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Three weeks ago, I spent the day with a chef I hold in such high regard that it is hard for me to put words to the experience. But I know this — after spending over 4 hours at Estela with Chef Ignacio Mattos, cooking together in celebration of his much-lauded cookbook, Estela,  I left with a beaming high that I can only compare to that of a wide-eyed child on Christmas morning.

I felt alive, inspired, and deeply connected. Connected to the experience, engaged in asking questions, and absolutely riveted to learn Ignacio’s process and approach to a dish I’ve feasted on more times than I can count. I felt joyful and embraced within a community that is very dear to me. I also felt centered and confident as I posed my questions to this world-renowned chef, which evolved into easy back-and-forth banter as Ignacio and I chatted about the indelible imprint cooking has left on us.

I had this very clear moment where I stepped outside of myself, ignoring the team of photographers, videographer, assistants, and kitchen staff, hovering around us. I took a moment to honor this feeling that no one could feel but me — it is invisible to the outside, an inner thrill, a buzz, a tingle. Call it what you will, but this racing feeling was palpable to me. Internally, I was struck by the realization that I found my place in a chaotic world that can be filled with unknowns or uncertainties. I felt embraced. Happy to be doing what I love, to have access to people I so deeply admire, and an outlet to exercise my curious mind and culinary endeavors.  

Ok, so yes, this sounds super corny but each of our paths are riddled with doubt at times and I, we, don’t always know we are on the right journey. It is in moments like these that we need to stop and celebrate those reminders. I ask myself all the time …

Am I spread too thin? Do I need to pick a lane? Who am I? What am I? What’s next? Well, I am an interior designer, BUT not really a practicing one. I am a home cook and a cookbook author, BUT I am not really a chef and am in the kitchen developing recipes far less than I’d like to be. I write BUT I am not really a trained writer. I style, BUT I am not really a working stylist. I am a creative director, BUT what does that really mean??? I love to create beauty BUT am I pulled between so many worlds that am I not really excelling in any one thing —  do people know what to make of me?  

Anyway, we all have it. A voice asking those recurring questions, the BS, that blah blah blah we keep telling ourselves. And even though we know, sometimes, that this inner rambling isn’t true, there is often a weeeee little inkling of — maybe?? My point is, on THIS day, inside Estela with Ignacio there was NONE of that.  There was celebration, a tangible, all-consuming moment of knowing I AM SOOOOO FORTUNATE TO DO WHAT I LOVE!

Ok, now back to Ignacio and his brilliant cooking and exceptional cookbook. You may or may not know, but Ignacio is not only the culinary genius behind Estela, but has also opened the amazing Café Altra Paradiso and Flora Bar in New York. This James Beard nominee for Best Chef is serving up his long-awaited debut cookbook, Estela, and to celebrate, we made his famed endive salad which is bold and bright, simple and layered, and even has an element of surprise. That’s a lot for one salad to hold but it really has it all — 2 cheeses, dark toasted bread, crunchy walnuts, high acidity from the orange juice and zest, and flavor-building anchovies all hidden beneath layers of crisp endive which serves as the perfect shovel for all that umami goodness.

Last week, I shared the recipe (MAKE IT) and video we shot together and now I’d love to share with you some of the profound things Ignacio and I chatted about. We all want to connect to something in life, right?  Whether it be a person, a meal, a community, a career — at our core we ALL want to connect. I found so many similarities between Ignacio and I. Namely, why I cook (it gives me purpose and I am a caretaker at heart) and what I found through cooking (a community of like-minded people who share the same values) — and his response was nearly the same. When asked what drew him to the kitchen, he shared this, “It was exciting to discover a unique tribe of people who run kitchens. Beyond this, I have been familiar with nurturing people and have always been fascinated with this gratifying feeling.” I mean, isn’t that the holy grail! Our day together might have begun with myself being a little nervous and intimidated but there is nothing like common ground to level the playing field. Our day at Estela ended super silly and relaxed, with Ignacio and I discussing our favorite restaurant which is sadly now extinct — Franny’s. It was funny to me that the food at Franny’s is what, hands down, initially inspired my cooking 10 years ago. Here I am, full circle with a Chef who was equally inspired by the simplicity and quality coming from that kitchen but who in my opinion embodies those very same qualities — of course in his own unique way. Full circle.  Seeking alignment. Connecting. Appreciating small moments. Finding your tribe and nurturing others. That’s what it’s all about!

