Chef Talk March

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When John Hufnagel was 20, his mom gave him an ultimatum—go to college when he turned 21 or get (lovingly) kicked out of the house. Building on his creative eye and connection to food (the Jarrettsville native’s family owned a local candy shop), he enrolled in what was then the Baltimore International Culinary Institute. Ten years after graduation, the 31-year-old Highlandtown resident has served since May as the executive chef of the Bagby Restaurant Group’s Ten Ten American Bistro, a contemporary farm-to-table spot in Harbor East.

I hear your wife is Thai and that has influenced your cooking. I met my wife about eight years ago and now I have a love for Thai food. I have Thai red curry mussels and Korean tacos on the menu. Last fall, I hosted a five-course, authentic Northern Thai beer dinner with Tim Riley, our beverage director. But usually when I do Thai food, I don’t like to mix it up too much because my wife gets mad at me.

Does she cook, too? She never really had to cook her whole life. When she lived in Bangkok, her mother did all the cooking. She knows the flavors and I taught her some skills, like how to sear and how to dice an onion. I let her taste my Thai food: She critiques me and that’s what makes me better.

Your previous gig was sous chef at Cunningham’s. How has your transition gone? Working in a big kitchen like Cunningham’s is great because you have everything to your access. But it takes more chefs to run an operation like that. Ten Ten is smaller and you have to utilize all your space. It’s actually the perfect sized kitchen. I can be a better chef and mentor to the cooks.

What’s one dish a first-time diner has to try? The Cunningham Farms pork, because it’s almost always a special. Every week we get different cuts of pig from the
pig farm. I can get tenderloin, pork shoulder or beautiful racks of pork chops. I play with different cuts and I add a delicious Parisian gnocchi. 

Bagby Restaurant Group restaurants have a collaborative reputation. What is it like behind the scenes? You have Fleet Street Kitchen with fine dining. Ten Ten is casual, contemporary American food. I get pizzas from Bagby Pizza all the time. And Cunningham’s, of course. It’s nice that we can collaborate. For example, we’ll lend each other employees or a pork belly if it’s needed in another restaurant. We’re a bunch of young professionals trying to help each other out and make ourselves better.

What is your guilty pleasure meal? Pizza and chips. I love junk food, sometimes. Especially after work.

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