The chef: Richard Farina is a chef made for television. He’s a partner in an influential, bleeding-edge postmodern restaurant, but he comes across more like a pro skater or extreme-sports fan: young, energetic, and heavily tattooed, with unusually sculpted facial hair, and a TV-friendly combination of unabashed enthusiasm and humble self-awareness. Farina has put in his time on television, representing molecular gastronomy to the world on the Discovery Channel’s Future Food, the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, and especially as a contestant on season nine of Top Chef. Since 2008, he’s also put in his time at Chicago’s Michelin-starred restaurant Moto, working his way up from entry level to executive chef.
Talking to The Dissolve about his attitude toward food, Farina was frank about Moto not being for everyone, but while he’s constantly excited about getting to experiment with new techniques, new equipment, and new ideas, he isn’t precious about prioritizing concept over his clients. “I find myself to be more accommodating to guests than some other chefs I’ve worked for, or seen,” he said. “We’re a celebration restaurant. It’s not like ‘Hey, we’re hungry, let’s go eat at Moto tonight.’ For two people, with wine pairings, it’s like, $700 for dinner. You save up for the year for that; you’re celebrating a birthday, or whatever you’re coming here to do. I’m willing to do whatever the guest wants, because I want everyone to feel appreciated on that occasion.”
Asked to pair a favorite film with a dish of his own creation, Farina chose 2005’s Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, the fourth installment in the film series about a boy wizard. In this chapter, directed by Mike Newell (the third director to take up the series), Harry gets unwillingly dragged into a magical competition between the three major schools of witchcraft and wizardry. At one point, challenged to retrieve something precious to him from underwater, he’s given a solution in the form of a magical plant that causes him to grow gills and fins. That was the inspiration for Farina’s dish, a Moto standard that can be adapted for a variety of ingredients.
The Dissolve: Why this dish to go with Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire?
Richard Farina: I wanted to make a connection—I think it’s in the second challenge that [the competitors] have to go down with the mermaids, and dive way down and eat gillyweed, which is a kind of a seaweed. They start on the land and go down into the lake, so I combined surf and turf with that idea and the actual eating of the seaweed to give him the gills.
The Dissolve: Is this a favorite film of yours?
Farina: It’s one of my favorite films. I think it’s my favorite book out of the series, just due to the fact that it’s the first one you hit where there’s a lot of action going on. I mean, the first 200 pages of the book are all about the Quidditch World Cup, so you start with that. You meet a lot of new characters that play a big role later on in the movies. You’re battling dragons, you’re fighting with mermaids. It’s the first time you actually really see Harry face Voldemort. It’s the movie that sets up the last three films, and it’s the turning point where the series goes from happy, little-kids stuff to, “All right, we’re going a little more dark, and getting more into the adult aspects of the films.”
The Dissolve: Are you one of those Harry Potter fans who grew up alongside the series?
Farina: Back in 2001 or 2002, I was a freshman in college, and I was home for winter break. My little cousin was like, “Oh, let’s watch this Harry Potter.” I had never read the book, I knew nothing really about it, but I was like, “All right, I’ll watch it with you, why not?” We get about halfway through, he takes off to do something, and I’m sitting there still glued to the TV. I got hooked on it that way. For Christmas, I asked for all four books, blew through all those. As each movie came out, I went and saw it with my friends. Everyone can connect with it, though—J.K. Rowling was able to hit 5-year-olds to 85-year-olds that are interested in the series. So yeah, I grew up with it as it started happening, but I wasn’t like, a 10-year-old reading it.
The Dissolve: So you never had to experience that dissonance so many people get, where you read the books and have a mental image of what things look like, and then things don’t look right to you in the film version?
Farina: Not really. I watched the second movie before I finished the fourth book. I finished books three and four after I saw the second movie. I was picturing the movie characters doing whatever in the books. But the settings that you see later in the movies was where that disconnect hit me. A big one is in Deathly Hallows—I pictured the final big battle scene at Hogwarts as way bigger than what they showed in the movie. I figured there was this giant, epic battle; they did a good amount of that in the movie, but I saw it as so much bigger.
The Dissolve: The series goes to even darker, more adult places after Goblet Of Fire. Why do you stick there as being the one you really like?
