Ali Banks is the Resident Chef at Sur La Table, where she teaches various cooking classes and develops recipes. She studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where she enriched her culinary experience largely by cooking with international friends. When she returned from France, she worked at New York’s Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, where she learned all about whole-animal butchery. She is on a constant quest to teach and learn the ins and outs of food and cooking.
Q: What made you want to become a chef? Was there an element of your family life growing up that led you to this career choice?
A: I’ve always cooked, but I didn’t always want to be a chef. As a little girl, I would make concoctions in my mother’s kitchen and always wanted to help while she was cooking. My mom is a great cook so I definitely learned a lot of useful kitchen tricks before I had any formal training. I had my hands in everything and spent Saturday mornings watching Martha Stewart instead of cartoons. Even though my formal education led me off the culinary path for a little while, you could say that I was destined to share my passion for food (and eating) professionally.
Q: Who or what is behind your culinary inspiration?
A: I think authenticity in ethnic dishes or an amazing home-cooked meal. I absolutely love researching something I’ve never made on my own before and recreating a dish to be the way I remember it or how someone remembers their mom or grandmother making it. Most often, your first food memory isn’t from a Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s from a home-cooked meal.
Q: What are the three tools you can’t live without while cooking a meal?
A: Tongs: I’m planning a picnic in Sonoma this weekend and they’re already packed. Locking tongs are indispensable. A sharp knife: Using a dull knife in the kitchen is extremely frustrating and dangerous. A Microplane: I can always find a use for it whether it is to liven things up with zest, finely grate some garlic or just add some hard cheese to a dish.
Q: What ingredient are you most willing to splurge on?
A: Meat. I’m not sure why anyone would want to eat inexpensive protein. After working in a fancy butcher shop, I stand by the idea of eating the best quality meat and a lot less of it in one sitting than most Americans are used to.
Q: What’s one budget item that should be on every home gourmet’s grocery list?
A: Salt! It makes everything taste like a better version of itself. Don’t believe me? Do a side-by-side comparison with watermelon or tomatoes this summer and see what a difference a little bit of salt makes.
Q: What is the best dish you’ve ever made?
A: Everyone always asks what my signature dish is or what is the best thing I’ve ever made. I usually come up with an answer so I don’t look like an incompetent chef, but really, I don’t know. I tend to cook whatever I’m craving and, luckily, I can usually satisfy whatever that might be. When I was living in Paris, there were a few occasions where my friends and I were dying for specific things from New York. Because of that, we made some pretty amazing copy-cat Shake Shack, Chinese take-out style fried rice and an Indian FEAST I still think about from time to time.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give to an amateur chef?
A: Be patient when you’re cooking. Don’t try to turn meat or fish that just hit the pan, take the time to cut you vegetables so they’re all the same size, brine or marinate for the amount of time indicated; your meals will turn out better if you exercise a little patience!
– Emma Stratigos