Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Neil Ferguson: When I was 12, I had a fancy dining experience, and something sparked – it made me want to cook. I started taking French classes and took cookery at school.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
NF: Alain Passard – he is the first person that focused on provenance. He taught me to really focus on where you source your product, and how to use and listen to your 5 senses when cooking.
AB: Have you done any influential stages?
NF: I staged at the Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons and at The French Laundry.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
NF: Be very, very patient. Make sure you have an understanding of every area of the kitchen. Don’t take your first sous chef position too young, and take the time to make sure that you are a well-rounded individual and cook.
AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
NF: Mustard – it’s just taken for granted and not showcased the way it could be. I buy really good mustard and use it as a feature or garnish on the plate.
AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
NF: Apricots and almonds; fennel and pear; hazelnuts and sunchokes; licorce and sage.
AB: Is there a special technique you’ve developed?
NF: I’m really into braising. I slow-braise the middle necks of the lamb for 24 hours. We use a stand-alone gas-fired tilt skillet – and a big 40-50 gallon braising arm with a mechanical arm to raise and lower it.
AB: What trends are you seeing in restaurants and cuisine?
NF: Local produce and slow food are the most common threads at the moment. Restaurants are becoming a lot more fun again! Formal restaurants are opening less and less… diners are looking for more casual experiences.
AB: How do you explain your philosophy on food and dining?
NF: I want my diner to feel comfortable and relaxed. I want my guest to feel like they are welcome. They are special. I want them to go away thinking “I want to come back to try something else.”
AB: If you could cook for any chef, who would it be? Who would you have cook for you?
NF: I’d cook for Escoffier. I’d serve braised middle neck of lamb and potato puree. I’d want Alain Chapel to cook for me – he trained Ducasse, and had a heart attack at 50.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
NF: I think I would be doing something with nature, possibly in the Galapagos Islands.