If you want to cook food that’ll remind you of what Grandma used to make, Chefs Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth are pretty solid resources. The two Top Chef vets worked together in Miami before moving to NYC last year to start a new venture, the Southern-inspired Root & Bone, opening this weekend in the East Village. McInnis made a name for himself with fried chicken, and that delicacy along with many other comfort food favorites feature heavily on the menu. We asked the pair about the show, the new eatery and their best advice for guys who want to take their own entertaining skills to the next level…
“Don’t be afraid to really get in and get touchy with the fruits and vegetables. If you’re going to get a good peach, you really need to feel it, squeeze it and smell it to know that it’s good.”
You both appeared on Top Chef: What was that experience like, and how did it influence your approach to cooking?
Jeff McInnis: It was an incredible experience that definitely had an impact. Just the ability to be surrounded by like-minded people with similar interests and new ideas helps you grow. You form relationships that last a long time, and sometimes you even end up collaborating with people from the show down the road. You also get your food tasted by some of the best in the business, which doesn’t hurt. Having your dishes critiqued by Emeril Lagasse is absolutely incredible. Another thing the show did is teach me to cook simple. Throughout the show, you’re thrown into these weird scenarios where you have to cook on the back of a camel and crazy things like that. Once you learn how to make good food in situations like that, you start to appreciate that not everything has to be so elaborate.
Your new restaurant, Root & Bone, is going to feature Southern-inspired food: Why did you choose this route, and why are people so passionate about this kind of food?
Janine Booth: People like what makes them feel comfortable, and if it’s a dish that their mother or their grandmother used to make, it’s going to take them to that place. Of course, if you can make it with the freshest produce and best ingredients available, it’s going to make it that much better.
How can the average guy take some of the inspiration behind the restaurant and use it to throw a kicking dinner party this summer?
Booth: We like to keep things simple in our dishes, and I would recommend the same thing when entertaining. You don’t want to overextend yourself and get stressed out. You want to be able to mingle with your guests and have a glass of wine while the food is being prepared. So simple choices are often the best.
McInnis: I agree. You can minimize a lot of stress by simply planning and prepping prior to your guests’ arrival. Plus, you can make things fun by having food stations where people can graze. You can’t go wrong with the crockpot of meatballs in barbecue sauce and a jar of toothpicks. If you’re sitting at the table, Southern food is perfect because it’s served family style. Instead of having dozens of plates that are meticulously arranged, you can have bowls heaped high with food that everybody can share. This adds to the casualness and fun, too.
You guys have a real passion for fresh ingredients from local markets. Any tips on choosing and preparing these ingredients once you get them home?
McInnis: Don’t be afraid to really get in and get touchy with the fruits and vegetables. If you’re going to get a good peach, you really need to feel it, squeeze it and smell it to know that it’s good. Also, if you’re used to seeing clean, uniform vegetables at the grocery store, the farmer’s market may come as a bit of a shock. There’s usually some kind of chemical process that made the vegetables in the grocery store look that way. Not everything at the farmer’s market is going to look perfect and consistent, but the flavor will speak for itself.
Booth: To prepare these dishes and really let the flavor shine through, I like to take an old standard, like a caprese tomato salad, and add a new twist to it. You can add grilled peaches along with tomatoes, for example, or use buratta or pimento cheese instead of mozzarella. Just think of unique twists to your old favorites that will add some interest.
We can only hope the screen you are viewing this photo on is drool-proof.
Jeff, you’re well known for your fried chicken. Any tips you can share?
McInnis: It’s really not a difficult dish. Some people just like to cut corners when preparing it, and it shows. Step one is finding the right bird. It should be natural and drug-free. It really makes a difference. Next, take about 24 to 36 hours to brine it. And this doesn’t have to be super elaborate. I just use sugar, salt, pepper, some spices, and then just let it soak. After that it just takes some good seasoned flour, frying it at just the right temperature, and serving it right away. That’s all there is to it.
How would you prepare a dish to really impress that special someone in your life?
Booth: One thing we’ve been into lately is just being impulsive when preparing dishes. Just head to the farmer’s market together, and let what inspires you create the meal for the evening. You’ll usually find good proteins, but it’s all the interesting fresh vegetables that really get me excited.
McInnis: Sometimes it’s the unexpected things that end up being the most interesting. The other day, Janine took purple sunchokes, which we had never worked with before, and prepared them three ways. She roasted them, made a puree, and sliced and fried them and made them into chips. It was simple and amazing. So don’t be afraid to try something new and be inspired. It’s a fun way to break free from what you n