This is part two of Stacy Anderson's Chef's Choice profile of Jason Tilford of Milagro Modern Mexican. Part one can be found here. Part three, a recipe from Johnson, is published here.
Did your family cook when you were a child? My mother cooked every night. She was a great cook and still is. Every get-together to this day focuses around a pretty intense night of family cooking.
How old were you when you started cooking? Seventeen.
First cooking job? Grilling steaks right out of high school.
Did you attend culinary school or college? Yes, I went to Forest Park in the early '90s.
What do you eat? I usually try to eat healthy: Mediterranean diet, well-balanced small meals.
What do you cook at home? When there's time, the kids and I have a weekend tradition of cooking brunch and watching EPL soccer.
The local chef who most impresses you? Qui Tran of Mai Lee. Not only does he put out some amazing food, but he's a great host and knows how to treat his guests.
Your favorite restaurant elsewhere? I've had some pretty memorable meals at Rick Bayless' restaurants in Chicago.
Your favorite food city? Chicago or Dallas.
Favorite recent food find? Organic agave nectar as a sweetener.
Most essential ingredient in your kitchen? Extra-virgin olive oil.
Favorite local food find, and where do you get it? Serendipity Ice Cream. What Becky has brought to our market is great. She's very easy and flexible to work with, and her product is great.
Five words to describe your food. Fresh, simple, balanced, healthy, practical.
One food you dislike. Okra.
A food you can't live without. Sunflower seeds. It's kind of a habit.
An ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. MSG and liquid smoke.
Culinarily speaking, St. Louis needs more... St. Louis has taken such a great step forward in the culinary scene in the last five years that there's not much more I could ask for at the moment.
Best tip for home cooks. If you rely on recipes you'll never learn how to cook; you just learn how to follow recipes. Start using recipes only as guidelines, and start experimenting with other flavor combinations and venture out with different ingredients.
Favorite after-work hangout. My couch with my two sons, Kieran and Julian.
Favorite kitchen tool. My 27 cm Global Chef knife, We've been together a long time.
What's next for you? Crushed Red, in Clayton, with Chris LaRocca. We've been working on this concept for over two years. It's going to be a unique combination of Neapolitan pizza, chopped salads and soups in a fast casual environment, with a focus on healthy, organic and sustainable ingredients. It's on Maryland, half a block away from Barrister's.
What inspires you? Chiles. They are so much more than just "hot," and I love to manipulate their flavors in the dishes I make.
Chefs who inspire you. Professionally Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless. But what celebrity chefs like Flay, Batali and the others have done as far as ingredient exposure and educating people to eat and try new things is very inspirational.
Favorite cookbooks? I'm more interested in philosophical food books as opposed to cookbooks, books where people write about experiences and life lessons as it relates to food and the kitchen.
Proudest professional moment? Most recently being voted "Best Local Chef" and "Best Mexican Restaurant" for the second year in a row. Opening Milagro with my brother Adam has been a great moment in our careers. It's great to see people in St. Louis venture out and experience what we're doing with Mexican food. We had some pushback for not having queso dip and frozen margaritas at first, but that's just because we are doing something different.
Favorite music to have in the kitchen. My favorite would be '90s alternative rock, but usually it's Latino dance music or ESPN Deportes. It's good for camaraderie, though.
What's on your pizza? Ha, whatever the kids want on it.
What's in your omelet? Usually two eggs, two whites, fresh chiles, spinach, tomato and a little Chihuahua cheese.
What are you drinking? Water with no ice or red wine.
What's the most surprising food you've eaten? A fried Twinkie, surprising because I tried it.
What's the most difficult lesson you've learned in this business? That's a tough one; there's been a few. I would have to say knowing that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I am extremely fortunate to have such great staffs, managers and partners in all of my ventures.
When did you know the chef's life was for you? I realized I had a passion for cooking when I was nineteen or twenty. I loved cooking food at a young age, and it is the best way I've found to express my artistic side.
Jason Tilford of Milagro Modern Mexican Jason Tilford of Milagro Modern Mexican: Recipe for Ceviche with Cilantro-Pepita Pesto and Mango Salsa