Farina: Because that one is a combination of happy and dark. You really see a transition from Harry being a little kid to accepting the challenges of what he has to do. It’s a good one that teaches conquering fears, and depending on friends to get you through things. As you say, when you get further into the series, that gets echoed a lot more, but it’s the first one where you see the characters bond together as the three friends they are, helping each other out to push past something that none of them could accomplish on their own. To me, it’s a good combination of the friendship, the action you want, a little bit of the heroic stuff, a little dark here and there. And I really like what the director did. They changed directors almost every single movie, and you can see—especially with The Half-Blood Prince, that was probably my least favorite movie, because there’s so much story in the book that they leave out. That one focused more on the teenager-y, “Oh, I have feelings for that person,” and it got away from what I thought the series was about. The fourth director nailed it, where you connect with all the cast and members.
The Dissolve: Do you think Goblet Of Fire as a movie is better than the book?
Farina: For entertainment purposes, yes, because you’re condensing six hours of reading into a two-hour movie. I’ve always been more of a movie person than a reader.
The Dissolve: Are you a fantasy fan? Do your film tastes gravitate to things like the Lord Of The Rings series, or the Hunger Games series?
Farina: I am a fan of things that really escape reality. To me, movies and TV are entertainment. Yes, reality TV is this big thing going on now, and there are realistic movies. Depressing movies are nice every once in a while, if it has a really good story, or maybe makes you cry. But I’d rather go with fantasy stuff. People gravitate toward seeing things they can’t see in normal life. The whole World Of Warcraft thing, and online avatars, there’s a reason they’ve become super-popular: People are attracted to, “My life kind of sucks normally; I want to be an elf and go shoot somebody, and destroy stuff.” Everyone who sees the movies picks one character they identify with the most. Being able to do that leads me toward the fantasy stuff.
The Dissolve: Do you think that interest in escapism relates to the particular kind of cuisine you do?
Farina: I think so. I’m very lucky that there is no box at Moto—there’s no, “We do Italian. We do French.” I can play in whatever sandbox I want. If I want to have an Italian dish, and then a Spanish dish, and then a Mexican dish, and then a nice lamb dish, I’m able to do it. That creative freedom, my personality, and what attracts me in my outside life really translates to my food, and my style that I really have here. I’m big into art—I’m covered in tattoos—and everyone says food is art, and brings off an artist’s point of view. I can really take that to literal extremes, having sauce on a plate re-creating a landscape scene. My personality is attracted to the minds that think, “Let’s create a whole other world.”
The Dissolve: Does the fact that Goblet Of Fire centers so heavily on a competition particularly appeal to you?
Farina: A little! I’m a very fierce competitor; I hate losing anything. I was on season nine of Top Chef, and I went out very early; 99.9 percent of me is over that. It’s in the past; I did it. It boosted my career years in advance—people know who I am now. There’s still a very small part of me that kicks myself for blowing the chance of maybe going on further. There’s a little friendly competition within a kitchen. I’m in a flag-football team on Monday nights; yes, it’s fun, but I want to win. I train in MMA, as well, and even doing our little sparring matches in class, I don’t want to be the one that gets tapped out. I’m not a big fan of losing. Not saying I’m a sore loser. I’m not super-competitive, where every little thing is a competition, but I don’t like not being the top.
The Dissolve: A number of chefs have said their Top Chef experiences were pretty negative. If they called you back for one of their all-star seasons where they bring in past competitors, would you have any second thoughts about going in?
Farina: In a heartbeat I would do it. I have unfinished business. I feel that Moto has gotten this rap of being a gimmicky place where we don’t do real food. Trying to break that concept that people might have of us—we cook real food. Yeah, it might be a little different, and you might not understand why we did this or that. But it still tastes good; it’s awesome. It’s just transformed, and looks like something different. And I’d be able to show more of my own style. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve grown so much as a chef, in the past two years since I did the show. The food I was doing back then, I’m looking at now and I’m like, “That’s so much simpler than what I’m doing right now.” The money and this and that doesn’t really matter, but having the notoriety of these panelist chefs they bring on, very high-end people that I respect, having them pick your food as being the best, means something really awesome. If they called me today and said, “Hey, we want you to hop on a flight on Sunday and come film a show,” I’d say “Okay, I’m out, Omar [Chef Homaro Cantu, Moto’s owner]. You’ve gotta find someone to watch the restaurant. I’m going to go try and win this thing again.” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: It seems like Top Chef has always had some of that bias over molecular gastronomy. Ever since Marcel Vigneron in season two, it seems that that’s the narrative: “It’s interesting, but it isn’t real food.”
