Chubo had the honor of being the official knife sponsor of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival this past March. Now in its 27th year, this year’s festival hosted over 250 events, not just in the city of Melbourne, but all over the state of Victory celebrating the innovative chefs, award winning restaurants, wine makers and producers that make the region such an incredible gastronomic destination. Naturally we had a pretty great time and here are some of the highlights.
We pretty much started each morning at Lune Croissanterie. Lucky for us there was an outpost across the street from our hotel! The pain au chocolat was our sleeper favorite, but whatever you choose, be sure to grab a spot in the front so you can watch the meticulous care that goes into the production here.
We kicked off our arrival at the festival with The World’s Longest lunch. This beautiful event in Prahan, featured a team headed up by Karen Martini and and an all female chef line up in celebration of International Women’s Day. You can’t image how smoothly they rolled out lunch for 1,600 people.
Founded in 1867, the South Melbourne Market is a feast for the senses. You can find all manner of provisions, meat, fish, fresh produce and imported items and flowers. It’s ringed by food vendors featuring cuisines from around the globe.
In addition to providing all the knives for the workshops that took place over three days at the House of Food and Wine, our knives were used in all the chef demos. We also had a pop up shop at the venue.
Lucky Melbourne has another gorgeous market on the north side of the Yarra Market. Queen Victoria Market, founded in 1878 is the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. We got up early, to check out the produce and filled our suitcases with coffee and tea from the small roasters and purveyors that fill up the market.
It is Melbourne after all so we filled up on Avocado Toast and terrific coffee every chance we got. Here is a particularly excellent version at Chef Scott Pickett’s casual spot Pickett’s Deli. Other terrific things were eaten and drank at the following: Lee Ho Fuk, Long Chim, Superfine, Sunda, St. Crispin, Tipo 00, Cumulus, Embla, and HuTong, to name a few! Thank you Melbourne for such warm hospitality! We’re already dreaming of coming back.l
Can you tell us about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I was born and grew up in Honolulu. I always wanted to cook, like since I was 4, for some reason. My parents definitely aren’t in the industry. Both are Japanese, born in Honolulu. I think I’m fifth generation, but I didn’t grow up eating Japanese food. We grew up eating meatloaf and spaghetti, very American. But ever since we were young, my parents always took us out to nice restaurants, so I think that’s probably how I got interested. And I used to watch a lot of cooking shows, like Great Chefs of the Hotels, instead of cartoons. It’s the only thing I really wanted to do.
My first job at a restaurant was a place called Pacific Café. The chef was really French, he’s a founding father of fine dining in Honolulu. I think I was fifteen, so I worked throughout high school just for free. Working there reinforced that I really wanted to do it.
How did you decide to apply to the Culinary Institute of America?
I worked at Roy’s Hawaii Kai in high school. So he’s really my mentor and the reason why I went to CIA. I actually did a Bachelor’s program there, so I spent about 3 and a half years there.
What was it like for like a kid right out of high school from Hawaii to show up in upstate New York?
Super homesick. Culture shock. We traveled as kids but I’ve never been to upstate New York. It’s different. Especially Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park. I started – it’s a crazy story, my start date was October 1st, 2001. It was two weeks after 9/11. Crazy time. There was a class with a start date of September 11 but it was pushed back, so a lot of the kids who were supposed to start on that day were in my class. I remember going to the city, and the steel beams were still burning. It was crazy – my mom said “Don’t go.” and I was like, “What do you mean? I’m gonna go.” So it was a crazy time.
Where did you decide to do your externship?
So I applied to the French Laundry and I applied to Roy’s. Roy said yes first – so I came home and I probably spent 6-7 months here and then – kind of vowed that I would never come home again so after I graduated I worked in San Francisco for Ron Siegel. At that time there was a dining room at the Ritz Carlton, which was probably like the number one fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. I worked there for three and a half years. So he’s definitely a mentor to this day. He taught me everything that I base my skills on today.
Ron was the opening chef for the French Laundry, with Thomas Keller and Steven Durfee, so after I was done with my time with him he said, “Where do you wanna go next?” I wanted to go back to New York, and he said you should go to Per Se. Jonathon Benno, who was Chef de Cuisine at the time, was Ron’s extern at French Laundry back in the day. I called Jonathan and he said come in three weeks and I went in three weeks.
I never really applied for a job, you know how it is. Chef’s call each other and it’s kind of how it goes. I spent two years at Per Se and that’s where I met Anthony and Katherine. [Senia’s Co-Chef Anthony Rush and GM Katherine Nomura] It was a really interesting time. I feel like that was when Per Se was really at their peak. That was maybe 2008 to 2010. They won every award and it was so busy. We look back at who we worked with and everyone now is so successful, it was a pretty daunting crew to be working with. After New York I moved back to San Francisco and I worked for Mourad Lahlou at Aziza. I kind of got burnt out on the French thing and I just wanted to try something completely different. Moroccan is pretty much the most different. So I think the use of spices is what really caught me. Because French cuisines doesn’t use spices, they build flavor in a different way.
I told everyone I was going to work at Aziza and they were a kind of puzzled. I just kind of really bonded with Mourad and I was his sous chef at Aziza, just for a year, and then after Aziza, I had an opportunity to come home and work at Vintage Cave, which I took. We weren’t planning to move home but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down and I stayed there for two years. And after that, I moved back San Francisco and opened Mourad’s new restaurant. I took a couple of my guys from Hawaii with me and they are still there. I even lived with Mourad, he owes me his life. I was away from my family, and my kid for a year.
How did the first ideas for Senia come together? Does it go as far back as working with Anthony at Per Se?
Me and Anthony always worked stations next to each other. We always worked very well together. The crew is so competitive that right away you find people that work really well together, and he was just one of those people. Through the years he would come visit, we stayed in touch and we were both, at the time, planning to do our own restaurants. I think he was having a little more trouble doing that in London, where he was. Literally he texted me and said, “I’ll come to Hawaii.” I was like, “Holy Shit!”
Just like that?
Just like that! Literally, just like that. Two weeks later, things were signed and that’s how it came to be. I think we both wanted to do a small restaurant, where it’s casual but also have a tasting menu offer, which we do at the counter. We were both on the same page with that, it was pretty easy.
Do you feel like you share the same food philosophy?
Absolutely. Philosophy, yes. Style, not really. Very different.
We both grew up in Thomas Keller’s kitchen. Classically we’re trained in the same way, so we do things the same way. I fell in love with Japan over the past five years. And my style, for sure goes more towards that. It’s certainly different than French, but Anthony trained very classic. In that way we’re different.
Do you collaborate on dishes together?
Everything is a collaboration. Everything is pretty joint. There are some dishes that we come up with that, just, we talked about it but I had no say in it. But the tasting menu is very much a collaboration with our whole kitchen. Right now we’ve gotten to the point where we have one person, one cook who does the whole tasting menu – he preps the whole thing. So me and Anthony don’t have to do anything for it, we talk about it a week before and it gets everybody involved.
And how often are you changing the menu?
So we used to kill ourselves and try to change it every week. We really came to this awakening about three weeks ago. So we would kill ourselves every week and just struggle to always do something new. And the cooks weren’t understanding the techniques because we would do it for four days and never do it again. Finally we’re like, “why don’t we change it every month?”
Because we do get return guests a lot, actually, for the tasting. These people would set reservations on certain days every month. So we tried to do different stuff for them. But for the majority of people, we change it every month.
Are there specific ingredients that you’re excited about using right now?
Matsutakes, I love white truffles. We’re not a typical Hawaii Restaurant. We bring things in. And that’s, selfishly for us but also for our cooks, we’re used to working with those ingredients and I really like to use them. In the fall we did a Matsutake Donabe and rice, with a grilled zabuton (steak) for a main course. When I do the main course, I love super simple but super good ingredients, very Japanese I guess, but we play around with everything. The truffle risotto is always on the menu, it’s classic. It’s like the best way to eat it, I think.
What about seafood? Is a lot of what you’re using from Japan, or is it local?
We try to use as much local as possible. I would say, the fish we have here is very good, but also Japan fish is so expensive. We use it occasionally at the counter, but for the dining room, it doesn’t make sense cost-wise for us.
Do you cook at home at all?
What do you like to eat at home, even if you’re not cooking?
Something super simple. My wife’s a pretty good cook, she makes a really good tofu soup. She’s Korean. So kim-chi, tofu soup, 9-grain rice. Something I don’t need to think about when I eat. I hate cooking at home because I don’t have a good kitchen. If you don’t have a good kitchen, it’s awful.
Favorite tools or techniques that you want to share?
Knives. I love knives. I’ve bought too many.
