This video, beautifully produced by Eater, features Chef Paul Liebrandt discussing the essential knives and techniques for any cook. Featured are Chubo’s Takeda, Kagekiyo, Takamura and Saji Takeshi knives.
Keith Kreeger is a designer artist and maker whose work graces the tables of some of the countries best restaurants. You can find more of his work here.
Tell us a little about where you grew up?
I grew up just outside of New York City in Westchester County. Most of my family is still in New York and I go back for work often. Even though I’m living in Texas, New York is still a big part of my life.
How did you first get interested in pottery?
I took my first class when I was in high school but it was at Skidmore College when I really became serious about working with clay. I took a class during a summer session after my sophomore year, which was a big switch from the previous summer when I had interned on Capitol Hill. About 1 week into that first clay session I was working in the studio 10 hours a day and couldn’t wait to get back in there. About halfway through that session I met Toshiko Takaezu who came to Skidmore every summer to make some work. Next thing I knew I was pulling an all-nighter with Toshiko, her apprentice and a couple of other students as Toshiko made a 6 foot tall thrown form. That level of effort and concentration was amazing to me. I spent the rest of my time in college figuring out how to spend the most amount of time in the studio.
What is the most satisfying/challenging aspect of your work?
Working in the studio is obviously a process driven endeavor. Because of that it’s incredibly rewarding to see the work flow from start to finish on a daily basis. There aren’t too many jobs that allow a person to see the results of their effort every day. It’s very similar to cooking in that sense. In the studio there are steps to follow and you’re constantly reacting to the materials at each stage of the process. Each moment in each round of work becomes information and part of a library of ideas to pull from for future work. I absolutely love revisiting an idea or form with skills and techniques that have evolved through the years.
As for challenges, working in the studio is physical work and certain tasks can be arduous and some are even tedious…but each of those steps is necessary to get the quality of finished work that I’m after. I often joke that as soon as we solve a problem in the studio within a process we’ll add another step or complication. I think the biggest issue in the studio right now is editing down the collections…finding the pieces that work best and the designs that succeed as part of a larger conversation. We are constantly tweaking ideas and trying new things.
In 2009 you moved your studio from Cape Cod Massachusetts to Austin, Texas. What prompted the move and how has the relocation influenced your work?
I loved living on the Cape and I built my first studio there long before I was ready to take on that endeavor. That turned out to be a good thing because I learned a lot about the process and a lot about myself that way. The Cape was so busy for the 4 months a year but in those long winters I often found myself in the studio at odd hours trying as many different things as possible. In 2009 my wife and I decided to move because we were ready for a city again. It turned out to be a good time to move and it definitely brought new inspiration to my work. I have been greatly inspired by the creative community in Austin. It’s a vibrant city that pulls its energy from so many sources…artists, tech companies, musicians, start-ups and the food community are all intertwined and are helping the city grow. I like to say that even my friends with boring jobs are doing interesting things. Without rambling further…I think my work has become cleaner and more contemporary since moving to Austin.
Your work is the canvas for some of the country’s top chefs. Can you tell us a little about the collaboration process when working with chefs?
It’s very exciting to be working with chefs and I love seeing how each of their ideas show up on my work. I’ve always loved working with other creative groups and this collaboration just makes so much sense since so much of my work is made to serve food. The use of handmade wares in restaurants is obviously a trend at this point. What I find most important is that we communicate and educate each other so we keep the quality as high as possible. Just because something is handmade doesn’t give it an inherent good that warrants use. If you look around the tabletop world you even have commercial dinnerware manufacturers coming out with “craft” collections. I’m very deliberate with each piece that leaves my studio and am always thinking of how my work will be used. It’s incredibly humbling for me to know that on a given night around the country that so many people are using my work.
My process of working with chefs has a few options. One version is simply a chef choosing our standard collections for their spaces. Another way to work together is to come up with custom wares for the space. It could be as simple as a variation of one of my collections, which is what we’re doing for Tim Maslow at Ribelle. I just finished working on a series of carafes for another client’s water service. We’re definitely not a fabricating studio, but I’ve been lucky to have gotten calls from chefs who have an idea and give me the creative freedom to run with their ideas. Basically, I can make an entire line of tableware for a space or my work can be used to highlight a part of the service or decor within the greater setting of the restaurant.
As Paul Qui gets ready to open his tasting room I’ve been working on an exclusive line for him. The components are very geometric and modular for kitchen to work with. Paul recently texted me a photo of an egg with a cracked shell asking if we could make it out of porcelain. That’s not something I normally would have tried but we made some porcelain eggs and I think it’s going to be a pretty special part of the experience in the tasting room.
We really enjoyed following your recent trip to Japan on Instagram. Was it your first time there? Can you share what surprised/delighted you, culinarily and or related to Japanese ceramics?
My wife and I were lucky enough to travel to Japan last fall for my brother-in-law’s wedding. The wedding was beautiful, in a Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The history of ceramics in Japan is amazing and I would love to go back for a more pottery-focused trip. We traveled through Tokyo and Kyoto but didn’t make it to any of the outlying pottery villages. We had some amazing meals and since my sister-in-law is from Tokyo we had a great guide for information. The best piece of advice from her was that instead of looking for a restaurant, decide on the type of food you want and go to the neighborhood that specializes in that. Under the train tracks in a smoke filled alley in Ginza we had incredible Yakitori. We had some great meals as part of the wedding group. My wife was a little worried about food so ramen became our safe meal and was our go to food throughout the trip. We also had one splurge meal on our last night in Japan at Ryugin. It was an amazing experience from start to finish. And, as a pottery nerd I was blown away by the level of ceramics used in the restaurant. There was an abalone served with an abalone broth. That broth came in a little cup from a kiln in Shigaraki. I’m sure that the cup was worth at least $1500. The object and its importance to the experience was incredibly inspiring to see.
By far our favorite experience was also the “worst” food of the entire trip. We were in Kyoto and wanted the most un-touristy experience we could have. We kept peeking in restaurants looking for a lack of foreigners and we finally found one. We sat at the counter surrounded by 70 year old Japanese men and ordered the set menu. The 80 year old woman who owned the restaurant tried to communicate to us to make sure that’s what we wanted. It was a meal full of awkward smiles and lots of pointing to explain what everything was. The food was so purely old school Japanese, full of textures and flavors that our western palates couldn’t really handle. But, by the end of the evening one man had finally asked laughingly why we were eating there. Another diner was pouring us shochu from the bottle he brought with him. My wife had about 12 plates of unfinished food in front of her since they wouldn’t clear a dish until all of the food was gone. We took pictures with the owner, her son who helped in the kitchen and her daughter who was serving. They walked us out and we all smiled and laughed and waved. We were going to circle back to get a picture of the restaurant but they were still outside laughing and waving when we were halfway down the block. It was the exact experience we were looking for…welcomed into another culture through food and hospitality.
What are your go to restaurant recommendations in Austin?
The restaurant scene in Austin has just blown up since 2009 and there are so many fantastic choices now. Start any evening with a cocktail at either Whisler’s or Weather Up.
Obviously, I’m going to suggest Qui so you can eat off my so many of my plates. Enjoy the ride that Paul and his crew take you on. One of my favorite restaurants in town is Justine’s Brasserie. It’s like walking into another world and I love what Chef Casey Wilcox is cooking. The pork chop is incredible and the potato gratin is insanely delicious. Make sure you order from his daily menu where he gets super creative and pulls from an array of influences that all work within the brasserie setting. It’s also a great late night choice as the kitchen serves until 1am. I never thought that I’d move to Austin find my favorite sushi restaurant but get to Uchi and enjoy as much as the menu as you can. You’re going to have to get tacos while you’re here and I love the Veracruz All Natural trailer…go for the migas breakfast tacos. Ramen Tatsu-Ya is a must as well. The tonkotsu broth is amazing and the marinated soft-boiled egg is as perfect as it gets.
In Boston get to Ribelle and check out what Tim Maslow is cooking…easily one of the best meals I have had all year. Also, Coppa is fantastic and the lobster rolls at Neptune Oyster are the absolute best I’ve ever had. In NYC I love Sushi Zen for straight up old school sushi. I have had a couple of really great meals at Toro recently. I want Pearl and Ash to open in Austin…great food at a great price and a wine list that satisfies everybody. I’m dreaming of their octopus dish right now. Twice a year I bring a new collection to the market at the Javits. As soon as I finish packing up the show I head directly to Esca for oysters, crudo and one of the daily pastas…it’s a great way to finish the trip…I’m a big fan of rituals.
Tell us a little about your culinary background and how you got into professional cooking?
I started in the coffee business in 1997 at Starbucks as a part time barista. Despite its rapid assimilation into a large commercial entity, Starbucks exposed me to specialty coffee and opened my eyes to this growing segment. I stayed with the company for 3 years before moving into restaurant life. Coffee would remain a focus and a passion.
My first cooking job was preparing staff meal for Fritz Blank and his team at Deux Cheminees in Philadelphia. I had been waiting tables at Davio’s and Brasserie Perrier when I was befriended by local chef Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen. He took me to Fritz as an apprentice. It was laborious and confusing. I was trying to make sense of the old school discipline but I wasn’t totally sold on it yet. I plugged away for 6 months before moving into the garde manger section at Brasserie Perrier.
I didn’t realize what a special time the early 00’s were in American culinaria. Fusion cooking was full tilt and established, pharmaceutical companies had royal expense accounts, chefs were becoming rock stars. Brasserie Perrier was my university. Under Chris Scarduzio, I learned the foundations of French cuisine alongside sensible Italian and rogue Asian cooking. It was a constant state of anxiety: pushing, learning, rising up, fighting, burning. Cooks got fired all the time. Chef knew what and who he wanted on the line, and he wasn’t afraid to get it done his way. It was an amazing experience, and I am forever grateful for all of those I worked with there with, but I was still searching.
I moved on to Salt with Chef Vernon Morales. He had worked for Martin Berastegui and Ferran Adria and I was fascinated with that type of cooking. I was still earning my stripes at being a reliable cook, and Vernon awoke another side to cooking that I needed to learn: the scientific method. Ask questions. Understand the purpose. Anticipate the result. He was technique driven but had a wickedly creative mind. I stayed at Salt until it closed in 2004, and went to Marigold Kitchen to regroup with my Salt counterparts.
After 6 months at Marigold Kitchen, I was fortunate enough to be accepted at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain. Mind numbing cuisine. There were plenty of places in the States to go stage, but the challenge and enticement of being overseas was driving me. Chef Andoni Aduriz teaches cooking as it relates to time and sense of place. His flavors are deceiving. Some are simple, some are complicated, yet all of them represent Spain. I’ve never taken so much enjoyment in preparing vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. I didn’t spend enough time at Mugaritz to fully understand all of Andoni’s philosophy, but it changed my approach and respect for cooking which prepared me for my next job: Paul Liebrandt’s GILT.