Farina: It’s true. Molecular got a bad rap. To me, molecular is transforming the appearance of something you’re used to seeing. Okay, take a grape: We’ll freeze-dry it, now we’ll turn it into a noodle. It still tastes like grape, but we’re transforming what it normally looks like. But people forgot it had to taste good; people forgot that it had to be seasoned. Just because you gel lemon purée doesn’t make it taste good if you didn’t add sugar and salt. So many people were like, “Oh, I can just buy this online, and make this awesome powder.” Awesome powder doesn’t taste like anything. I think people got the idea that it’s the additives that makes stuff taste bad, or it’s a dog-and-pony show. You’re just trying to do smoke and mirrors to make things look amazing, but they don’t live up to what they should taste like. If I ever did get to go back on Top Chef, I would try and prove I have all these techniques in my back pocket. I can still cook what you normally do, but I can make it look like something completely different, and blow your mind with what we’re doing here. Why not?
The Dissolve: The original idea behind this column was, if you as a chef were showing your favorite movie to friends, what would you make to go with it? I’m assuming this isn’t something you would make at home for dinner for friends.
Farina: Probably not. Outside of work, as bad as it sounds, I’m a huge junk-food fan. I love fast food. People always do the double take: “You’re the chef at Moto. Why would you eat McDonald’s?” When you go to a restaurant, depending on where you’re going, you’re looking for consistency, how fast it is, and is it seasoned well. McDonald’s has it down to a science! It takes about five minutes for food, you know the french fries will always taste the same way, the burgers will be exactly the same. It isn’t the healthiest thing; I eat it once a week as my little treat. I tend to have a salty palate. But if I was cooking at home, I would treat it like a staff meal. We have a staff meal every day, so it would probably be a pasta dish, or something you throw salt in it and make it taste good. When I do surf-and-turf for my friends at home, I’ll probably do some pasta dish, some gnocchi to go with everything. I tend to be more toward the Italian side of me when I’m cooking for friends and family.
The Dissolve: When I last visited Moto a few years ago, one of the big themes was deconstructed food, taking a familiar dish into separate pieces. Do you approach culture that way? When you’re watching a film, do you ever take that same step back to look at the different pieces of it, how they’re working on you, and how they’re put together?
Farina: I just enjoy it. I try to shut off the work side of me when I’m outside, as hard as it is—90 percent of the time, I don’t. But if I’m going for entertainment purposes, something I want to enjoy, the last thing I want to do is try to analyze it and break it down to pieces like, “This could’ve been better.” I just try and enjoy it for what they made it to be.
The Dissolve: Is Moto still about deconstruction? Do you have a particular guiding principle as executive chef?
Farina: I’ve been here almost six years, and I’ve seen a lot of transition since I’ve been here. When I first started, Moto was an adolescent—we were 16 years old, like, “I don’t give a shit what these people think. I want to do this food my way. Screw your parents, I don’t care.” We were rebellious. A couple years ago, we were in our early 20s; we were in college and decided, “We’ll experiment with this. We kind of know what we want to do.” Now, I think, under my tutelage, we’re in our mid-to-late 20s. We’ve found a career, we’re settling in our life, settling down, we’re becoming more sophisticated. We’re still having fun, the whimsical personality, but it’s grown up. There’s really no style. I have one dish you could call deconstructed, but other than that, it changes throughout what I’m feeling like those months. Maybe something inspired me, or maybe I saw something that triggered something else that led to a bunch of other things. Right now, I’m on a big nature kick, so I’m using natural rocks and sticks and leaves, and using things that aren’t meant to be plates as plates—doing a bunch of prep on something, then making it look like it’s been untouched. Probably the only dish that’s deconstructed is the Baking 101, which gets reconstructed: It’s all the components of a cake batter that you mix together, and then you taste it. It looks raw, but it’s actually all cooked. You can eat it safely. Deconstruction to me is like, every component of that deconstruction has to be well-seasoned on its own. You can’t be like, “You have to make sure you eat everything together for it to be a good bite.” What’s the purpose in breaking it all into different points if you’re forcing guests to eat it all back in one bite again?