Technique, I’ve always wanted to do ikejime. Learn how to do it. Most of the fish that we get from Japan obviously is ikejime but I would like to learn how to do it with the fish we have here because the number one thing I think that differs from Japanese fish is how they take care of it. How it’s killed, how it’s caught. That’s the quality difference. We could have that quality, I feel, but we don’t know how to do those proper steps after it’s killed, you know. That’s the big difference.
There’s no fisherman in Hawaii that are doing that technique at all?
I had a long talk with the chef at Sushi Sho, He’s really passionate about teaching the local fisherman about handling fish better, not bruising it but, things have been done a certain way here. It’s so hard to tell an old guy what to do, change the way he does things.
It’s hard to change the culture. There’s got to be some kind of incentive.
It’s got to be a financial incentive, and there isn’t. If they could charge more for doing ikejime I’m sure they would but it also those guys make money on the bulk catch. It’s super labor intensive! I feel like it’s gotta be someone young and passionate rather than the old dog.
Favorite places to eat here, New York, anywhere in the world?
Tokyo. Favorite place, obsessed, probably – favorite places there, Matsukawa, Ishikawa, I love Kaiseki, I love, like simple, the best crab on rice is like magic.
New York, we love to eat at Per Se and their salon, but I really love what Eleven Madison Park does, to me they have the perfect packaging. Nomad is my favorite place to go, to just grab food and drink. I love Nomad.
I love Blackseed Bagels. So good. New York and Tokyo, you can’t beat those cities. San Francisco is great too. Every chance I get, I go to Japan. And I’m still blown away every time.
30,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone.
I tell everybody, it’s really hard to find a bad meal. Like you have to try really hard.
Even 7-11 is good!
That’s what I’m saying! That’s the first place I start when I go there. I get water, and an egg salad sandwich. karagi and onigiri.
How about in Honolulu?
Sushi Sho. That guy is like… I’ve been in shop three times before he moved here, and that guy is just on a different level. So smart. He’s doing aging on local fish… staying really true to edo-mae on local fish. I think he’s by far the best chef in Hawaii.
He’s still cutting edge, he’s just the master. I love what he does. I wish I could eat there every week. Palmetto’s, wine food, there’s a lot of good hole in the walls here. Ethel’s.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up, and how you got interested in food and cooking?
I grew up near Troy, New York, in a small suburb Wynantskill, New York. The “kill” means creek, essentially, so I literally lived next to a creek, which was awesome growing up. But in my youth, I was not interested in food. My mother, who immigrated from the Philippines is a wonderful self-taught cook. When she came to America she became obsessed with cooking, learning about food… I would come home from school and Julia Child, or Martin Yan, or Jacques Pépin would be on the TV.
Interestingly enough, I later went on to work at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and I ended up working with Martin Yan, and Jacques Pépin, and all of these culinary legends that I had literally grown up watching on TV with my mom.
Your mom’s family’s from the Philippines? And what about your dad?
I’m Chinese in heritage, but my mom was born and raised in the Philippines and she immigrated here when she was in her early 20s. She was a registered nurse for over 30 years. My dad is 4th generation in America, Chinese American. I call him Chinese John Wayne.
My dad doesn’t know how to cook for himself, so when they got married, basically the first year all my mom cooked for him was spam and eggs. Which is ironic now that I live in Hawaii. The doctor eventually told her she would have to start learning to cook some other things because his cholesterol was through the roof. So that’s how my mom got started being a really, really amazing home cook.
When I went to college at FIT, [Fashion Institute of Technology] in New York. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. I liked clothing/shopping when I was younger, I mean that was the extent of it. I excelled in art and design, so I did really well in that respect. I came down, I went to the school, I graduated. I worked in the [fashion] industry for about three years, and I really became disenchanted with it. It was not what I thought it would be. I decided instead of being hunched over a sewing machine all day, I figured being hunched over a hot stove might be a little bit different.
I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15. I’ve been a server, a waitress, a bartender … I’ve done all aspects of service. In New York, I started at Dojo in the West Village, which I heard just closed.
I worked there for five years and I was bartending. At that time I decided to quit fashion and go to culinary school. I had started cooking my own meals in the back, and so getting into cooking happened because I was bored.
And I happened to have Food Network on my TV. I had the basic cable and by some miracle I had Food Network. I started cooking for my friends and they were the ones who told me I should go to culinary school. And I still tell people, “It was to improve the quality of what I was cooking for them at the time.”
So I went to French Culinary Institute, my parents were not happy. I thought my mom would be happier, but she asked me if I wanted to go to the CIA upstate. I said, “No I want to stay in the city. I have job, I have an apartment.” So I went to FCI and I took night classes while I was working at the restaurant, and then eventually I quit the restaurant and I started working at Aquavit full time.
I started as a prep cook at Aquavit and eventually worked my way up to a line cook. After two years I was writing the specials menu for Aquavit café upstairs, which was amazing. It was a huge opportunity for somebody my age and lack of experience. The Executive Chef, Marcus Samuelsson, and Chef de Cuisine, Nils Noren, really took me under their wing; they tested me, they pushed me. I thankfully got the best out of it that I could, including learning what kind of environment that I liked to work in, as well as the kind of environment that I wanted to create for my own kitchen some day.
So it wasn’t perfect, but there was obviously daily comedy to things that happened in the kitchen. One of the things that I love about Marcus and Nils was that they really encouraged creativity. I remember one day I was trying to be a smart ass, and I ran out of the sorbet for my course on the tasting menu. We had a bunch of Pacific sea urchin in the walk-in and Nils was like, “Come up with an idea.” I was like, “Okay why don’t we do sea urchin sorbet?” And he made me make it. So that will be the last time I ever do something in jest.
It was very funny, we had a Japanese fish cook Kazuo, who was a sushi chef, and he I remember he tried the sorbet and he was like, “Mmmmmmm… amaaaaazing no good.”
It was actually a sea urchin sorbet?
A sea urchin and yogurt sorbet, yes. It was interesting, it was supposed to go with the foie gras ganache. But anyways …
But that level of trust, and that little push, “Okay smart ass, go ahead and make it.” You know? those are lessons that I’ll never forget.
As far as first jobs go, I lucked out… I left there, I went on to be a private chef for a Fortune 500 family and that was terrible. I learned that private chef-ing was not what I wanted to do. Then I got a job at 66, Jean-Georges Chinese restaurant in Tribeca. I was part of the opening staff and I worked hot apps, which was the hardest station ever.
What was the quintessential dish at that time in the hot apps station?
The frickin scallion pancake. I literally had to make 400 of those a day! At the time I had a partner who was terrible, she would’ve clawed my eyes out for the junior sous chef position. She would cruise in to work night service…. come in and set up the station, but would never do prep or anything. I’d be there from 6:00 in the morning til like 9:00 at night. Every day. Anytime something went wrong she’d throw me under the bus. My tenure there did not last long in the sense that I quit as soon as I had the opportunity to work at French Culinary Institute as their Executive Chef of Events and Continuing Education.
I did that, I left right after we got reviewed. And I remember my chef at the time telling me he thought it was a mistake to go work at a culinary school, but what he didn’t realize was that the position I was taking was not that of teaching in the classroom. I was literally doing all the custom events for the school, and I was managing their chef demonstration program. So I worked with every single talent that came through that school.
I did everything from setting up their demo date and their topic, to ordering them car service, to prepping out their recipes and their demonstrations, to making the tastings and executing them. Every day was like literally being in a new kitchen for me, learning from another great chef; Chefs like Ferran Adrià, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, chefs from the Japanese culinary school in Kyoto came over for a week.
It was my job to make sure that they were comfortable, and that they looked good. Every day was a learning experience for me, beyond the fact that I got to work with our deans on a regular basis, who are legends in their own right, like Jacques Pépin, Andre Soltner, Alain Sailhac, and Jacques Torres.
My very favorite dean was Chef Andre, the Dean of Classic Studies, an Alsatian chef who had the famed Lutèce in New York, one of the first fine dining French restaurants in New York. and just an incredible guy, an incredible talent, and so humble. I had the privilege of working side by side with him alone on a regular basis, and I would just pick his brain. We’d be prepping for an event together, or he’d be prepping for his demo, I’d be prepping for a wine class, and I would just say, “I’m making beef bourguignon Chef, what’s your favorite cut of beef to use for this?” And he would just tell me his culinary secrets, we’d talk story about food and his experiences as a young cook. Priceless moments, really.
Learning from Chef Andre was a gift. He regaled me with stories of when he was an apprentice, in the 1930s and 40s….they didn’t have oven thermometers or any of the luxurious technological advances most cooks take for granted these days. They would shove a towel in the door to regulate the temperature on the oven. Before Vitamixes, before immersion circulators, cooks didn’t have any of those things, and they still made incredible food. That being said, I carry that with me. When something breaks, or something’s not going right, I always say, “What would André do?” He’s like the little angel on my shoulder, he’s always with me.
