Mitch Mayers, exec chef of Black Pearl, on Mohawks and Agio
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When I was twelve, I was in Florence and went to a tiny, family-run restaurant that was recommended to us by a local. The food and ambience were spectacular, and it felt like we were in someone's home. I ate gnocchi for the first time with a Gorgonzola cream sauce with pine nuts and peppers. I remember thinking how simple yet truly outstanding it was. From that point forward, gnocchi has been one of my favorite things to eat and cook.
Favorite childhood food memory: My brother and I used to pull up highchairs from our kitchen island on either side of the stove while my grandmother cooked pancakes. As we sat and watched her cook, she'd alternate between the two of us, giving us steaming hot pancakes absolutely smothered in butter to eat while she cooked.
Favorite junk food: I really love Cheetos and cookies, plus pretty much anything that's fried.
Favorite dish on your menu: Hickory-smoked duck breast. It's served with cumin-perfumed potatoes, sautéed watercress, harissa sauce and quince jam. To me, it's the perfect balance of smoky, sweet, savory and spicy.
Biggest menu bomb: This wasn't on a menu, but when I was young and first getting into cooking, I wanted to prove that you could eat healthy and still make it taste good. Turns out that making a low-fat Alfredo sauce is not the way to go about that. I ended up using about every spice I could think of to try and make it taste good, and it was still disgusting.
Weirdest customer request: While I was cooking in a restaurant in New York, we had a wild king salmon on our menu, and I had a customer request that we smother it in ketchup and bake it in the oven. I'm almost always willing to do whatever I can to make the customer happy, but there was no way I could destroy this beautiful piece of fish with ketchup, so I told the customer we would just simply grill it and they could slather on the ketchup once it got to the table.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A 100-year-old egg, straight up, in China. The flavor wasn't bad, but the texture was beyond gross.