Chef Annie Pettry grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, then crisscrossed the country between New York and San Francisco before finding herself heading up the kitchen in Louisville's Decca Restaurant. There, she's turning out plates that scream of the South—fried green tomatoes, sweet corn risotto, and peach cobbler, anyone?—with touches from her time in California.
Her restaurant is cavernous: two floors of seating, tables on an upstairs deck, and a spacious garden, all of which has helped Decca draw diverse crowd. There's a bricked basement bar, too, which hosts jazz performances and late-night DJ sets. But what happens in the kitchen? Pettry gave us a peek at the tools she relies on.
Favorite Small Tool
I have this broken fish scaler that I love and have had for years. I inherited it from another chef I worked with who was like, "This is broken, you can use it if you want." And I said, this is amazing. You hold it in the palm of your hand, so all the scales go into your hand instead of all over the kitchen making a mess. Now everyone who has to scale fish wants to use my broken fish scaler; I've turned them over to my side.
Item Worth Saving in a Kitchen Fire
Big Red, our Texas Woodshow Broiler. I would probably die trying though, because she's a beast and I don't think she'd fit through any of the doors, and she probably weighs a ton or two—we had to get a crane to get her delivered. I feel like she'll just last forever.
Everything you grill on there is delicious—part of that is the mix of fruit and hardwoods that we use. She's really sturdy and beautiful, too, with a big turn wheel that lowers and raises the grill.
Salt. There are so many ingredients that you can substitute another; for sugar, honey or maple syrup, butter with duck fat or olive oil. With salt, it's a lot harder to control if you try to replace with Parmesan or anchovy or something. Salt is so important to wake up flavors. The three salts I used daily are kosher salt, Maldon, and fleur de sel. Kosher's in everything, but I use the other two for a finishing flake or crunch of flavor. It would be devastating not to have them.
My secret weapons are salt, sugar, and acid. It's about training your tongue. Have salt, lemon, and some kind of easily dissolvable sugar on hand. Take a little bit of what you're cooking out for testing so you don't ruin the whole batch. Add a little of one of those ingredients and taste it. If it's too salty, add some sugar and acid to knock the salt back.
Get to the point where you don't taste salt, sugar, or acid—they've just brought out the flavor of that particular food, and not those three things. When you're starting out, you have to do it a lot; go over if you need to get the balance, and eventually you'll get to where you can do it easily. Home cooks may ruin their food a couple of times, but that's what learning's all about. My sous chef likes to say, "When it makes your mouth water, it's done."
Secret Weapon Supplier
We call him Dave the Mountain Man because he looks like a mountain man—with a big beard and a plaid shirt—and he knows everything about wood; he'll talk to you for days and is really passionate about it. He's an arborist, so he saves trees as well. He goes on these three or four-week hikes—this year I think he hiked from Louisville to Virginia by himself in the snow.
He hand-delivers us a mix of wood—pecan, cherry, white ash, green oak. He'll mix the sources to make sure there's a fruit wood with great flavor, a wood that burns hot and fast, and a wood that burns long and slow, so we have the perfect combination of heat and flavor. He takes a lot of time and care to pick our wood with us. We're lucky to have him.
I still have my mom's copy of The Joy of Cooking. She passed away about 14 years ago, but I still have the book, and it was the first cookbook I was ever aware of. I was obsessed with it—I still look at it from time to time as a reference, since there's a huge wealth of information in it.
It makes me think of my mom, since she was a great cook and part of the reason why I do what I do. When my dad met her in their twenties, she didn't know how to boil water; he taught her the basics and she went from there, learning how to cook for her family from cookbooks, and my sisters and I got into it, too. So it's very special to me in that way.
Cheesy magnet bottle openers. I try to get one everywhere I go, or get some cheap memento that I can give the kitchen staff so they know I was thinking of them. The postcards I send while gone are often with the magnets on the hood system.
Mr. Potato Head. The first cook I hired bought it at a yard sale. At one point someone from the front of house stole him and would take pictures of him in bars around town. He's probably the weirdest thing you'd see when you first walked into the kitchen; he's on the pass, and will have an umbrella if it's a rainy day, or a frown or smile depending on how we're feeling.
Really good anchovies—they're something I put in recipes that don't need them but they add that extra oomph. They're either salted or packed in oil, so they'll last a long time and you only need to use a little bit at once. I've been using Agostino Recca, the ones in oil. I'll often melt the anchovies into a sauce with softened garlic and onions—you can't tell that there are anchovies in there, but they add a level of umami. Also, an anchovy turns a good salad dressing into a killer one.
I try to maintain a calm kitchen. When service starts, I like to turn the music off and bring everyone back to focus on making service really good. There's camaraderie. It's not a loud, brutish kitchen. And as far as disciplining cooks, I don't yell—I don't want to have that kind of environment, and I hope leading by example will win out over leading by fear.