Ali Banks is an adventurer and a creative at heart, with a background that includes several years overseeing development and construction projects in New York City, a formal culinary education in Paris, time well-spent mastering the finer points of whole-animal butchery and Alaskan salmon fishing, and helping others unleash their inner-chef as a Resident Chef and culinary instructor for Sur La Table. She is currently working for one of the leading wine and cheese purveyors in Chicago, where she manages several of the company’s key growth initiatives in various lines of business. She is always excited to share her passion for all things edible — including the people and places that make them such an integral part of a life well-lived.
From breakfast bites to midnight snack, what is your ideal food day?
My meals vary greatly with the amount of time I have to prepare them. As a kid, my mom always made me French toast in the morning and that is still a consistent craving. I try to get some protein these days so I’m not starving in 15 minutes. Classic bacon and eggs tends to make my plate in different forms – breakfast tacos happen very often. I prefer my eggs scrambled because I have zero intention to ever eat cooked egg whites that aren’t part of a meringue. I love a dippy yolk, though!
Lunch tends to be an on-the-move meal. I work for an Artisan cheese company so 95% of the time it involves some fancy cheese, but if I’m eating out, I want a juicy burger – rare. The Spotted Pig comes, delightfully, to mind.
Snacks on the go: I keep spiced almonds in my purse; I will eat an avocado out of its skin with a sprinkle of Maldon salt. I’m always a little hungry!
Dinner is more of a project. I actually prefer to cook at home unless I’m trying a new restaurant or celebrating something special. Cutting shallots is the perfect way to wind down my day. If I’m cooking for myself, it is usually something Asian like salmon tartare with potato chips or red Thai curries with all the veggies and rice that I have. When my man is involved, it tends to be generally low-carb, like a buttery roast chicken or meatballs, hold the pasta.
Midnight snacks are pretty creative when the kitchen is closed – a piece of fancy cheese drizzled with honey, graham crackers dipped in cream cheese, a leftover chicken cutlet; I’m a scavenger.
What’s the story behind working in food professionally? How did it all start?
Well, I always loved food. I was the source of many messes in my mother’s kitchen and she always allowed and encouraged me to be involved and creative. As I settled into my career in real estate development, I knew that it wasn’t something I would do forever. Flash forward a few years, I took off to France for culinary school and have had food be the main focus of my time ever since. I’m incredibly happy and well-fed.
How do you enjoy wine and food while also being healthy and fit?
I think moderation is the key. When I was living in Paris, I ate everything in front of me as both a source of education and enjoyment. I also biked everywhere. You don’t realize that hills and cobblestones are a workout when you’re just trying to get somewhere. I’ve never felt guilty about indulging in the good stuff but really don’t eat any junk. My diet is extensive but it’s also well-balanced. If I’m going to have a burger, you’re never going to see me at McDonald’s but I eat every last bite at Au Cheval. Afterwards, I walk back to work or home and probably have an arugula salad for my next meal.
Does having a food job allow for a great work/play balance? How so?
Yes and no. It doesn’t really quite feel like work when you enjoy what you’re doing. For years I taught cooking classes and I’d always remark that if I can’t have fun talking to people about food all day, I’m doing something wrong. Now, I’m in an operations role but I’m still learning more about wine and cheese every day – it’s a nice balance to think strategically and also be enjoying people and food. Working in food world also wavers as a distraction and a focus for me. If I’m dining out, I’m constantly taking mental notes about how things are prepared and what combinations they’re working with. It’s inspirational for my own meals and recipe developments but sometimes I need to tune out and eat a bowl of honey-nut Cheerios.
Five things you are dying to have right now…
I really need new sunglasses; I’m rocking a pair that have been knocked around boats and bags far too much.
A waffle cone with ice cream from Bertillon on the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris. Vanille and caramel au beurre sale, if we’re getting specific.
A new notebook. I always loved the 5×7-ish ones from Kate’s Paperie in New York but I’m in need of a new one. Maybe it’s time to drop my Sharpie pens and go digital? App recommendations are welcomed.
A new food processor. I’ve been eyeing a Breville Sous Chef that I used every day at my last job.
A little house on a lake. I need somewhere to eat ice cream in sunglasses and write about making my own pie crust.
What are your favorite cities for food? Favorite things to eat there?
I’m incapable of picking just one:
San Francisco: Tartine or Nopa depending on the meal
New York: Essabagel for a whole wheat everything with excessive amounts of cream cheese; Rubirosa for pizza – the one with stracciatella and pesto or a classic; Rao’s when you can get a table. Don’t skip the meatballs. Otherwise, dinner at Han Dynasty. I’m not in a position to ever turn down dan dan noodles.
Paris: two croissants from Le Quartier du Pain around the corner from Le Cordon Bleu, steak tartare or côte de bœuf and haricots vert from le Bistrot Paul Bert. A stroll through the Marché Breteuil for a za’atar manouche and array of cheeses for a picnic in front of the Invalides. Probably a crêpe at the Marché des Enfants Rouges from quirky Alain — a cornet végétarien is the best.
How do you always start your day on the right foot?
A good night’s sleep. I’m pretty useless if I’m really tired because I run around too much. I don’t drink coffee so maybe juice or just a lot of water with some lemon. And breakfast. Always breakfast.
What are your daily beauty and/or fitness regimens?
Uh, I’m not sure I do anything consistently enough to count as a regimen except brush my teeth. I’ve started P90x as part of a bet — the terms include dinner at French Laundry.
What’s your idea of the perfect first date?
Great cocktails, interesting questions and genuine laughs.
Advice you’d give your younger self…
Enjoy. Especially the things that don’t seem to be going quite as planned.
What’s your first food memory?
I’m not sure I have a specific memory but I love the regularity of Italian Sunday dinner. My mom would pan-fry meatballs in the morning and I can remember waking up to the smell. My brother and I would have one plain fried on a fork — a “lollipop.” She’d make a bigSunday sauce and we’d have pasta at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Now I want a big dish of ravioli with my mom’s sauce and lots of Pecorino Romano cheese.
Everyone has a go-to dish. What’s yours?
Ah, I think it changes with what I’m craving or inspired by so I’m not sure anything can be considered “go-to” for me. I can turn anything into a sandwich and I’m obsessed with making perfect bites.
When was your last hangover? What are your cures?
My friends hate me for this, but I am RARELY hungover. I had an excellent time at my friends’, Billy and Megan, wedding. Room service got ordered and was followed up with second breakfast at a diner on Long Island. Bacon helps. A marathon of murder shows like L&O SVU or 48 Hours with intermittent napping can’t hurt either.
The strangest thing in your fridge right now?
It depends what you view as strange, I think. I have lots of condiments from the Asian markets on Argyle that might make your list. I’ve been traipsing around so often these days that my fridge isn’t as well-stocked as it usually is. There are beers and lemons, for sure.
Death-row last meal?
A steak, boneless chuck shortribs, from my old butcher shop, Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, with a hard sear and cooked very rare over Joel Robuchon’s mashed potatoes and beautiful French green beans. Finish it off with cheesecake and a 50/50 glass of Amaretto and Frangelico on the rocks.
Favorite midnight snack?
Leftovers and a cocktail.