Fran Derby from WD-50 came to Mugaritz during my last 2 weeks. Quite frankly, he talked me into the Gilt job. I wasn’t good enough to cook on THAT level…..NYC. A hotel. A badass chef. But I went for it. After Paul talked me into it as well. Gilt was a beast, but an absolutely gorgeous creation. It lived up to its name. I’ve never seen so many talented cooks under one roof. It was special and remains one of my favorite places of employment.
I returned to Philadelphia to open my own place, Snackbar. It was too early in my career to do this, however, everything happens for a reason and it’s another part of my story. I was full of ideas and anxious to show my hometown what I had gathered. Even Philadelphia Magazine called me “Best New Chef” in 2007. I enjoyed being in charge and had some great moments there, but I left to take on a gastropub down the street called Pub & Kitchen. A European inspired gastropub. We did it all. I had a blast, from fish ‘n’ chips to foie gras. La Frieda burgers to cochon au lait. So many good cooks came through there. Many of them are now running kitchens in Philly. We opened a seasonal shore dining restaurant called The Diving Horse that never got the credit it deserved. It was a gorgeous, airy place where we could really cook whatever we wanted to and take full advantage of the coastal New Jersey bounty.
Despite all of this success, I chose to leave the professional kitchen in January 2013.
After years as a chef, how did Rival Bros Coffee come to be?
Rival Bros was launched in Nov 2011 as a mobile cafe in Philly’s Love Park. We took an old DHL delivery truck and made it into a coffee shop. I was looking for another creative outlet, and my passion for coffee was shared by my best friend, Damien Pileggi. He had been working for La Colombe for the past 7 years and was ready to make a move. We have the same values and core ethics. We always wanted to do something together and we were just waiting for the right time. Damien learned to roast coffee, we raised some cash and pulled the trigger.
Tell us about Rival Bros Co-Founder Damien Pileggi and your relationship with him.
Damien Pileggi is a good ol boy. He was raised right and understands being hospitable. We met in high school but became very close friends during the years after that. We waited tables together, we lived together, we hung out together. Our wives were college roommates, so I have him to thank for that intro!!! Damien cares tremendously about coffee and I am continually learning from him.
What were some of the biggest challenges in getting the Rival Bros name out there and getting the cafe funded and open?
As with any business, startup is difficult. Because of my chef background and Damien’s expertise, we gained a following quickly. We chose to work with a PR company for the first few months because we weren’t interested in advertising, but rather sharing our message and we felt that was the best way to achieve results. Damien and I have always been workers, so we were faced with running the books and keeping a tight ship.
At this time we use a number of high end green coffee importers. We have great relationships with them, and they have direct relationships with the farms. We only use coffee that comes from an approved, reputable source. We are concerned with clean water, deforestation, fair wages and education in the origin countries. Coffee is so manual and requires a lot of back breaking skill to gather even a small amount of cherries. We are constantly tasting new coffees. We embrace all forms of coffee, but we are partial to natural process coffees; they have such a deep, unique flavor from the fruit.
There’s a lot of discusssion in the coffee world about the best brewing methods. What are your thoughts there?
Coffee has become very competitive and very scientific. I appreciate the steps of analysis and the consideration it requires, but what trumps all of that is flavor. Every coffee wants to be made a different way. It all depends on how you roast it and when it was harvested. I can’t say what the best method for brewing is—- but I can give you our favorite. We will always love espresso.
What’s your essential or favorite tool to use at the cafe?
We would lose focus and consistency without a digital gram scale. It allows us to make sure the machines are calibrated, our dose is on point and ultimately that our coffee tastes right.
That said, I have to mention the surge of joy I get when I see a dense, syrupy shot of espresso in our café. We have a La Marzocco GB/5— it’s well built and easy on the eyes.
What inspires you right now?
I’m inspired by my wife, Melissa. She’s given me three beautiful sons in 6 years. Raising three kids, caring for two dogs and keeping an eye on me is no easy task. She’s my source of encouragement and my gut check. She doesn’t get awards, but she should.
Any suggestions for restaurants or cafes we should check out in Philly?
There’s a lot of great coffee shops in Philly right now— Elixr, Bodhi, Ox, ReAnimator, Ultimo, Shot Tower etc but my current fave is Menagerie in Old City. They are using great coffee from Dogwood, Ceremony and George Howell. They also have the friendliest staff.
For restaurants, I can’t stop eating at Fitler Dining Room and High Street on Market. Vernick Food + Drink is another ridiculously solid option.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
PJ Calapa is Executive Chef at Michael White’s Ai Fiori and Costata.
Do you have an earliest food memory?
Yeah, there’s a few. I grew up on the Mexican border. My Dad’s side of the family is Italian, my Mom’s side of the family is Spanish and food was always around. Every event was surrounded by someone cooking dinner or going out to dinner. My grandfather had a fish business in Texas with commercial fishing boats and he would sell fish to customers all around the United States. I remember going there as a young child and playing with all the fish and smelling all the fish and not being allowed to go anywhere after that because I stunk. But then that fish coming home with us and my mother cooking fish for us, or my grandmother cooking fish for us. Making ceviche and my mother’s ceviche recipe is still ingrained in my head and that will be on one of my menus one day.
How did you get into professional cooking?
So I did it for a long time. I didn’t know that I loved it, I just knew that I was into it. Because of where I grew up, I never actually knew that it could be a career. I graduated from high school, I went to college at Texas A & M, had a degree in Economics and there was no other choice in the family. I remember cooking dinner for my friends in my house for 12 people and it was no big deal. And, I remember someone saying you should be a chef. And I was wondering if that was even possible. This was around the year 2000, not that long ago, but it was so far beyond in my eyes that it could be a profession. I remember calling my parents and them saying no way. I finally convinced them to let me get a job in Texas working in a restaurant and then it all happened after that. There was no turning back at that point. I went to CIA and I’ve been in New York since.
Who were your culinary mentors?
First and foremost, I always give credit to the first place I ever worked, which was called Christopher’s World Grill in Bryan, Texas. Christopher Lampo was a CIA grad and they make everything from scratch and it was the proper kind of restaurant to train at. Especially because in the market in Texas at that time there was a lot of change and people not doing things the right way.
My first job in NY was at Bouley, with David Bouley. The Chef de Cuisine was Cesar Ramirez and I knew I was somewhere special at that point but didn’t know because I was so new to New York. I knew that I did everything wrong at the beginning and I knew that I didn’t want to do it wrong. He instilled a standard in me that will never change. And, I still hold that standard in me and hold it to everyone that I work with and who works for me.
As a chef with experience with both Japanese and Italian cuisine, do you see any parallels?
When I told people I was going to work at Nobu, they were surprised because I’m not Japanese. But I told them it doesn’t really work like that there. Food is food, the ingredients change, but cooking is cooking. There’s obviously different styles in different regions and differerent countries but at the end of the day cooking is cooking. You cook a piece of meat and you cook a piece of meat. Once I immersed myself in that Nobu culture and the Nobu version of Japanese, I understood what the key ingredients were. But, his ability to expand in different directions, I sort of learned the core ingredients and rules I needed to play by and at that point I just let myself be creative.
Taking that fine dining version of Japanese now, I see immense parallels between Japanese and Italian. The emphasis on ingredients is like none other in the world. You eat at a three star Michelin in Italy and they’ll give you a piece of mozzarella on a plate. But, it’s the best mozarella from the best person from the best town and I love that. I think that simplicity in food is difficult. I think everyone can put twenty different ingredients on a plate but can you do four and do it right. So, Nobu taught me that. The Japanese style taught me that and now I’ve definitely put that into the way I cook now, which is more Western and Italian.
What ingredients inspire you right now?
Anything green. The morels right now are beautiful. I was so impressed with the quality we’re getting from the West Coast so I’m putting on everything right now. We just got our first batch of asparagus from Jersey, which is beautiful purple top asparagus. That, I look forward to because it’s only a month long season. There’s asparagus from around the world twelve months a year, but when it’s right there and in season it’s fantastic. I’ll eat it shaved raw in a salad.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool and technique?
My favorite tool is a knife and my go to is my slicer that I use for everything. If it was an electronic tool, I would say a Vita Prep. The power those blenders have is incredible. It’s funny, we were just cooking in Korea and we noticed the things they didn’t have compared to what we have. And, we were slowed down because they didn’t have these high powered blenders.
We also do a fair amount of sous vide cooking here. I like to use it the way I like to use it though, which is not for a lot of proteins. We have one lamb dish on the menu, which is lamb rack wrapped in lamb sausage and we needed to take the inside lamb to a certain temperature before the sausage did. But, that’s the only protein that goes in a circulator. We do ten different vegetable techniques in a circulator. I feel like that is the best approach for a circulator. Artichokes in the bag, perfect every time. Potato Fondant in the bag, perfect every time. We braise endive in balsamic in a bag. You literally have to add no moisture and it cooks in its own liquid. You can control the temperature, you can control the pressure. We’ve really expanded on technique in that direction.
What’s the process of creating new dishes for the menu?
The main approach comes from me but the sous chefs and I will sit down and have a menu meeting. We’ll talk about the direction we want to go with certain things. Sometimes I’ll draw a complete blank and not have an idea for a dish but at other times I’ll say I want this, this and this. They will put all the components on a plate, and we’ll replate and re-taste and build from there. I feel very strongly about empowering the young chefs as I was and it’s amazing what we can all come up with as a team.
Favorite dish to cook at home?
I love a good Sunday stew. Lately, I’ve been going in the Italian direction where I’ll braise a pork shoulder in tomato sauce. A little fresh pasta, a salad and everything hits the table at once and we can sit down and talk for hours. That’s how we do it and that’s how I was raised. I reached the point in my career where I was cooking six dishes for my family and spending the whole day in the kitchen and then realizing that was stupid. You need to spend time with them. Things that I can make ahead of time but that are still amazing and delicious.
What are your favorite places to eat in New York?
The Breslin makes me very happy. Their terrine board is flawless; we always start with that. I think their Caesar salad is fantastic and if there’s a big group we’ll do ribeye, we’ll do this or that. It’s great for groups and that’s definitely the style we like to eat these days. I always love to go eat good sushi as well. 15 East blew me away recently. The composed kitchen items were great, the sushi was out of this world.
Lisa Q Fetterman is the founder and CEO of Nomiku, a Kickstarter backed start-up manufacturing one the first immersion circulators designed for home use.
Tell us a little about where you grew up and early food memories.
I moved from Shangdong, Jinan, in China to New York in ’94. I was the weird foreigner that came to school with her t-shirt tucked in, didn’t speak English, and didn’t change her clothes every day. Basically if I wasn’t ridiculed I was ignored. One brave first grader came over to my house for dinner and we served her a 1,000 year old egg. I’d never seen anybody’s eyes get that big. She left and I didn’t know if it went well or not. The next day kids were climbing over themselves to say hi to me and were really eager to come over to my house to taste “weird stuff.” It definitely opened my eyes to the power of food and I’ve loved experimenting and meeting people around it ever since.