Please grab yourself a copy of the Estela cookbook, make this ridiculously YUMMY endive salad and experience the exceptional flavors I have found in Ignacio’s cooking.  

Read my inspiring interview with Ignacio below to learn about his favorite cooking moment to date, the ingredients he can’t live without, and what he makes for friends and family at home on a night off.

Estela

Chef Ignacio Mattos

  • Q+A

    • You are a master of flavor, can you share a little bit about your philosophy on developing flavor and what you always look for in a bite and on the palette?
      The main idea in my approach is to preserve the integrity of the few ingredients that are selected to be in a dish. I then think about which qualities of each ingredient I’d like to highlight, which leads to the next decision of how to prepare and cook the ingredients. The way you cut or cook the components of a dish will have an impact on how they feel on the palate. The goal is to allow the product to be itself while delivering it in an unexpected way.
       
      Tell me how this perfect endive salad was born — why do you think she became a star?
      I was at a classic French Spot here in New York City and for some reason I ordered an endive salad, not expecting it to be great. This bland endive salad got me thinking. It was a time where people were focusing on more rare and foraged ingredients, and endives were far from being in the spotlight. It felt as if people had the wrong perception of endives and I saw an opportunity to present them in a delicious and fun way. The many textures of the dish and surprising pockets of flavor make it an exciting salad for people to experience and to come back for.
       
      You have a trifecta of endive salads across your three restaurants. What is it about endive?
      Endives are great because they are quite neutral and are versatile vehicles for flavor. I am intrigued to work with them because they seem flat and boring but have much more to offer. The endive salads are part of a common narrative that weaves through the three restaurants. It’s funny because our guests love to compare the restaurants based on three versions of the endive salad, and I think it’s a fair basis.
       
      Identifiably you love to hide the umami goodness at the bottom of your salads — like a hidden surprise. Can you explain this a bit?
      There’s a rewarding and exciting feeling in discovery that people love. It’s a playful approach that keeps people engaged.
       
      How was the cookbook recipe writing process for you? Was it challenging to simplify your dishes in order to break down the steps for the home cook?
      The biggest challenge during the cookbook recipe writing process was how to keep the recipes’ integrity while making them simple and accessible to all home cooks regardless of each person’s skill set. The simple and technical steps that are usually straightforward in practice are much harder to write out in text. My goal during the process was to write out the book in a user-friendly way for home cooks. With that said, we did not take any shortcuts in providing all the tools, steps and secrets to succeed.
       
      What do you order when you eat at Estela?
      I usually don’t order the most popular dishes at estela like the burrata, endive salad and tartare, I go for the oysters, fluke, uni, black rice, and foie gras; but when I dine with my friends at estela and they order the popular dishes I’m always reminded of how delicious they are.
       
      When you cook for friends at home — what’s your go-to meal?
      A salad, a pasta dish (always), a cheese plate and fruits. I try to keep it as simple, delicious and mess-free as possible.
       
      Three ingredients you couldn’t live without
      Olive oil, salt and lemon.
       
      Any tricks for the home cook on developing flavor? What should everyone be using more of?
      Everyone should be using more of these ingredients to develop flavors: citrus zest, anchovies, fish sauce, white soy sauce, kombu and vinegars.
       
