Ask the Expert: How the Best Simple Cooking Begins at Home with Erling Wu-Bower

Photo Credit: Jeff Marini

Welcome to Ask the Expert where the ZENB team introduces our community to experts from the worlds of fitness, cuisine, style, nutrition — really anywhere and anyone that’s bringing a refreshing perspective on living a balanced life.

In this interview, our very own Christiane from ZENB sat down with our friend Erling Wu-Bower — the award-winning executive chef at the renowned Chicago restaurant with West Coast soul, Pacific Standard Time. Together they chat about how he tries to limit food waste and balance meals both at work and home, and how sometimes simple is best, especially for his young son. Enjoy.

Christiane: As a father, chef, and restaurant owner, you're always sourcing and preparing food, thinking about seasonality, worrying about taste and flavor combinations, so take me through that journey in your mind and how you balance cooking at home with your professional kitchen.

Erling: At home, I really value having the right snacks around. I’m always building a great pantry of my favorite snacks, from peanut butter cups to kale chips to other peanut butter cups...I think you'll see a theme. But I want to have a house full of things for my son. He's a really outgoing kid and just goes to the pantry and opens it up. I want him to have his hands all over a whole bunch of snacks between savory and sweet, healthy and kind of unhealthy. But as far as actually cooking at home, it's like a mini restaurant. The process you described for the restaurant is no different than at home. I have a small herb garden outside as inspiration for sauces. I also meticulously source things that I cook at home. I go to the farmers market and I buy stuff for the restaurant and for home. I'm just as caring about the ingredients I buy for my family as I am my restaurant. I get a lot of my ideas for the restaurant cooking for my family. I'll actually open up a cookbook quite often.

Christiane: That’s interesting. You say you go to a cookbook. That has to be grounding for a lot of people — not something you expect to hear from someone at your level of cooking.

Erling: We read cookbooks. We do it all the time. But, more home food philosophy: simplicity is super important — I'm not cooking these recipes point for point. Cooking at home should be lower in salt. It should be lower in sugar, should be lower in butter. I think a lot of people make cooking at home too complex. And while I am reading recipes, cooking at home should still be very simple.

Christiane: So how has being a father changed your views in the kitchen whether it's ingredients you use or how you prepare them?

Erling: I'm trying to create some sort of life balance, which is just simply impossible. But you learn that the stuff that's just simple and basic is ok, because your kid comes home from school and he has opinions. He only wants pasta with butter sauce, he hates all your food, and you realize that's fine. I think that's changed me creatively. But it breaks my heart.

Christiane: So his pickiness is dictating your cooking at home?

Erling: Yeah, I'm cooking the food he wants to eat. I'm not trying to force feed the kid, you know? But I'm not using some of my favorite things because he won't eat them. It's quite humbling, to be honest.

Christiane: I noticed when we came to eat it at your restaurant, you have simple things, but you put them together in really interesting ways. Like a strawberry salad that has dill on it. I've never had strawberries with dill before. But it was really delightful. So how do you think of putting simple things together but in ways that just make them really interesting?

Erling: My wife asked me the same thing. She was like, “How'd you come up with cucumber, dill, and figs?” which is a salad I made one day, and she's like, “That's mind blowing.” My answer is shockingly stupid and simple. Literally cucumbers, figs, and dill were all next to each other at the farmers market. If they're growing together and they're at the farmers market together, the chances are, they're going to taste super good together. The market is the major source of inspiration for me. 

Photo Credit: Brian Willette

Christiane: I’d love your thoughts on cutting back on food waste because, honestly, probably 30% of what I buy goes in the trash. It rots in my fridge, it rots on my counter. I'm throwing away a lot. We've been doing a lot of research on the effects of food waste, how much methane is created, and how much landfill is created, so I wonder how you manage food waste in your home and restaurant.

Erling: Better to throw away strawberries than styrofoam, but something that people should be educated on is seasonality, like you really shouldn't be cooking asparagus in February in the Midwest, right? The carbon footprint from shipping asparagus from Mexico to Chicago, consumers should be aware of that. What the global market has done is made peaches available in November, December, and January, and that is bad. I buy my kid blueberries 12 months a year, because it's like the iPad, it just makes my life easy, but yeah, as a culture we should be eating seasonally.

Christiane: As you know, one of the things ZENB is trying to do is use as much of the vegetable as possible, so stem, seeds, core, all that stuff. Is that something you've explored, whether in your professional kitchen, or even your home kitchen?

Erling: This fact is why I'm so fascinated with ZENB. It’s the coolest thing ZENB is doing. It's also the hardest thing ZENB is doing. I don't look at the cob of corn and say I want to use this cob of corn for the environment. I do look at the corn and say there's a lot of flavor still locked up in cob. My restaurant is incredibly low waste, but it's for the want for flavor. And the fact that we’re good for the environment is a product of that. But I think that's just a running good business.

Thanks for joining Ask the Expert. Have a specific person or interest you’d like us to explore? Let us know at We’re always looking for fun and informative ways to celebrate those who are embracing the goodness of nature while helping the world rediscover food.

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