And then from the French Culinary Institute, how did you get involved with Top Chef
While I was at French Culinary Institute I was cast on the first season of Top Chef. That was back in 2005 . And then subsequently they asked me to consult on the second season because their culinary producer was having a difficult time. At the time, that type of show hadn’t been made before. Most people saw culinary as like a dump and stir kind of thing. It was an in-studio show, and this was different. This was the first culinary competition that was filmed out in the field every other day. Just the grand scale of it was huge.
I remember that first year, our kitchen, we had single a set of Calphalon. We had the home cook’s 8 piece set of Calphalon… That’s what we had to cook with for the first season. There were a couple extra pots in the kitchen but now since the show’s success the equipment and ingredient pantry are MASSIVE … I built that pantry for six seasons afterwards, and built wall to wall Calphalons. And it’s funny, ’cause it’s like the more equipment you give the contestants, the more they’re gonna get dirty. Take it from somebody who’s done a lot of dishes on that set.
They hired me to consult for season 2 and then subsequently gave me the job of culinary producer. When I did the Season 2 finale in Hawaii back in 2006, we filmed at Waikoloa on Big Island. That was incredible because that trip I reconnected with my roots here. I have ohana here in Oahu, and afterwards I flew over to spend time with my family to reconnect. That was the first call of “aloha”.
I produced seasons two through six, I consulted on season seven, and put together the first Top Chef Masters. That was everything from creating the challenges, to figuring out what food and equipment would be the focus on each challenge, styling out the pantry every day, doing the dishes, setting up that beautiful table reveal, cleaning up after them, packing up all the stuff on a box truck to take to location, unpacking it, setting ’em up, watching them cook, cleaning up … I called it “build/destroy.” It was like literally moving your house every day, and it was horrible. But working on a television production on that side of the camera really helped me to learn how to work in coordination with a group of 100 plus people.
When the time came, I was definitely burnt out after our season six in Vegas. I decided to leave and focus on doing my own thing. I had signed up for Top Chef for cooking and now suddenly I wasn’t cooking, I was just making TV, while they’re giving away cars, and restaurants, and trips to Paris to all the contestants that came AFTER my season (ha!). . I decided to leave that, and I started working with Irene Wong, an award winning producer who specialized in food television programs. I filmed six seasons of Unique Eats with her, which was featured on the Cooking Channel. I was a guest judge on Chopped several times, I’ve competed on Iron Chef America (I won). I spent several years traveling the world, eating for the sake of the food television (such a hard job!), and eventually found myself a new home in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Was wanting to open a restaurant where you ultimately saw yourself going?
I mean yes, but the interesting thing was that I did it in a sort of reverse order. Most people open a restaurant work their way up and then they wanna become TV chefs and I did it the other way around. I’ve worked at a culinary school, I’ve opened a movie theater, I’ve staged at kaiseki restaurants all over Japan, cooked weeklong events in Kuala Lumpur….I’ve had this amazing breadth of different experiences. And now it’s like, I have a restaurant and I’m working on the next one. I’m the executive chef for an airline. Just to be able to broaden my perspective and my spectrum that way has just been amazing.
At the end of the of the day, yes, the restaurant is home. My employees are my family, and Hawaii is my home now. The restaurant is always a place to come every day and do what you can. We feed people, we’re not saving lives. But if we can help create great memories for somebody on vacation, or become part of somebody’s daily lifestyle or schedule, then I’m doing something good.
Can you tell us a little bit about your food philosophy and how you approach out the specials and the menus here?
Here in Hawaii … Hawaii imports over 95% of its food supply, so sustainability really takes on a different meaning. Coming from New York where I had pretty much access to almost everything, it’s kinda interesting when you come here. You see the price difference, you see that commodity goods, imported goods are cheaper than stuff that’s grown here. It’s crazy, you go into Costco and it’s like bananas from Ecuador. Cases, and cases, and cases of them, on sale. Same thing, like, pineapples from Thailand, and people are buying it, because the cost of living is so high here.
Part of our mission here at Koko Head, and pretty much any business I do here in Hawaii, is to source as much local as possible because … in order for food security, for food sovereignty you really need to buy into the system. And the only way to do that is through our food. We spread our message without being political through what people are tasting, eating, sharing and talking about on social media. We’re huge supporters of all the farmers and local producers and artisans here in Hawaii.
At the same time, we are committed to seasonal cooking. I love introducing our customers to ingredients that they’ve never had! One of the beauties of being in Hawaii is that we have a very unique microclimate. It’s a year round growing season, and we grow things here that you can’t get anywhere else.
Can you give us an example?
The Wailea heart of palms are incredible. Finger limes … there are over two dozen varieties of mango that grow here, same with avocados. Pohole ferns, kukui nut, macadamia nuts, fresh curry leaves…. And a dozen different kinds of banana. The seafood is plucked straight from our surrounding ocean, and now we have local cattle, venison, pork, and chicken. It’s not cheap, but at the same time, we’re looking at the carbon footprint of not having to bring things in from the mainland.
Turning the islands into a place that can sustain itself is a massive, almost impossible challenge. We just had a hurricane scare a month ago, and Oahu’s not ready. Oahu was never meant to hold over a million people. I was thankfully on mainland when all this went down, but I came back all of the stores looked like they had been looted, the shelves were empty. And they’re still empty because you know what? That boat is still waiting to come in. So what happens if the boats and planes stop coming? How long could you survive on an island? How would you know how to feed yourself and your family?
So those are important questions. As a restaurant, we go local because we believe the food tastes better. Hands down, it’s fresher. It’s got the aloha spirit and the soul because it was grown here. That’s something that we’re always promoting, that I think people are always pleasantly surprised by. People come here knowing that they’re gonna have a good meal, but they don’t expect to get an education at the same time. We embrace natural curiosity while showcasing the best the island have to offer seasonally… “What am I eating? What is this fruit?” Our fruit plate is amazing. Everywhere else, probably in this state, you’re gonna go order a side of fresh fruit and you’re gonna get, guaranteed, a piece of fruit that is not from here.
I get what’s in season. So right now we have both pink and red dragon fruit. Longan fruit, fresh lilikoi, star fruit, purple star-apple, guava, pineapple, Kula strawberry … papaya, we currently have three different kinds of bananas— apple, Cuban reds, and ice cream bananas. We have ketembilla, ceylon gooseberry, tropical apricots, Big Island figs, and surinam cherries. Those are all fruits that make it onto our fruit plate, that people have never seen.
I remember the first time I tried a Cuban red banana… we were traveling the Road to Hana. I got so excited, because it was a variety of banana I had never tried before.
We’ve only ever had two types of mangoes on the mainland. Being here is a privilege. Being here is special. Being able to be a chef here, I understand how lucky we are to have access to all this. We want celebrate that produce in unique and delicious ways.
Do you make it out to eat? With a new baby probably not as much as you used to.
Not as much as we used to, but we still go out. What’s amazing is that he’s very social, our son Rye. I worked at the restaurant while I was pregnant, so theoretically he’s used to the noise and the energy. Now one of his favorite places is actually in the restaurant. It’s very comforting for him, and he’s our little social mascot/greeter now that he’s a year old. He knows how to wave hello to all the guests, and he loves my employees. I always had this very selfish fantasy of raising my kid in a restaurant, and now I’m doing it. It’s like, I’m working. We don’t pay for childcare, so we bring him here sometimes. And he’s totally happy here.
Lastly, do you have any favorite places to eat? Either here, or elsewhere in the world?
Favorite New York places … I had the privilege of eating at Suzuki. I love Yakitori Totto, and Soba Totto, Sakagura, and my 20+ year mainstay, Village Yokocho.
I see a Japanese theme here.
Literally the only reason I could move to Hawaii is ’cause the Japanese food here is bananas good. It’s almost better than New York. Borderline.
Favorites here in Honolulu include Sushi II, Izakaya Naru, Hachibei, and Nanzan GiroGiro. People always ask me, “If you had to eat one type of cuisine the rest of your life what would it be?” Without hesitation every time, “Japanese! Hands down.”
We went on our babymoon in Japan and I ate everything while I was six months pregnant with Rye. We’re hoping that we can take him back soon, before we open another restaurant. To show him how beautiful Japan is. He loves to eat, his favorite thing is noodles. So his first birthday’s coming up and the theme is gonna be ramen.
Anything you wanna talk about that we didn’t hit?
I love your knives, thanks for coming here. I’m somebody who has a healthy relationship with Japanese steel. I mean, I remember saving my money to buy my first Japanese knife, which was a Masanobu. Seeing my cook’s and my employee’s enthusiasm, it’s an extension of your arm, it’s an extension of your career, and yourself. You’re able to put feeling and personality into what you’re doing if you have the right tools. Having a sharp knife is everything.
