Viet Pham – Co-owner of Forage and Executive Chef of upcoming Ember and Ash, Salt Lake City

Tell us a bit about where you grew up and early food memories.
I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia – my parents were boat people, which means they fled Vietnam during the war.  We came to the US when I was about 5 months old. We lived in Illinois and then my parents moved us out to California when I was eight years old.When we came to the US we were extremely poor and in our case there were three families, two of my uncles and their children, so there were 14 or 16 of us living in the same household.  At dinner time and lunch time, I remember all the kids would get together at a table and pick herbs.  Everyone had a duty, a job.

I would love to say that I have fond memories of my mom slaving away and making traditional dishes, but growing up in an Asian family, you’re always eating Asian food, and it would get really boring, so I craved for American food and given the choice between a hamburger or a bowl of pho, I would have chosen the hamburger. My parents had a business with catering trucks, so I get asked a lot if this is where I got my inspiration from, but you know, they were never really happy because they worked long hours and used that as an example to my brother and I, to go to school to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.

I spent a lot of time going food shopping with my parents and seeing a variety of different produce.  That instilled curiosity in me.  And, because my parents worked a lot, they taught us how to take care of ourselves.  From kindergarten on, we would boil water and make our own ramen.  We would add leftovers and bits and pieces.  My fascination and curiosity came from adding and exploring different ingredients and ultimately seeing how they translated.
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How did you first get into a professional kitchen?
I was going to college at San Jose State University and I took a break my senior year and I attended culinary school.  I didn’t learn anything really, I think everything they taught I already knew from watching Jacque Pepin and Martin Yan on PBS, or cooking at home.  I do credit culinary school for requiring an internship to graduate.

I had applied for an internship at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Australia.  I wrote a long letter and put together this beautiful packet, but I sent it and never heard back.  And it wound down to a week before I had to submit my internship info and my counselor told me there was a restaurant down the street looking for interns, and the Chef, Laurent Gras had just been awarded FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef.  I went to the 5th Floor that same day.  One of the first things Laurent emphasized was that culinary school does not provide a foundation. Everything I would learn, the foundation I would build in the kitchen would be with him from here on out.
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What was it like working for Laurent Gras?
Working with him changed my life.   I literally got beaten physically and emotionally to the point where there were many times that I wanted to give up.  But, Laurent’s philosophy resonated with me.  I learned that practicing makes you not only a better cook but also a better person.

I had a long commute everyday, but it gave me an opportunity to clear my mind and really focus on what I needed to do to not be yelled at, I’d ask myself, ‘What do I have to do today to not get in trouble and to do something that would make Laurent proud?”.  Over time things started to change.  I remember Laurent telling me  “Oh – you’re finally using your brain.”    It was a huge compliment and I felt really good.
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Now you’re based in Salt Lake City, which must have been a departure from San Francisco.  What is the food scene like and how was Forage received?
It’s up and coming.  I’ve been here six years now and I never anticipated so much to happen in such a short time.  When we opened Forage, we received a lot of accolades early on and that reinforced how I felt about our dining community.

When we first opened, we didn’t know what to expect, but for myself and Bowman (Brown) it was the only thing we could imagine ourselves doing, and if it didn’t work out at least we tried.  In the beginning it was very difficult, especially because the format was so different and new to Utah.  For tasting menus across the country it’s nothing new or special.

We had a fixed tasting menu (for $72) and an optional 3 course menu for $29.  In other cities it might seem cheap, but according to Utah standards it was really high.  We got a lot of complaints early on, but once we got food reviewers and writers in and got glowing reviews the restaurant was packed.  After we were jointly awarded Best New Chef by FOOD & WINE Magazine, we decided to get away from the three course menu and just do one menu of 14-17 courses, focusing on execution, quality of ingredients and the progression of the meal.
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What do you have planned for your next project Ember and Ash?
The main influence for Ember and Ash comes from a really good buddy of mine.  Joshua Skenes who has a restaurant called Saison in San Francisco. He was named FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef the same year I was.  We’ve worked together a few times  and it’s been life changing.   At Forage we always cooked over a fire but what Josh is able to do takes it to a whole new level. Josh has incorporated a level of finesse and skill that’s poetic. You’re using the intensity of the heat but not incorporating the smoke or the char and that intensity brings out the deepest point of flavor in a lot of different and often times humble foods such as potatoes or beets or turnips.  The flavors are unlike anything you can achieve through conventional cooking methods like sauté, baking, roasting all that.

I decided to incorporate a hearth into Ember and Ash.  We’ll have a set menu.  We’ll do 4 courses.  I wanted to create a more relaxed atmosphere with casual but really attentive service and food that really speaks for itself.  Chefs are serving you. I want people to leave feeling happy and surprised.  With a price point where they can come back and back.
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Your latest project with Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, Beer Bar, just opened in downtown Salt Lake City.  How did this come about?  

I first met Ty Burell a few years ago when he dined at Forage. At that time I really didn’t know who he was, but learned through my server. Ultimately I went out and purchased season 2 of Modern Family after watching the entire season, I was hooked. Ty, along with his brother Duncan and some partners, opened Bar X, let’s just say it’s a place I frequent a lot. Through spending time there we all became good friends and established a great partnership.

When I heard they were toying with the idea of a beer bar with food, it definitely piqued my interest and I thought it would be a wonderful challenge because it would be totally casual, event though my background is in fine dining. I helped them develop their specialty brat sandwiches, their sauces, fries, kitchen layout and defining their menu. It’s been really fun and well received.  And was picked up by Food & Wine for their March issue – Tyler and did a photo shoot, where we got to cook and eat/drink, and shoot the shit together. All said and done, Tyler is an amazing and savvy business person. With the success that he has achieved, he’s still a nice and humble guy that just wants to do good things for the community.

