Classically trained, world-renowned chef Curtis Stone, host of Bravo’s popular "Top Chef Masters," has cooked in hundreds of places across the globe.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Stone honed his skills in London at Café Royal, under legendary three-star Michelin chef Marco Pierre White, and at Mirabelle and the revered Quo Vadis. Stone has made appearances on "Celebrity Apprentice," "Ellen," "The Today Show," "Martha," "Oprah" and more. He was also featured in People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive issue.
Despite his Aussie charm and celebrity status, Stone is a down-to-Earth guy who believes that a home-cooked meal is always worth the effort. And his latest cookbook pays homage to that sentiment.
"What’s for Dinner: Delicious Recipes for a Busy Life" features 130 effortless and inspired recipes for busy home cooks who seek to prepare healthy delicious fare on a budget. Stone's philosophy is to cook as Mother Nature intended: buy local, seasonal and organic ingredients, keep recipes simple and allow the food to speak for itself.
Stone will be in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 16, where he’ll celebrate the national launch of his cookbook tour with a four-course meal at The Grain Exchange Room. The event is priced right at $85 per person, plus tax and gratuity, which includes dinner prepared by Stone and his staff, as well as a signed copy of his new book. (Reservations can be made by calling the Grain Exchange at (414) 727-6980.)
I caught up with Stone by phone this week while he was on the road, to find out how he felt about coming to Milwaukee, to chat with him about food and family, and to get a bit of inside information about the upcoming dinner.
OnMilwaukee.com: Have you been to Milwaukee before?
Curtis Stone: I haven’t, actually. It’s my first time. So, I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to do this. When I first came to America, I literally went around the country, and it was such an introduction to the culture, because America is such a vast, varied place with so many cultures and cuisines. I fell in love with it.
OMC: What are you most looking forward to exploring while in the Cream City?
CS: When I visit a new place, I go with the mind to not have too many preconceived ideas … because when you arrive, people always say, "No, that’s for tourists, you want this instead." So, I try to be really open to the experience.
OMC: You started studying a Bachelor of Business but quit to pursue a career in food. What made you change your tune?
CS: Actually, I did start cooking first. We do a four-year apprenticeship at an ATC, like a technical college, for people who want to learn a trade. I worked four days a week in a hotel or restaurant, and one day in school. I really enjoyed it. But, it was pretty boring sort of work … peeling carrots and potatoes.
Actually, I didn’t mind the hard work. I quite liked it. It was just the monotony of doing the day to day. I wanted to be creative and cook and learn. But, you’re the last peg on the ladder, and so that’s what you have to do. What you don’t realize at the time is that all of that work is necessary to the process.
OMC: How did that experience influence what you "bring to the table" in your culinary career?
CS: I think the experiences working in hotels and restaurants is one thing. But, getting that business background is another.
My dad was a finance manager and did very well in the finance world. It may have been his influence, but the changing face of the restaurant world means that if you don’t learn the economics of it, you won’t do very well.
OMC: What’s the roughest part about being a TV chef?
CS: It takes a different sort of set of skills to do that. I can remember watching other chefs on television and being quite critical… he’s doing that wrong… that’s not right. But, that’s someone who doesn’t understand the constraints you’re under when you’re on television.
There’s a different combination of pressures – paying attention to the camera, turning the pan towards the camera, making it pretty. There are certain compromises that you make in the process.
You also want to be held in esteem by your peers. But, you also need to speak to a larger audience, and that requires you to be so much simpler in your explanations. It takes some time to sort of stop being affected by the fact that your peers might react one way or another to what you’re doing.
I do have the experiences of working in fine dining, and then I transitioned. I discovered what kind of challenges normal people face from day to day. It revolutionized the way I write recipes. We, as chefs, live in such a different world. There are totally other things that are much more important than making a dish that will get a Michelin star.
OMC: From whom do you take the most culinary inspiration?
CS: It was probably the chef I worked for so long, Marco Pierre White. Marco taught me so much about cooking and working hard. He showed me what excellence meant in the culinary world, and that was really important.
But, I think even more than that … I did a show called "Surfing the Menu" where we traveled and met producers. And I really take more inspiration from the passion these farmers have for the food they grow. These people produce these unbelievable vegetables and these truly beautiful ingredients.
OMC: How about your cookbook collection? I hear you have a large library of cookbooks that you've collected over the last 15 years. What’s your favorite go-to cookbook?
CS: Umm. "Silver Spoon" is one of my favorite cookbooks. It doesn’t have many pictures, which I normally like, but it’s great. It has like 300 things to do with asparagus, 300 things to do with that. No matter what you’re cooking, it gives you all these ideas, inspiration.
