I can't quite remember how I came to realize how much of
Recess' stardom was comprised of Abbi Merris' imagination. It may have been
after the times the venerable Greg Hardesty highlighted and branded her dishes
(like "Abbi's bologna") on the restaurant's groupie-crazed Facebook page. Or
when my own Facebook stalking efforts were rewarded with Merris' profile, which
had several impressive food endeavors posted, including something that looked
like a giant, possibly edible snail. Clearly there was more than one serious
artist in Hardesty's kitchen.
It's surprising; there seem to be so few young virtuosos in any field these
days, with the possible exception of the youth-dominated internet and social
media industry. Smooth skinned, pixie-cut-haired Merris is 27, but she's been
cooking for large groups since 12.
Merris was only 22 when she walked into Hardesty's Elements,
looking for a job as a server, which she had never been prior to that day.
"Greg thought it would work better for me in the kitchen, so
he created a spot for me," she says. "I worked there for three years and worked
my way up."
Hardesty seems to have picked Merris as his protÃ�'Â©gÃ�'Â© before
she realized the honor of his mentorship. Hardesty was her first teacher of
"He taught me a lot about fundamentals and trial and error,"
she recalls. "In the end I was the pastry chef as well as line cook in the
Later, Hardesty would be instrumental in nominating Merris
for the most prestigious scholarship given by the Chef's Academy, the
Perhaps that's why it's so hard to tell where Merris'
technique stops and Hardesty's begins. But the chef/owner has assured me on
several occasions that Merris has held down the fort many nights when he hasn't
stepped foot in the restaurant. And those divine desserts have an inordinate
amount of Merris's influence; pastries are her specialty.
It was over a couple of beers with Merris at Moe &
Johnny's, when I first started realizing she might be the city's next big chef
thing. It was there I discovered everything about her-cooking coming-of-age,
which started with greeting her mother with meals after work. By now, when
she's not cooking at Recess, she's undergoing the day-long task of homebrewing
with her boyfriend, H20 sushi chef John Adams, even though she prefers
Champagne. That's foodication.
Here's more from our conversation.
NUVO: How did you get into cooking?
Merris: I started cooking at home for my family when I was
about 12. I would surprise my mother with big dinners when she came home from
work. Then I was a nanny over the summers [at 14 years old] and cooked for
their family. The mother I worked for did teach me this one recipe, baked
spaghetti, that I still use to this day. It's not a traditional style bake. My
friends and family love it when i make it!
NUVO: Tell me about your Presidential Scholarship and
subsequent apprenticeship in New York.
Merris: Greg [Hardesty] was on the advisory board for The
Chef''s Academy, and they give scholarships out to the board.Each chef finds one person from
restaurants [to nominate], and after the nominee turns in an essay and
recommendations, the school picks one.Tony Hanslits called Greg one week prior to school starting and told him
that I got it! It was a huge change in my life, going to school and then to
work every day. It was great!
Toward the end of school [November, 2008], I was able to go
to New York City and do my internship at a place called P*ong. Chef Pichet Ong
was the chef and owner. It was a sweet and savory restaurant. I also worked
under chef Iacopo Falai at restaurant Falai, which is modern Italian. I spent
three months doing grueling work and fun there!
NUVO: What's your favorite food? I know you mentioned
Mediterranean, and maybe pasta.
Merris: I love cooking Mediterranean dishes and family-style
Italian. During the summers I love to cook simple vegetable dishes and meat. I
also love sitting down to an Italian family-style dinner outside with bottles
of wine and good friends. Nothing is better than that!
NUVO: Your favorite libation is Champagne, correct? Any
specific varieties? Do you fancy any sparkling wine from outside the region?
Merris: Oh, I love the bubbly and nice white wines. I'm not
too picky when it comes to drinking. Sitios Con Class is my favorite bottle of
white right now though. It's in the Rueda, Spain region.
NUVO: What do you think you're best at cooking?
Merris: That's hard to say. Sometimes I feel confident about
most things. But then something comes along and challenges me. I think I do
pretty well with pastries. I would also say that cooking meat is something else
that I'm pretty good at.
NUVO: Which dish are you most proud of having served at
Merris: There have been so many. My favorite dessert that
I've done is a lemon curd terrine with poppy seed cake crackers and a fig
molasses. It was delicious and beautiful!
NUVO: Is there anything that thwarts you to cook?
Merris: I do get a little nervous doing Asian food, because
I haven't really trained in that too much. And also because my boyfriend John
Adams is pretty amazing at it.
NUVO: Favorite restaurant city besides New York?
Merris: Chicago is a awesome city culinarily, and I've been
able to enjoy a few restos there!
NUVO: Favorite restaurant in the world?
Merris: There are so many restaurants to choose from!
Unfortunately, I haven't been able YET to make it to them. I would love to go
to Le Pigeon in Portland; I like their casualness. Of course, the French
Laundry in California, and Asador Etxebarri in Spain.
4907 N. College Ave.
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