What are your essential kitchen tools?
I love my tweezers, and a lot of people think using tweezers is ridiculous, but to me it’s a tool of finesse.  Often times we use small herbs that your fingers would bruise.  Our dishes tend to be smaller and tweezers allow for that intricacy that is required and the health department likes it. Blenders are often overlooked, but they do so much. Everything from sauces to purees to making oils and all that stuff. And I take great pride in taking care of my knives.  The craftsmanship of Japanese knives is an inspiration and extension of what we are trying to do as chefs.

You’re a spokesman for the the International Rescue Committee, tell us a little about your work there?
I come from a refugee family and we were fortunate enough to come to the US and have someone sponsor us, I know how important the IRC’s work is.  Bringing people from war torn countries and giving them a second chance while providing education and workforce services.  All that great stuff gets the people up and going.

The division that I work with is called The Roots and basically what we’ve done in Salt Lake City is purchase a huge plot of land and turned it into a farming community.  It allows different refugees to get a plot of land so they can grow their own native ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. It’s special for me because get introduced to ingredients I’d never see in supermarkets, like Sudanese Roselle Leaf, which is part of the hibiscus family, it’s really sour.  This leaf is kind of red in color as it matures and has a really lemony flavor.

Shosui Takeda – Master Blacksmith and Owner of Takeda Knives

We had the honor of sitting down with Shosui Takeda, the owner of Takeda Knives. Takedas’ blue steel knives are highly regarded for their craftsmanship, long lasting sharpness and overall superior performance.

How long have you been making knives and how did you start?

Because my father was also a blacksmith, I started helping out around the workshop when I was an elementary school student. At that time, my goal was to earn some allowance money to go bowling. Honestly though, it was never my intention to follow in my father’s footsteps and I didn’t start truly working as a blacksmith until I was 28.

How has your knife making progressed over the years?

The reason I started to make knives with a very thin blade was because of some comments from a long time customer. He told me “your knives hold a great edge, but the blade is too thick for cutting thick root vegetables like daikon without breaking the vegetable. Can you make your blades thinner?”. These comments twenty years ago changed my approach to knife making. Even after twenty six years of knife making, I still don’t know what the perfect knife is and all I can do is my absolute best every time. I still haven’t produced a knife that I’m one hundred percent happy with.

What are the traits of a good knife to you?

There are so many factors that make a great knife. To name a few: great cutting feel which lasts over time, easy to use, doesn’t chip or get damaged easily, can use for many years, difficult to rust, easy to sharpen. Also, I want our knives to cost the same as what you’d invest in a special pair of shoes. I could go on and on, but these are the basic things I think about every day when I’m in the workshop making knives.

 

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Why do you choose to use Aogami Super Blue Steel? What makes it so special?

As far as the Aogami Super, all of our customers would only choose Aogami Super after using that knife. They say that they just can’t go back to other types of steel. About twenty years ago when we first started using Aogami Super, our main material was Blue Steel #1. Even though those knives held a great edge and were half the price, customers were choosing the Aogami Super. It’s that simple. From a craftsmanship perspective, when I first forged with Aogami Super, it was obvious that is a very very difficult material to work with. Even at this point, it is much harder than using a steel which is just one rank down. I do end up with a higher percentage of failed blades than I would working with other types of steel, but I feel it’s worth it for the end result.

You use a rosewood handle on your knives instead of magnolia. What are the benefits?

Rosewood is much tougher than magnolia. Repairing knives is an important part of what we do and we get knives back that have been used for twenty years. We can see that the rosewood lasts well over time even in professional kitchens. Shapewise, I do feel that the octagonal shape is the most comfortable and can be used by anyone. There are all kinds of different designs out there, but I believe the octagonal handles are the best.

Which of your knives are popular (overseas and Japan) and do you have any plans for new models in the future?

We’ve never once had our own idea of ‘producing a new model’. The reason our knife collection grows over time is all based on customer requests and feedback. We make changes to our knives little by little over time based on these comments.

What is your philosophy towards craftsmanship?

Something that I’ve discovered recently is a true craftsman is a person who doesn’t think in a sales related way. For example, if you think of all the different processes available for knife making, you see there are many ways to make knives that are profitable and easy to sell. You can make knives with press cutters or lasers, use layered steel or have a polished blade. These processes don’t require as much work. But when you have to make a decision on which process to use, a true craftsman chooses the method which creates the best knife for the user. Even if this process means more work to make and sell the knife, this is the path I will always choose. My goal is to pursue the best quality no matter what.

What is the process of forging a knife?

We start out by ordering a type of Aogami Super Blue steel called ‘fukugokouzai’. This combines carbon steel and a soft carbon blend. I feel this is the best quality material to start with.

Next, we cut the materials into the shape of each knife and weld the ‘nakago’ (tang) to each blade. We use a stain resistant steel for the nakago, so there won’t be any corrosion inside the handle of the knife. After welding these two pieces together, I use a hand grinder to smooth the joint between the nakago and body of the knife. Each knife then goes through a multiple-step forging and heat treatment process.

We then reshape each knife with a grinder and use a belt sander to smooth the edges step by step. At this point, we double check the joint between the nakago and the body of the knife. If there is even a slight imperfection, we re-weld and regrind the joint until it’s perfect.

We put a starter edge on to each knife and clean the surface of each blade with a wire brush. The knife is now ready for ‘yaki-ire’, a very important three day heating and cooling process.

To prep each knife for yaki-ire, we coat the blade with a powder made of natural sharpening stones and pine charcoal.  In my furnace, I heat lead to 820 degrees Celsius and put each knife one by one into the furnace until it glows the appropriate ‘red’. Once the color is just right, I plunge the knife into an oil bath to cool it and clean it with a wire brush to remove any powder residue.

