This is part one of my interview with Tom Coohill, exec chef/owner of Coohills. Part two of my chat with Coohill will appear in this space tomorrow.
"This," confides Tom Coohill, "is too good to be on the menu. It's like buttah."
Coohill, whose eponymous French-influenced restaurant opened last November, is holding a plate propped with two house-baked slices of brioche smeared with his duck-liver pâté and Dijon and topped with cornichons and frisée. He takes a bite, moans and promises that if you want it -- and you do -- your server might convince the kitchen to oblige, but no amount of coaxing will convince him to add it to his menu. "I just can't," he reiterates. "We want it all for ourselves."
It sure as hell beats a Twinkie, which is what his friends' parents were feeding him in Pittsburgh, where Coohill spent the early part of his youth. "I grew up in the '70s and '80s, when there were a lot of processed foods, and while my mom always used fresh ingredients and cooked from scratch, the parents of all of my friends were giving us Twinkies and Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese," recalls Coohill, who started his cooking career several years later, in a small town in Kentucky. "I took a job in a steakhouse to make some extra money, but I really started to like it, and it wasn't long before I started studying cookbooks, reading Julia Child and learning how to use a knife."
The next logical move, he remembers, was culinary school, but the classroom of his choice -- the Culinary Institute of America -- had a six-year waiting list; his second choice, a cooking school in North Carolina, had a year-long wait. But it turned out that the wealthiest guy in Glasgow, Kentucky, was opening a French restaurant -- and needed a cook. "The guy has gone to France, eaten in all these three-star Michelin restaurants and brought back all these amazing chefs to work with him, and every single thing he served was flown in from France -- and I mean everything," says Coohill, who soaked it all in, until the executive chef exited for Los Angeles...and recommended that Coohill follow suit.
He did, and while he was in L.A., he cooked in some of the most illustrious kitchens in the country, including those of Le St. Germain and Ma Maison, where Wolfgang Puck eventually became the chef and part owner. "It was 1975, and no one in America had ever heard of Wolfgang Puck at the time, but he wanted to do pizzas, and then the celebrities started trickling in, and that was the beginning of the gourmet-pizza trend," declares Coohill.