q&a with derek clayton

I receive a lot of e-mail pertaining to the Q&A portion of the blog. This is clearly one of the most popular features and I love the feedback, chef suggestions (I’m trying to get to them all) and overall comments. I agree – it’s fun to get to know our chefs a bit better. And for those that e-mailed me requesting I interview Derek, the executive chef at Lola,  this one’s for you – and he doesn’t disappoint. Very informative, insightful and witty.

 1. What are the top 5 spices every home chef should have? Black pepper, salt (non iodized – I love a large, crunchy flake like a Cyprus or Maldon), cayenne or chili flakes, coriander, some sort of five-spice or maybe curry style blend.

2. What is your favorite and least favorite thing to make? Favorite: braises and confit. Anything cooked low and slow has to be good and anything cooked low and slow in fat has to be better, right?  Least favorite:  Lobster soup/bisque – hands down. I worked at a restaurant where I made bisque almost every day for two years and at every restaurant there always seems to be a surplus of lobster shells. Don’t get me wrong, there are infinite interpretations and twists that one could apply to a lobster-based soup, but ultimately, I’m over it.

3. What is your favorite thing about Cleveland and what drives you nuts? Favorite thing: I love the fact that the city has limits which give way to trees and greenery – unlike Detroit, that seems to have endless concrete.

Least favorite: Turn signals – It seems that in Cleveland a turn signal (when used) does not indicate “Attention, I will soon be performing a turn” as much as it means “I’m turning right now!” or “Look I’m halfway through a turn!”

4. If you could cook for one person, real or dead, who would it be? What? I can’t cook for a fake or alive person? My grandmother Ida Mae,  who revealed to me the wonder of dairy fat in all its forms and to whom I owe a lot of good meals and an addiction to pastry for breakfast, and, for my wife Jennifer, whose only complaint about my cooking is that I over salt the pasta water (For the record, I disagree.)

5. You’re having a dinner party, top 5 songs on your play list? How about top five performers – depending on mood: Dave Brubeck, Erykah Badu, Common, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ravi Shankar.

6. Favorite restaurant in Cleveland? Momocho. I probably eat there too much.

7. What restaurant do you miss? The Redcoat Tavern – just outside of Detroit. The best burger ever.

8. What place(s) have Clevelanders yet to discover? This is probably no great revelation, but El Tango in Lakewood. Tasty food.

9. What’s your last meal on Earth? With my wife, outside, under a Sturgeon moon, with a small fire, eating too much of some homemade Mexican inspired concoction (known in my house as Dere-xican), drinking Château de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 1997 (for sentimental reasons as opposed to food pairing).

10. Most unusual food you have ever tried? Natto – it’s a traditional Japanese food made with fermented soy beans. I think I’m very open-minded when it comes to food, but Natto is a real challenge to me in terms of taste, texture and aroma. Also my wife makes this dish involving egg noodles and cottage cheese…

11. Most famous person you have cooked for? In terms of present day popularity, probably LeBron James.   For me, Joe Montana, Francis Ford Coppola, and ½ of Spinal Tap.

12. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing? Sleeping more.  Maybe teaching literature.  I’d love to be a cat burglar, especially if I could use suction cups to climb buildings. 

13. Where do you grocery shop? Many different places for different things: Dave’s, Giant Eagle, Heinen’s, Westside Market, Good Harvest, Whole Foods, Nature’s Bin, Shaker and Lakewood farmers’ markets.  It just depends what I’m looking for.

14. Favorite guilty pleasure when it comes to food? Lay’s natural thick cut potato chips with sea salt, and Hermann’s dill pickles (In my, and renowned pickle aficionado Cory Barrett’s opinion, one of the all around best pickles. And it’s local – from Garrettsville, OH)

15. If you could be any other chef for one day, who would it be? Any successful, happy, well-adjusted, retired one.

16. If you could visit any restaurant in the world, which one would it be? Today it’s Victor Arguinzoniz’s Etxebarri in Spain.  I just feel like something from the grill.

17. What book are you currently reading? Cook Books:  Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure” and Stephane Reynaud’s “Pork and Sons”.

Non Cook Books:  I just reread Kipling’s “Jungle Book.”  It’s arguably a kids’ book, but I love it. Who doesn’t want to be raised by wolves?  Also Hemingway’s short stories are in constant rotation, as are the short stories of Roald Dahl.