I tell these guys, “Just get one knife and take care of it.” I have more knives than I know what to do with. I need a knife like a need a hole in my head. Everyone is special, and every knife, to me, tells a story. That’s incredible. Any well seasoned chef, you talk to them about their knives? Each knife has its own history. Each knife has been through a war. Every now and then you find a knife that you forgot about, that you forgot you used, you’re like, “Oh my god! You! We’ve been through battle together.”
I’m interested to know what’s happening with the next generation of knife makers in Japan, because it’s a dying art. At one point I thought we may be looking at the last generation of great, great, hamono makers, because nobody wants to work in a dirty steel factory anymore, hammering steel. Companies like Chubo are essential to keeping the craft alive, by creating the demand for hand forged Japanese knives. It is only through this demand that these masters can afford to pass on their golden knowledge and skills to the next generation of knife makers and sharpeners.
Robynne Maii along with partner Chuck Bussler bring a combined 30+ years culinary experience to Fête, their warm and inviting Downtown Brasserie. Taking inspiration from crave-able dishes of many cultures, Fête’s menu celebrates seasonality and culinary tradition in tandem.
Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your background?
I grew up in Honolulu. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that cooked a lot. Not fancy food, since my parents were always on a budget we always had home cooked meals. Maybe we went out to a restaurant a couple times a year, so I grew up eating a lot of good food. Both my parents cooked.
What kind of food would you eat at home?
It’s interesting since both my parents lived on the mainland for a little bit, we grew up eating everything from local style food, like chili, and kalbi, and beef stew, but then we also had things like cacciatore, shish kabob, and lamb, lamb chops, stuff like that. Things that were definitely not in the normal local repertoire. Sweet and sour spare ribs, stuffed cabbage, very eastern European style. The rule at our house was we had to eat everything that my parents cooked. This idea of boycotting just because you didn’t like something, my parents were really strict. I had a smart mouth, so I’d say I’m gonna eat cereal then, and we weren’t even allowed to do that. It was either go hungry and sit at the table with us, or you’re gonna eat what I prepared.
All three of us, my siblings, we love food. We’re not picky eaters.
What was your path to professional cooking?
My first memory of cooking was making eggs with my maternal grandmother. I just love the idea of making my own food. In college I started thinking about it more, but it was very taboo for a profession. Your asian parents, they want you to do something that makes you a lot of money, is super stable, so you can have a family, buy a house, and do all that. When I announced to my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school, they weren’t very pleased, but the deal was since they put us through college that I had to pay for my own culinary education. I quickly realized there was no way I was gonna be able to go to one of the fancier culinary schools, because I just couldn’t afford it, so I came home and went to KCC. [Kapiolani Community College]
Then you went straight into cooking professionally. Tell us a little bit about your background?
I did it in an untraditional way. I cooked for a little bit and thought I wanted to get out of the kitchen, and thought I wanted to do food writing, so I got my masters degree from NYU in food studies. I got my dream job. I went to Gourmet Magazine and worked there for two years, but while I was there I got offered a job in culinary education to run a culinary program, and so I spent over 10 years in culinary education.
How did Fête come to be?
Outside of restaurants, I think people thought we were crazy, because as far as opening up a restaurant we were old, Chuck and I. We were both in our forties, and we had been out of industry for a number of years. We worked for some good people, but we didn’t have a continuous pedigree to woo people with, so it was really difficult. But in that time frame we did a lot of cooking and we entertained a lot. We went out to eat a lot too. For us, Fête was born out of this idea of bringing people together, which is very common, but we saw this trend happening in restaurants where it was less and less fun to eat out. I think that’s why we were driven to entertain more at home, because it was more relaxing.
We have this constant dialogue of having a place where the food is the foundation for the guest’s occasion. We don’t want the food to lord over the table. We want it to support everybody.
Any ingredients that you’re excited about right now in Hawaii?
Right now Mahi is running, so we get that. Mahi was never a favorite of mine because it was from the supermarket and had this grayish color and my mother always prepared it the same way and I was just never really impressed with the fish. Then we started buying fish from Local I’a, which is owned by Ashley Watts. She only sources from day boaters in Oahu waters. It completely changed my mind about Mahi. I think Mahi is one of the most glorious fishes you can have, and when we get it it is this beautiful cotton candy pink. Super fresh.
I think we had a great Ahi dish on the menu last time we ate here.
Yes, Ahi, which is also caught from Oahu day boaters. A lot of people ask us what’s the grade of the Ahi. I don’t know a lot about how they grade, I just know because our Ahi doesn’t go to auction, it’s ungraded, but all of it is fresh. The grade has to do with the oil content, and its texture. It’s an opportunity for us to explain to the guests why it’s different. The color, sometimes it’s very, very red, pinkish, translucent, sometimes it’s very dark and ruby. They’re really captivated. They like it.
Any favorite tools or techniques?
Favorite tools? Chubo knives! Come on.
That’s very kind of you to say that. Other than knives are there any other tools you’re using in the kitchen right now or techniques that you guys like to use?
Emily Iguchi who is our chef de cuisine and I, I like to think of ourselves not as simple cooks. That doesn’t explain it. — We like cooking, so we tend to stay away from gadgets. There’s a lot of knife work in this kitchen. It’s very labor intensive. You can see Louis toiling over here with some knife work. Our food is rooted in very traditional methods, with a strong French and Italian grounding, and Emily is Japanese. There’s a lot going on in the food. We like to reduce things. We like to strain things. We like to make things extra nice for everyone. In the end it has to be tasty. Really sharp knives and a good pair of scissors.
Do you cook at home? When you have time.
Yes, I do cook at home. The cooking is much simpler. On Sundays, Chuck and I are off, and it usually involves roasting something, or putting something in the oven, we have the veggies, a one pan sort of affair. We miss entertaining at home, and Chuck says, “yeah but we entertain every single night,” but it’s different. We love that people come in, but we miss sitting and breaking bread and drinking wine with our dear friends.
Favorite places to eat in Honolulu or anywhere in the world?
Right now, if it’s a special occasion we like Gaku Sushi. It’s pricey and worth every penny. We have such little time off these days that we don’t go out to eat as much as we’d like. We love Senia. They’re very good friends of ours.
Helena’s Hawaiian food is a favorite on the island. In the world, in New York City, I love Prune. It’s one of my favorites. I love Pearl Oyster Bar, because it is still fantastic. Yeah. I always go back there, those two places.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interesting in cooking.
I was born in New Jersey but grew up in Syracuse, New York. My first cooking memory is of my dad teaching me how to make scrambled eggs. My parents were adamant that I learn how to cook, and as I got older and they began to be more comfortable working later, I started cooking for all of us.
My parents travelled a lot for work, and I was fortunate enough to go to Spain, France, Argentina, England and China all before I graduated high school. For me, each trip centered around what I would eat.
I wanted to go to the CIA but my family was adamant that a college education would be best, so I ended up going to University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
I know you studied at St. Andrews, what was the transition from intense scholarship to cooking like?
At St. Andrews, I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between food and conflict. I won an award from it and ended up with a job offer from a food sovereignty rights’ NGO in New Delhi. I moved to NYC as I waited for my visa to come through. I did not want to move back to Syracuse, so I found a sublet in NYC. I quickly realized I needed an income and I also wanted to make sure I was not giving up on a dream of mine, so I started trailing in kitchens. Turns out I would have been giving up on a dream if I moved to India.
The transition however was hard – I went from 14 hours a day in a library to 14 hours a day in a kitchen. I screwed up, a lot, but I loved it and decided I’d work as many hours as possible to make a living cooking and build a culinary skill set. To say it was hard would be an understatement.
Tell us a little about your career history.
The first restaurant I worked in is actually two blocks away from where I work now. The chef at the time shouldn’t have hired me; I showed up without proper shoes or knives. But as he put it, I was educated and could speak English. I ended up only working there for a few months, but I learned that kitchens were where I wanted to be.
Eric Korsch, the newly appointed chef at The Waverly Inn at the time, decided to take a chance on me next. It was here that he and then sous chef Ted Rozzi gave me the culinary education I desperately needed and introduced me to the stamina I would need in the industry.
I next followed Ted Rozzi to Crown on the Upper East Side for my first opening. Later a captain at Crown introduced me to Matt Lightner and after trailing 4 times he decided to take a chance on me next. He hired me as a prep cook for his soon to open restaurant, Atera. I felt like I had made it. The kitchen, all the chefs and staff at Atera; it was like nothing I had seen before. The discipline I learned there I carry with me daily.
I next went to Gramercy Tavern where I would spend two years. Through the guidance of Michael Anthony I was able to round out all of the skills I had learned and find my voice as a cook.
I went to California after that and trailed at some incredible restaurants but ended the trip realizing I only wanted to cook in NYC. I helped a friend of mine open a biscuit shop called Empire Biscuit before I found a sous chef opportunity with Major Food Group at Santina. I was sent to open Dirty French first, as Santina’s opening was delayed. I then worked at Santina for almost two years, before I was asked to work on the opening of The Grill, as executive sous chef.
