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What's Cooking with Chef Aaron Johnson
Dining Committee Chair Karen Growney talks to Chef Aaron Johnson about his path to being a chef, his favorite ingredients, and more.
By: Karen Growney, Dining Committee 

What is your first food memory?

Chef Aaron Johnson: I wanted to be a chef from a young age. When I was in middle school, I was frying bacon. I didn’t realize how quickly grease could ignite. It started a fire that ran up the wall. That was pretty scary. I also loved to cook pork chops. The bones left at the end were always my favorite part.

Who has been your biggest inspiration in the kitchen?
Chef Aaron: Definitely my mother. Wolfgang Puck is another inspiration. I worked at his Obachine Restaurant and had to prove myself to work my way up to cook on the woks. I now love Asian food and enjoy incorporating the flavors into my dishes.

What are some of your favorite ingredients? 
Chef Aaron: Lemongrass, ginger, scallops and basically all seafood. I also love searing steaks—searing, not grilling.

What spices do you avoid? 
Chef Aaron: Szechuan peppercorns—they make my tongue numb. I can’t stand it. I don’t like celery salt and I try not to use dried spices unless we dried them in-house. Basil, thyme and oregano are always better fresh.

What was the most difficult cooking skill for you to master? 
Chef Aaron: Ice carving, and I’m still trying to master it. I use chainsaws, die grinders, chisels, ice picks and my imagination. For my first ice sculpture, I attempted an Easter basket. A child pointed out that there was a “padlock” on display. I was crushed, but it pushed me to try harder.

What is your greatest strength in the kitchen? 
Chef Aaron: Other than cooking, I think it’s my ability to be a good manager and work with people on an empathetic level. I’ve been there, so I can relate. I am also very conscious about managing food costs.

What’s your go-to tool in the kitchen? 
Chef Aaron: I love the way molds or terrines can transform food into beautiful shapes.

Fill in the blank: If I weren’t a chef, I’d be…
Chef Aaron: a police officer or baseball player.

What was the craziest thing you’ve attempted to do with food? Was it successful? 
Chef Aaron: I wrapped pork and chicken in caul fat, also known as lace fat. It was the first time I had worked with caul fat. It resulted in a gorgeous terrine.

What music do you play when you’re cooking? 
Chef Aaron: House rules are that we have no music in the kitchen, but when I can, it’s Katy Perry, anything 80s, rap or country.

Who are your favorite chefs? 
Chef Aaron: Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Michael Anthony, Corey Lee and Charlie Trotter.

What’s in your home fridge? 
Chef Aaron: Foie gras, prosciutto, vintage cheddar, always salami (preferably saucisson), beer and a whole chicken. I love making soups with whole chickens.

Is there a food you just can’t eat? 
Chef Aaron: Tripe. I’m pretty open to everything else. I’ve done a lot of bird hunting and would eat everything—the heart and all.

What do family and friends beg you to make?
Chef Aaron: They love my scallops and crab cakes. I make a mean mac and cheese for my kids with Havarti and Brie. My Thanksgiving stuffing is always a hit and they like my carnitas as well. I never make the same thing twice for people. I like to surprise them. I get more requests for the recipe for my cheesecake than anything else.

What would you choose for your last meal on earth? 
Chef Aaron: A foie gras terrine, salami, a creamy cheese like cambozola or taleggio and a shot of Bourbon.

If you could cook a meal for anyone (dead or alive), who would it be? 
Chef Aaron: Elvis, Ronald Reagan or Al Davis

What’s your favorite thing on the menu right now? 
Chef Aaron: The scallops and the crab cakes.
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