How did you make the transition from doing a Journalism degree to working in kitchens?
Actually it’s the other way around! I was in college and worked in restaurants as a part time job because I was absolutely in love with the food scene. After I graduated I had to get a “real job” but quickly fell back into the fold of the food world. You can’t hide what you love.
How did Nomiku come to be?
My boyfriend at the time (now husband) is a plasma physicist, since he was getting his PhD and I had just graduated school we needed to have cheap dates. We’d watch Top Chef and then cook for each other, during one of the episodes I said off the cuff, “Oh man, I really want to save up money to buy one of those circulators” he told me he could just make one for me so he did! We had a crude but sturdy solderless set-up and it cooked eggs, it completely blew our minds that at 64C the yolk solidifies before the whites. We got hooked and started taking classes at hackerspaces, soon we learned how to use Arduino and started giving kits to anybody who wanted sous vide for themselves. Before we got married we begged our wedding videographers to help make us a Kickstarter video, we put it up and became the most well funded Kickstarter project in our category at the time. It helped pay for production and we’ve been shipping from October last year.
What was your experience like with Kickstarter?
Kickstarter is a dream and a nightmare. It’s actually all about confronting a lot of your own fears. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of not being liked. If you’re transparent and upfront the truth will literally set you free. However, it’s so hard to get to that point where you just share everything, I don’t like to disappoint and it’s hard to be yourself in front of so many people. The whole thing is a filled with ups and downs, my favorite takeaway from Kickstarter is the rich friendships I’ve received from it, from people who really get my project and connect with my DNA. I’ve made lifelong friends.
You spent quite a bit of time in Shenzhen while planning the production of the Nomiku – Can you tell us about memorable feasts there?
Best eating experiences were this one Buddhist vegetarian restaurant and hot pot, oh the glorious real hot pots of China, it was the best sitting around the table with dozens of people dripping glistening raw meat into bubbling rich broth. The aroma and alcohol made the experience so heady, when we walked out it was as if we just came out of a sauna from heaven. Imagine if you were allowed to eat in saunas— yeah it’s pretty great.
The worst eating experience was when our factory people took us the the “edible zoo”. They had a monitor lizard as well as a raccoon in small dingy cages. They’d have you go to the room first with the menagerie of animals it smelled so awful the and the animals looked so miserable I couldn’t eat anything at the meal.
Having moved to San Francisco from New York, what’s been the biggest lifestyle difference?
I am in love with San Francisco! The produce here— are you kidding me?! Oh the fresh air, the kind neighbors, the tech innovation, it makes me want to twirl around with happiness. I catch myself skipping to work sometimes because I’m so happy. I miss the intensity and public transportation of New York but I catch myself completely infatuated with an aspect of San Francisco every day.
Do you and Abe, your husband and co-founder get a chance to cook much at home? If so, what do you like to make?
We cook most of our meals at home! We get in the routine of making scrambled eggs in our Nomiku, chicken for dinner, octopus, steak. Sometimes we have a routine but most weeks we cook based on what’s available at the farmer’s market and exciting in the butcher shop.
Tell us about Bam, your 3rd founder.
We met Bam when we taught at a hackerspace. He introduced himself as a chef and he is, he’s classically trained at FCI and cooked at Momofuku, Fatty Crab, and Daniel just to name a few. When we were in China making Nom we got pretty burnt out and decided to go on a vacation to Thailand. We found Bam was there about to take a job as an executive chef at a huge corporation so we shared with him our plans for Nomiku. He picked us up and said, “guys, you know I have an industrial design degree from RISD, right?” It was kismet and we went back to China together with him as our co-founder!
Aside from Nomiku, what are you essential kitchen tools?
I gotta have that wooden spoon and my dutch oven. I love it to make tomato sauce on weekends where we can slowly simmer it for 4 hours on the stove. The whole house smells like heaven.
Where should we eat on our next trip to San Francisco?
One of the most incredible food experiences I’ve ever had was at Saison. Once I had a dream that I was eating at Saison again and I woke up with a kind of divine joy that carried me through my day. I’m also happy if you take to Rich Table, Alta, Zuni Cafe, and Prubechu. Prubechu is pretty unique and it’s super new, they serve the food of Guam— I had never had Guamanian food before!
Kevin Sbraga is Chef and Owner at Sbraga and Fat Ham in Philadelphia. He was the winner of Season 7 of Top Chef.
Tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got into food and cooking.
I grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, which is in Burlington County, about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia and both of my parents were bakers. My father owned his own business so I really learned how to walk, talk and eat in the bakery. It all started there. At a very early age, I developed a love for food.
How did you turn your baking history into a professional career?
I think the biggest step actually started with watching PBS television. Loving more of the savory television shows than the baking or pastry shows and really just enjoying food. There was Martin Yan, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, but the one that really sticks out the most for me, was ‘Great Chefs, Great Cities’. That was an amazing show back in the day. They would travel to three different cities with three different chefs. One chef would do an appetizer, one an entree and one a dessert and it showcased chefs from all over the country, from Philadelphia to New Orleans to New York to wherever else.
After that, I think the biggest step was deciding to go to a vocational high school and really starting to experience and enjoy the savory side of things versus the bakery and pastry side.
Appearing on television can be a double edged sword for a serious chef, what were your highlights and lowlights of doing Top Chef?
Top Chef was a really interesting experience. The highlight, obviously was winning. The lowlight was getting through the entire process. It’s gruelling, it really challenged me in every single way – emotionally, spiritually, physically. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done but it was also very rewarding at the end and a lot of great things have come since then.
What were some of the biggest challenges getting in opening your first restaurant, Sbraga?
Finding a location first and then finding investors. You can try to do it yourself, you can try to get a loan or you can go with investors. Just presenting someone with a solid business plan that makes sense to them and having them be willing to take a gamble on you. That is a huge, huge challenge, and a lot of people really don’t realize that.
How has the restaurant evolved since you opened two and a half years ago?
The restaurant constantly evolves. I was looking at the original business plan and the menu and the ideas were so different from where we are at today. We recently just changed the menu and now have a whole ‘pasta and grain’ section. When I first wrote the menu, it was appetizer, fish, meat, dessert and we’ve completely evolved since then. Right now, we have a dish that was foie gras soup that was on the menu for over two years and decided to just take that off and give it away [as an amuse bouche] so everyone can experience it. We went through a period where we had tablecloths and then we removed them and then we just put them back again. Flowers, we had flowers and then no flowers and then flowers back on. The restaurant is like a baby, it constantly grows and needs to be nurtured all the time.
How much of your menu is chef driven and how much is there to appeal to customer requests?
I would say 95% of what is on the menu is chef driven, either by myself or by my Chef de Cuisine Greg Garbacz. And, we serve it and then get feedback. For the most part, we do really really well. There may be a 5% chance that something or someone is disappointed or something is not executed well. We make those changes and everything is visible with an open kitchen. When we see a plate go back that is full or not eaten, it’s pretty obvious that there is an issue. We are pretty much in control of the experience.
How do you approach creating new dishes for the menu?
It’s interesting how dishes come together. It’s changed over the years. When I was younger, it started with a lot of sketching and thinking of shapes and how they would go work together. Right now, it’s very very different. Mostly, depending on the time of the year, it comes from ingredients. What ingredients are in season and what will pair well. Some of it has to do with cooking technique. Some of it has to do with our ability to execute out of the kitchen. But, really what we try to do is take an ordinary ingredient and pair it with something that is extraordinary. Something that may be slightly different. It may be a spice, it may be a fruit, it may be a vegetable, it may be a different cooking technique for that product. But, at the end of the day we just want to create delicious food.
What inspires you right now?
I’m inspired by people, I’m inspired by fellow chefs, I’m inspired by ingredients. I’m really really inspired by travel, because I get the opportunity to taste and try different things. With techniques, right now I’m most passionate about grilling and roasting. I think it’s a lost art and I think it’s really going to continue to make a comeback. There was a time when we were doing everything so avant garde and I think we are going back to really basic cooking. How can we control the fire properly. How can we make sure it cooks evenly. Things like that are really exciting to me right now.
You mentioned travel as a big inspiration. Where was the food culture inspiring for you?
Most recently, I was down South and the food culture there is absolutely amazing. That’s how we developed the second restaurant, Fat Ham. It’s just by being inspired by what we saw and tasted. I’ve been influenced by a lot of places I travel to, but the South has been the biggest in terms of influencing a concept for me.
How would you describe your style?
My style, my food is Modern American and what that means is great ingredients, global influence, America as a melting pot. Here, at Sbraga, there are no boundaries. It’s really about a high level of execution. You may have a dish that has curry in there, another that has fennel, another has fenugreek. We play around with it. At the Fat Ham, it’s rooted in good Southern cooking. I’m also getting ready to open a new concept and that’s based on grilling and raw bar, that wood fire cooking. To me, this is all American food, just great ingredients.
Favorite kitchen tool or piece of equipment?
I would say the wood burning grill is my favorite piece of equipment. We’ve done that since day one at Sbraga. There has never been a menu that hasn’t had that component. As far as a tool, honestly, it’s as simple as a spoon. Spoons are very versatile – we can use it to plate, we can use it to taste. I can use it to bang on a table to get someone’s attention. It’s one of those things I can’t live without it and I use it often.
Favorite dish to cook on your day off?
It sounds silly but it’s probably Grilled Cheese. I had it yesterday for lunch – it’s comforting, it’s something I remember from childhood and it’s just good. At home, I really enjoy simple things. I don’t like to make it too complex. Often, I’ll do one pots meals. I enjoy the simple things.
American, Swiss or Cheddar?
American. It melts great, it’s gooey, it has a pretty neutral flavor. I’m the most basic guy. Give my Wonder Bread or Stroehmann, butter and cheese and that’s it, I’m good.
Recommendations for eating out in Philly?
The first one that comes to mind is Stella Pizzeria; I’m there often. It is just so comforting, it’s always consistent. And, the second one is Pho Ha on Washington Avenue. It’s consistent, it’s quick and delicious. Those are my two go-tos in Philadelphia.
Alina Martell is the pastry chef at Ai Fiori, Michael White’s contemporary Italian restaurant in New York’s Langham Place Hotel.
Tell us a bit about where you grew up?
I grew up in a town called East Lansing, Michigan. East Lansing is a great suburban town just outside the capital and the home to Michigan State University.
Both my parents also grew up in Michigan. My mother is Mexican American and my father’s family owned a dairy farm in southwest Michigan. I grew up with all kinds of good food. My mother cooked a lot and always had baked goods of some sort in the house.
How did you start cooking professionally?
