Most chefs wouldn’t want a mouse in their kitchen. But for chef John State, it’s much more of a feature than a flaw. Especially when that mouse’s name is Mickey.
State is the culinary director of food and beverage for the Disneyland Resort in Southern California, in charge of everything from fine dining to the best corn dog you’ve ever eaten, and – of course – the fanciest candied apples you’ve ever seen.
State comes to Spokane for the Dorothy Dean Home Cooking Show on May 12. In a recent interview, the chef talked about his inspiration, his approach to storytelling and his advice for home cooks.
You recently debuted new dishes for the Disneyland Resort’s Pixar Fest – a special event that runs through Sept. 3 and celebrates all things Pixar. Was that a challenge?
What excites us most is how the expectation of storytelling for something like this gives us both an added advantage and added responsibility. For us, we know we have to go to another level. We have to create a story behind the dishes, whether it’s a nod to a character or a nod to a place that only exists in this world. For the Pixar Fest, it’s really about the characters and the stories. “Up,” “Monsters, Inc.” or “Toy Story” – just the fact that we get to say those words as a chef feels pretty special. It’s not every chef that gets to use characters from these loved animated features to help bring food to life.
What’s also exciting about that is that it gives us a little bit of freedom on the boundaries. Sometimes you have to be careful about what it is you’re getting our guests to enjoy, whether you want to feature caviar or you want to feature beets. There has to be a reason. We’re not just trying to be on the nose and do a red beet salad because Pixar had beets in the movie. We’re going to maybe treat it as a clue, like how would I incorporate this food into this dish so the guests don’t gravitate towards beets. That’s what makes this such a unique challenge for us. The fact that we can tie in to the animators is very special.
What is your approach to storytelling with food? Is it theme first or food first?
It’s actually theme first. We basically spitball what is Blue Bayou? What are we celebrating about “Coco”? What is Smokejumpers Grill? Once you understand the details of the story, then we start to relax and go, OK, what would make eating at Smokejumpers fun? It’s camping; it’s firefighters living on these mountains being called up to put out these fires. What kind of food would you be able to cook up there? It had to be sustainable, it had to last and it had to be a one-pot cooking. We said, “What about chili?” Then we wondered about chili with jalapeño corn bread. It’s a little like a dance. Once you finally find the rhythm, you have to figure out how to reel it all in.
You do that by focusing on your audience. Families? Great! What are the proteins? Are we thinking vegan or vegetarian? Are we making something that will live on our menu all the time or is this special or seasonal dish? Then you have to put on your chef’s hat. At that moment, you’re like any other chef in any other city in the world. It’s a little like the movies. You’ve shot a movie that’s 56 hours of film, but you have to trim it down to two hours. That means you have to do a lot of editing. What’s the story you’re trying to get across to your audience? How much time are they going to spend at this meal? What’s the key takeaway? And will they come back for more?
What first inspired you to cook or become a chef?
My father grew up in restaurants with his parents. I remember being in my grandmother’s kitchen in the restaurant, looking at the stove or griddle and feeling an incredible sense of comfort. Even when I was very young, any chance we were near the kitchen, I knew I liked it. And every time I would be in the kitchen with my mom with five other siblings, it felt like it was time well spent. All the way through growing up, when people got together, I would cook. Any opportunity I got to be around food, and any chance I got to cook, I took it.
What dish or ingredient best represents yourself?
Beets. At first, they can be intimidating, but not for any particular reason. Once you learn more about beets, you realize they have a unique appeal – they’re very diverse, can be a game changer and tend to get people’s attention. When you add a beet to your menu or even just to your food, you soon see several useful advantages. Ask anyone who enjoys beets and they will profess a true affection that only a beet can do. But if you keep beets at a distance, then you are missing out, my friend.
What’s your favorite piece of advice to share with home cooks?
Most people I talk to who don’t gravitate toward cooking say they are not 100 percent comfortable doing it, so they don’t make time to do it. I understand how it could be daunting, like trying to train for a marathon. Where do you even begin? But it doesn’t need to be so daunting.
It starts with just getting a book from someone like Alton Brown and practicing with a few simple dishes. And you know what? You’ve only invested 12 bucks and if it doesn’t work out, you know you can get better by just practicing on a few basic dishes – a good roasted chicken, a good pasta dish, a basic vinaigrette and a nice salad.
I think people just don’t know where to start. They worry about expensive pans or having the ultimate oven. They wonder if they need any special gadgets on their counter. The answer is that they don’t need any of that. … Just do it. Don’t be intimidated. Just cook.