I have a tub with hot oil, set to 150 degrees Celsius, which each knife goes into after the ‘yaki-ire’ process. At the end of the day, the tub holds all of the knives I’ve worked on. I then heat the oil to 170 degrees Celsius and keep it at that temperature for forty minutes. I let the knives cool and sit in the tub overnight.

The next morning I heat the oil to 170 degrees again and keep it at that temperature for forty minutes. The knives sit in the tub for another twenty four hours. Lastly, I heat the oil to 150 degrees, take out each knife one by one and clean it with wood shavings.

After ‘yaki-ire’, I make sure each knife blade is completely straight.

Next is the edge crafting process. I start out using a ‘san-shaku’ rough grit sharpening wheel and then move onto a flat rotation medium grit sharpening wheel. The final process is to sharpen each knife by hand on a series of sharpening stones and coat with an anti-rusting material.

Lastly, we need to attach the handle. We insert epoxy into each handle and insert the blade, adjusting to the correct angle. The knife is now ready to be boxed up and leave our workshop!

Paul Liebrandt – Executive Chef at The Elm, New York City

We had the honor of sitting down with Chef Paul Liebrandt recently to talk about his culinary background, philosophy and his new restaurant project The Elm.

How did u get into cooking initially?
I suppose I stumbled into cooking. It wasn’t like a lot of chefs they have a lineage of a family or….mine didn’t have anything to do with food. I don’t know really. It wasn’t one thing that I was going to go and cook.  I just liked food, ingredients. Not one particular thing, definitely not.

Who were your mentors early on?
When I was a younger man, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Gagnaire, Raymond Blanc, people who I had worked for were a huge influence on me in various ways. In some ways for their rigor, their mentality, their focus of how to be a chef from a chef’s point of view. Some for the creative aspect, for purely culinary, purely just the food. And their approach and the way they think about food.

How would you describe your culinary style?
I would describe my culinary style at present to be modern European, contemporary French if you’d like a little more specificity there. I wouldn’t say that it’s too boxed in with being French. There is a lot of influence there from Japanese ingredients and technique to Southeast  Asia, as I think there are probably in most modern chefs these days. There are a lot of world influences because the world is obviously a much different place than it was quite a while ago.

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What were the steps that led you to where you are now, from Atlas to Gilt to Corton?
Gilt was seven years ago and I was seven years younger. I think any chef when they’re young, every five years is the future. In terms of technology, in terms of in general, most people, that’s the way they look at the future. So, that was the future.

My cooking now is more of an amalgamation of what I was doing at Atlas and French. At Atlas, we were some of the first people to do molecular gastronomy in this country, before Alinea, before any of that. It was more El Bulli-esque kinds of things mixed with that Gagnaire-esque French technique. And, it was very great food. I’ve evolved since then, because I’ve seen the way the food world as a whole around the globe is moving and I like to reinvent my cuisine to a point and keep it fresh and motivated. Some things don’t change, the standards, the rigor, the way that we think about food. The combinations, that doesn’t change; however, because we are seven years on, the techniques and the focus is different.

What inspired you to start work on The Elm, which is a more casual concept than Corton?
I am doing this project because I was approached by my partners there and it was a very good opportunity to have a presence in an area of New York City that is only expanding and is growing in every possible way. And, I think that is a very good way to look at restaurants. I am going to be doing something there that is more affordable than Corton. There will be no white tablecloths, there will be music in the dining room and the dining room has a completely different feel of dining experience. The same PL style on the food; it’s devoid of all the bells and whistles that you have in fine dining, canapés, amuse bouche etc. It will be French style with my interpretation of classical French food with classical French flavors and technique done in a subtle way. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m not trying to do a French brasserie, but we have a good grasp on what we want to do there, which I looked at the market and there is not anything out there like that.

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Is it the same foundation?
I mean it’s always the same foundation. We cook a piece of fish and we cook a piece of fish. At Corton, we may be using turbot or shima aji. At the Elm, we may be using skate. But, we still approach it in the same manner. It doesn’t change. When you’re talking about casual food, you’re talking about accessibility. You’re not talking about how accessible on the plate it is. Price is what makes it exclusive or not. If Per Se was $50 per head, it would be thought of very differently because it would be much less exclusive. So, it really does come down to the price of the dining experience. So, obviously the Elm is priced in a more sensitive manner to a bigger, wider audience. So, that makes it more ‘casual’. Although, that’s a difficult word to use because I’m doing a restaurant not a bistro or brasserie. I would prefer to call it affordable luxury. Very good ingredients, cooked very nicely in a really great feel dining room, with a great atmosphere at a price point that most people can afford and can come back every week. And, I feel that is where the future of dining is going. Corton is obviously the 0.1% in this country. In Asia, fine dining is very much there still.

What qualities do you look for in the people you hire?
It’s not necessarily how much experience they have. If a young person comes to me, I’m looking at their will. I’m looking at their drive. If they have an open mind and when they’re shown something if they listen and pay attention and they have that focus. And they have the will to succeed. I give them the tools necessary to succeed but they have to have the will to want to do it. And that is really what I’m looking for when I have a young person come here. And then once I’ve given them those tools, it’s a question of monitoring every day. It’s up to them to make sure and if they decide it’s not for them, then it’s not for them. But, generally it’s the person; we spend so many hours together that I want to enjoy the person’s company that I’m working with. And, do they fit well within a team? Are they a team player rather than an individual? It’s just basic rules of working together.

How about culinary school? Do you recommend it?
No, not necessarily because everybody is different. I didn’t go to the CIA, I didn’t do all that, but that’s me. It doesn’t mean that it was right or wrong. It’s the same as anybody in any career. There’s the way we all think life should go and then there’s the way it does go. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, it’s subjective.