After going to school at University of Michigan I initially worked in politics and law. I had always loved cooking and started out doing some catering on the side. A family friend worked part time in a bakery at one of the few nicer restaurants in the area. She said they were hiring and I decided to give a try. I realized I was having a lot of fun doing something I was good at. I knew I needed to train somewhere else so I came to NYC to go to school and to find a job.
Did you train in savory cooking as well as pastry?
I never trained formally as a savory cook but taught myself mostly from reading cookbooks and flipping through food magazines. When I first started cooking I used to plan dinner parties for friends and take recipes straight from the pages of Bon Appetit. I still enjoy savory cooking but I love pastry. To me pastry is just pure luxury, but an everyday luxury. You do not need it, but it is so much fun and so satisfying. I make a living feeding people sugar, but hopefully it is something that makes them happy.
What was your first restaurant in New York?
When I first got to New York, a friend from culinary school took me to wd~50 for a dessert tasting. I remember having Chef Sam Mason’s Manchego Cheesecake with an herb coulis and it was the most interesting dessert I’d ever tasted. A week later, never really having had a job in a serious restaurant kitchen, I walked in and dropped off my resume. I talked to a cook at the time named Bill Corbett, now the executive pastry chef for The Absinthe Group in San Fransisco. I just wanted to work there and they took me on as a stagaire. I worked at wd~50 just a few days a week but it was with an all star team of talent, including Sam, Bill and Christina Tosi. I was very fortunate to learn from all of them.
After finishing culinary school, I was hired by Johnny Iuzzini at Jean-Georges. I spent a few months working in Nougatine and then moved upstairs to the JG kitchen. I remember being a little bit terrified and completely overwhelmed. It is an intimidating kitchen.
It’s often said that Jean Georges is one of the most well run kitchens anywhere. Was that your experience?
Jean-Georges is a very well run kitchen. The food is beautiful and precise and the standards are very high. It is an awesome kitchen to train in. The pastry kitchen in particular was culinary school all over again. I think you never know how much you’ve learned from a place until you’ve left. In the midst of it, the kitchen is sometimes monotonous. Doing the same dishes over and over again. But at the end of it, or when you move on the to next kitchen you realize the amount you have learned is impressive.
And from there you went on to Corton?
Paul Liebrandt was getting ready to open Corton and had hired Robert (Bob) Truitt to be the pastry chef. Bob was a friend and I knew Paul through my husband. I know they were recruiting pastry cooks and needed help to open. At the time I was working at the French Culinary institute on a website called PastryScoop.com. I initially started at Corton a few days a week but eventually took a full-time job there. There was a pretty amazing staff of cooks and chefs that opened Corton. Every day there was a challenge in the best possible way. Paul is demanding but for good reason and I am incredibly proud to have just contributed.
And how did you come to Ai Fiori?
Bob was leaving to take the pastry chef job at Ai Fiori and there was a great opportunity at Ai Fiori, but in general at Altamarea Group. Michael White’s restaurant group was expanding. My husband, Amador Acosta, had opened Marea with Chef White with a lot of success. I knew it was a good group to join and that it would be a new challenge. We had always had a small, close-knit team at Corton, just two or three of us and a very modern particular style of desserts. At Ai Fiori it was going to be a crew of 7 or 8 doing breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week in a dining room that could seat 160 people.
I’ve been here going on four years. Bob is now the executive pastry chef for AltaMarea Group. I have always had a great staff here. A lot of the pastry cooks have moved on to be sous-chefs and chefs at the other AltaMarea group restaurants. I think Ai Fiori is great training ground because of the scope of what we do. We do viennoiserie for breakfast, classic tarts and desserts for lunch like mille feuille and Paris-Brest, and modern plated desserts for dinner. We do a bit of bread production and have a great chocolate program. We get to practice everything.
And so, inevitably, when AMG is in the planning stages of a new restaurant I know Bob is going to take at least one of my cooks or sous chefs. I think that is what makes the program here at Ai Fiori and within AMG so great: there are always new challenges and opportunities for our staff.
What makes a successful composed dessert?
I think every chef has his or her own style. My style is influenced a lot by Bob and the sort of things we have been making for the past few years. I also think there should be an element of familiarity and surprise with dessert. For me creating dessert is always a balancing act.
At Ai Fiori we are able to do a lot within the frame of being a French-Italian restaurant, highlighting the cuisine of the Rivera. One of the classics here is our Ligurian olive oil cake. We have had it on the menu in some form since we opened. Sliced for breakfast, assembled with ice cream and fruit for lunch and as an element of a dinner dessert. Right now we have the olive oil cake on the dinner menu, layered with Sicilian pistachio, strawberry gelee and mascarpone mousse. Topped with fresh strawberries and a candied violet nougatine. The flavors—olive oil, mascarpone, pistachio—are all Italian but to me the dessert tastes like the perfect strawberry shortcake. It is not a complicated dessert, by no means all that innovative and the flavors are simple but it is one of my favorites.
We have freedom to play with what we create. We have a range of very classicly styled desserts with familiar flavors to desserts that are completely deconstructed. I like to have a vacherin on the menu and a lot of times we take apart the elements of a classic vacherin (sorbet, ice cream, meringue, etc.) and put it back together in fun ways. I saw a beautiful vacherin Michael Laiskonis did with a meringue that was formed in a ring and standing up on a plate. It was a bit of a high wire act to do for a busy restaurant like Ai Fiori but we found a way to make it work. Our dessert also included a pomegranate, green apple and lime. It ended up being a popular dessert I think in part because it was something surprising and interesting to see.
Is there one particular ingredient you’re excited about this moment?
We have a lot of fun with chocolate at Ai Fiori. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with Valhrhona. Recently we got in a single origin dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Loma Sotavento 72%. Valrhona made the chocolate in limited production and a portion of the sales benefit a school in the Dominican Republic near the cacao plantation where this chocolate is produced. We wanted to really showcase this particular chocolate so we designed a dessert around it. The dessert is a chocolate chiboust tart, baked to order. There is a bit of coffee infused into a ganache and chocolate covered candied cocoa nibs. Just to make it even more appealing we made a marsala gelato that we wanted to taste a like tiramisu—rich, lots of egg yolks and cream and a bit of coffee and marsala wine. It is a very satisfying dessert if you are a chocolate fan.
Your husband Amador Acosta is a Chef for Altamarea group (Chef/Kitchen Operations Director). Do you two cook at home much?
We cook a lot. Actually he cooks a lot. We probably stay in and cook at home five nights a week. My diet at work is not all that great and I know I consume far too much sugar, so we eat pretty healthy at home. Plus it is just how we like to eat. The usual is roasted chicken or a steak that we split, green vegetables and potatoes, a glass of wine and call it a night. I don’t do a lot of baking at home save the occasional pie or batch of cookies.
For some reason, or maybe because we both grew up in the midwest, we like canning and jamming. Come summertime when the good produce is at the Greenmarket we will start jamming everything. We are both big fans of peaches. Peach jam, peach pie, peach mostarda, peach anything.
Also love cherries. I have a friend whose family has an orchard in Northern Michigan, and they have these great cherries called balaton cherries. Balaton are like morello cherries, tart but with a dark flesh, so perfect for canning. If it is a good cherry season, they will send me a freight shipment from Traverse City. I hand them out to chefs and bartenders around the city. Bartenders like them because they’re good for making brandy or homemade maraschino cherries. Last year we got 100 lbs of balaton cherries straight from the farm.
Do you have any dining recommendations should we find ourselves in East Lansing?
There is as great restaurant that recently opened called Red Haven. One of the owners is a high school classmate, Nina Santucci. Initially Nina and her husband opened a food truck called The Purple Carrot that was a huge hit. I am very glad to see them and their restaurant doing well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is part two of our video series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video, we demonstrate and explain the correct technique for sharpening a 50 /50 edged knife. Chubo brands that have a 50 / 50 edge are Takeda and Tojiro.
Timon Balloo is Executive Chef at Sugarcane and Bocce Bar in Miami, Florida.
Could you tell us about where you grew up and about some of your childhood food memories?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, growing up to a Chinese Trinidadian mother and very close to Chinatown. So, growing up, my food influences were definitely dim sum on the weekends and watching Martin Yan’s show ‘Yan Can Cook’. Honestly, that was the most inspirational factor in my deciding to go into the culinary arts. I revere Martin Yan – he’s an idol to me. On Saturday mornings, instead of watching cartoons, I’d watch Martin Yan. My mother actually had a small in house catering business where she’d cater and make egg rolls, lumpias and all these Chinese specialties for corporate events. So, I’d be around the table helping her and all of that inspired the craft of working with my hands and the smells of food. It’s funny because growing up, I actually chose to major in Finance because I thought being a chef would be unattainable. At that time, there was no Food Network, so shows like Martin Yan were really revered. Needless to say, I didn’t know about the long hours or lack of holidays, the Christmas and New Year’s of not seeing your family. But, at the end of the day it was the only thing I would do for free. If I was willing to do it for free, then why not work at it.
Mentors? Culinary side and business side?
After moving to Florida from San Francisco, I looked for the best chefs to work for. I sought out chefs in the culinary demographic known as the ‘Mango Gang’. Allen Susser, Mark Militello and Norman Van Aken were spearheading the culinary scene in the Florida demographic. I sought out people who had worked in their restaurants, focusing on Floridian style cuisine and running high caliber restaurants. I was able to work for Alan Susser, who was making avant garde food at the peak of the trend. It was very interesting to see what it takes to run a fine dining kitchen and he also inspired me to understand what regional food was.
Michelle Bernstein at the Mandarin Oriental was also an inspiration. She was making a lot of waves, up and coming and cooking like a badass. And it was there that she taught us how to be line cooks, how to be passionate chefs, how to really just cook your ass off and put the flavor on the plate. And to me, she’s just one of the best chefs and cooks out there. She taught me soul.
I was really fortunate to work with Angel Palacios. He was the Chef at Madrid’s La Broche before they opened La Broche Miami. That was the peak of molecular Spanish cooking. He taught me how to be intellectual with all the textures, foams and dust that they were doing at that time and how to deconstruct dishes and deconstruct flavor elements into their purest flavor form.
Lastly, was Chris Russell, who is at the Cookery in the James Hotel. When working for Chris, he showed me how to respect local ingredients. How to look for everything from leaves to berries and how to look for indigenous things. What were the Indians using? What were they using for sustenance? What grew as a bush outside your door here in Florida? How do you look for laurel leaves, the different types of mangoes and citrus? How to respect those elements and how to incorporate those into your food no matter where you are.
What were some of the challenges with opening Sugarcane?