What is your food philosophy
Never drop your standards because of time, pace, space or the people around you. Be as proud of a biscuit you make as an almost impossible razor clam dish. Ignore others that would criticize you for who you work for or where you have worked. As long as you care, put out correct and delicious food, and always work hard, you’re doing it right.
And don’t be scared to screw up, don’t bow out or give excuses. I’ve learned the most through my errors. Just don’t repeat them.
Between Dirty French, Santina and now the Grill you’ve had a pretty intense restaurant opening schedule. What do you love and hate about opening restaurants?
I love the pace and intense drive almost every person involved in an opening has. I love that you set the systems for the kitchen and because of that, you leave a lasting impact. I love that you learn through error, and fix it. I love the lack of sleep and testing of physical limits. I also tire of it at some point but the initial drive is something special. I love cooking new cuisines and dishes. I love openings, but I think that shows.
Are there lessons you’ve learned in the kitchen that you feel apply outside of work?
I believe everything I said in my philosophy applies to outside of a kitchen. I was a shy and unconfident person, particularly in relationship to my body. Kitchens changed that. Be true to yourself, help others, work harder than the person next to you, and most things work out. A bit hippie dippy, but… tough.
Do you sense changes in attitudes about women in the kitchen from the beginning of your career until now?
I’ve been lucky to never have my gender be a real issue in my work life, but again, I think my philosophy speaks to why that has been the case. If you work hard and give it your all, it’s hard for people to judge you because of something like your sex. I won’t say it’s been without bumps in the road, but I try not to dwell on that. I can happily say as the CDC of a huge restaurant with a very big staff, my gender is something that rarely comes up, if anything it is from guests surprised I’m the CDC. I do wish I could find more female line cooks, but I have four on my AM staff which makes me very happy.
Do you cook at home? If so what?
I like cooking pasta at home, fresh or dried. Pasta holds a special place in my heart. My go to is Martelli spaghetti for cacio e pepe. Besides that, it’s normally scrambled eggs and toast or peanut butter and jelly. My boyfriend cooks a fair amount for me when I get home, which is always greatly appreciated. I also have a soft spot for Mighty Quinn’s take out.
Favorite Tools and Techniques
My favorite tools are: my nenox 210 mm gyutou and my neon blue fish spat that most people hate but survived me a year on Gramercy Tavern fish roast.
My favorite cooking technique is cooking over open fire. I worked on the grill station at Gramercy Tavern, where you build and maintain your own fire, and it was a life changer. We cook over wood at The Grill, and it was a huge part of why I was so excited about being a part of that opening, second to the menu.
Are there ingredients you are excited about right now?
I’ve been really excited about the different game birds we have worked with at The Grill. I became very interested in hunting and game when I lived in Scotland, so it has been fun to work with similar products again.
Favorite? places to eat in NY and elsewhere.
I’ve been told I have a lot of favorites, so here’s a short list:
Professional chef and sharpening enthusiast Eduardo Castro Estrada helped us put together a video guide for each of his essential knife sharpening steps.
Choosing a stone.
Soaking your stones.
How to hold knives for sharpening.
Establishing an angle.
Creating and removing a burr.
Moving on to a finer grit.
Flattening and fixing stones.
About Eduardo Castro Estrada
Known amongst knife nuts on instagram as @jakkonoise, Eduardo lives in Morelia Michocan Mexico. He began cooking when he was 15. A culinary school graduate, he has worked in restaurants and hotels, but loves catering large events and cooking privately. He first got interested in sharpening stones after ruining some of his first knives with a ‘pull through’ sharpening device. Since then he became literally obsessed with sharpening. Find him on instagram and you’ll be amazed at the edges he’s able to put on all kinds of knives.
Joe Anthony is the Chef de Cuisine at Gabriel Kreuther restaurant.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interesting in cooking?
I grew up in an active surf and skate community down in south-east Florida. The weather is pretty consistent year around, so I spent a good amount of time outdoors and playing sports. Lots of young people means lots of partying, and my youth had no shortage of that. Hanging with friends and playing music was the norm. I was never a “rise and shine” kind of person, so in retrospect the restaurant industry fit well. However, my career really started out like any other kid trying to make some spending cash. I took the job as a busboy at this local restaurant called 32East in Delray Beach. I remember seeing the intensity and drive the kitchen team had and it was very contagious. It became inspiring to see the level of execution and pride that came with each nightly service. I loved the controlled chaos and the formality of how much a team sport it was. The kitchen took notice that I was intrigued and started giving me bits and pieces of the menu to taste. The menu changed daily, and I became hooked on the sheer creativeness and ever evolving products. This was not a stagnant restaurant and it didn’t have stagnant chefs. I made the decision at 19 that this is what I wanted to do. I was thrown in the fire, but was fortunate enough to have the kitchen boys show me the ropes. I’ve never looked back and have never had another job outside of the restaurant industry.
Painted Hills Beef Tenderloin with Roasted Salsify, Potato Dumplings and Juniper Jus
What led you to come cook in New York?
I spent eight years cooking in south Florida all while staying in the Delray area. I worked for the same group in various positions between the two restaurants they had. At the time, it felt like Florida had a limit on how far you could learn and grow. I knew the next step naturally would be to go and experience life in a big food city. My chef was very supportive and made a few calls for me to trail at some high-end establishments in New York City. I spent the next few years working at Restaurant Daniel and Union Square Café before ultimately joining the Modern and meeting chef Gabriel.
Smoked Eel Velouté, Seven Grain Tuille, Saffron Tapioca, Black Truffle Coulis
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I believe that everything is and needs to be evolving, so therefore my philosophy will change too… but at the end of the day I try to create dishes the way that I want to eat them.
You cooked with Chef Kreuther at the Modern, how is the approach to your menu for Gabriel Kreuther different?
I wouldn’t say our approach is necessarily different, just evolving. The Modern was well established and successful long before I worked there, so it had its style already. A lot has already changed here from the opening to present. However, chef Gabriel’s food in my opinion always has a soul to it and feels somewhat familiar even if you’ve never had it. That’s something I keep in the back of my head and never want to lose with our approach.
You recently returned from cooking in Japan. Can you tell us about that experience and any take aways or eye openers learned there?
I am very fortunate and humbled to be able to experience Japan the way I did. It was part of a cultural exchange program provided by the Gohan Society. It’s a beautiful program they put together every year and I really must express my gratitude.
We spent nine days traveling through Ishikawa, Kanazawa and ultimately ending in Tokyo. It was a great mix of cultural activities such as sake brewing, miso processing, traditional pottery making and staging in restaurants. The first thing they taught me was how to make a classic dashi. It’s something that I always enjoyed, but now have a completely different understanding and respect for. That could pretty much sum up how I feel about the whole experience.
Do you cook at home?
I cook every almost every Sunday at my apartment for my fiancé Nancy. Mostly stew and food that can be reheated all week while I’m at work.
What are you favorite kitchen tools?
I guess my favorite tool has to be my knives. I mean I have one in my hand pretty much every day.
Charcoal Grilled Maine Lobster with Baby Carrots, Toasted Cashew and Jamon Nage
Ingredients you are excited about right this moment?
We use this farmer named Dan Lieber who has become like an ambassador for a lot of the local farms in Pennsylvania. He owns and runs Stardust Farms which produces amazing squab, but he also delivers for a lot of great local produce, grains, and dairy farms within the area. Greenwalk Trout Hatchery has to be one of my favorite new producers to work with. You can tell all the hard work and care that goes into raising the different varieties of trout.
Fluke Tartare with Meyer Lemon Custard, Maine Uni, Yuzu, Wasabi, Finger Lime and Green Apple
Can you share some favorite places to eat in New York and elsewhere?
I recently had a great meal at Shuko and would recommend for sure. Del Posto, Per Se and Olmsted are always solid choices for me. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a drunken night that ends up in K-town though! Outside of NYC I’ll def go with Alinea. Those guys push so hard and are constantly evolving. I have much respect and admiration for the chefs there.
Tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I am from a small town north of Philadelphia. Most of what I remember from my childhood is what I ate. My first lobster dinner at The Oyster House. My grandmother got upset because she said no 10 year old needed a whole lobster. My grandpa beamed when I finished everything. Stopping at the farmers market on the way to the pool in the summers, searching for that perfect black plum. It made me so happy when the fresh juices would run down my arm at first bite. Perfectly ripe tomato sandwiches. Steamers and fried clam sandwiches at Klein’s fish market down the shore.