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At the moment, are there any ingredients or techniques that are particularly exciting to you?
Because it’s spring, garlic is all over the place right now. We’re doing fresh garlic in all kinds of ways, which is a lot of fun. Not the same as most wild ingredients, but it’s got a lot of character to it. Technique-wise, I’m not one of those chefs who says ‘I’ve invented this new technique’. I’m not like that. I just do what I do; I’ve never been showy about the food. A lot of the European chefs, they are like that, but that’s not me. I think of myself as not just playing with the food, but I’m orchestrating the show every night. I want to move more now to being more of a restaurateur than just a straight chef.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
Realistically, it’s my hands, my palette, my eyes, my senses. If I’m honest, because that’s the biggest tool. Without that, it’s all done. If we’re talking about an actual piece of equipment, a good spoon is always good to have. A good quality Japanese knife, absolutely. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.

What are your favorite places to eat?
En Brasserie. It’s simple, it’s clean, it’s an everyday kind of place. Bar Masa is great; it’s fun and delicious. If I go for sushi, I’m not going at 7, I’m going at 11. So, Blue Ribbon sushi is open then, and it’s really consistent and really, really good. But for me, that is sort of it. If I could eat just Japanese food everyday I would.

You recently spent a week in Japan. How would you compare the food there to what people encounter here in the U.S. or in Europe?
It’s amazing. It’s night and day, it’s oil and water, it’s light and dark. The reverence for the product, the reverence for the technique of just cooking, is far beyond anything in this country. The discipline and the bushido and the craftsmanship, your focus of doing something because that’s what you were born to do, you don’t see that in the U.S. And, I’m not that old but I’m old enough to have touched on a time when that classical French generation was very similar to that. But it’s changed now. Everyone’s got ADD. No one can focus on anything for too long, because they want everything instantly and they don’t want to work for it. It’s a simple thing. The cooks will cook in a particular part of the kitchen for a couple months and then expect to move. To become really masterful and do something until it becomes muscle memory, to do that you have to have patience and understand the longer picture. So, for me, I think it’s very important that remains and I see that in Japan. And, it’s something which is lost here. It’s my home here (U.S.) and I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the truth. And the truth is very simple. It’s worldwide. Its’ not what it was. In Japan, I love that mentality and that approach. It’s ‘Welcome to my home’ and it’s reverence for every single little thing and I love it. I think that is the way life should be. Life would be better if everything was like that and people were dedicated and people were focused.

Do you have any advice for young cooks starting out?
This is not a 100 meters, this is a marathon this business. It’s very hard to tell young people that. They want to jump on it and they want to run and that’s important. It’s good to have that. But you need to obviously be balanced and understand it doesn’t happen all in one day. You do have to be patient. You have to work at it and you have to keep up that ambition. You have to keep up that focus and that drive. When I say to them, I can tell you something, I can show you the door but you have to walk through that door.

Photo credit: Evan Sung

Knife Types and Uses

In this section, we’ve provided a run down of the different types of Japanese knives and their specific uses.

 

Gyutou

Gyutou / Chef’s Knife

Gyutou are the Japanese equivalent of a European chef’s knife. They are ideal as an all purpose knife in the kitchen and can be used for most tasks. Japanese Gyutou are typically lighter and thinner than a European knife, are made out of a harder steel and hold a better edge as a result. The word Gyutou in Japanese means ‘beef knife’.

Shop all Gyutou Knives

 

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Santoku /  Multipurpose

Santoku, meaning ‘three virtues’ in Japanese, is an all purpose knife with a taller blade profile than a Gyutou. Its three virtues are the knife’s ability to cut fish, meat and vegetables.  Santoku have a flatter ‘belly’ than Gyutou and are used with an up and down chopping motion rather than a ‘rocking’ type cut.

Shop all Santoku Knives

 

Sujihiki

Sujihiki / Slicer

Sujihiki Knives are the equivalent to a European slicer with a few differences. The difference is the blade is typically thinner and made out of a harder steel, allowing for better edge retention. Additionally, the bevel on the blade is at a steeper angle, allowing for a more precise cut. Sujihiki can be used for filleting, carving and also as an all purpose knife.

Shop all Sujihiki Knives

 

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Petty / Paring

Petty knives are small utility or paring knives that are ideal for small, delicate work that a chef’s knife can’t handle.

Shop all Petty Knives

 

Honesuki

Honesuki / Boning

A Honesuki is a Japanese boning knife and differs from a Western boning knife in its triangular shape and the fact that it is stiff with very little flex. The honesuki works very well for deboning poultry and typically has an asymmetrical edge. Due to its shape and height, the honesuki can also double up nicely as a utility or petty style of knife.

Shop all Honesuki Knives

 

hankotsu

Hankotsu / Boning

A Hankotsu is a Japanese boning knife and differs from a Western boning knife in its shape. It is a thick spined, durable knife and does not have the ‘flex’ of a Western boning knife. Originally, it was designed to debone hanging meats but can also be used as a petty or utility knife.

Shop all Hankotsu Knives

 

Nakiri

Nakiri / Vegetable Knife

Nakiri knives are the double edged Western style equivalent of a one sided Japanese usuba knife.  With their straight blade, they are ideal for cutting vegetables.

Shop all Nakiri Knives

 

yodeba

Yo-deba / Butchery

Yo-deba knives are heavy, durable knives with a thick spine, which are used for fish and meat butchery.

Shop all Yo-deba Knives

 

Yanagi

Yanagi / Slicer

Yanagi are single edged traditional Japanese knives. They are used in a long drawing motion to cut precise slices of sushi, sashimi and crudo and their single edge means they get incredibly sharp.

