Cooking with Chef Todd Stein • Part 1 • I'm Not Worthy!

March 18, 2013

This is the first of a five part series with award winning Chef Todd Stein. The final post will detail the complete recipe and directions for cooking Chef Stein's version of Cacio e Pepe.

You know that scene in Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth get to interview Alice Cooper and they exclaim, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”  Well, that’s kind of how I felt when I was lucky enough to get to spend an afternoon with acclaimed Chicago chef Todd Stein. He recently stopped by my house to show me how to make the classic Italian pasta dish, Cacio e Pepe. It's a dish that prominently features pepper (duh, right?).

When I was on the fence about launching RPC, a close friend of mine suggested I meet Chef Stein. While I knew that the Tellicherry pepper I found was special, I wanted a culinary nod of approval before I actually started selling it. (Remember, I was reluctant.) I met Todd last October and gave him a jar of Divakar’s No. 004. I was relieved when Todd started texting me exuberant messages about the Reluctant Pepper during the following week. Todd gave me the confidence to move forward.

So now that I’ve been in business for a few months, I figured it was time to learn how to actually cook with the stuff. So who better to teach me how to use the pepper than one of Chicago’s premier Italian chefs? (Actually, Todd just moved to Atlanta, but more on that later.)

While I enjoy a great meal and think that I have a discerning palate, I certainly don't consider myself a culinarian. So I felt pretty lucky to be able to spend a few hours with a chef as well respected as Todd.

Todd developed an interest in cooking way back in fifth grade when he got to work in a suburban Chicago kitchen for a day. But Todd's big break came several years later, just as he was starting culinary school. He scored an internship working for legendary chef Keith Korn at Gordon.

Todd attended Kendall Culinary College in Chicago. In 1995, Todd studied abroad in Europe and it changed his life. Interestingly though, it wasn't Paris, where he was working at the time, that transformed him. It was Italy. Todd's sister lived in Bologna and he made frequent trips to see her. It was on those trips that he fell in love with Italian cooking. Todd learned how to cook simply like the Italians with just fresh, local ingredients. Todd took this sensibility back home with him to the States and still practices it today.

 Over the past decade, Todd has been Executive Chef at some of the finest Italian restaurants in Chicago (not to mention Cleveland, Vegas and Minneapolis) including MK, Cibo Matto, The Florentine and Piccolo Sogno Due.

In 2011, Todd was asked to appear on Iron Chef America to battle "Iron Chef" Bobby Flay. The chefs were asked to make five dishes in an hour using a secret ingredient (revealed to be mussels) and then the dishes were judged on several criteria. Todd lost the face-off with Flay by just one point.

Todd's accolades include being named a prestigious James Beard Award semi-finalist in the Best New Restaurant category in 2010. Chicago Magazine called Cibo Matto the Best Hotel restaurant in Chicago. And Todd's restaurants have consistently received rave reviews from Zagats, The Chicago Tribuneand The Chicago Sun Times as well as from a loyal fan base.

Technically, Todd is now a former Chicagoan. Todd just accepted a job as Executive Chef at Two Urban Licks in Atlanta, a hot, happening warehouse restaurant that's interestingly not Italian. Todd left last week for Georgia. A bummer for all of us in the Chicago area.

Rather than just have Todd show me how to cook Cacio e Pepe and then pass the recipe along to you, I thought it would be more interesting to first go to the grocery store with Todd and talk to him as we picked out ingredients.

We spent several hours together, just shooting the shiitake. Both my stomach and my mind were satiated by the end of the afternoon. In order to keep the interview digestible, I've decided to split the blog post up into several parts.

Chef Todd Stein's Cacio e Pepe featuring fresh ground Organic Reluctant Trading PeppercornsThe next installment, "Lost in the Supermarket," will describe our trip to Whole Foods. Then, in "Home on the (Wolf) Range," we'll return to my house to talk about cooking. I do my best to distract Todd by interrogating him about his background and his Italian approach to cooking. Eventually, I stop cracking jokes just long enough (or Todd is able to ignore me) to be able to cook the Cacio e Pepe.

I had quite a day with Chef Stein. As I've been reviewing my notes, photos and video, I can only think one thing. I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!

In Part 2, "Lost in the Supermarket," we take a trip to the local Whole Foods to collect ingredients to cook the classic Italian dish, Cacio e Pepe. It's a good time, because it's not often you get to pick the brain of a top chef about how to choose the right stuff at the grocery store.

Over the course of this five part series, I'll show how Chef Stein was able to take a few simple ingredients and turn them into something worth blogging about. And how you can reproduce the same dish at home.

Next Posts in This Series
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 2 • Lost in the Supermarket
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 3 • Home on the (Wolf) Range
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 4 • Now We're Cooking
Cooking with Chef Stein • Part 5 • The Recipe

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