I can't quite remember how I came to realize how much of Recess' stardom was comprised of Abbi Merris' imagination. It may have been after the times the venerable Greg Hardesty highlighted and branded her dishes (like "Abbi's bologna") on the restaurant's groupie-crazed Facebook page. Or when my own Facebook stalking efforts were rewarded with Merris' profile, which had several impressive food endeavors posted, including something that looked like a giant, possibly edible snail. Clearly there was more than one serious artist in Hardesty's kitchen.
It's surprising; there seem to be so few young virtuosos in any field these days, with the possible exception of the youth-dominated internet and social media industry. Smooth skinned, pixie-cut-haired Merris is 27, but she's been cooking for large groups since 12.
Merris was only 22 when she walked into Hardesty's Elements, looking for a job as a server, which she had never been prior to that day.
"Greg thought it would work better for me in the kitchen, so he created a spot for me," she says. "I worked there for three years and worked my way up."
Hardesty seems to have picked Merris as his protÃ�'Â©gÃ�'Â© before she realized the honor of his mentorship. Hardesty was her first teacher of cooking technique.
"He taught me a lot about fundamentals and trial and error," she recalls. "In the end I was the pastry chef as well as line cook in the evenings."
Later, Hardesty would be instrumental in nominating Merris for the most prestigious scholarship given by the Chef's Academy, the Presidential Scholarship.
Perhaps that's why it's so hard to tell where Merris' technique stops and Hardesty's begins. But the chef/owner has assured me on several occasions that Merris has held down the fort many nights when he hasn't stepped foot in the restaurant. And those divine desserts have an inordinate amount of Merris's influence; pastries are her specialty.
It was over a couple of beers with Merris at Moe & Johnny's, when I first started realizing she might be the city's next big chef thing. It was there I discovered everything about her-cooking coming-of-age, which started with greeting her mother with meals after work. By now, when she's not cooking at Recess, she's undergoing the day-long task of homebrewing with her boyfriend, H20 sushi chef John Adams, even though she prefers Champagne. That's foodication.
Here's more from our conversation.
NUVO: How did you get into cooking?
Merris: I started cooking at home for my family when I was about 12. I would surprise my mother with big dinners when she came home from work. Then I was a nanny over the summers [at 14 years old] and cooked for their family. The mother I worked for did teach me this one recipe, baked spaghetti, that I still use to this day. It's not a traditional style bake. My friends and family love it when i make it!
NUVO: Tell me about your Presidential Scholarship and subsequent apprenticeship in New York.
Merris: Greg [Hardesty] was on the advisory board for The Chef''s Academy, and they give scholarships out to the board.Each chef finds one person from restaurants [to nominate], and after the nominee turns in an essay and recommendations, the school picks one.Tony Hanslits called Greg one week prior to school starting and told him that I got it! It was a huge change in my life, going to school and then to work every day. It was great!
Toward the end of school [November, 2008], I was able to go to New York City and do my internship at a place called P*ong. Chef Pichet Ong was the chef and owner. It was a sweet and savory restaurant. I also worked under chef Iacopo Falai at restaurant Falai, which is modern Italian. I spent three months doing grueling work and fun there!
NUVO: What's your favorite food? I know you mentioned Mediterranean, and maybe pasta.
Merris: I love cooking Mediterranean dishes and family-style Italian. During the summers I love to cook simple vegetable dishes and meat. I also love sitting down to an Italian family-style dinner outside with bottles of wine and good friends. Nothing is better than that!
NUVO: Your favorite libation is Champagne, correct? Any specific varieties? Do you fancy any sparkling wine from outside the region?
Merris: Oh, I love the bubbly and nice white wines. I'm not too picky when it comes to drinking. Sitios Con Class is my favorite bottle of white right now though. It's in the Rueda, Spain region.
NUVO: What do you think you're best at cooking?
Merris: That's hard to say. Sometimes I feel confident about most things. But then something comes along and challenges me. I think I do pretty well with pastries. I would also say that cooking meat is something else that I'm pretty good at.
NUVO: Which dish are you most proud of having served at Recess?
Merris: There have been so many. My favorite dessert that I've done is a lemon curd terrine with poppy seed cake crackers and a fig molasses. It was delicious and beautiful!
NUVO: Is there anything that thwarts you to cook?
Merris: I do get a little nervous doing Asian food, because I haven't really trained in that too much. And also because my boyfriend John Adams is pretty amazing at it.
NUVO: Favorite restaurant city besides New York?
Merris: Chicago is a awesome city culinarily, and I've been able to enjoy a few restos there!
NUVO: Favorite restaurant in the world?
Merris: There are so many restaurants to choose from! Unfortunately, I haven't been able YET to make it to them. I would love to go to Le Pigeon in Portland; I like their casualness. Of course, the French Laundry in California, and Asador Etxebarri in Spain.
4907 N. College Ave.
This week, you can find Beer Buzz and Culinary Picks at nuvo.net.