good Parmesan, and spinach.
What are you drinking? I have a refrigerator full of Bell's right now. I just bought a case the other day. I'm from Michigan, and we've been drinking that beer since I've been old enough to drink.
What's the most surprising food you've eaten? I had live baby squid once. They were literally swimming. This was in Singapore, years ago. They were really, really tiny, and they sautéed them in one of those little street vendor kind of things. It was fantastic. They were so sweet and delicious.
What's the most difficult lesson you've learned in this business? I think every chef has to learn to listen to their guests. I think it's the hardest thing is when your clientele tells you they don't necessarily like something that you're doing. Chefs, we're motivated by passion. When you make things, you think everybody's going to enjoy what you're doing because you like it and you think it tastes great. So as a young chef, I had to adapt to that. It's a difficult thing for every chef to do, but it's one that you have to do to remain valuable. You have to take criticism from people.
When did you know the chef's life was for you? I got started young, and when you're in your teens, you love to hang out late at night, and it was a good excuse to work late, and your folks didn't mind if you came home at 12 or 1 o'clock. So I think it stared as a good cover for going out to parties in high school and being places I shouldn't have been because it wasn't unusual to work late, especially during the summer at a country club. But eventually, it was the excitement of food, and I think I began to excel at it.
John Griffiths of Truffles John Griffiths of Truffles: Recipe for Olive Oil Shortcake