The Dissolve: Harry Potter is mass culture, popular culture. Is the part of you that connects with the consistency and the crowd-pleasing aspects of McDonald’s the same that connects you to Harry Potter?
Farina: I think so. There’s parts of me that settle in with high society, like being at Moto, and being refined. But there’s also the little-kid part of me that shuts off with stuff and accepts fun and accepts things around that. My apartment looks like a toy store. I collect vinyl figurines made by Kidrobot and other artists. A lot of me just enjoys stuff. I try not to overanalyze things, I try not to—for lack of a better term—be hipster about it, like, “I’m so much better than this. I did this so many years ago.” Whatever’s out there, enjoy it. When I go out and eat at another fine-dining restaurant, it’s hard to not think, “That needs salt. This needs acid. Why is this cold?” [Laughs.] It becomes second nature, where you analyze stuff, depending on what your job is. My sister is a sound engineer for the Goodman Theatre; if we go somewhere that has live music, she’s listening to the speakers and going, “That one is too high. That one is too low.” Whatever your job is, whatever you do, part of your mind goes into work mode and analyzes stuff there. But you should enjoy things. We as a society take things way too seriously. We forget to have fun with a lot of stuff. You can make connections here and there, but have fun and go play outside for 30 minutes a day. [Laughs.]
photos by Jason Little
This is a dish that’s been served at Moto in the past. It’s meant to evoke an undersea landscape of rocks and plants, arranged on a base of savory, sandy “soil,” underscored with a rich mushroom purée below. Farina says the recipe of the completed dish varies at Moto: “I call it ‘surf and turf,’ which is normally lobster and steak. But this is a vegan version, playing off the idea of mushrooms and seaweed as actual components of the surf. The cool thing about this is that as the seasons change, the recipe changes, because we use different mushrooms, based on what’s in season. For pescetarians, we’ll add a piece of oil-poached mahi to it as well.”
For these photos, Farina used sautéed lion’s mane, shiitake, and matsutake mushrooms for the “rocks” in the final preparation, and red and white tosaka seaweed and pieces of fried kale as the “plants,” with a few sea grapes added to reinforce the dish’s saltiness. But while it can be made with a variety of mushrooms or vegetables, the base of the dish doesn’t change—the loam made with powdered mushrooms, kombu (dried seaweed, found in Asian supermarkets and health-food stores), and tapioca maltodextrin. (The latter, available from online stores, is a powdered starch that absorbs fat: “Anything that’s liquid at room temperature, you can mix in with this, and it turns to powder.” Farina says. “And as you eat it, and your mouth warms it, it releases the oil and the flavor. It seems like a lot on the plate, but it melts away in your mouth.”)
Mushroom purée ingredients:
7 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned
3 cloves garlic
1/2 bunch thyme
1 quart mushroom stock
balsamic vinegar, to taste
Quarter the cremini mushrooms. Place mushrooms with chopped garlic, shallots, and thyme in a large mixing bowl. Add a little oil and toss the ingredients until lightly coated. Season with salt.
Place seasoned vegetables on a sheet tray and bake in an oven at 300ºF for 20 minutes.
Remove vegetables from the tray and place in a blender with the mushroom stock. Starting on low speed, purée the mushrooms.
Season to taste with balsamic vinegar and salt. Strain through a chinois.
Umami soil ingredients:
10 oz. vegetable oil
3.5 oz. kombu sheets, for steeping
5 oz. crimini mushroom powder
3 oz. kombu powder
10 oz. tapioca maltodextrin
Salt to taste
Add kombu sheets to oil. Heat to 200˚F. Steep for three hours. Strain.
Place tapioca maltodextrin in food processor. While mixing, slowly drizzle in kombu oil until it dissolves. Scrape down sides of food processor, pulse for five seconds to combine contents.
Add mushroom powder and kombu powder to food processor. Pulse until the mixture achieves a soil-like consistency. Layer soil over mushroom purée; add sautéed mushrooms, kale, seaweeds, other leaf vegetables, or fish as desired, spaced over the soil bed.