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Ask a Chef: Paul Shoemaker

Alyssa Haak

May 14, 2015

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Photo by Dale Dudeck

Trained in the kitchens of the French Laundry, Per Se, and Alain Ducasse, chef Paul Shoemaker brings technique-driven cooking and a Southern California sensibility to Firefly in Los Angeles. On Friday, May 15, he'll bring a taste of his elegant and whimsical fare across the country for a lavish dinner at the Beard House. Below, we've got the scoop on his professional surfing past, what nostalgia tastes like for him, and what inspired his upcoming menu.

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What is your inspiration behind the menu for this Beard House event?

At my restaurant Firefly, we use California seasonality as our focal point to make playful dishes that support local purveyors, farmers, and ingredients. My Beard House menu reflects what’s fresh in the spring, combining the agriculture available on the East Coast with the flavors of the West.

What's a dish on your Beard House event menu that you're especially excited about or proud of, and why?

Prime New York Strip Loin with Dutch White Asparagus, Époisses de Bourgogne, and Sauce Bordelaise. White Asparagus is one of my favorite ingredients, and it’s only available for a brief amount of time every year. It’s from Holland, and is sweet and juicy with a nutty flavor that is very versatile.

What’s your guilty-pleasure food?

Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, and salt.

Tell us about the last great meal you ate.

At my mom’s house in February she made tamales—pork, chicken, and beef—with fresh masa. She’s from Mexico, and growing up we used to wait in line for fresh masa after church, and we’d go home to make tamales all day with grilled tomatillo salsa. It’s so nostalgic every time I eat it.

If you could cook one meal for any person (historical, famous, living, or dead), who would be and what you serve them?

Bob Marley—I would love to cook soul food for him on the beach. And Ego from the movie Ratatouille—I would, of course, cook him my version of ratatouille.

What was your first job in the industry? Who gave you your first big break?

I wanted to go the professional surfer route but didn’t have the support from my family, so I knew I had to follow a different passion. With a father from Sicily and a mother from Mexico, I grew up around deeply rooted cooking traditions. I loved to cook with my family and began at a very young age. I became a line cook at restaurants in San Diego at 16 and loved being in that fast-paced environment.

I always had a niche for fine dining and loved the art, thought, and concentration that went into the delicate dishes and plating. My first job as a sous chef was with Michael Cimarusti at Los Angeles’s Water Grill in 1998, and throughout the years I worked for some of the best chefs in the world like Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, and Daniel Boulud.

Who’s been your biggest inspiration?

Outside of the kitchen, my wife and children inspire me with their love, encouragement, and motivation.

In the kitchen, I’ve always looked up to Michel Bras. He inspires me to embrace the simplicity of nature, and use the land to create food that is clean, artistic, and beautiful.

What are the best places to eat in your city these days?

La Super-Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara. Queso soup with melted Oaxacan cheese with fresh tortillas. I believe it's menu item 13. And VG Donut & Bakery in Cardiff—glazed donut with chocolate ganache

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Throughout my many years working with chef Michael Cimarusti, he always told me to follow my heart and passion, and never give it up.

Watch Shoemaker in action on the JBF Kitchen Cam!