My dad has an incredible sweet tooth, we were spoiled with Halloween candy, Easter candy and doughnuts on Saturdays. (I still look forward to my annual basket of Josh Early jelly beans.) When I found out these were things I could make I wanted to learn how. My mom was a decent cook growing up, but she could not bake. So, I taught myself how with the Joy of Cooking. When I turned 14, legal working age, I got a job at The Bridge Cafe. The Chef/Owner is a CIA alumni and showed me all aspects of the business.
Can you tell us about your experiences at the CIA + Cordon Bleu?
I had the unique experience of attending the pastry programs at both the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France. The CIA had state of the art equipment and we made sweets in batch sized to accommodate a commercial kitchen. LCB was the opposite. We made only small batches or individual items. Everything, from whipping meringue and developing gluten in bread, was done by hand. By learning both peering over the mixing bowl and using my hands gave me a better understanding of baking and pastry.
What did you think about working in France?
After Le Cordon Bleu I staged at pâtisserie Sucre Cacao for 3 months. It was intense. My understanding of the French language was decent but only when spoken to slowly. Chef did not speak slowly. I enjoyed learning the systems there. Production was on a schedule and super organized. We made viennoiserie, macarons, individual pastries, cakes and bread. While I was there, Chef was designing and executing his pastillage showpiece for le Meilleur Ouvrier de France.
Can you talk a little bit about your career trajectory once you came back to New York?
After Paris, I moved to New York City. I trailed at several places but fell in love with Craft. The spacious pastry kitchen, the top quality ingredients, the energy of the staff and the style of Karen Demasco was exactly what I was looking for. I worked there for 2 years before moving to Atlanta, Georgia. I was a pastry cook at Aria, a fine dining restaurant in Buckhead. Then I had the opportunity to open Bakeshop as a pastry sous chef. I was really interested in the operations of a wholesale bakery with a retail space. After Bakeshop I took my first pastry chef job at Serpas, True Food. I moved back to New York in 2011 and worked as the pastry chef at Craftbar. After a year and a half, I was promoted to the pastry chef of Craft and Craftbar. Then,this past fall I took another position within the company as the executive pastry chef at Fowler & Wells in the Beekman Hotel. I was excited to work my first restaurant opening and to learn the intricacies of a food and beverage program in a hotel.
Who do you consider to be your mentors?
Ken Miller from the Bridge Cafe in Frenchtown NJ, Christophe Marquant from my externship at the Seaport Hotel in Boston and Karen Demasco from Craft NYC. All three chefs had a great impact on my career. Ken taught me about hospitality and encouraged me to go to culinary school. Christophe taught me how to prepare for multiple outlets and told me to go to Paris. Karen taught me about the importance of the ingredient and how to showcase it.
What inspires you and how do you approach developing new dishes?
I get inspired by the ingredients. I get excited when new produce comes into season. I start by writing down flavor profiles and different techniques then test them out. I usually end up far from my original idea but that’s the fun part of the creative process.
Can you tell us about the bread program at Fowler & Wells?
At Fowler & Wells, we make lean dough, enriched dough, sourdough, laminated dough, and unleavened dough. We use commercial yeast, natural levain, and preferment. Between breakfast, lunch and dinner we utilize a variety of breads and pastries. For breakfast we make assorted viennoiserie, bagels, sourdough waffle and English muffins. We bake multi-grain, country sourdough, and brioche loaves to serve as sides of toast. For lunch we have a number of breads for sandwiches; ciabatta, focaccia, potato brioche, and semolina rolls. For dinner we bake off loaves of bread that get grilled and served with a few Bar Room menu options and we are developing a dinner bread that I hope to roll out soon.
What do you like to cook at home?
To be honest not a whole lot but if I do, I keep it quick and simple; sandwiches, eggs, pasta, nachos.
Any specific ingredients you are excited about using right now?
I love this time of year. The produce is so vibrant and fresh that you don’t need to fuss with it much. A bowl of fresh berries with lightly whipped cream and a hint of lemon zest is what I look forward to in the summer. A more composed version of this would be the Frozen Parfait at Fowler & Wells. It’s strawberries with almonds, lemon posset and amaretti syllabub.
Favorite places to eat? There are so many restaurants I want to try that I don’t find myself returning to too many places except Okonomi. Their Japanese breakfast is one of those meals that makes you feel good.
Before coming to the US – JP worked in some of the world’s best restaurants, including The Ledbury in London and Cutler & Co. in Melbourne, Australia, He was the Chef de Cuisine at Jungsik Dang in Seoul, South Korea before joining 2 Michelin starred Jungsik restaurant in New York. In the summer of 2016, together with his wife Ellia, they opened Atoboy, a modern Korean restaurant with a unique banchan-style tasting menu.
Tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food.
Though I was born in Gumi – a city about 4 hours drive south of Seoul – I call Seoul my home as I’ve lived there since I was four. I was fortunate to always have great home-cooked meals growing up as my mother was a great cook, but since both of my parents worked full-time I was often left with the responsibility of feeding myself and my older brother. Sometimes that meant re-heating the banchans or soups that my mother had prepared ahead of time, and other times it meant me being creative with whatever was in the pantry and whipping up a meal on my own.
Becoming familiar in my family’s kitchen, my interest in food intensified in a bit of a silly way also. There is a very famous Japanese comic book called Shota No Sushi or translated in Korean “Mr. Sushi King.” I got very into it, and for a good amount of time I really wanted to learn the art of sushi to become a sushi chef.
The bits and pieces of curiosity I gathered growing up led me to enroll in KyungHee University, which was well-known for its culinary and hospitality management programs. While in school, my desire to polish my skills abroad blossomed as I learned more about the culinary movements by becoming familiar with legendary chefs with books such as The French Laundry Cookbook. With this in mind, I decided that my goal would be to transfer into C.I.A. in Hyde Park to graduate so I was also busy studying English.
Towards the end of my university days, I got accepted to an exchange student program for restaurant management in Finland. This is when I really got a chance to immerse myself in the culture and the cuisine firsthand, and after the exchange student program I decided to go over to London to further my externship as I was fortunately six-months ahead of schedule for my graduation track.
How did you start cooking professionally?
In London, I had a chance to work at The Ledbury under Chef Brett Graham who is originally from Australia. He became somewhat of a mentor for me and through him I was able to build connections to Melbourne. After the London chapter, I then decided to pursue my career further with Chef Andrew McConnell in Melbourne, Australia. I worked with him through his transitions to and from multiple properties from 3,1,2 , Cumulus Inc., and also Cutler & Co.
What is your food philosophy?
To cook delicious food, using balance as a main concept, whether it’s a balance in flavor, texture, color, cultural roots, new and old. Furthering my pseudo-philosophy on balance, my favorite balance when it comes to food is the rising relevance and popularity of seasonality and local ingredients combined with the predominance of fermented, preserved, and dried ingredients which I am used to while growing up in Korea.
Korean Food is just recently gaining a wider understanding and appreciation in the US. Why do you think it took so long?
I think it largely has to do with the change in society, especially the immigrant culture. I’m sure most of the Korean restaurants a few decades back opened to cater to the expats who may long for taste of home. Though there certainly is a need for that reason, it also keeps the food and the cuisine within limits. Nowadays as well as in the most recent years, many Korean restaurants are opened by second generation immigrants with the mission to not only please the palates of those seeking traditional Korean flavors but also to spread the word to the non-Koreans.
Moreover, there is also the inevitable rise in social media and its impact. Now, it’s only a matter of a few seconds for someone to see what Korean food looks or tastes like through the scrolls on Instagram or a quick read on Yelp. And I also can’t fail to mention the interest in the Korean culture overall from K-Pop, K-Beauty, and more. But at the end of the day, Korean food is just soul-satisfyingly delicious and unbelievably well-balanced. I think it would’ve been just a matter of time until everyone jumped on the bandwagon of eating it.
Is there something that gets lost in translation for Korean cuisine coming abroad? I know you worked in both Australia and London before coming to NY? Is there something or an essence about the cuisine that is not able to be replicated outside of Korea?
I think it’s the same with other ethnic cuisines like Thai, Japanese, and more. You hear people say all the time that the best sushi they’ve ever had was in Tokyo, or the best pho was enjoyed in Saigon. It’s just nearly impossible to replicate flavors that has so much to do with not only the seasonings and ingredients but also the atmosphere, climate, culture, and more.
But my job as a chef is to restlessly study, research, and test to put my best foot forward in hoping that the diners can experience that sense of nostalgia and excitement. In order to do this successfully, most often chefs would embrace the locale in which they are in and apply their techniques and memories to create these dishes. With that said, I think the most authentic experiences are best left in the places of origin.
For us, we try to embrace New York whether it’s the climate, the palette, ingredients, and techniques. If Atoboy were to be also opened in say, Paris or Seoul, I’m sure it would take on an entirely different flavor profile.
Can you explain the meaning of Atoboy and how did the concept develop?
