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: Ryan Pfeiffer

Restaurant: Blackbird

Asparagus puree with puffed grains and chamomile

Mentor: Tim Bucci, culinary instructor and gold medalist in the World Culinary Olympics

“Chef Timothy was my first instructor at Joliet Junior College—that’s where I went to culinary school. He was pretty much the first person that was able to lasso me into focusing on anything in my life, and I just kind of latched on to him like a parasite and sucked up everything I could get out of him. He was always very accepting of me being so nosy. Pretty much every single thing I do I think, ‘Would he be OK with it?’ And that’s what I instill into my cooks.

“The dish I’m making is very simple, just asparagus prepared a couple of different ways with some puffed grains for texture and chamomile for bitterness and floralness. The first epiphany I ever had tasting something was a sauce that [Bucci] made, a puree of tomatoes that he emulsified brown butter into. When I tasted the sauce, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I just couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that it gave it so much body, this flavor that didn’t come from the tomato, and the fact that it stayed as one homogenous mixture. I still think about it all the time. So I made a puree from a different vegetable that’s also emulsified with brown butter.”   v