18. Favorite TV show? Anything on Discovery or the National Geographic channels involving ridiculously large construction projects, natural disasters, human-made disasters, humans caught in disasters, and overseas imprisonment.  Anything on The Food Network or Travel Channel involving people that eat unfamiliar foods, super large quantities of food, or better yet, super large quantities of unfamiliar foods.  Any of the “reality” garbage on VH1 involving people making asses of themselves for my increasingly embarrassed pleasure and distraction.

19. Favorite kitchen gadget? Mortar and pestle. I’m old school.

20. How did you get into cooking? I’ve always enjoyed it.  I used to make French toast as a child before I could see over the stove.  I had to climb up with a stool and make breakfast sitting down on the counter.  I realized cooking was what I wanted to pursue professionally while attending “that college in Ann Arbor.”  So much to my father’s displeasure, took a semester off from school and sought work in area kitchens. While I did return to school, I never left the kitchen.  The rest is history – sordid and at times demented history. 

21. Where did you grow up and what’s your favorite meal from your childhood? I grew up outside Detroit but spent most of my childhood summers on my grandparents’ farms in rural Illinois.  When the corn and tomatoes were ready in my parent’s garden we used to have meals of just that…delicious.  My mother also used to make this crazy turkey meatloaf with Velveeta cheese. For some reason I occasionally crave it.

22. What local farmers and vendors do you rely on most? Tom Wiandt – Killbuck Valley Mushrooms (Wooster, OH), Craig Steigerwald – Dining Valley Farm (Scio, OH),  Jeremy Lisy and Matt Voss – KJ Greens (Trumbull, OH)

23. What’s your signature dish? I don’t know if I really have one.  By definition a signature dish would seem to be one that has been around and successful for awhile.  Although professional kitchens are about repetition and consistency, too much repetition can become monotonous and uninspiring.  At the restaurant we tend to test and tweak a dish so much before it goes on the menu that I’m already tired of it by the time it gets on the menu.  Plus, I like to tinker with dishes (much to the consternation of my very patient and dedicated kitchen staff), so sometimes dishes are changing without ever leaving the menu.  I think at Lola we are all trying to push ourselves and grow as cooks.  So we tend to be thinking about doing something different (within our particular framework and identity) as opposed to sticking with or returning to a previously successful dish.  All that being said, some say I make decent short ribs.

24. And current trends food-related trends happening right now? I think people are starting to think more about where their food comes from and how it is produced.  Words like sustainable, local, humane, organic, etc… are words that weren’t really applied to food 20 years ago.  Now they are part of everyday use.  The problem is these words are becoming corrupt, they are becoming sales pitches, the ideas and concepts behind them are becoming muddled and confusing.  Kraft has an organic Macaroni and Cheese, complete with organic cheese like powder.  Really???  How is this a good thing? I personally like my cheese powder to be chock full o chemicals…at least I don’t feel like I’m being hoodwinked.  

25. Any desire to own your own restaurant some day? If so, what’s your timeframe and what type of food would you focus on? Sure, like many cooks I maintain the fantasy of the 40-seat restaurant in the country, supplied by its own gardens and livestock, the food is seasonal and delicious, the staff is dedicated and excited, the clientele is adventurous, receptive and appreciative and we are closed three months of the year – it’s the “Fiddler’s Green” of cooks.  I’m still looking for the right location…oh, and very generous financial backers.


  1. Posted September 16, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Loved this interview! Derek is clearly a smart and interesting guy. Thanks!

  2. Traci
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    Really enjoyed this interview! Derek sounds like a really cool guy……Thanks! =)

  3. Posted September 17, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Loved the interview, thanks for sharing!

  4. Posted September 17, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Derek, I would like to start a Roald Dahl discussion book with you. At Momocho.

  5. Cory Barrett
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    For the record… I really am a well know pickle aficionado. And derek really is a nice guy… on occasion.

  6. Cory Barrett
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    i left the written mistake for you.

  7. Steve Shoemaker
    Posted September 18, 2009 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Great interview. I’m not sure that you could eat at Momocho too much. And one more salute: it’s great hear of the success of another Michigan homeboy. I hail originally from Wayne, MI and my wife is from Dearborn although we call Cleveland home now.

  8. Andrea
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Great interview Derek, loved it!! I’m not so sure about Jen’s egg noodle and cottage cheese dish however. I agree however you are a nice guy… Mc Cheffy.

  9. Deborah Goerz
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I thought this was linking to an interview with Dominic Cerino….broken link?