Exclusive Interview with Chef Joanne Drilling
I sat down with Chef Joanne Drilling, recently of Slims Restaurant in Northside, to talk with her about her culinary inspiration, point-of-view, and her upcoming transition to Murphin Ridge Inn, about 1 hour east of Cincinnati in beautiful Adams County Ohio.
Joanne and I met when we worked together at Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, shortly before she was opening executive chef for Lavomatic. We also worked together at Slims Restaurant. We’ve became good friends since we share the same geeky passion about food (and comic books, like CHEW). She always calls me “Vogel”, so that’s how my interview questions are labeled below.
Vogel: What is your culinary background?
Joanne: My culinary background starts with making toast in my grandma’s kitchen at the age of six, wearing one of her aprons wrapped around my little scrawny self about four times (the Drilling women have never been small…). I progressed on to making really adventurous brown bag lunches for myself during grade school and junior high.
By high school I was cooking the family dinners (with a few disasters thrown in for good measure). In college I dealt with a lack of boyfriends by kneading a lot of bread dough and inviting friends and friends-of-friends over for giant pasta dinners, chili cook-off competitions, and the like. The only rule was that the guests had to provide the beverages…
Vogel: Tell me about one of those disasters along the way!
Joanne: It involved a tuna casserole of sorts and I was probably around 13 years old. Growing up in a rather strict Catholic family, we never ate meat on Fridays during Lent. Unfortunately, this meant we at a lot of tuna tetrazini, salmon croquettes, frozen fish sticks… basically the cheapest fish products possible. There were four daughters and our mother didn’t work outside the home, so we weren’t exactly on a Chilean sea bass kind of budget…
Anyway, I was always hoping to make them more appealing both in color and flavor, which usually meant adding brightly colored vegetables like carrots and corn. I believe I made the tetrazini, mixed in a handful of frozen corn and a small dice of carrot, put it in a large crock, topped it with bread crumbs and cheese and baked it in the oven. I guess I was thinking that it would coalesce into something sublimely flavorful… instead it was just a mucky mess.
The noodles ended up being so overcooked that they just sort of dissolved, the carrots were still hard and the breadcrumb & cheese mix just turned into an oily mess (the cheese was probably fat free slices, a bit of random child abuse that I still haven’t recovered from, thanks Mom). I think its safe to say we ended up eating fish sticks that night!
Vogel: When did you decide that a career in food was for you?
Joanne: I discovered FOOD when studying abroad at the University of Hamburg in Germany. All my big culinary firsts happened there… goat cheese, chanterelle mushrooms, outstanding homemade pasta, good wine, good chocolate, caviar, foie gras… And I decided that the only thing I really wanted to do in life was cook. I came back to the States, finished two degrees (in Anthropology and German) and started cooking.
Vogel: Tell me more about your time in Germany.
Joanne: I studied in Hamburg Germany from Summer 1996 through Fall 1997. I had a scholarship to study abroad there, taking classes in archaeology, German literature, poetry, film, and a lot of art history courses, which ended up being my minor. All classes were taught in German, so it was a little bit harder than college courses back home. Losing the 4.0 GPA was the little humbling that I probably needed, and the rough and tumble life experiences as well as the ability to travel cheaply (and weekly) shaped the person that I am today.
Seeing how other cultures live, what they value and what they they reject empowered me to actively choose what I bring into my world, be they artistic influences, personal values, or lifestyle choices. It also gave me the confidence to always keep asking questions and the beginning of an understanding that life is a wild and winding journey, a journey for the journey’s sake…
Vogel: Where have you worked?
Joanne: In Cincinnati, I worked at the Maisonette, Jean-Robert at Pigalls, Cumin, Lavomatic, and Slims (as well as catering and private chef work). I did stages at Daniel in New York City and Seegers in Atlanta Georgia, and managed a cheese shop for 1 1/2 years (also in Atlanta).
Vogel: What inspires you?
Joanne: As each season rolls around, I get re-inspired to cook what is available and fresh. Constantly being inspired by nature, both foraged and cultivated, keeps me ever-curious and excited to try new ideas. I’m a voracious reader and notebook keeper, constantly coming upon random, esoteric ideas that I record and save for the proper season, weaving them into approachable basics in the hopes of achieving what I like to think of as “garden cuisine”.
Vogel: What are your favorite things to cook?
Joanne: My favorite things to cook are usually the most simple… platters of vegetables, still warm from the sun, dressed with a spicy extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, fresh pepper, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon… Simple desserts such as madelines [Vogel notes: See below for Joanne’s recipe for Orange and Brown Butter Madelines], tiny buckwheat cakes, fresh fruit tarts, and seasonal ice creams. I do enjoy the simple arts of pickling and charcuterie, which involves taking ordinary ingredients and nurturing them into something special.
Vogel: What was your culinary focus at Slims?
Joanne: At Slims the focus was utilizing all the beautiful things that Patrick was cultivating in his garden into a Latin inspired cuisine. Trying to synthesize Latin flavors with local ingredients and still create honest food was a real challenge (one specific challenge: there isn’t really a mango season in Ohio, much less a plantain season… How do we honestly use these ingredients here in Northside?)