When we first opened, it was a challenge because we were the most ambitious restaurant in the neighborhood. Midtown Miami was developed but still somewhat vacant due to the economic crisis. We were the furthest south in the neighborhood so it was ambitious to bring people in. The food went through a lot of changes. Do we cook food that is trendy? Do we cook for the masses? Whereas, we have me as a chef who wants to cook more aggressive food, in terms of flavor profiles and ingredients used. I want to use everything from pig stout to the tail to the ear and feature that. And, not necessarily everyone wants to eat those items. So, we still held true to that philosophy by using things like crispy barbecue pig ears. At the time we opened, we had beef tongue toast, bone marrow and everything form sweetbreads to octopus. Also, we wanted to stay true to my philosophy of using a lot of prodcut from Florida farms and seafood from Florida fisherman. We really wanted to position ourselves as a community restaurant. We’re not on South Beach, we’re not here for the tourists. We’re for you and by you and that is how SugarCane positioned itself.
How has the restaurant evolved?
You have to stay current. You have to challenge yourself and challenge the diner. It’s been difficult to change the menu because people demand these favorites. The more you become an anchor, you become set. So, we try to stay modern and still give people what they want. What gives us our strength is we really solidified ourselves as a Latino restaurant. We keep on giving the strong flavors and the community supports it.
What are some ingredients that you’re excited about?
At Sugarcane, the big ingredient I’m in love with is Spam. Everything is about Spam. Growing up in California, with a large population of Polynesians, Pacific Islanders and Asians, spam symbolizes street food, the food truck population, a hipster style of food. We’re playing with musubi (Japanese style Rice balls) on the menu, which in South Florida people are unaware of. It symbolizes and allows us to keep pushing things in a new direction and showing people you should respect us for bringing good food.
At Bocce Bar, it’s our ode to Guanciale. We use it in everything. One of my favorite pastas is pasta with Guanciale and cockscomb.
What are your go to tools in the kitchen?
Always a proper plating spoon. A plating spoon is defined by its ability to perform multiple functions. You sauce properly, you can use it to pick up protein if you can’t get to your fish spatula. It’s the proper swooshing element if it’s sturdy enough. Sometimes you use it to help you grab a stack of pans. I’ve never been a tweezer chef. I do respect tweezers now, but still the hand can be the best thing. A good pair of tongs. The ability to reach into the oven to pull something out. Also, a good peeler and a microplane are important.
Favorite places to eat in Miami or elsewhere?
In NY, I love just going to Eataly and eating at all those little restaurants. I used to love going to the mall as a kid. Eataly is like the food court mall for adults done right. They’ve allowed the public to walk into a chef’s cooler and purchase everything that you couldn’t purchase at the grocery store. So, that part is very romantic. To be able to walk and pick up one or two things at every stall, it makes a more sophisticated diner and it fulfills all levels of gastronomic diners.
Memorable meals when I was in Atlanta for Food & Wine last year was eating at Empire state South and Holeman & Finch. It was my first time in the South and was especially exciting since the South has imparted so much into the culinary trend in the last several years. From bourbons to the pork belly Cochon renaissance, the South is strong. It was also nice to go to Linton Hopkins’ restaurant Eugene and eat in this great little restaurant, where you walk in and see the charcuterie display hanging in the kitchen. And the use of everything from Doritos to other dishes using only local agriculture. I thought that was very powerful because it wasn’t a stiff fine dining restaurant but it hit all the principles of what fine dining is and in an approachable way.
Ming Yoo Tofu and BBQ in Ft Lauderdale – consistently I can go and have kalbi ribs and tofu hot pot and it’s one of the best.
Words of advice for young cooks?
Experience. How do you get experience? Luckily for the kids now, we’re in a technological renaissance. Before, we were not exposed to social media, YouTube or the internet. When you get out of culinary school, get a stage. When you’re not working, immerse yourself in information. Check out menus online, watch YouTube for technique, and there’s so much information. Gather knowledge and experience via all these vessels. Sometimes you have to push the kids to the trough. You have to engulf yourself more in extracurricular. Be a sponge and gather knowledge through all these mediums. You’ll become a better chef.
Matt Hoyle is the Executive Chef of Nobu 57 in New York, NY.
Can you tell us about where you grew up and your food influences? I grew up in the Northwest of England, in Lancashire. My grandparents cooked much more traditional English food, like offal and pigs’ ears, pies and stuff like that, which my mother really didn’t like. She made more continental than English food, but when I became older, I would then see it in restaurants, and it’s become a big thing again. It sort of skipped a generation or two. We kind of forgot it and then had to rediscover it as a nation of cooks.
How did you first get into cooking? After I finished school, I worked in two fish & chip shops in the town where I lived. I really liked food and cooking before that, but that was where I started to really enjoy the environment of cooking.
Who do you consider mentors? Obviously, Nobu-san has been a huge mentor, as well as Mark Edwards at Nobu London. Also, Terry Laybourne at 21 Queen Street in Newcastle. It was the only Michelin starred, fine dining restaurant in the northeast of England. I worked in his kitchen for three or four years, working and learning every section from larder to veg to sauce.
What attracted you to Japanese cuisine? I knew very little about Japanese food before I started at Nobu. In the North of England, it just didn’t really exist. The simplicity of the food really excited me. The technique is very precise. Knowing exactly what you want, whether it’s how you cut fish or how you cook it. I loved the food and it really spoke to me. Also, the way the kitchens were run was just different. The way Mark Edwards ran the kitchen in London was so different than any other kitchens I’d worked in. He allowed us to have a voice rather than knocking us down.
Are New York diners different than the diners in London? In general, London & New York are fairly similar cities. In New York though, you would have a full dining room and maybe two bottles of wine in the whole room at lunch time. In London, it’s more of a ‘let’s have another bottle before we go back to the office’. That European thing still exists there. The lunches are quite different.
What are some of the more popular dishes at the restaurant? We sell a lot of Japanese Wagyu beef. The quality of the Wagyu has come back better than ever after it was banned for a few years. Vegetable dishes are becoming more and more popular in their own right, not just as side dishes. Black cod is obviously still a best seller.
As a chef, what ingredients are you enjoying now?
What are the essential tools you tell your new cooks they must have? A sharp knife. More of the cooks are using Japanese knives than they were eight years ago. I tell them they don’t need a full set, just start with one good chef’s knife. Learn how to sharpen it.
What are your favorites tools in the kitchen? For myself, I love plating chopsticks, but I don’t expect the cooks to have them. For kitchen equipment, it’s the Rational oven. It’s kept the restaurant open a long time. When all my other ovens break down, it keeps going and you can cook very precisely or overnight.
For young cooks starting out, what advice do you give them? You need a work ethic or you need to pick one up pretty soon. That’s essential.
Favorite places to eat in NY?
My wife is West African so we get a lot of West African food. There’s a place in Harlem called Ivoire, which is really good. For English pies, I like Harlem Shambles. They make Steak & Kidney, Cornish pasties, Aussie meat pies. For pork pies, Myers of Keswick is fantastic. They make everything in the back. My favorite for Japanese is Yakitori Totto.
Matt Conroy is the Executive Chef at The Little Prince in Soho, New York.
Tell us a little about how you got into cooking professionally.
I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, north of Boston. It wasn’t a really food focused upbringing, but my Grandfather was a good cook. He had ten kids and was good at making do with what he had. He made great soups and stews and when people would ask for recipes we’d laugh because he would just always say ‘to taste’. I got my first job in a kitchen when my neighbor, who worked at a diner, was looking for someone to crack eggs on the weekends and that’s how I ended up cooking.
How did you end up working for Tony Maws?
I first read about Craigie on Main in Food and Wine Magazine. It was a place I knew I wanted to work, but I didn’t have the experience necessary at that point, so I took a job in Vermont and really learned the basics and worked my way up to become a sous chef. We closed for six weeks every year and I used the time to go work for Tony for free. At the end of it, he offered me a job, but I went back to work one more season in Vermont before starting at Craigie.
Working for Tony was the hardest year of my life. It’s one of the places where you hate it at the time and then you miss it for sure. I learned a lot about technique and discipline and attention to detail. Tony was always saying ‘Never compromise’ and that’s something I’ve taken to heart and try to instill in my cooks.
How did you come to New York?
I had done Boston, and New York was the logical next step. I knew Alex Stupak from connections in Boston and knew what he was doing in New York with Empellon. I was not interested in Mexican food, but I was interested in his style, so I came to New York to work for him. Alex’s plating is beautiful. I learned a lot, especially about attention to detail and plating, but it was also interesting to see how a [trained] pastry chef approaches a dish. I also learned a lot about chilies, which don’t factor a lot into French cuisine, but I know I can go for a chipotle chile, when I want to add smokiness to a dish, without a lot heat.
How would you describe the food at Little Prince?
We’re definitely a French Bistro at heart, but we don’t limit ourselves to traditional ingredients. I get inspired by what’s fresh in the market, and try to use the whole animal as much as possible. With chickens, it’s usually paté from the liver and stock from the feet. I feel strongly that nothing should go to waste.
In November we started a Sunday Supper Series as a chance for me and my sous chef to be creative. It pushes us to put our heads down and create new dishes. Sometimes they make it onto the menu. Recently, we started with the goal of creating a vegetable focused starter and came up with a dish of roasted carrots and burnt vinegar honey. It was really well received and stayed on the menu.
What ingredients are you excited about right now?
Salt Cod is an ingredient I’ve been playing with a lot. It’s very traditional French, and it can seem boring, but it can also be interesting. For a recent dish, I started with a salt cod fritter and at the end of the day, sea urchin is really eggs, so I created an aioli out of it.
What are your essential kitchen tools?
A sharp knife is one I have to have. And you don’t have a sharp knife without those stones. Also, I always keep a pepper mill at my station and a Kunz’s spoon for basting, saucing and tasting.
Who have your mentors been?
Aside from Tony Maws and Alex Stupak, Rogan Lechthaler of Downtown Grocery in Ludlow, Vermont taught me a lot about charcuterie. I think he runs a great kitchen and was the first chef I worked for who focused on using local products. Being in Vermont we used lots of great local farms.
Favorite places to eat and drink in New York?
I live in Brooklyn, and on my day off I usually go around the corner to a Mexican place Antojitos Mexicanos and get a torta. I’ve been to Estela twice, which is rare since there are so many restaurants in New York City. I feel the menu is really suited to a cook’s taste. The food is really well balanced with just enough salt and acidity. I also like Roberta’s a lot. I know I can always get a great pizza and some really interesting appetizers.
In my hometown, there’s a place call Harrison’s Roast Beef. It’s a simple sandwich of house roasted beef, with cheese and some special sauce, but every time I go back I want one of those.
We recently had the privilege of sitting down with Chef Jason Hua to discuss what inspires him, what it was like to work for Jean Georges and how he incorporates new ingredients into the food at The Dutch.
Tell us a little about how you got into cooking professionally?
I grew up in LA. I left when I was 17 to go to Boston University, where I studied Business and Finance, but I started cooking in the middle, working at restaurants. I actually did finish school, but when I left, I came to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America. I had already worked at good restaurants in Boston, like Clio and Uni, but for the sake of experience, I went to work at Jean Georges as an intern on the amuse bouche station. It was a humbling experience. I learned there is never a job or position beneath me and you can always learn what is happening around you without being on that station.
