We continue to be inspired by the stories, talent and passion featured on Chopped. Chef Danny Lachs is a great example of someone who followed his dreams in order to build a successful career in the food industry. We spoke with him to learn about him and his experience on the show.
FP: How did you get your start with cooking? When did you decide you wanted to be a chef? What do you enjoy most about cooking?
DL: Growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, Friday night dinner was always a huge meal. My family and friends would come over and over indulge in way too much food. My mother was an amazing woman and no matter how difficult the week, she made a point of always having quite the spread out for those that were with us. When I was younger I would follow my mom around the kitchen and was always looking for ways to mimic her. At a very young age she would give me a step-stool and I would stand next to her in the kitchen getting involved or making a mess in any way I could.
Over the years I grew fond of the Thursday night cooking sessions that my mother and I would have and I loved the idea of constantly making something new for the family to try. I think that the ability to do something that I felt good about coupled with the fact that I couldn’t stand the serious legal conversations that my older brother and father would have, it made me think that this is something I could do forever.
I decided that I wanted to be a Chef when I was a senior in high school. I told my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school and they just stared at me. Years later my mother would tell me that the blank stare led her to therapy the next day as she felt clueless and hopeless and didn’t really understand what it all meant. What Jewish mother doesn’t want a doctor or a lawyer? My Jewish mother got a chef. In 1998 being a chef was not what it is today.
What I enjoy most is the feeling of being in control. To some people being in the kitchen is a living hell, but to me, it’s the one place where I am most at peace. I remember hearing Kelly Slater, the pro surfer do an interview when I was younger. They asked him what it was like out on the waves and he said “it’s my special place. It’s the one place where I feel at peace with myself”. To me, that is what I love most about cooking. I feel at peace with myself. I love the feeling I get when I see someone eats my food and the smile it puts on their face.
FP: What a great story! Name some chefs that have inspired you along the way.
DL: I don’t want to leave anyone out on the list out but I also don’t have enough room to discuss them all so I will touch on a few:
Chef Floyd Cardoz (TABLA, NORTH END GRILL) – My first NY job was at TABLA and I will never forget watching Chef Floyd. The command he had over the staff and the food was inspirational. Indian food in NY was so unique at the time and this man was a god. He figured out a way to make the Indian cuisine mainstream, and he did it gracefully. To say that Chef Floyd understood flavors would be an understatement. He knew so much about herbs and spices and that inspired me tremendously. Chef Floyd used to tell me stories about his mother, his childhood and the different regions in India. It made me believe that cooking is not is not about education, but rather about passion.
Chef Vincent “Buddy” Guillespie (Houston’s) – My first job out of college was for Buddy and he really taught me to enjoy work each and every day. I was so high-strung at the time that I allowed everything to beat me up. Buddy changed all of that. Buddy was the ultimate people person and always put his team first and it showed in the relationships he has with vendors and his team. To this day we remain close and I always look to him for guidance
David Suarez (Rosa Mexicano) – David took me through some tough times in my life and he was able to relate to it and guide me through it. I think anyone that works in the kitchen for long enough, will eventually go down a troubled path at some point or another, but not many have someone there to help guide them through troubled waters. I was fortunate to have David when I went through my troubled period. I am forever grateful to him for this. He never complained. He always came to work and did his job and it was humbling in many ways.
Rick Bayless – After years of working with varying cuisines I knew that I had a passion for Mexican. This lead me to do a stage for Rick Bayless at Topolobampo. What I discovered was an immense knowledge and passion for food and culture, and this inspired me to immerse myself in Mexican cuisine beyond anything I ever imagined.
FP: That’s a great list. Tell us about your experience on Chopped from casting to filming. What was it like to compete with the other chefs? What will you remember most about the experience?
DL: You have to understand that I, like many chefs am an adrenaline junkie and I love to compete. When Chopped first began on the FN I was a huge fan and would watch it every week and quiz myself to see if I could do it. In my head I always won. About 5 years ago I decided to send in an application and I never heard anything. Year after year I would apply and I eventually met a casting director who was very fond of me. Unfortunately as I heard many times, the white kid from an Ivy league school who worked for Danny Meyers is not story, and well they need a story. This didn’t phase me and I continued to apply time and time again, they probably just got sick of seeing me. I was brought in as an alternate for a few shows in case somebody doesn’t show up. On the third morning of me being an alternate, someone did not show up and I was happily there to take his place.
What I’ll remember most about the experience is that I need to go in with a better plan for the desert round.
FP: When you are home, what are some of your favorite meals to cook for yourself or for guests. If you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in cities/states you’ve visited.
DL: I am a huge fan of Spaghetti Bolognese. I love grinding my own hamburger meat and making fresh burgers. I also enjoy preparing taco night, which is a staple in my household. I recently have been extremely fond of Thai food after spending a few weeks in Thailand, immersing myself in the culture and cuisine. A few weeks ago, I had a bunch of my wife’s coworkers over and prepared a ten course Thai tasting menu including Corn Fritters w/ Coriander & sweet chili sauce, Homemade tofu w/ soy, chili & garlic chips, Braised lobster in a yellow curry, beef ribs over sticky rice, thai tea ice cream.
Eating out is a passion and I don’t feel right naming just a few places, being that there are so many. However, you twisted my arm:
New York: Torissi Italian Specialty, Tortaria, Flex Mussels, Bond St., Casa Mono (will always be one of the best and most interesting places to eat in NY), Antonuccis on the Upper East Side, Bar Pitti, Osteria Morini, and Babbo.
New Jersey: Jerusalem Restaurant in Livingston
Louisiana: Cochon in New Orleans.
California: French Laundry was an experience I will never forget
Texas: La Condesa in Austin.
FP: We’re salivating just thinking about your list and what you cook at home! What are some of your guilty pleasures ? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂
DL: Hands down my guilty pleasure is ices, sorbet or slurpees. If it was up to me I would have a cherry 7-11 slurpee in my hand at all times.
FP: Name three individuals you would want to invite over for dinner and what you would prepare for them?
Danny Meyers – I don’t even know what I would make but I owe this man so much for the person I am today. He is an inspiration and the motivation that got me through so much. He taught me what Hospitality and humanity really are all about.
Scott Conant – It doesn’t matter what I make for him as long as he has my French toast for desert. This time is will not be soaked in wheatgrass.
Morimoto – I would make him my tuna tartar.
FP: In three words, how would your friends and family describe you.
FP: If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing? Any non-cooking hobbies?
DL: I have asked myself this question so many times, in fact I have tried to run away from the food countless times. If I could do anything other than cooking, I think I would be involved in photography. I enjoy the artsy photography scene and the ability to make art out of anything.
FP Thanks so much for your time, Chef Danny. We can’t wait to follow your career far into the future!