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Sticks and Stone

Curtis Stone grills peerless piri piri chicken
Curtis Stone's Piri Piri Chicken
Photo & Video: Dave Katz/Tasting Table 

Curtis Stone claims he's never worked a day in his life. That's not to say the 39-year-old chef, restaurateur, on-air personality and cookbook author hasn't sweated through countless kitchen shifts, TV shows and book manuscripts; he just knows how lucky he is to do just that for a living.

Most Americans probably know Stone from his stints on Top Chef Masters, America's Next Great Restaurant and Celebrity Apprentice 3 (The Donald gave him a fourth-place finish). But after getting his start in a hotel kitchen at age 18, the Melbourne-raised chef spent the bulk of the next decade under the tutelage of Marco Pierre White, honing his craft on the lines at Michelin-starred London restaurants including Mirabelle, before taking over as head chef at White's Quo Vadis. Like scores of chefs before and since, Stone got hooked on the nightly thrill of service.

"There's nothing more exciting," he says. "You go through your preparation, then as five o'clock starts to approach, you get your coffee, and just before you kick off, there's that little adrenaline rush. The lights dim, the music comes on, the guests start to arrive and you know that you're in it whether you're ready or not."

Chef Curtis Stone

And then, suddenly, he wasn't in it any more. In the early 2000s, Stone stepped off the line and in front of the camera as host of Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Surfing the Menu and then TLC's Take Home Chef, and spent the next decade building a massive following as a cookbook author and TV chef. It's an enviable position and end goal for plenty of people, but it didn't sit well with him.

"I loved cooking at a high level and being experimental with food," Stone admits. "I guess after a few years, people were starting to ask questions like, 'Is he actually a chef? Can he actually cook?' So I wanted to open a serious restaurant, a tiny little 25-seater with only a tasting menu. I wanted to put together a group who are brilliant at what they do and love that sort of camaraderie like I always had."

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And that's pretty much what his year-old Maude restaurant in Los Angeles is, with one major twist: The menu changes every month, and all nine courses center around a single, in-season ingredient. April, for example, is asparagus month.

"To me, seasonality is the most important thing when you're considering what you cook and buy," Stone says. "It's at its cheapest, and it's going to taste better than at any other time of the year. If you're choosing the best ingredients, just need to apply the right cooking technique to it, choose the right thing for the right environment, and you've got a beautiful meal."

If eating and cooking the same ingredient night after night doesn't lead to flavor fatigue for Stone, he says it shouldn't for home chefs either. "You have just a couple of weeks to a few months to be able to really use an ingredient that's in season. Just when you're getting to the point of thinking, Maybe I'm a little sick of peas, you move on to the next thing."

The other meal he never tires of cooking: family dinner. Maintaining that ritual with his wife, actress Lindsay Price, and two young boys is what keeps his life in balance, he says. Stone tries to incorporate his eldest son, Hudson, into the process whenever possible, whether it's taking him to a farm to see where the ingredients come from or having him sit up in the sink at the restaurant or his home test kitchen.

"When you start teaching kids where their food comes from, they gain a real understanding as to what's going into their food, and they don't go to that place of 'I don't like that,'" he says.

One dish that never stands a chance of that reaction is his grilled piri piri chicken skewers with slaw (see the recipe). While cooking in London, where there's a large Portuguese community, Stone fell in love with the dish and has since adapted it for a quick weeknight meal in his new cookbook, Good Food, Good Life ($35).

"You can pull it together in a flash. It's got a real zing and spiciness to it. You've got a real crunch from the slaw. It's something that I promise you once you've made once at home, you'll keep coming back to," he says.

The boneless, skinless chicken thighs get an overnight bath in a combo of chiles and vinegar, then slide onto skewers. Whether they're cooked on a grill pan or over an outdoor fire, Stone assures, "You can still achieve that deep caramelization, so you're going to naturally draw the sugars of whatever it is you're cooking to the surface . . . that sort of burnt char-y delicious sweetness."

He laughs, "It makes me salivate just thinking about it!" Our mouths are watering, too.

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