Executive Chef, Domenica Restaurant
Chef and Owner, Shaya
New Orleans, Louisiana
I wish I had a great cornbread and bacon cast-iron skillet story, but since I was born in Israel and grew up in the Philadelphia area, my family dynamic was very different from the one I fantasized about. I can see myself as a 12-year-old chopping andouille sausage and boiling pig parts for jambalaya while my Dutch oven dangles over a wood fire.
But the truth is that I didn’t pick up my first cast-iron skillet until I was 19 years old and living in Las Vegas, of all places. A Thai chef named Watch Chumpol taught me how to season and use the heaviest sauté pan I’d ever picked up. We made crispy Yukon gold potatoes with caramelized onions and spicy chiles. Bacon fat was used to crisp the potatoes, and at just the right time, we’d add the onions so everything cooked and turned golden together. I think we added the chiles because Chef Watch liked spicy food. I didn’t question it. I was happy to know that I’d finally found a way to get golden brown food without uneven cooking and burnt, bitter flavors. That was a turning point for me in my cooking career because it taught me that I could make choices to control my cooking and the result of the final dish.
Shortly after, my grandfather visited me from Israel. I was so proud to show him my own apartment, independence, and cooking skills. He was getting old, and I knew it was probably the last time we would see each other. I wanted to make the time special by cooking him dinner. We ate cast-iron seared New York strip steaks with crispy potatoes, onions, and asparagus. He loved it! I often think of him and that meal we shared when I’m heating up my cast-iron skillet. It’s the only tool in my kitchen that really holds a special place in my heart.