OMC: Speaking of books, let’s talk about your new book, "What's For Dinner? Delicious Recipes for a Busy Life." What’s the biggest thing you learned while writing it?
CS: You know what happened. We had a baby while I was writing it. I thought I had a busy life … and then I had a child, and I realized that I actually didn’t. NOW I have a busy life.
I think about an experience I had in New York. My driver was complaining that he was tired. And I said have you got kids? And he said "yeah, seven girls …"
CS: Yeah. But, I do think that, increasingly, we have these crazy lives. So, it’s about being very honest – even honest with yourself – about what you can do.
Some days you just want to go in the backyard and grill a steak. I can say I do that. It wasn’t the fanciest meal I’ve ever made, but it was good. And it is achievable for a home cook.
The more we characterized what the challenges were from day to day, the more we really zeroed in on what would be useful to people.
On Mondays you feel like being healthier. On Tuesdays, it’s a little crazier, so you want something fast. On Wednesdays, we have a housekeeper come in, and I don’t want to be the one to mess up what she’s done, so you do a one-pot dish. Sometimes you just want that uncomplicated attitude. Thursday, we thought about the financial constraints people are under and we came up with budget friendly recipes. On Friday, you’ve made it to the end of the week, and you just want something tasty to eat while relaxing.
OMC: It’s apparent from a glance through the book that you think sitting down to a home-cooked meal with family and friends is pretty important. What are some of your most memorable moments around the dinner table?
CS: You know my mum used to make us play this game called "Best and Worst" – to tell what the best things were about our day and what was the worst. You got to talk about your day … and I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s actually a really interesting way of connecting. That was a huge highlight for me as a kid.
I think there are so many amazing memories … on Sundays, we’d make pancakes and have a pancake flipping competition in the backyard... when we’d miss, Becky the Bassett Hound would clean up after us.
OMC: You’ve said that your grandmother played a significant role in your love for food. You cooked together, yes?
CS: We did.
OMC: What kinds of things did you make together in the kitchen?
CS: It started off, we’d make fudge. She was from Yorkshire, and she’d make this delicious, sugary fudge. And we’d make it together. I’d weigh ingredients and that sort of thing. She’d just let me help with really just about anything in the kitchen.
OMC: Is she still with us?
CS: No, she passed away maybe 10 years ago. I actually got her old recipes recently. I have them in a binder. It’s really amazing how things have changed. She has recipes that say things like "return it to the fire." It’s amazing how quickly things evolve.
OMC: What are a couple of great tips for eating and cooking on a budget?
CS: Right, so, of course your choice of ingredients is important. Tougher cuts of meat are cheaper, but they give you lots of flavor … Anything that comes from the forequarter of the cow, pig, sheep is great. Chuck, brisket … all so cheap, but very good.
If you want to do great vegetarian protein I think dried beans, legumes, are a smart choice. They’re so underutilized, but they cost literally pennies.
Make your own pasta and it’s much cheaper than buying it. Making your own sauce is cheaper than buying tinned sauces. The farmer’s market is a great place to start.
OMC: Speaking of ingredients, what items do you always keep on hand in the fridge and pantry? Why?
CS: I cheat, and this is how you do it. You need to keep a lot of relishes and chutneys … mayonnaise, pickles. You have a lot of stuff in jars. I have this beautiful Thai curry paste and also a Nam Prik, kind of like a jam. If you roast a chicken and serve it with some grains with that Nam Prik on top, it’s delicious.
Having that in the fridge makes life so much easier. Just throw it together and away you go.
OMC: What’s the one thing you most hope readers will take away from the book?
CS: It’s such a rewarding thing when someone comes up and says, "You know what? We never used to cook fish in our house. Since we’ve tried that salmon recipe my wife cooks it every Friday." What an incredible feeling to have so influenced someone.
Also, that sort of attitude toward natural, organic, fresh and simple – it’s a good attitude to have. People try to cook an elaborate feast their first time and are unlikely to try it again. But starting with something simple builds confidence.
OMC: Can you give us a sneak peek of the menu at the Grain Exchange on April 16th?
CS: Oh, goodness. What are we cooking in Milwaukee? I’ve totally forgotten.
We’re doing so much stuff over the next month … We contacted the chefs and are tailor-making the menu for each place and restaurant where we’re going. I’m totally drawing a blank.
Oh, wait, you know … I think we’re going to do some spiced lamb chops with feta and an olive gremolata and I think we’re also doing a bacon and corn chowder, which is also one of the dishes my grandmother used to make for me.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.