Billy Allin on the food that is the “bane of my existence”

Plus 12 other things we learned from the chef at Cakes & Ale
Chef Billy Allin

Photograph by Zack Arias

13 Questions is a weekly series where we ask chefs 13 questions to get to know them outside of the kitchen. Billy Allin is the chef/co-owner of Cakes & Ale, Bread & Butterfly, and Proof Bakeshop.

What’s one thing you wish you knew how to cook?
I can cook rice in a lot of forms, like risotto, but just a simple bowl of rice is too wet, too dry, underdone. A nice, fluffy rice pilaf is the bane of my existence. For Father’s Day two years ago, I got a rice cooker.

What do you do when you aren’t cooking?
I spend the time with my family, my wife and two kids, Liam and Van. We do everything from just hanging out to hiking around Atlanta. We love Sweetwater Creek State Park hikes because it’s so easy and close but totally looks like it’s up in the mountains.

How did you go from an economics degree to cooking?
I cooked my whole life in some way. I was cooking with my mom and grandma, and I worked in crappy professional kitchens through junior high. When we moved to the Bay Area, I thought I needed to get this degree and work in the white collar world. I worked in the investment world for seven years out of college. Then I had my first meal at Chez Panisse: squid and white beans as a starter and pork loin. They were cooking at a high level but in such a simple form that I never knew that existed. That meal knocked us on our asses. It gave me an out when my company moved two years later.

Is culinary school worth it?
It was worth it because I would not have gotten my internship [at Chez Panisse] without out it—they only accepted culinary school graduates. But I think the current way culinary school is going, real-life practice would be a better way to learn. I was at California Culinary Academy, and halfway through something was different because of cost-cutting in the administration. But we need educated cooks in Atlanta that understand it’s not just how to cook, but what it takes to succeed as a cook in Atlanta. You can’t come out of culinary school and expect to get equity out of business right away. You have to know what it will take to move forward quickly without compromising the learning curve.

What was the best piece of advice you got interning at Chez Panisse?
The only way food tastes good is if it tastes good. Taste your food, from ingredients to every stage of cooking, five, six, or seven times if you’re questioning it.

Is there one ingredient you can’t stand?
The idea that carrot tops are edible confuses me. I’ve made pesto. I’ve pickled them. I’ve done everything, and they still are too coarse. I see this as a trend and it’s an important trend of using everything in some way.

What’s your snack food guilty pleasure?
At Your DeKalb Farmers Market you can buy creamed herring. I just eat it by the pint.

What was the last great book you read?
I just reread a fair amount of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating. She does have recipes, and she specifically talks about how to cook something, but her writing is more about the experience of eating in a transformative way. [When people come to the restaurant] we want people to not focus on the experience at the restaurant, but focus on the people they’re with. Tell us what you’re in mood for, let go, and let us feed you.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A veterinarian.

What was the first dish you ever learned to cook?
My mom and grandma’s spaghetti sauce. We refined it to slow cook all these meats—lamb, beef, pork, chicken thighs—and you slowly braise them in the tomato sauce. Then you pull the meat out and have it on the side, and put the sauce over the pasta. The Sunday after Christmas at the restaurant, we do Grandma’s Spaghetti Feast with a big salad.

What’s the last TV show you bingewatched?
On the airplane back from San Francisco, I bingewatched Silicon Valley. I know some tech people, and they’ve nailed the culture and personality.

Beer, wine, or cocktails?
I’m a wine guy. I’m a white to rosé drinker; they’re more food friendly. I am digging anything Loire Valley right now. The affordability of Loire wines is still one of the great values in the world of alcohol.

If you were a kitchen tool, what would you be?
A wooden spoon. It’s the most simple of tools, but to me it’s the most important. It reminds you that with all the innovation in the world, it’s still back to basics. When you have to stir something, the best thing to stir it with is a wooden spoon.