Florida native and executive chef-at-large Chris Amendola joined me in Pikesville at Mari Luna Latin Grille for lunch. Fascinated how one learns to forage, what is edible and not poisonous, I wanted to learn more. We were initially going to go into the woods and he was going to take me in search of what Mother Earth was offering but it is the end of the season and the weather just didn’t accommodate.
As with all my “Lunch With” guests, there are questions to answer and you will find them interspersed throughout this story.
- Dara: What is the oldest thing you have in your refrigerator?
- Chris: Ketchup – I hate it. I will eat it on burgers or hot dogs but it is too sweet and acidic.
- Dara: If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead – who would it be?
- Chris: I would definitely want to have lunch with Chef Marco Pierre White. He has been a huge influence on my career and I think he would be someone I could just sit and listen to him talk about his past experiences.
One just doesn’t wake up and go off foraging, one needs a mentor to show them the difference between edible or non-edible but there is a big BUT there, foragers don’t wish to share their secret spots. For Amendola he had the same difficulty finding someone to teach him. About seven years ago, Evan Strusinski, who foraged for Momofoku Restaurant, took Chris on his first forage.
- Dara: What was your epic culinary fail?
- Chris: When I was younger I worked in a hotel in Florida. I was cooking a couple extra courses for a friend that was coming in for dinner and I spent most of the day working on a course that was a play on Oysters Rockefeller. I was trying to present it in a modern way. I was going to encapsulate the oyster in a spinach puree and then gel it. After spending all day on trying to get it to work, I tasted one them and it almost made me sick and that was just before service. So then I had to scramble to make something else. Everything ended up work out for my friend’s dinner except that course.
- Dara: What is the best piece of advice another chef has given you?
- Chris: Chef Sean Brock, James Beard winner of Best Chef Southeast and former employer said to “respect the food – treat it like you would treat a loved one.”
- Dara: What is the most memorable meal that you have had?
- Chris: The first time I ate at McCradys in South Carolina. At that point in my life I had never had any meal like that and every course just blew me away.
Mari Luna Latin Grille seemed to be the perfect choice for lunch with Chris to go back to his Florida roots where Latin cuisine was a large influence. We were so busy talking and nibbling on the large popover with the mango butter, I felt bad for the patient waiter who wants to get our order and get it to the kitchen. A cup of Sopa de Frijoles (black bean soup) and a Emparedado Cubano (roasted pork sandwich) were Chris’s choices. Even though it was Mexican Monday at Mari Luna Latin Grille the Sopa de Langosta (lobster bisque) and Gambas al Ajillo (sautéed shrimp in tomato garlic sauce), favorites, were my picks.
- Dara: What food could disappear off the face of the earth and you wouldn’t miss it?
- Chris: That would definitely be ketchup – I can’t stand the stuff.
- Dara: What is your favorite childhood food memory?
- Chris: Up until I was 11 or 12 I only ate three things: pasta, pizza and cereal.
- Dara: What is your culinary guilty pleasure?
- Chris: Pizza or chocolate chip cookies. I ate a lot of both of those and both tie into a lot childhood memories. They are some of the things I couldn’t live without.
Another chef who foraged gave Chris bi-colored bolete (porcini family) that needed to be cooked a very long time before they were edible. As a good chef, you taste as you go and a small taste early on gave him similar symptoms of food poisoning and he became extremely light headed. When quizzed about determining what is safe or not safe to eat when foraging, Chris advised, “After years of working in top restaurants around the country, I can recognize the numerous mushrooms and also use my field guide. I only work with mushrooms I’m 100% sure are edible – nothing questionable at all.”
- Dara: What is the best dish that you cook?
- Chris: I am not sure about that. I have been told a dish I do which is maple glazed pork belly with a poached egg and buttered toast powder when eaten has changed guests’ lives. I get really good feedback on the dish so I might have to say that.
Chris guards his secret foraging spots here in the Baltimore area but on a good day, he can find ramps, fiddleheads, black walnuts, berries and an assortment of mushrooms, even the most prized morels.
- Dara: Truffle Oil?
- Chris: It is good if used in the proper manner. It easily can become overpowering.
- Dara: What is the hardest part of being a chef?
- Chris: Finding a balance between my personal and professional life. It is stressful on relationships, the time demand of the industry.
Actually it was his foraging that got him a job at the award winning Blue Hill at Stone Bar in New York and working with James Beard award winner Chef Dan Barber. Amendola would sell his bounty from his foraging to Chef Barber. One day, after seeing an ad for a cook at Blue Hill at Stone Barn, Chris took in his basket of wild edibles along with his resume. “I worked every position in the kitchen from garde manger to expediter,” quipped Chris.
- Dara: When you dine out, is there a preferential cuisine?
- Chris: No real preference, I can eat BBQ one night and have sushi the next. Where I dine would be based on what I was in the mood to eat at the time. I do have to say that Korean is a current favorite.
Amendola came to Baltimore via the Bagby Restaurant Group and was Executive Chef at Fleet Street Kitchen and then on to the opening chef for Bookmaker’s Cocktail Club in Federal Hill. Excited about the emerging food scene in Baltimore, feeling there are numerous changes soon to be seen, he seems settled on sticking around and calling Baltimore home.
Mari Luna Latin Grille – 1010 Reisterstown Road – Pikesville, Md 21208 (410) 653-5151 www.mariluna.com/latin-grille