I find that in cooking, as in love, you are either inspired by the reality, or inspired by the idea. By this, I mean that sometimes you fall in love with the idea of so
meone, and then are aghast by the fact that their socks smell or that they sing Ozzy Osborne songs in the shower EVERY morning. Or you fall in love with a wonderfully, goofy, REAL person, and build a relationship knowing and accepting that you are both kinda wacko (but hopefully not too wacko)… It’s the same in cooking.
Some people build dream restaurants, menus and dishes in their minds and then try to find the ingredients to build them. Others find the ingredients, turn on the oven and call their friends to come over for dinner. Trying to cook Latin food in regions where avocados, mangoes, plantains etc. would never grow was a real challenge for me.
I like to start with what is seasonal from where we live and go from there. While January and February produce pickings are slim here in the midwest, its not that difficult come April-November. The key is planning ahead in the summer, canning, pickling and freezing enough of the bounty to make it through the winter months. This is how my Grandma did it and she lived and cooked well into her nineties…
Vogel: Favorite Slims memories?
Joanne: My fondest memories of Slims are from the garden. [Vogel notes: Patrick McCafferty, the owner of Slims, runs an urban garden within a few blocks of the restaurant. Many of the greens diners consume tonight were in the ground this morning.] I love the way my hands smelled after picking nasturtiums, I loved cutting and working with pea tendrils in the spring… I aspire to grow Meyer lemons, kumquats and lime trees in a small green house of my own someday! I have a kaffir lime tree that I have been nursing along for a few years, but I would love to live in a location with great light so that I can expand into other citrus!
Vogel: Lessons from Slims?
Joanne: From Slims, I learned the value of strong leadership, and to focus on proper management of resources (people, food, equipment, etc). A significant lesson was learning to manage – and motivate – staff to provide the level of service and care that we wanted, and that the diners deserved.
Vogel: Tell me about the new gig! What are you most looking forward to at the new place?
Joanne: My new job is Executive Chef at the Murphin Ridge Inn, and I will begin there on February 9, 2010. This bed-and-breakfast in Adams County, Ohio is situated in the middle of an Amish agricultural community. Sherry and Darryl McKinney have spent the last 13 years honing relationships with the surrounding farmers to supply their inn with the very best ingredients. I will bring my favorite suppliers to the opportunity as well. Together, I like to think that we can make use of some wonderful products, continue lasting relationships and bring even more new guests to the inn.
Vogel: What will be your focus at Murphin Ridge Inn?
Joanne: My culinary focus is again on a kind of “garden cuisine,” utilizing our Amish neighbors and longtime farmer friends as well as our on-site gardener-extraordinaire, Will.
I am of the strong opinion that all battles are won and lost over the details. At Murphin Ridge Inn, I look forward to focusing on a detail-oriented experience for our guests. Based on Sherry and Darryl’s experience in guest relations, I feel confident that we can accommodate all of our guests’ needs, be they dietary or lifestyle.
As a chef, it feels good to be prepared to offer a guest the very best culinary experience possible, no matter what their needs. I look forward to working with a team that is committed to the guest experience first and foremost, not the ego of the owner.
Vogel: Any last comments?
Joanne: I believe that good cooking comes from looking and listening to the ingredients. Cooks who just work through a recipe, pulling over-waxed produce out of boxes that were shipped last week from halfway around the world are missing out on so much.
Look at the food, smell it, taste it. Think about it.
So far, I haven’t met too many young cooks who instinctively think about food. Mostly, they want the recipe to spell it all out for them, down to the exact cooking time and what container to put it in when it’s finished. This isn’t cooking, it’s definitely not learning, it’s just something that any trained monkey can do.
I remember my first day at the Maisonette. A fellow cook, responsible for training me, didn’t give me a bunch of recipes, instead he showed me the techniques, the colors, textures and flavors that I was to emulate. That, to me, is how one really learns to cook.
orange and brown butter madeleines
250 grams Sugar
Zest of 1 Orange
2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
225 grams Cake Flour, sifted
110 grams Almond Flour
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Salt
250 grams Butter, browned and cooled
Start by making the brown butter. Place the butter in small saucepan and heat until it starts to bubble and sizzle. Watch it carefully — after the sizzle diminishes slightly, it will start to brown soon after. When it smells like roasted nuts and the bottom of the pan is brown, remove the pan from the heat, strain the butter, and set aside to cool.
Place the eggs, sugar, orange zest, and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer. Whip until light and thick, about 5 minutes. Add the flour, almond flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix until all the dry ingredients have been fully incorporated. Slowly add the brown butter while the machine is running, incorporating the butter into the batter..
Remove bowl from mixer and fold with a spatula to make sure all ingredients are well mixed. Let it rest in the refrigerator for 4 hours.
Pipe batter into madeleine molds. Bake at 425 for 8-10 minutes, when “bumps have appeared”, reduce oven to 375F and continue baking for 5 more or until browned.
Murphin Ridge Information
Thanks Joanne! Best of luck with the new gig!