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Abbi Merriss

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 prot�'©g�'© before

she realized the honor of his mentorship. Hardesty was her first teacher of

cooking technique.

"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

Presidential Scholarship.

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.



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