“Ato,” in old Korean means gift. So we wanted to create a restaurant that can continuously bear gifts for our guests, whether that comes through our food or hospitality. In creating the vision, we wanted to expand on the well-known and loved concept of pairing all things with a bowl of rice as you would when you eat a properly prepared Korean meal. That as a canvas, we also wanted to put banchans in their own spotlight by applying extra care and attention as well as modern techniques and unlikely touches and flavor combinations that is very much NYC.
Your background in Seoul and working at Jungsik here – is quite fine dining. Can tell us a little about what fine dining means for Korean cuisine?
Similar to the significance it bears here in the US, fine dining in Korea is always mostly reserved for very special occasions or for extremely special guests one would host. The origin was many Korean fine dining restaurants and its culture I can say perhaps is from the traditional Korean meals called “Han Jung Sik” where the variety and colorful banchan dishes grace the table with a perfectly cooked rice, a seasonal soup or stew and a meat, poultry, or fish dish of some sort. A great Han Jung Sik experience also must be accompanied by great sense of hospitality, which in Korean form is delivered with impeccable precision and grace.
What is a specific ingredient you are excited about right now?
Fresh bamboo shoots!
I heard you recently moved across the street from the restaurant, and I know you both love dining out. Do you ever cook at home and if so what?
If we do get a chance to be home for dinner (which is already rare), we try to dine out. It’s hard to have a well-stocked refrigerator or pantry since we practically live at the restaurant, but we also like to support our industry friends by stopping by when we can to enjoy their restaurants and say hello.
Before Atoboy opened, we liked to cook often—I’d make a lot pasta dishes, or foods that are far from the Korean flavor profiles since I am immersed in it otherwise.
Favorite places to eat in New York (or elsewhere)?
That’s a hard question since there are so many great places in New York, but Ellia and I really enjoy Estela and Wildair….and also I cannot forget Atoboy! Though I have yet to formally dine here myself.
In Seoul, there has been a really amazing rise in the modern Korean cuisine movement, so I would highly recommend destinations such as Mingles, Zero Complex, and also TocToc. This change in Seoul’s dining scene makes me really proud as a Korean chef on a mission to spread word about the depth of Korean cuisine and its deliciousness.
Can you tell us about where you grew up and how you got interested in cooking?
I grew up in Mexico City, and was interested in food because of my great grandma, grandma and mom. My great grandma went to a culinary program in Paris, and my grandmother managed abakery. My mother wanted to be a chef, and she took courses and everything, but her parents said she had to become a lawyer, she continued cooking and teaching classes even after she became a lawyer. I was so young and she didn’t want to put me in daycare, so she would take me with her. For me, growing up, it was normal that on the weekends I would go with my Grandma to the bakery and on the weekdays after school I would go with my mom. I loved it, and I think that’s how everything started.
How did you get started professionally?
I moved to Texas and when I turned 12, my mom put me in a school that was focused on careers, where I picked cooking, I would cook three hours a day, five days a week. There were a lot of people that came in to talk to us about what it’s like to be a chef or a wine director of a restaurant. One chef came in, and he looked like he loved his job. He talked about the reality of things, and how it’s a low paying job, but at the same time you realize that you’ll learn a crazy amount. How you get paid is with experiences. I wrote to him and pretty much stalked him until he gave me a chance to be in his kitchen.
I started working at a hotel when I was 15. I washed strawberries and took the strawberry tops off for hours and hours, and then I would just stay longer so I could see and learn. The chef asked what I really wanted to do, and he told me I should go to culinary school. So I moved to Austin for culinary school and continued working at the Marriott. I thought it was good for learning. Working at hotels is fast-paced and you see different things. At the same time, I was staging at places all over Austin. When I finished culinary school I travelled to Europe, and when I came back I went to intern at a restaurant called Mark’s.
It was a short internship, about 4 months, and I told them I really wanted to get my butt kicked. At that time I was 18 and I wanted to have that experience of a fast-paced kitchen, but at a real restaurant. Brennan’s of Houston was opening so I started working there and went through all the stations and everything, and I guess I heard a lot about Chris [Sheppard, former chef who left to open Underbelly] and how he went off to do his own project. I was very interested in butchering and things so I went to him and asked if he could teach me one day a week. We always kept in touch and after working for almost 3 years at Brennan’s, I took a sous chef position at a restaurant called Triniti. After 5 months I realized that I didn’t know how to delegate. I was trying to do everything by myself, coming in super early and leaving super super late. I just didn’t know how to be someone’s boss; I needed more guidance. Chris said he was opening a restaurant and that I should come. Of course I went, and I cooked with Chris for a year. We have a friend relationship also, but of course he’s my boss. He’s the one who taught me to really enjoy what I do. Regardless of how I messed up, he was always my friend and I think that’s what shaped a lot of how I do things now. He was the best inspiration.
I really wanted to go to [Enrique Olvera’s Mexico City restaurant] Pujol.. when I spoke to Chris, he let me go but he said, Go, kick ass and come back. I was there for 6 months and then came back to Texas. It broke my heart to leave but I am a resident here [in the U.S.] so that’s why I could always only go away for 6 months. I talked to Enrique about it and he said, You’re moving to New York, and you’re going to be the chef of my new restaurant [which was Cosme].
He said we were going to make the menu together, and even though I didn’t know anyone in New York, I said sure. That was 3 years ago and here we are!
It feels like the food world has really taken notice of Mexico City recently. Why do you think it took so long?
I don’t know. I think each country kind of gets its moment. It was Peru and now it’s Mexico. I think that more and more, chefs are starting to do Mexican restaurants, and it doesn’t matter that they are not Mexican. If they like doing it, then why not. I think it’s pretty awesome. The fact that they admire our cuisine and they want to go and learn… and it’s not that they are trying to be Mexican, it’s just that they like and respect it.
I think there’s a lot to be appreciated about Mexican Cuisine, that is suddenly coming our way. I feel like Mexico City is a really special place.
Really special, because everything sort of gets concentrated there.
Is there a food you long for from home that you can’t find here?
I think you you can find mostly everything here, except chongos zamoranos. It’s a curd that’s cooked with piloncillo and a little bit of cinnamon, and it’s like a sweet thing. When you eat it, it squeaks. It’s made with raw milk, which we really can’t use here. That’s something where I’m like Oh my God I wish we had it here.
And of course all the tacos and garnachas. Even if they taste the same, you don’t have the sounds of the streets. It’s kind of like the whole scenario makes it what it is. Tacos No. 1 in Chelsea Market is pretty fucking good.
What can you tell us about the new restaurant?
We’re taking over as a team. Enrique and I are in charge of the creativity of the menu, we have a chef that worked with us at Cosme to be full time at ATLA, Hugo Vera. Cosme is my baby so I can’t leave it just yet. We’re still figuring it out. We started with four cooks, now we have 20. We have to organize. We’re planning to open late March.
What is the concept like?
ATLA’s name and concept come from an Aztec symbol ATL-TLACHINOLI. Meaning the joining of water and fire. Two opposite elements. ATLA represents the union of drink (water) and food (fire). ATLA offers busy New Yorker’s a casual, homey experience, a place to gather and unwind. The space invites people to use it every day, at any time, as they were sitting in their own dining room.
How do you approach designing a new dish?
Well, it’s a whole lot of team effort. Enrique and I sit down and we talk about an idea and it’s a conversation. He says I want cauliflower and I say what about this? And I make a dish. It usually comes out really fast. Sometimes it’s like I have to make it 20 times in order for us to like something. And we approach it with mind to seasons and what’s available at the market. Sometimes a dish is one thing and then it becomes something else because New York’s seasons are short. Sometimes things are only at the market one week, but it’s so awesome. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of all, we want people to feel comfortable and relaxed. We think about food as something that should be natural. It grows. No tweezers or anything – we’re not that kind of kitchen.
Are there many ingredients you need to source from Mexico?
Yeah we use basic dried ingredients like dried chiles and corn and beans. Then we use what we have available at the market, or often Montauk or Maine.
Is there something from the market you’re into right now?
We’re doing a play on a Caeser Salad. We’re doing Boston Mackerel raw… for dressing it’s aioli with clarified butter and burnt blue corn to make it like a crouton. It’s kind of crazy but good and the lettuce, we’re using radicchio, which is fun, and Castelrosso, which is a one of the cheeses we like. It’s from Italy, but, why not. We don’t want to label ourselves traditional. We are making Mexican food because we’re using the basics, but we use what we have here just like we would in any region in Mexico. They use their basics which is dried beans, chiles and corn.
What are some of your favorite kitchen tools?
Spoons – I have a spoon obsession… like, you have no idea. My cooks have to have two empty bains, one that says clean and one that says dirty and 20 spoons without water. I can’t live without spoons. Everywhere I go in the world when I travel, I have to come back with one spoon from every town I went to. I was talking to Matt Orlando, and Danny (Burns), the chef at Torst and Luksus. The three of us have these crazy obsessions. Instead of being a cat lady, I’m like a spoon lady.
