For this year’s Reader Key Ingredient Cook-Off, we asked some of Chicago’s top chefs to create a dish to honor a person who influenced their cooking. The exercise stirred many kitchen memories.
Chef: Ben Ruiz
Restaurant: Won Fun Chinese
Dish: Braised octopus with chile bean paste and ramps
Mentor: Erick Williams, executive chef at MK
“I always wanted to be a chef. I came from a family that always cooked at home, but I didn’t appreciate it that much until I went to college and learned what really bad food was. It forced me to cook a lot of my own meals.
“[Williams] taught me how to not bullshit and actually do real cooking. There’s a lot of technological advances in cooking—sous vide, chemical stabilizers, emulsifiers. My approach doesn’t use any of that. I work in an old-school way that was fundamental [at MK]. Erick wanted us to learn to cook food before using technology to make it easier.
“No matter how hard Erick was on us in the kitchen, he was always there for us when we needed him. After I left MK he would call me for a beer, or pick me up from my new job. He’s kind of like a father figure in the industry. He’s always checking in on us, making sure we’re making the right decisions, that the people we’re working for are taking care of us.” v