I spent four years cooking there until reaching the sous chef position and then went on to stage at the Fat Duck in Bray, England. I was Chef de Cuisine at Fiamma under Fabio Trabocchi, then I went to Boqueria before coming to The Dutch. Cooking is my bread and butter. It is my craft, and I intend to practice it until I am physically unable to. I am grateful for all the people who have shared their knowledge with me, and I intend to teach the cooks who work with me the right way to do things.
How would you describe the food at The Dutch?
It’s American Food. We cook what we like to eat and do it the best possible way we can. Our menu can have anything from prime steak to shellfish towers, sandwiches, pies, mexican tripe, fried chicken, curries. We enjoy making dishes around ingredients we are excited about each season and that is also what inspires us.
What inspires you?
Travelling, reading, farmers, the people who work hard in our restaurant daily to achieve a common goal. Museum visits are a great source of relaxation and intellectual exercise. It is always refreshing to see talented craftsmen in other industries committed to being the best at what they do and they inspire me. Getting outside to run or bike is a great way for me to recap my week and look forward to goals I would like to focus on for the restaurant each week. I am always excited to try something new and achieve more at our restaurant. Even though we spend many hours in our restaurant, I always feel like there is not enough time in one lifetime to learn everything I would like to learn. The pursuit of further knowledge and skill in my craft keeps me excited to constantly move forward.
What ingredients are you excited about right now?
My buddy, Evan Strusinski is a is a forager and right now he’s getting lots of matsutake mushrooms from Maine that we’re using in many different dishes. We are also aggressively changing our bread program and working closely with the Baker James Belisle of Lafayette. Emily, our executive sous chef and Patrick, our sous chef found roasted buckwheat that is amazing. I want to put it on everything from grilled fish to yogurt and berries. It is part of our job as chefs to consistently see what new ingredients are available and use it responsibly.
What are your essential tools?
Obviously a sharp knife. I like a Nenox 9.4″ chef’s knife, Michel Bras utility knife, and an 8.2″ Masamoto knife. For equipment, we have a Southern Pride Smoker that we use everyday. We smoke our own bacon, turkey, pastrami salmon. I also love having a plancha and the one we have is the best one I have used in any restaurant. And a cake tester; I’ve been using it to test the doneness of fish for so long i can’t remember how I checked fish before.
In New York, you are known for having quite a knife collection. How did you first get into Japanese Knives?
I was working at Clio, which was my first serious kitchen. Ken Oringer looked at some stuff I cut and he just threw it away. So I got my first Japanese knife, which was an 9.4″ Masamoto chef’s knife. I realized how thin the blade was and the more experienced chefs there showed me how to sharpen it, clean it and how to take care of it. I realized how important that is to doing your job properly.
How has dining changed in New York in the 10 years since you started cooking here?
I think the public is much more knowledgeable now. You can bring in more unusual ingredients and they are more receptive. Dining out is more spontaneous and the dining public know where to find good food because of social media. I am amazed how in tune my non-restaurant friends are with the dining scene here. I worked in and loved 3 Michelin Star restaurants, but it’s not the kind of food most people eat all the time. I am very happy cooking at The Dutch, and it is where I want to continue to grow and evolve as a cook in NYC.
One of the main reasons i love living here is because the food keeps getting better. The ingredients available are better. The available options of what to eat on any given day are endless in NYC.
Do you have any advice for young cooks starting out?
You need to have dreams, even if they constantly change. It is what keeps you motivated in a very unforgiving yet fulfilling profession. If you do the work right, you cannot fail. There is no substitution for first hand experience. You cannot be proficient at trussing a chicken, making pasta, making omelettes or shaping bread just by reading about it on the internet and making it a few times. It requires doing one task hundreds if not thousands of times to really master it. After that, you still need to keep practicing. Treat yourself like a professional athlete. You need to build your hand skills for your craft and keep yourself physically and mentally healthy at all times. Respect your coworkers; you will spend most of your life with them. Read as much as possible. Be humble. Be patient. Have FUN!
Favorite places to eat and drink in New York?
I love Kyo-Ya in the East Village. Especially their pressed sushi. Speedy Romeo in Brooklyn – I always get the St. Louie pizza and they have the best ceasar salad. I always have a craving for Shake Shack for the shack burger and concrete. I like Dominque Ansel bakery for canele and DKA [Kouign Amann]. In Jersey City, where I live, I like to go to Taqueria Downtown and Mitsuwa market. The best cookie ever is chocolate chip walnut from Levain Bakery and the best gelato is Il Laboratorio Gelato. Brooklyn Fare and Blue Hill Stone Barns if it’s fine dining. Pok Pok NY for Thai. Locanda Verde for Italian – Chef Ron Rosselli is great. Pouring Ribbons for amazing cocktails. Dead Rabbit in the Financial District for drinks and The Room – for a huge selection of beer.
On September 29th, a handful of America’s most visionary chefs, culinary and hospitality minds gathered to ponder an increasingly relevant and difficult to answer question, “How do we define American Food?”. The Roots of American Foodways, presented by Imbibe + Inspire’s Stephen Torres took place on the top floor of the Hotel 71 Wyndham in Chicago. Chubo was honored to be part of a thought provoking and enlightening day of talks followed by a stunning meal from some of the world’s most talented chefs. Highlights below. Photography courtesy of Evan Sung and Imbibe + Inspire.
The program kicked off the morning session with Chef Hugh Acheson of Georgia’s 5&10, The National and Empire State South. Hugh’s talk entitled, “ Don’t Eat the Red Herring: The Quest to Define American Food” and cleared up myths about the heritage of southern food traditions.
Melanie Dunea is the creator and photographer behind “My Last Supper“, a series that asks famous chefs and food personalities, “What would be your last meal on earth?” Melanie spoke about “Food Porn: Painting and Photos” Tracing our obsession with capturing what’s on our plates and what it means for culinary culture today.
Dave Beran, Chef of Next in conversation with Francis Lam on, “Telling Stories through Meals and Menus” It provided a rare glimpse into what goes into creating a story driven menu like the ones found at Alinea and now Next, Specifically charting how a concept or intangible idea ultimately winds up on a diner’s plate.
BlackBird Pastry Chef, Dana Cree treated us to a mind blowing ice cream social with flavor combinations like Malort (Chicago’s original wormwood spirit) Bubble Gum (deriving its flavors from the very natural vanilla, banana, orange and lemon) as well as Raspberry Licorice and Burnt Honey.
Ed Lee of Louisville, KY’s 610 Magnolia spoke about “The Antho(a)pology of the ‘Other’ American Cuisine” a truly fascinating insight into how foreign culinary traditions are appropriated and often misunderstood.
Lastly Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park spoke about “Establishing Cultural Roots” The talks were followed by cocktails from Chicago’s Rare Tea Cellar.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Robby Cook to talk about his influences and inspiration as an American sushi chef.
How did you first get into cooking professionally?
When I was in high school, I worked in a grocery store as a side job. And then in college, I started working with more Asian ingredients and I became interested in sushi school. And, I just kind of went for it from there. I was going to the University of Iowa and college wasn’t really happening, so I started making sushi on my own and that was when Iron Chef was getting big. I got into cooking more and had nice ingredients where I was living at the time. And then I moved to Santa Monica and went to sushi school there.
My first was Josh DeChellis at Sumile. After sushi school I went to culinary school in New York City (ICE). I hooked up with Josh and learned a lot from him. At Sushi school, it was Toshi Suguura, who is a very cool guy who taught me quite a bit. After that, I got my first cooking job at Sumile. My first sushi job though was at Angura with Osamu Inno, a very cool Japanese Rasta guy. Not so traditional Japanese, so he really schooled me up.
Makoto Okuwa at Morimoto was also a mentor. He really took me under his wing and pushed me to become head sushi chef after he left. And, Chef Morimoto has also been an incredible mentor, for pushing me to be the best, to understand food as well as customers’ needs.
What kind of sushi are you doing? Is it traditional or more of a fusion?
Sushi is pretty straightforward and traditional. You need to have the basics before you can grow and expand on that. My sashimi dishes are more plated and have more modern style sauces and more composed dishes. I think you have to have overall composition when you are a sushi chef. And, plating is important as well.
I have nothing but respect for Chef Morimoto. He’s backed me up since day one. I have my skills to prove it. A lot of people, when they do sit at the sushi bar, they might not appreciate it at first, but once they see me work it’s a different story. Even some Chinese and Korean sushi chefs, who may not have the skill set, are accepted more than me. Nowadays, I have so many regular customers, if someone doesn’t want to sit in front of me, they can slide down the sushi bar (laughs).
What gives you inspiration for new dishes?
Sushi wise, we have the four seasons. So, there are different types of fish for each season. So, I start with a nice fish that has just come into season and a couple vegetables and another side ingredient that is seasonal, then play around with the flavors. But, I try not to add too many ingredients. It’s up to three or four ingredients and let the fish do the talking. Let the fish stand out first and foremost. Our knife skills and the way we treat fish here that’s what should be recognized.
What ingredients or techniques are you using at the moment?
I’m using agar a lot now in summer dashis. Like chilled gelatin style. It’s good for shellfish and sashimi. Salmon – I’m doing kombu jime, kind of like smoking. We take wild king salmon and then use the kombu to smoke it. The smoke goes up through the kombu and you get a really nice sea flavor.
Where is the fish at Morimoto sourced from?
We have our own company at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. We’re very blessed; I’ve met them on several occasions. I deal with them directly and nobody in New York touches our fish. Our guy at Tsukiji picks the fish Thursday morning and it’s here Friday morning. They send us what’s good in the market and Chef Morimoto gave me a lot of freedom to order and keep the quality of fish high. As far as local fish, we have a purveyor who sources the wild king salmon and local fluke. I also really like Korean fluke. It has very nice fat content and is super fresh. I also really enjoy using Korean baby abalone. That’s another one of my favorite ingredients.
On my day off, I like Luke’s Lobster. Nobody knows who I am and I can go in and send emails and texts and just eat there. Never had a funky lobster roll. Everything is always fresh and direct from Maine. I also like Setagaya Ramen. I usually get the tsukemen before I come into work on Tuesdays. If I get to Brooklyn, I go to Talde and Chuko Ramen. For sushi, I like Ushi Wakamaru.
You’ve traveled to Japan on several occasions. What are the differences between sushi chefs in Japan and the U.S.?
Sushi chefs in Japan have stricter standards and are more rigorously trained. A lot of people in the States go through the ranks and say they’ve been a sushi chef for twenty years but their skills are terrible. Whereas in Japan, you really have to go through the steps and learn everything. Here, it’s a little more fast tracked. But, on the other hand, you’re not so traditionalized. You can open up and step outside of the box and do other things. It’s not just basic, straightforward sushi all the time.