Shop all Yanagi Knives

 

takobiki

Takobiki / Slicer

Takobiki are a variation of yanagis and originated in the Kanto (Tokyo) area of Japan. They are single edged allowing for an incredibly sharp edge and are used for slicing sushi, sashimi and crudo.

Shop all Takobiki Knives

 

deba

Deba / Butchery

Deba are traditional single bevel Japanese knives with a thick spine and a lot of weight. They are used for fish butchery, filleting and can also be used on poultry.

Shop all Deba Knives

 

usuba

Usuba / Vegetable Knife

The Usuba is a traditional Japanese vegetable knife with a single edge. Due to its single edge, it gets incredibly sharp and can be used for precise vegetable work. The Kamagata Usuba, which has a curved tip, is a regional variation from Osaka of the square tipped Usuba.

Shop all Usuba Knives

 

kiritsuke

Kiritsuke / Slicer

The Kiritsuke is a traditional Japanese knife with an angled tip that can be used as either a sashimi knife or as an all-purpose knife. In restaurant kitchens in Japan, this knife is traditionally used by the Executive Chef only and cannot be used by other cooks.

Shop all Kiritsuke Knives

 

pankiri

Pankiri / Bread Knife

Pankiri are designed and used for slicing bread. The ridged teeth are designed specifically for this purpose.

Shop all Pankiri Knives

Andy Ricker – Owner Chef, Pok Pok

What is your earliest food memory?
My mom baking bread. She made really great crusty whole wheat bread in coffee cans.

What led you to become passionate about Thailand and northern Thai food?
Traveling in Northern Thailand back in the 80′s and 90′s. I can’t recommend travel enough for anyone who wants to learn more about another culture. And I’m not talking about going on a party tour or htting twenty locations in a week. Go there, stay in one place, be curious, let it unfold.

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How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s an amalgamation of very traditional Thai technique (lots of mortar and pestle), line cook trickery and Western finessing of traditional Thai cooking technique (where many Thais would boil the shit out of some pork ribs, I will instead simmer…simple as that).

Who are some of your mentors, both in and out of the kitchen?
David Thompson, who made it seem possible for a farang (foreigner) like me to get some kind of grip on Thai cooking; Chris Israel (former boss and chef at Zefiro restaurant in Portland, a seminal eatery that pre-dated most of the current Portland scene, and current chef at Gruner in Portland) who really showed me how to use my palate.  Sunny Chailert, my friend and mentor from Chiang Mai who has had tremendous influence on my taste and vocabulary. Willy Vlautin (author of several novels, one of which is currently a major motion picture: “Motel Life”) who said to me once “just tell your story”.
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What inspired you to open Pok Pok and what were some of the challenges with the initial opening?
I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been a housepainter for nine years, did not want to work for anyone ever again and did not want to be a painter anymore. That left opening a restaurant.

How did the experience of opening in New York differ from opening in Portland?
Well, it was much fucking harder.

What are the main differences between diners in these two cities?
New York City diners tend to be more open to the more esoteric dishes on the menu, but both cities have embraced Pok Pok equally.

Are there any Thai (or non-Thai) ingredients that you are especially excited about at the moment?
Just picked up a kilo of naam phrik made in Mae Hong Son that has toasted ground thua nao khaep (thin fermented/dried soybean cakes), ground dried fish, salt and chiles, used for making certain dishes in the Tai Yai canon; looking forward to making Koh Phak Kuut (Tai Yai salad of fiddlehead ferns, tomatoes, shallots and this naam phrik, mixed with raw sesame oil and seeds) in the spring.
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What kitchen tools do you consider essential?
Mortar and pestle. Since we are on knives here, I love Japanese knives…but I can afford them. Every recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook was made for the beauty shots in Thailand, in a Thai kitchen using cheap Kiwi knives, so no need to have the fancy knives to make this food…but it sure makes it easier.

Favorite places to eat in Thailand, the U.S. and beyond?
I love eating all over Thailand. I can’t really give a favorite spot, but Northern Thai is my first love, followed by Isaan and central Thailand….I love Southern Thai food too but know the least about it. I’d fly to London just to have breakfast at St. John Bread and Wine….and I don’t even like wine.

Photo credits: Evan Sung and David Reamer

How to Sharpen a 70/30 Japanese Knife

This video is the first part of a series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video,  we demonstrate the correct technique for sharpening a 70/30 edged Japanese knife.

Gavin Kaysen – Executive Chef, Cafe Boulud New York

We had a chance to sit down and talk with Chef Gavin Kaysen. Chef Gavin is the Executive Chef at Cafe Boulud in New York City and head coach for the United States’ Bocuse D’Or team.

How did you get into cooking initially?
I started out working at Subway actually, and not that it really inspired me to cook for a living, but I did learn what taking care of people meant.

It was not until my mentor, George Serra moved in next to us to open a restaurant when I got the bug to be in this business. He taught me a lot about this business but mostly he taught me what it meant to love what you do.

How would you describe your culinary style and how has it evolved over the years?
Clearly my style is grounded in a classical French approach, but I feel as if it has a bit of a whimsical American touch to it. It evolves every day, I do not think you can every stop learning or changing your dishes, I am not a fan of staple dishes on menus, but I do understand their importance and value to the guests, so of course we have them as well.

What’s a new ingredient that you’ve discovered recently or started incorporating into the menu at Cafe Boulud?
We are using a lot of chili’s right now for our new voyage menu…they have been fun and very hot to expereiment with.

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What’s your philosophy on guest hospitality in your restaurant?
Through humility, genuine care, warmth, graciousness and love, we commit ourselves to welcoming every guest and treating them the way we would if they were in our own homes.

