Richie Farina, Chef de Cuisine at Chicago’s Moto Restaurant and Top Chef Season 9 contestant, wants to play with your food.
“I constantly encourage people to play with food and try things out,” Farina says. “That’s how the best ideas come together.”
Farina’s arms are covered in tattoos, and he sports small thick hoop earrings in each ear. Hot pink and lime green sunglasses are tucked into the sweatband on his head. He’s prepping for a class later in the afternoon at the Rolling Pin classroom in Brandon. The menu is spiked with playful additions like carbonated grapes, edible moss, and salted caramel ice cream made with nitrogen.
His mother, Mary Grace, sits nearby husking corn for chowder with bacon, chives and sour cream.
“The reason Richard became a cook is to survive,” she says. “I set things on fire. I’ve learned now that you can’t put something on the stove and go take a shower.” “You cannot walk away from it,” Richie injects. “You have to stay there with it,” Mary Grace says. “Otherwise it’s going to catch fire.”
Farina grew up near Brandon and got his start cooking at Sbarro’s Pizza inside Brandon Mall, not far from the Rolling Pin kitchen. He even worked at the old Rolling Pin location at Brandon Town Center for a little over a year and still has some of the equipment he bought while working there.
“I use this knife every single day,” Farina says. “I can’t wait to show them how much steel has been shaved off from sharpening it day after day. There was a good inch or two more to this blade when I got it back then.”
He attended Johnson and Wales culinary school in Providence for four years before working in Boston until 2008, then Chicago. The lasers and nitro Chef Homaro Cantu used on an episode of Iron Chef America inspired Farina. He showed up at Cantu’s Moto Restaurant in Chicago, no interview and resume in hand. After a two-day tryout, Farina got the job as garde manger, quickly working his way up to sous chef, and as of January Chef de Cuisine, in which role he pretty much runs the kitchen at Moto.
“The only stipulation for getting the job was I had to shave my Mohawk off,” Farina says smiling. “It was a really big hawk.”
Moto’s 15-course tasting menu, with wine, runs about $350 a person. The menu is constantly in flux, and that’s just how Farina likes it. “I get bored easily and always want to push myself to put new things on the menu,” Farina says. “You can taste emotions in food. I think food tastes better when the cooks aren’t doing the same thing every day.”
He pushes his staff to master dishes quickly, rewarding them with new dishes and techniques to practice in the kitchen.
“We are one of the only restaurants at our level that allows cooks to have input on the menu and create items too,” Farina says as he unwraps sticks of butter for browning. “That gives them incentive to be creative, and creativity is a huge thing at the restaurant.”
Everything, down to the plate he serves his dishes on, serves a purpose. “Tonight we’re doing something called gathering harvest,” Farina says. “Right now I’m into a lot of natural looking things. I’m trying to create what looks like natural scenes of cooked food.”
Using freeze-dried peas, garlic oil, and tapioca maltodextrin, Farina plans to create an edible moss in tonight’s class. “It looks like wet moss growing on logs,” he says. “It’ll have mushrooms, brussel sprouts, and different things that are earthy.”
Right now at Moto, Farina’s menu includes a course called the river course. River rocks are seated beneath smoked salmon and trout, under a cloud of smoking fog. “Don’t just have food on a plate. Make the plate have a purpose,” Farina says. “You can put anything on a white porcelain plate and it looks pretty, but it gets boring fast.”
Farina uses river rocks, slate, and branches to present his food. “Our fallen log course is made with sticks I found out in the woods,” Farina says. “It looks like a walk through the forest on an autumn day. Colorful leaves, foie, wood pidgeon, quail, huckleberries, cherries and blueberries.”
His advice for beginning chefs? “Don’t be afraid to mess up, because you’re always going to mess up,” Farina says. “Don’t be afraid to play with your food.”