Any advice for young cooks starting out?
Have a sharp knife first. Let your skills show and be confident. Jump in there and do it. Also, have a basic knowledge of what you’re doing before you apply to that certain job.
This is part four of our video series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video demo, we demonstrate the proper way to sharpen a single edged Japanese knife. Typically, yanagi, deba and usuba knives have a one sided edge.
We had an opportunity to sit down with Chef Michael Armstrong to talk about his culinary influences, approach to menu development and favorite spots to eat in New York and Las Vegas.
Tell us a little about where you’re from and how you got into cooking initially.
I grew up outside of Seattle Washington and was interested in food since I was a kid, experimenting with Top Ramen noodles in the kitchen and throwing every spice from the shelf and any condiment from the refrigerator in there to see what the results were (most were pretty bad) but I liked the experimental process. By 9th grade I knew I wanted to cook and my step-mother helped spark my interest with home cooking for the family. I just felt really comfortable in the kitchen, it seemed like the right thing to do.
You’ve worked in a variety of kitchens over the years. Are there certain chefs you worked with who you would consider mentors or who influenced your culinary style?
I definitely have three distinct mentors. Matt Wallop, the first Chef I ever worked with, really taught me the fundamentals of cooking, combining flavors, and working with some finesse. He was really passionate about food and helped bring that out of me too. And working with him for two years before going to culinary school prepared me for my education. Quite simply, I owe it all to him and I still look up to him to this day. The second Chef, Mark Andelbradt, taught me much more about management, being a leader and understanding costs and the systems needed to run a successful kitchen. He taught me that when you walk around your kitchen, you’re looking at dollar signs, not just food. The third Chef mentor, Ralph Scamardella, is my current boss at TAO group. He’s given me a lot of opportunity to grow within our company, multiple times, and supported me when others questioned my leadership. He is a huge reason for my current success. It is comfortable to develop as a Chef when you know your leader has your back and supports you and gives direction, but at the same time, lets you run your own kitchen and gives you the opportunity to be creative.
How would you describe your culinary style?
It’s tough because my style is still developing, I’ve worked primarily with Asian food forthe last 7 years, and now I’ve broken away from that and can do whatever I want which is very exciting. Culinarily speaking, I’m most passionate about Japanese food and Mexican food, which don’t really go together at all! It’s fun to have a variety of experience and be versatile enough to work with different cuisines. I would describe my style as taking fresh twists on classic techniques. It’s important to know the history of a cuisine and specific techniques before messing with them to give them a modern look and feel.
How do you approach menu development? Is there a dish or dishes you’ve developed which you are very proud of?
Most of the menu development I have done is specific to a concept and not necessarily just whatever I want to do, which I think is good because it’s more difficult. The most important things to me when developing a menu are cost effectiveness and knowing your clientele. There are lots of chefs out there that can create great dishes, but let’s be honest, the business is about making money too, you can make the best food in the world, but if you can’t keep your doors open, what’s the point? And you have to know your clientele. One thing I’ve learned, is how to make food that sells in your restaurant. Too many chefs are stubborn and get so caught up in making the food they want to make for themselves, but if your guests aren’t buying it, you have to flip the script.
There was a dish at TAO Vegas that I developed with our wok chef, it was a Thai style seafood fried rice, pretty simple with fresh tomatoes, thai chilies, Thai basil, egg, shrimp, lobster, and scallop with fresh lime. Fried rice specials were great there because it’s an easy sell and has a relatively low food cost. The first weekend we ran it, we sold 80-90 orders each night, it was crazy, almost one on every table. I was really happy with that one.
Any dishes which didn’t work so well?
There’s one infamous dish of mine from TAO that comes to mind. I was trying to do something different for the holidays and take something American and make it Chinese, so we did roast turkey, but Peking duck style. So we roasted it and served the breast with crispy skin, and took the leg meat and made a fried rice with dried cherries and roasted chestnuts. I thought it was cool, and we actually got some local press on it as a unique holiday dish. We ran it as a special for a few weeks, and one of our owners came in and I decided to serve it to him, and he really didn’t like it, we had to 86 it right then and there. It made for some good staff meals though.
You have considerable experience as a chef in both Las Vegas and New York. Are there differences between what customers are interested in eating in the two cities?
Absolutely, although the one similarity is that they are both really tough cities as far as guests go. Vegas has such a variety of travelers going there, and it changes throughout the year. You have people from all over America visiting, and you get a ton of international travelers too. There is also a lot of convention traffic, so you see a variety of business dinners and parties. You really have to try to appeal to the masses there, and it’s very transient. Other than locals, a regular customer in Vegas is someone that comes twice a year. New York is tough because I feel like we have the most educated diners in this city. There are just so many high caliber restaurants and so many options for people to go that you always have to be at the top of your game putting out the best product. Most people in NYC know what they’re looking for and what good food should look and taste like, so if you don’t follow through, there’s half a dozen spots right around the block they can go to.
Favorite dining spots in Las Vegas? New York? Elsewhere?
In Vegas; Raku for sure, best restaurant in Vegas, any chef there will say the same. I love Monta also; it may be the best ramen I’ve ever had. Both those places are off the strip in Chinatown. In New York, there’s probably too many to mention, I love Talde in Brooklyn; the chef is a good friend and he does a really cool, upscale take on Asian street food. It’s a really cool spot. Momofuku Ssam is really unique and has awesome food. Since I love Mexican food so much, La Esquina is also a favorite; it’s no nonsense really good food and I love the vibe there.
What are your thoughts on culinary school? Is it worth the investment?
Yes, it’s worth the investment for sure. If you’re really committed, there’s plenty of culinary graduates that I meet that are out of the industry altogether or are waiting tables because they fell in love with the money and never went back to cooking. There’s a lot of chefs out there that say it’s not necessary, that you can still work up the ranks without the education, but I think it takes longer. I’m glad I went for sure.
Any advice for young cooks just starting out?
Practice cooking at home and read books, as many as possible, not just cook books, but books on food, food history, techniques. And eat out as much as possible, it’s all about exposing yourself to different foods and techniques.
Our friend Tim Maslow is an immensely talented young chef with heaps of accolades including a 2013 James Beard Rising Star nomination, 2012 Eater Young Guns Pick, Bon Appetit Magazine’s 50 Best New Restaurant list as well as a People’s Choice for Best Chef by Food & Wine Magazine.
He may be best-known for leaving the Momofuku empire after 6 years to transform his father’s Watertown, MA sandwich shop – Strip-Ts into one of Boston’s top restaurants. It’s well worth the trip to Brookline to check out his newest restaurant, Ribelle.
We’re happy to share a new video from Imbibe & Inspire, narrated by David Chang, showing Tim getting down to work with our Sakai Takayuki Sugihara Gyutou. Enjoy!
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef Grayson Schmitz recently to talk about how she got into cooking, what ingredients inspire her and favorite spots to eat in NYC.
How did you get started cooking initially?
My mom sat me down when I was 15 and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. She guided me through my talents; I’ve always been good with my hands, and wanted to do something physical. I looked up and Sarah Moulton was on TV and I said “What about being a chef?” It was either that or a masseuse. (Laughs)
Then she took it into her hands and researched culinary schools. I knew I wanted the best, so we visited the CIA. In high school I worked at a Cooking School, for home cooks in Kohler, WI as the chef’s assistant. I learned how to talk to groups, how to make pasta and how to make all the mother sauces perfectly. My Chef took me to Paris for the first time. I also worked at a supper club down the road from my house. Before I had my driver’s license I’d drive my 4-Wheeler to work, real Sconnie style:)
What was your experience like at the CIA?
I was really focused on being the best. I called Jean George and started trailing there. I worked on weekends for months until I got an externship. I loved everything about it.
I feel certain restaurants are a match for people and Jean Georges was my perfect match. It was fun, professional, calm, militant. I worked there 4 years and gained a solid foundation on every station.
How important do you think a formal culinary education is?
I think it’s different for every person. For me, it was incredibly important. I came out of high school and didn’t know what grape-seed oil was. I needed that platform to excel off it. And at 18, I think it was invaluable to come to New York and have some sort of college experience.
That said, deep restaurant experience is essential for young cooks to build off what they learn in school.
How would you describe your culinary style?
My style is heavily influenced by where I’ve worked. I took in French/Asian from my time at Jean Georges, I spent time in Italy and worked for Fabbio Trabocchi, and then did Austrian with Kurt Gutenbrunner at Wallse. My foundation is definitely European, not super – light, just umami delicious food.
What ingredients excite you right now?
I fucking love peas. Fresh English peas. When I was young, my friend’s family owned a hog farm and I have such happy memories of sitting in a field eating peas off the vine until we felt sick.
I’m also into all kinds of melons and heirloom tomatoes can’t be beat. A little Banyul’s vinegar, olive oil, salt. That’s all it needs.
Tell us a little bit about where you grew up.
New Holstein, Wisconsin is a little town of 2,000 people. I loved it. My sister always wanted to leave, but I never wanted to get out. It was idyllic, we spent our summers on Lake Winnebago in a house my great grandfather built. My aunt and uncle were next door, and my grandparents were on the other side. It’s a small town, Schmitz-Pauly family paradise. Home is my favorite place on earth.
What’s the first thing you want to eat when you go back there?
Hands down, a Johnsonville Brat. I had no idea how German I was until I left there.
I know you’re a fan, but is there anything you want to say about Japanese knives?
I absolutely love them. When I was in school, it was all Wusthoff. That’s all I knew. When I went to Jean Georges, if you didn’t have a Japanese knife you were a loser. I remember the moment I got one. I took photos of it. Wrote about it in my extern book. In the kitchen we’d have contests to see who could get their knife the sharpest. Japanese knives really put the professionalism into our craft.
Favorite restaurants in NYC?
I always say ABC Kitchen, but I really love it and all of Jean Georges’ restaurants for that matter.
I also really like Mission Chinese. It’s a lot of fun and you can go with a group. It’s just a fun gathering spot that numbs your mouth.
I constantly go to Luke’s Lobster Roll too.
Are you tired of talking about what it’s like to be a woman in this industry?
Not at all. I think it’s really important for girls coming up to fully understand how stressful it is. Being on your feet 16 hours a day is incredibly taxing. Personally, I had to give it my all to stay in the game on top. If you don’t, you’re not respected and you can’t be the chef if you’re not respected. As a woman you have to work twice as hard, but once you’ve proven yourself, you’re all good.
This is part three of our video series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video demo, we demonstrate the best way to maintain and keep your sharpening stones flat with a stone fixer.
We were thrilled to sit down with Chef Yuhi Fujinaga on his visit to Tokyo. We got the chance to talk food and knives over breakfast sushi at Tsujiki market. Yuhi Fujinaga is Executive Chef at New York’s Sea Grill, which is well known for its progressive take on American cuisine and for its landmark location in New York’s Rockefeller Center. For the restaurant, Chef Yuhi sources the very best seafood and applies influences from his Japanese heritage.