What’s one or two kitchen tools you couldn’t live without?
A sharp knife and a spoon

How did you get involved with the Bocuse D’Or and what’s your current role with Team USA?
I became involved back in 2005 when I went to Lyon for the first time to watch the competition as a spectator. I then represented the USA in 2007 and shortly after that, helped Chefs, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse create the Bocuse d’Or USA foundation. I am currently the head coach for team USA.

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As far as other chefs, who inspires you?
Many, it is too hard to pinpoint one….but I am always inspired by the people and the chefs who take risks with their career and their food.

Can you tell us about your favorite places to eat in NYC or elsewhere?
Again, too many to say, but if I had to pick one favorite high end place it would be Le Bernadin. They are simply amazing at what they do and I cherish every meal I have had there.

Chris Cosentino – Executive Chef, Incanto, San Francicso

We had an opportunity recently to sit down with Chef Chris Cosentino to discuss his culinary background, how he got into offal cookery and his favorite spots to eat in San Francisco and beyond.

How did you get into cooking initially and what is your food background?
My first job was as a dishwasher at an IHOP.  Growing up in New England, I also worked on local fishing boats, lobstering and repairing fishing nets with a neighbor who was a fishing captain.  Later, I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales and after graduation I moved to Washingon D.C. to work with Mark Miller at the Red Sage and later at restaurants including Rubicon, Chez Panisse, Belon, and Redwood Park in the Bay Area. I became Executive Chef at Incanto in 2002 and have been here ever since.
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Who have some of your mentors been both in and out of the kitchen?
Mark Miller taught me to look at history to understand the culture and techniques of cooking.  Jean-Louis Palladin had so much passion and love of the craft; he was a true chefs’ chef.  Fergus Henderson helped open my eyes to the deliciousness of offal cookery and is just an all around fun guy to be around.  Really, there are so many chefs that inspire and amaze me that I could go on forever.

In the U.S., you’ve been a pioneer in nose to tail eating. What inspired you to cook this way and how have diners’ perceptions changed over the years?
I helped out at an animal harvest and saw how much was being thrown away and I swore that I wouldn’t do that anymore.  But, the thing about it is that I am not doing anything new.  I am just bringing back old recipes that have been put to rest.  These are viable cuts of meat that are eaten around the world.  Why did we stop eating them?  My goal was, and still is, to get people to give these cuts of meat a try.  Now, I see more and more diners that seek me out specifically to experience offal for the first time or in a new way.
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What’s the creative process for you in creating new dishes at Incanto?
It all starts with the product and then it is just a flow of flavors in my head.  I taste the ingredients together before I even start to cook.  I want to make sure they are going to work well together.  Sometimes, it’s about a texture combination or adding umami to a dish or just using enough acid and herbs to get a balanced dish. Each time is a bit different but the end goal is to make it delicious.  If it’s not, it doesn’t make the menu.

Are there any ingredients or cooking techniques you are particularly inspired by at the moment?
I am inspired by so many different techniques and right now I am reading a lot of old cookbooks and getting re-inspired by the classics.  It’s amazing what could be done back in the day without all the fancy equipment we have now, like in the days of Escoffier.
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Since Incanto opened in 2002, how has the restaurant evolved? How has the San Francisco dining scene evolved?
The city is forever evolving and at the restaurant I am trying everyday to improve the guests’ experience, with both the food and the service. We did a small remodel a few years ago and continually look for ways to enhance the experience.

What are your thoughts on culinary school? Do you feel it’s necessary?
I think culinary school depends on the person. Some need the direction and thrive in that environment.  But, I do find it to be very expensive and can be misleading if grads think it will surely lead them to a future of fame, fortune and grandeur.  At the end of the day, the most important trait you bring to the table is a strong work ethic.
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As a chef who has had great success with food television, what are your thoughts on how Food Network and others are affecting food culture in the U.S?
Food television has been positive in many ways, but with every positive comes negatives.  There are many people around the country now who are eating better and cooking at home because of food TV.  There are also a lot of young cooks who only want to be on TV but don’t want to put in the time to really know what they are doing.

What are some of your favorite places to eat in San Francisco or elsewhere?
There are so many incredible places to eat that it’s hard to just pick one.  In Chicago, it’s Blackbird and Publican. In New York, it’s Takashi, Empellon, and Hearth and in San Francisco, it’s State Bird Provisions.
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Any words of advice to young cooks starting out?
Eat out at great restaurants where you think you might want to work.  Read cookbooks and work your ass off.  Listen and learn.  It’s not personal, it’s business.  Make sure that every dish is so perfect you would serve it to your grandmother.  Listen, take notes, come prepared, keep your knives sharp and never be late.

Dale Talde – Executive Chef, Talde

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef Dale Talde recently to talk about his approach to cooking, his favorite places to eat in New York and beyond and advice for cooks just starting out.

How did you get into cooking initially?
By being around food and seeing my mom cook. My mom grew her own vegetables, my dad fished and hunted and I used to watch them cook all the time. I loved watching cooking shows and I think watching all that go down at a young age was my inspiration.

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Who have your mentors been over the years?
My first mentor was Jeff Felsinthall at Vong. He’s a culinary instructor now, but he worked at Charlie Trotter’s as a sous chef. He opened Charlies’ back in the day and he was just militant in his approach. And at first, when you are younger and you don’t realize what he’s doing, it comes off that he’s picking on you or you think ‘what’s this guy’s problem?’. But then you go into another kitchen and I saw he was really laying down the foundation for me learning to cook.