      What was the catalyst that initially took you into the kitchen — when you knew you needed to be a chef
      After I was done with school I had an urge to get into a kitchen. It was clear that as much as I wanted to go to art school, I did not have the patience or time for it. I wanted to get out and discover what was out there, and kitchens were looking for cooks. It was exciting to discover a unique tribe of people who run kitchens. Beyond this, I have been familiar with nurturing people and have always been fascinated with this gratifying feeling.
       
      To date, your most spectacular cooking experience is…..
      There have been many spectacular experiences including cooking an asado in a valley high up in the Andes Mountains with Francis Mallmann. We had no idea what we were doing, just taking chances which paid off. Another memorable experience was cooking on a boat by the Statue of Liberty here in New York, which was far from charming and actually more of a survival challenge. The boat was rocking from side to side, soups were flying through the kitchen and there was no place to breathe, but the best part about it is that a friend organized it. Another highlight is of course the Obama’s dining at Estela, which was insane. That said some of the most special nights are at the restaurant when I see the diverse group of guests gather around – there is an exciting energy in the room. That’s quite spectacular.

Endive Salad with Walnuts and Ubriaco Rosso

Chef Ignacio Mattos

  • Ingredients

    • Serves 4-6

      For the Vinaigrette
      2 garlic cloves
      4 large anchovy fillets, rinsed and patted dry
      2 tablespoons garnacha vinegar
      ¼ cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
      Cracked black pepper

      For the Granola
      1 ½ cups (50g) ½-inch cubes of day-old sourdough (you want a few pieces with some dark crust)
      Extra-virgin olive oil
      Kosher salt
      1 cup (100g) walnuts
      Freshly gorund black pepper
      Chile flakes
      1/3 cup (40g) irregular pieces (¼ – ½ -inch Pecorino Duro) Ubriaco Rosso
      Scant 1/3 cup (about 35g) irregular pieces ( ¼ – ½ -inch Pecornio Duro)

      For the endives
      4 endives
      Kosher salt
      1 medium orange
      1 tablespoon chardonnay vinegar
      Extra-virgin olive oil

  • Method

    • Make the vinaigrette:

      Pound the garlic cloves into a paste in a mortar with the pestle.

      Add the anchovies and pound until everything is fairly smooth but still slightly chunky.

      Add the vinegar, olive oil, and cracked black pepper to taste and mix to combine.

      The idea is to get a broken vinaigrette with pieces of anchovy still visible.

      Make the granola:

      Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C)

      Put the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toss with a few teaspoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then spread them out.

      Spread the nuts out on a separate baking sheet. Toast the bread and walnuts in the oven, tossing them every few minutes.

      Remove the nuts once they are dark and well roasted, about 8 minutes.

      Remove the bread once it’s dark brown and toasted all the way through, about 10 minutes.

      While the nuts are still warm, put them in a mortar, add a teaspoon of olive oil, a pinch of salt, a few generous cranks of black pepper, and a pinch of chile flakes and crush them into coarse chunks with the pestle.

      Using the bottom of a heavy pan, crush the bread cubes into chunks between ¼ and ½ inch. (With each component, you want a mix of textures and sizes.)

      Combine the croutons, walnuts, and cheeses in a medium bowl. Dress with the vinaigrette, mixing well.

      Let sit while you prepare the endives so the croutons get a little softer and the flavors come together.

      Prepare the endives:

      Cut an inch off the bottom of each endive and discard.

      Gently peel back the leaves, continuing to trim the root as you go, until you get to the core (it’s the sweetest part of the endive).

      Cut each core in half lengthwise, or into quarters if it’s large, and toss them into the bowl.

      To serve, season the endives with a generous pinch of salt.

      Grate the zest of the orange evenly over the top of the endives, then halve the orange and squeeze the juices over the leaves.

      Add the vinegar and gently toss the leaves to coat, as you don’t want them to bruise.

      Spread the granola mixture evenly on two plates.

      Arrange the endive leaves on top so that they make little cups for the dressing.

      Sprinkle with salt, spoon on the orange juice mixture left in the bottom of the bowlm and drizzle on abit of olive oil.

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