How and why did you get into cooking initially?
I was influenced by my Mother and Grandmother, who were both great cooks. Very modern for their time with “home cooking”
You’ve cooked a variety of cuisines, from Spanish at Bar Basque to modern American at Sea Grill. Is there a common approach or culinary style that runs through your cooking?
Yes, seasonality is the biggest factor in my cooking. Ingredients during their peak season require less touches.
As a Japanese American chef, do you look to Japan for inspiration in your technique or use of ingredients?
Yes, My heart and my soul is still very Japanese. I guess the flowers will always blossom the way the roots are planted.
Have any of those ingredients found their way into dishes at Sea Grill?
Yes, many of the dishes I have created at the Sea Grill have those touches. But very little, so that they are vital to what makes them stand out. Dashi, Soy, and the most important, Umami.
Are there any chefs who inspire you or who have influenced you over the years?
There are many mentors I have who I must mention for me to be who I am now. Not in any particular order – Hiroyuki Sakai, Christian Delouvier, Alain Ducasse and Ed Brown. Each and every one of them has inspired me about food in many different ways. Through their inspiration, I am able to create unique food.
Have diners tastes in New York changed over the years? Is there a difference in what you can serve now at Sea Grill versus what would have been popular fifteen years ago?
Yes and yes, but some things never change. It’s like my analogy with your roots, you’ll always go back to where you came from. Each and every one of us has changed, but we’ll always love the food that we feel most comfortable with.
Do you have a favorite restaurant or dish in New York and/or Tokyo?
This is the most difficult question to answer. In New York, I am a very simple kind of guy when it comes down to where I go to eat. Ramen and pizza are my favorites. Ramen has got to be Ippudo, and Pizza is Nicoletta. Yes, it’s not traditional New York Style, but very good I must say. As for Tokyo there are too many, but if I have to choose one, it would be Sakana Shinmachi. Located in Setagaya, Tokyo, it’s a very small restaurant where they offer seasonal seafood.
Is there any advice you would offer to young cooks just getting into the industry?
Have an open heart, and an empty stomach, “not” in the word of my uncle, but “ALLEZ CUISINE!!” Remember your roots, honor your mentor, and most of all love the food.
This is part two of our video series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video, we demonstrate and explain the different grits of stones we carry at Chubo and how to use them to correctly sharpen your knives.
We sat down to chat with Chef Chikara Sono, the Executive Chef at New York’s Kyo Ya Restaurant. Kyo Ya is one of the most highly regarded Japanese restaurants in the United States, received a Michelin star and three stars in a New York Times review. Chef Sono serves Japanese kaiseki, a multi coursed cuisine focusing on seasonality.
Photo Credit: Hiroko Masuike / New York Times
Can you tell us a little bit about the place you come from in Japan?
I’m from Sapporo City, Hokkaido. We’re surrounded by the ocean, so there’s an abundance of fresh seafood. We have four very distinct seasons and a very long winter, so winter sports are really popular.
How did you you end up cooking in New York?
In Sapporo, I was working at Toyota as a mechanic full time and working part-time as a cook. I first came to New York as a tourist with the intention of staying a short time, but ended up working at a Japanese restaurant in Midtown. I gained experience working at a number of Japanese restaurants and izakayas. One of them was Kiraku, the only New York kappo restaurant (Japanese restaurant with chef facing customers behind a counter) using live eel, and another was the Kitano Hotel’s kaiseki restaurant Hakubai. I was spending my days off at a friend’s Italian restaurant, learning how to make dessert sauces. Around that time, I met Tony Yoshida, who is now the owner of Kyo Ya. We decided we wanted to open a restaurant together and three years later, in 2007, we opened Kyo Ya.
With no website, online reservation system or even a sign on the door, Kyo Ya is something of a hidden treasure. Were you surprised when Pete Wells reviewed the restaurant in 2012?
I’m so thankful to Pete Wells and Hiroko Masuike for the wonderful article and beautiful pictures.
Kaiseki and tasting menus seem to be having a moment both with Japanese and foreign chefs in the states right now. Why do you think this is? Why do you think it took so long?
To say nothing of kaiseki, until a few years ago, the only restaurant serving traditional Japanese food in New York was Hakubai at the Kitano Hotel. In that context, at Kyo Ya, we really wanted to bring traditional Japanese food to the next level. When we opened in 2007, a lot of people asked us why we decided to locate the restaurant where we did. (We are off on a side street and not really visible unless you really look.) Before we opened, I asked the owner for a location that was either in a basement or inside a building away from the main street. I simply wanted people to be able to come and have an enjoyable experience. Little by little, through word of mouth, people started to find us. Initially, we were serving only kappa ryori but after a while we started to serve kaiseki as well. We really got an incredible reaction. I guess there was a hidden demand for truly authentic Japanese food in New York.
Top chefs are embracing Japanese ingredients and techniques. Is there an example where you’ve been surprised or impressed?
Of course there are a lot of ingredients that inspire chefs, myself included. With new ingredients, the possibilities are endless and us chefs want to try them out if even if we risk making mistakes along the way.
With Japanese cooking, I think the key point is ‘umami’ and this is what a lot of top chefs worldwide are discovering and experimenting with.
Aside from Japanese food, what other cuisines excite you for cooking, eating? Any favorite stand out dishes?
I truly love Japanese food and spend my days off cooking and eating it. I’m also into Italian food and pasta, but my favorite pasta is mentaiko (spicy cod roe) pasta (laughs). Even though they don’t serve pasta my favorite restaurant is Eleven Madison Park (laughs).
Japanese kitchens have a reputation as being brutal on young apprentices. Do you have any stories you would like to share?
To be honest, I have nothing but good memories of my days as a cook. The only thing is all of the practice I did with katsuramuki (cutting a daikon into a long, continuous sheet) was with daikon I bought with my own money. Looking back, I wish I’d used the restaurant’s petty cash instead (laughs).
Can you tell us about a restaurant you love in NY? How about in Japan?
In New York, apart from Eleven Madison Park, I really like Hakata Ton Ton and En Japanese Brasserie. I’m a big fan of the chefs at those two restaurants, Koji Hagihara and Hiroki Abe.
In Sapporo, Japan, I love the izakaya Furusato. It’s the most difficult reservation to get in Hokkaido, but it’s well worth it. I always recommend this restaurant to customers who are going to Japan. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to visit this restaurant one day.
For our latest chef interview we sat down with Akiko Thurnauer, Chef/Owner of Family Recipe in New York City’s Lower East Side.
How did you get into cooking initially?
I come from a very food obsessed family. My father worked for a travel agency, so he was abroad all the time. His souvenirs for us were always related to food, so I grew up exposed to many different and unusual (for that time) ingredients. Also, my parents loved to entertain, so cooking and hosting was always part of my life.
I grew up outside of Tokyo and went to art school from the time I was 13. My first career was as a graphic designer, but always felt that I wanted to cook. My husband worked at a magazine, and I would make him bento lunch boxes and the reaction from his colleagues gave me confidence that I might be making something that other people would want. So, I walked into the kitchen at Nobu in TriBeca and asked for a job, and that’s how my career as a cook started.
What’s your culinary style and how has it evolved?
My style? Maybe it’s free-style! Well, like the reason I named my restaurant, my love of food and approach to cooking is rooted in my experience with my family. My mother always cooked, not just traditional Japanese dishes, she loved incorporating foreign ingredients too. Things that were not found in Tokyo in the 80s, like Porcini mushrooms or foie gras, she had a good sense to incorporate them into meals she made. She’s a purist when it comes to ingredients, so I grew up really appreciating real foods and quality ingredients.
As a Japanese chef, what’s your approach to cooking Japanese food in NYC?
There are a lot of good restaurants serving traditional Japanese food in New York. I knew I wanted to do something a little different. It can be hard because people have a stereo-type of what they think of as Japanese food, I use Japanese ingredients and flavor profiles, but my goal is to be innovative and create something new.
What’s your philosophy on hospitality?
My philosophy on hospitality also comes from my parents’ example. It’s not just about food. I want my guests to feel like I’m welcoming them as friends. It’s important to me that they can feel love in my cooking.
This is one reason why we work hard to accommodate guests with special diets like vegetarians or vegans and to make adjustments for people with allergies. Of course I want to serve ‘my food’ but if my guests can’t eat it, then what’s the point? I think it’s important to pay attention to the individual experience.
What were some of the challenges opening up a restaurant in NYC?
Regulations in NYC are very difficult, and everything takes so much time, which costs money. I opened Family Recipe on my own, without a business partner, so of course it’s a big risk, but the reward is the freedom of making my own decisions. When we opened I did everything myself, which was tough.
What do you think about Japanese knives?
Of course they’re the best! (Laughs) When young cooks come in with Japanese knives, I know they are serious. German knives can be good for butchering and heavy-duty work, but for detail and precision, it has to be Japanese.
Essential kitchen tool?
I’d say I can’t live without moribashi (plating chopsticks), a Japanese Mandolin and tweezers.
Do you have any new or favorite ingredients?
Recently I’m using black garlic. I love Greek yoghurt and put that in many dishes. My mom makes umeboshi, salted, pickled plums, which she sends me. For my stock I use agodashi – which is a different type of fish than typical katsuo bushi. The water in New York is much different than Tokyo, and I find unless you are shaving katsuo bushi fresh everyday, it’s hard to make a consistently good stock.
As far as other chefs, who inspires you?
As far as food philosophy, I really respect Dan Barber. Also, how can you not be inspired by what David Chang has built. I remember going into Momofuku Noodle Bar, on the second day after they opened and seeing him in there cooking. We chatted about his experience in Japan, and I clearly remember feeling his passion for what he was doing. What he achieved is amazing.
Many people think professional kitchens can be a tough environment for women. What has your experience been like?
Depending on who you work for, it can be tough. I’m small and it can be incredibly demanding physically. In some ways, I think women have an edge on the mental endurance needed to be a good chef. Having kids changed the course of my career, but in some ways, having employees is like having kids! I still work long hours, but am able to have flexibility.
Can you tell us about your favorite places to eat in NY & Tokyo?
There’s a lot, but recently I love eating at Yunnan Kitchen. The flavors are really clean, and I love small plates, because you can try a lot! Himalayan Café makes great momo dumplings. Their hot sauce is so good. My kids always want to go to Ootoya. It’s solid Japanese food, comforting flavors and they eat everything there!
If you go to Tokyo, I really recommend Waketokuyama in Azabu. Chef Nozaki is humble and warm and his food is really inventive and special. Kaiseki with absolutely no pretention. I was there on a rainy day and as we were leaving he came out with an umbrella to put us in cab. His sense of hospitality really stuck with me.