Probably my biggest culinary mentor is Carrie Nahabedian at Naha. She just opened a new restaurant Brindille. She’s just a really close culinary chef friend. She has helped me out through thick and thin and her approach is very seasonal. She was the first person who taught me what locavore is, with using what’s around and what’s seasonal and embracing that and having a relationship with farmers, with your fish guy and your meat guy. I think the best thing she taught me is how to portion foie gras. We used to portion it to order and I used to portion and have a scale next to me. And, I guess it’s not the most economical way, but I would weigh out a 2 and ½ ounce portion and she would say, ‘Dale, cut a piece of foie gras that you would want to eat. And, I said all right and I cut this steak of a piece of foie. And I seared it, and she taught me how to cook it. Without her and her cousin Michael, who own Naha and Brindille, I wouldn’t be the chef that I am today.

Other mentors are Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Stephen Starr. Stephen’s not a chef, but Stephen taught me how to look at food and how to eat food and how to look at it from a customer’s perspective. How are your diners going to perceive what you are doing? That’s important to me.

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How would you describe your personal culinary style?
I would say we do food that’s pretty fun. We have three restaurants and we just try to have fun with the food. It’s a gastro pub at Thistle, it’s Asian American here at Talde. It’s something that is familiar but has an unexpected surprise to it. That’s what we do.

How was the concept at Talde born?
The concept was a really funny surprise. It was like hey this is what we want to do, we don’t know how to explain it. And one of our close friends was our PR guy at the time, Khong, and he said let’s look at who and what you are. I’m a Filipino-American but I don’t do Filipino food, I do roundabout Asian food. And he said, why don’t we call it Asian American. It describes who you are and this restaurant is who you are, so why don’t we call it that. I was very cautious about it. I mean who wants to go out for Asian American food? But, it was a new term and you grouped it as Asian and it worked and it took off.

What were some of the challenges in opening Talde?
Trying to get a staff together, trying to hire a staff, trying to find what sells, what doesn’t. Really making food that is good enough for the neighborhood, because we are trying to be a neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately, it’s a neighborhood of savvy diners and people who have money to spend on food and really know what good food is. That was kind of our first challenge. Is this food good enough? Is what we’re doing good enough? And you know some of the first dishes like the wedge salad with Chinese bacon and Sriracha. We made that for us, we didn’t make that for the diners. It was selfish, but the neighborhood said if I wanted a wedge salad, I would go to a diner. Why would I need to come here? I just waited an hour and a half for a table; I’m not going to order a wedge salad.

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What’s the inspiration for creating new dishes?
New dishes for us is our daily lives. Walking the streets of New York City you get so inspired. It’s the smell of a halal cart at 3am when you’ve had too much to drink or the sounds, smells and sights in Chinatown as you get off the D Train at Grand. I mean that’s life. You walk the streets of New York City and I’m telling you if you aren’t inspired then you need to re-evaluate life and your soul. Even in our sleepy little neighborhood of Park Slope in the afternoon, you walk twenty blocks down into Sunset Park and you might as well be in Mexico. And then you walk over and you’re in Chinatown in Brooklyn. You go to Brighton Beach and you might as well be in Russia. The inspiration is so ridiculous here.

 
What ingredients and techniques are you focused on right now?
Right now, we’re really into putting things on sticks. That’s my favorite. Anything on sticks. Technique-wise we love the idea of putting things on a stick and charring them. It’s so the antithesis of where modernist cooking is right now – cooking something for 3 and a half days at low temperature. I mean, give me fire and I will cook. I like the idea that it can be so ballsy hot. Let’s get that wok as hot as it can get and let’s char the shit out of it and let’s see what happens. Put some ‘wok hey’ on it, put some fire on it and let it go. It’s so caveman, it’s back to the original way of cooking to just have fire.

What’s your essential cooking tool?
A Kunz spoon, a wok spoon and a Nenox and I’m ready to go.

 
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With your experience on Top Chef , how do you see food television as an influence on diners and the industry?
It’s been a great influence for diners. It gives a great insight into the process and what it is that cooks sometimes have to do. It’s done amazing things for our culinary world. It’s opened us up to a whole new spectrum of people and it’s given a ridiculous pop fan base of people who want to come to your restaurant to check out your food. It’s a little dangerous for culinary professionals though. They might think that they will be famous at some point, that they’re going to reach for stardom as opposed to learning a trade. That’s one thing that is a downside. For every upside, there’s a downside. A lot of these cooks come out of school and they want to be famous and I think why don’t you just learn how to cook first. Learn your trade, learn your craft. It’s like guys who make knives. Someone taught them how to bend, heat, cut, work with metal. If you don’t learn how to do that, how can you make a beautiful piece of cutlery that looks like a piece of art? You can’t. So, for us, if you don’t know how to cook a steak to medium rare, how are you going to create a dish based on a steak if it’s not cooked properly? Everything else is garbage. Every sauce, every foam, every garnish, every oil is garbage unless that steak is cooked properly.

Where do you like to eat?
Right now, I love to eat at Piquat’s Pizza in Chicago. It’s kind of like a foccacia bread and then they burn the crust to get it nice and charred.

I love this place in San Sebastian, Spain that does simple grilled seafood. The deft hand that someone has who takes raw sardines and makes a parsley oil and putting just a little bit of salt on it because they know the sardines are salty naturally. To them, it might seem simple but it’s complex. It’s complex because you didn’t have to do anything to it. It’s not hiding. This is what it is. We have the best fish and we’re putting it on a plate.

In New York, I love a good steak. I love Perla. Michael Toscano’s pasta is ridiculous; he’s a magician. We’re either going to eat there tonight or at Minetta Tavern.
 

Do you have any advice for young cooks?
Put your head down and cook. Life is harder than just cooking, but if you want to be great at this job just put your head down and cook. Love what you do. Love every aspect of what you do. Love it when it sucks. When you love restaurants so much and you love cooking so much that you love it when it sucks, then you know it’s the industry for you. When the oven’s broken and you just burned your hand and there’s no dishwasher and you still love coming to work, it’s the job for you. It’s a passion. Build a passion for your job because a lot of what we do isn’t pleasant.

 

Matthew Jennings – Owner Chef, Farmstead

We had the privilege of catching up with Chef Matthew Jennings in Providence recently to talk about how he got into cooking, why he loves egg yolks and the importance of humility.

Can you tell us a little about where you grew up?

I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. Ya know…home of the World Series Champions, The Boston Red Sox?! I spent time growing up both in the city and in the country, in and around Boston.

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How did you get into cooking initially?

My first job when I was 14 was in a grocery store, as a stock boy. I’d stock the soft drinks and instant ramen, fold the newspapers and steal Playboys on Sunday mornings when my shift was over. The owner of the grocery store also owned a little café that was next door. I’d hang outside the back door of the café and watch the cooks, dancing around a prep table, with their modified uniforms- cut off pants, brightly colored clogs, piercings and tattoos. I’d watch them spin with fish in their hand, throw a bag of flour over their shoulder. They were so cool. And I wanted to get in there. Bad.

A few more months passed and I asked my boss if I could get some hours in the café. He said “Dish and prep only”. And so I started to get my first hours prepping in the thimble sized, screaming hot cubicle kitchen- fighting through the tears as I chopped onions in a corner, on a fish tub lid for a cutting board, while the cooks threw smoking hot pans into a sink full of soapy water, right near me. I got splashed on, burnt, cut and generally abused a lot. And I loved every minute of it. I was hooked.

What do you like most about New England Cuisine?  

The anticipation of the seasons. We have a very short growing season, so as cooks, we dream a lot. We appreciate seasonal ingredients so much more. By the time spring comes around we have menus planned, and every one of us is scrambling for the first wild onions, radishes, nettles, English peas and artichokes. It’s awesome. As cooks in New England I feel like we have a greater obligation to master the ingredients. To learn how not to fuck things up, because once our season is over, that’s it. No more morels. No more tomatoes. Gone. Until next year. So we have a dedication to the product that is special and intense. It’s like that summer fling you had in high school. As May approaches you are already thinking about seeing that person again, then it is ON for three or four months until you fade back into fall and winter and you wait again until next year. But while it is on, it is intense and fiery….

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Is there an ingredient that you are excited about working with right now?

I love everything, but I’ve certainly been on an egg yolk kick lately. It’s just so damn sexy. I love eggs so much and don’t understand people that don’t like them. I love making sauces with them, cooking them slowly, creating custards, pate fruits, curing them, frothing them, folding them raw into salads and noodles. They are so versatile. I’m working on an ‘egg yolk muk’ right now- egg yolks cooked with vinegar, nut oil, fish sauce, methylcellulose and some homemade, sesame based miso. I’m not usually into the molecular shit, but this stuff is amazing. I can’t stop eating it. So rich, but so delicate.

What is the most important thing you can teach a young chef?

Humility. No matter how successful you become, there is always someone more successful, so don’t take your own worth too seriously, or become arrogant in its revelation. I still believe that we are the best cooks when we are still learning. I certainly still am. I learn from my own cooks, from others I work with. That’s what this game is about- learning something every day. I’m humbled everyday by how much I don’t know. It inspires me to learn more and to work harder.

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You have a pretty prolific Japanese knife collection.  Can you tell us about how you got introduced?

I think I picked up my first Japanese knife- a deba- at a friend’s restaurant probably 15 or so years ago. It intrigued me. It was so alien. So unfamiliar. I was used to such traditional western styles. It felt so awkward in my hand. Fast forward 20 years and I’ve got over a dozen unique Japanese styles, designs, weights, and constructions. I am in love with the notion of ‘right tool for the right job’, and how the Japanese have a much better focus on creating task-specific blades. For me, that is the biggest allure of the Eastern style knife. It hones your focus on an individual task, and teaches you how to master a tool designed specifically for that task. That’s crazy. So cool. I think my favorite right now is my Nakiri. I’m still trying to master that knife. It’s intimidating and yet detailed vegetable work is so inspiring. I look forward to becoming proficient with it. Practice makes perfect I suppose.

Other essential kitchen tools?

A great spoon. Proper sharpening stones. Another perennial favorite is a little flat spatula that came from my grandmother’s silver collection. The thing is amazing. It is hyper flexible and strong, and makes turning scallops in a pan, or rotating vegetables for roasting, or even picking up delicate items, such a breeze. I couldn’t live without it.

Farmstead’s cheese program is pretty serious; can you introduce a few of your favorites that most of us haven’t heard of?

The world of cheese is so vast. We are coming up now on some seasonal cheeses that only come out this time of year, in order to be available for the holidays. I would keep an eye out for cheeses like “Rush Creek Reserve”: a bloomy rinded, soft ripened cheese that is decadent, rich and spreadable. Also cheeses like “Twig Farm Washed” , blow me away. The depth that cheesemakers can coax from the milk is really incredible. American cheeses are undergoing an all-time renaissance right now. People should be inspired to drive out in the country, find a cheesemaker and see what they are doing. Just about every state has talented cheesesmakers these days. It is quite the time to be an aficionado of handmade, American foods.

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Favorite places to eat in Providence?  Elsewhere?  

Well, Farmstead of course. Also, I love my friend’s bistro, New Rivers. Super quaint and so New England. Great vibe and awesome food. Some new spots like Birch and North and doing a nice job. Also, I love sausages, so Wurst Kitchen is a favorite. Out of town, I’d hit Tallulah’s Taco Shack in Jamestown in the summer. It’s dope. And Matunuk Oyster Bar. That’s a great spot. Otherwise, I’ll be at home this winter, braising, smoking meat, baking bread, canning pickles and potted meats for friends. So, come on over. I’ll have a pint waiting.