Zaiyu Hasegawa is the chef/owner of two Michelin star DEN restaurant in Jingumae Tokyo.
Can you tell us where you grow up and how you became interested in food?
When I was a child, my mother worked as a geisha at a ryōtei (high end Japanese restaurant). When I ate the bento and some food that my mother brought back for me, I wanted to be a chef to make delicious dishes as well since then. After graduating high school, I received training at a ryōtei called Kagurazaka Uwoto Ku from the age of 18. I acquired experience in the other various restaurants with a focus on appreciating the value of Japanese tradition to incorporate excellent ingredients, the four seasons and unique Japanese culture. Ultimately working to introduce a new form of Japanese cuisine that is different from the original Japanese style.
You were only 29 years old when Den Opened? How did the concept come together?
DEN is opened from Jan 2008. It is important to make delicious food but what is more important to me is to have a restaurant where the guests want to visit again and again, where the customers don’t need to care about the rules of how to eat Japanese food, and where they can enjoy the whole dining experience. One more thing is that for me, restaurants don’t just provide tasty food but also a place to make people happy.
The first time we met, you were stopping in New York with your team to cook with Alex Atala at D.O.M. What was that experience like? Are there some influences or take aways from your time in Brazil?
Alex doesn’t just make delicious food but also makes happiness for all the staff and the customers. He is so good at creating the wonderful atmosphere for everyone. I have a direct influence by him. I started to accept as many stagiaires as I can from all over the world, and I care more about the feelings of customers and the staff than before. One more influence is that I started to use ants in my salad dish.
In June, San Pellegrino’s 50 Best List awarded you the title ‘One To Watch’ What was that experience like and what has the effect been on the restaurant.
DEN is pretty much the same like before. I feel very happy and honored that DEN is the first Asia restaurant to be awarded “One To Watch.” It will be a great chance for people to get to know about Asia or Japan.
While you were in NY for the ceremony we got to enjoy your dishes at a collaborative dinner with CONTRA – what are the challenges/highlights of bringing your cuisine to a foreign country?
Firstly, I don’t know the most local and most seasonal ingredients. Secondly, the water. The water could be very different from Japan. Even The taste of the same dish I make would be totally different because of the water. I will need to change and adjust for the water there.
One of the most memorable dishes for us, was Dentucky Chicken – a tebasaki chicken wing, stuffed with rice and various iterations. Arriving in a customized box, aside from being incredibly delicious, it’s playful. Can you tell us how you got the idea for this dish?
I can’t speak English well, but I hope to do something for the foreign customers and wish to make them laugh and feel relaxed at DEN. KFC is well known around the world. Therefore, I think letting them see something similar to what they have already known well might be a good idea. This is the idea for DFC. It also applies to the Japanese guests.
It seems like the number of women working in the kitchen at DEN is atypical for fine dining restaurants anywhere, including Japan – did you make a conscious effort to have more women on your team? If so – are there benefits from a woman heavy team and what are they?
I didn’t hire women staff intentionally. After working many years with all the lady staff, I think it is good to have them in the restaurant. The mind and sense of women are pretty different from men. They have different opinions or feelings about the texture, the size of every bite, or if it is easy to eat. They can always see things from a special point of view. Here is another example, if we found some customer’s lost belongings, it is always the women who can point out right away those items’ owners. Ladies pay attention to many details that it is easily ignored by men. One more good point is as below. There are more women guests than men in DEN as well. I think only women can understand women better.
How would you describe the food scene in Tokyo currently?
Despite the genre of the cuisine, all the young chefs are trying their best to challenge themselves. It’s great to see they are active in the flow of current times.
What ingredients are you excited about right now?
I am so excited about all the local ingredients which I can only eat and cook in certain places, areas, or countries. That is why I am so excited every time when I can go to other places outside of Japan, even Tokyo.
What do you like to eat on your day off?
I love to eat sushi, hamburgers, and yakiniku.
Is there a foreign cuisine and country that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?
Adam Nadel is the executive chef of Casa Apicii, a seasonal Italian restaurant, located in the garden level of a historic 19th century Greenwich Village townhouse.
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I grew up in Agoura Hills, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. I was raised in a close family that always ate dinner together at the table and used the kitchen as a central gathering space as much as a place to prepare food. Both of my parents are working professionals, but always found time to get the family in the same place for dinner. My mother was the family cook unless my grandfather was around. His influence left a lasting impression on me. He was always the figure in the kitchen during large family gatherings. It was while attending the University of Colorado that I really began to see myself cooking professionally. I subsequently enrolled at the California School of Culinary Arts.
We first came to know you from Nobu 57 ~ but can you tell us about your career history and how you came to New York?
I came to New York on a whim. I applied to what I thought were places I should work. I ended up at Nobu 57, which turned out to be a great starting point in my career. From there I went to open Nobu San Diego. Having spent nearly a year in San Diego I felt time to move on from Nobu, so returned to Los Angeles and worked for Michael Cimarusti at Providence. After a year and a half the need to return to New York hit me, so I drove across country and came back to the city. I initially began working at Tailor with Sam Mason until it closed. Soon after I received a call from Missy Robbins to help open A Voce Columbus, where I was Chef de Cuisine for four years. I then went to Lincoln Ristorante where I was chef de Cuisine under Jonathan Benno for nearly three years. I was approached about Casa Apicii as I was leaving Lincoln.
Obviously you have a strong pasta pedigree, how did Missy Robbins and Jonathan Benno, shape your education.
I think that I got a good handle at A Voce. It was unique in that there were no extruded pastas. We didn’t own an extruder. We did basically all egg-based dough, Emilia Romagna-style bases with slight variations on it. Everything was made in the house. Both restaurants have an army of people. I think that is where I grew a serious appreciation for it. You know, when you get to restaurants, you want to find what’s your thing, what your niche, what’s your specialty, what’s the thing that you would alway try to attain to be better and better at, for me it was pasta.
So, I had a great foundation there and then going to Lincoln where I had something to learn about extrusions and have a different appreciation for things, other people’s perspectives to pasta, other diners’ perspectives of what they wanted. So, it’s something that was a great foundation to built on.
Then coming here (to Casa Apicii) and kind of letting the rules lose a little bit. We do a lot of fun stuff here. Our pappardelle is a chestnut based pasta that has dried porcini in it. So, it really takes on this really cool sort of umami based flavor.
Are you using chestnut flour?
Our chestnut pasta, which is dried and ground chestnuts (chestnut flour), whole wheat flour, double zero Italian wheat flour and dried porcini. I use a lot of egg inside of my durum extrusions. I think that the egg protein really helps give it a good mouth feel. Traditionally, you’ll find extrusion pastas to be all durum white. Just by virtue that the place is where this stuff comes from. It makes more sense to sell the eggs than it does to use them themselves, and just trying to develop something that’s awesome. A rigatoni, or a strozzapreti, bucatini. All those have egg inside of it because it creates a little durability.
Aside from more focus on extruded pasta going into Lincoln, is there another philosophy that you can really pinpoint?
For so long I was really like anti doing anything not Italian, something that you wouldn’t find in Italy. That’s the divisive, that’s kind a crazy. I think you have to allow yourself to break out a little bit. Jonathan’s perspective on food is sort of an all-encompassing approach. You know my tortellini filling has black garlic in it. Little things like that when it’s not like changing cultural boundaries, just kind of incorporating stuff. I think that that’s the important thing. To me, it’s either side of the pendulum so long it’s really – it’s dangerous on food because you compartmentalize yourself, you put yourself in a box that says. “I will not do this or this”
I think that the success of a restaurant means you have to be adaptable. You have to be willing to make your guest happy, make yourself happy, make the restaurant successful. If you find ways to keep eliminating yourself from being able to do things, you’re never going to achieve that.
How did you get from Japanese to Italian food? In Japan it’s often said that the two cuisines have a lot of similarities. What are your thoughts on that?
My job experience was based on other factors than just cuisine… as much luck as anything else. I was fortunate to be able to travel and relocate while working with the Nobu Restaurants, but at a crucial point in my career I had hit a wall and needed to move on. Providence (Los Angeles) was a perfect environment for me to land. It was blending French and Japanese cuisine and utilizing California products, all while striving for an elevated dining experience
It took returning to New York to get a better understanding of Italian cuisine. My time at A Voce and Lincoln were invaluable, and from that I’ve been able to bridge the similarities between Italian and Japanese cuisines, i.e. starch preparations (pasta and noodles), vegetable-focused menus, regional dependency and the varying eating habits of differing social classes.
Tell us about the food you’re cooking at Casa Apicii and how the project came together?
Casa Apicii revolves around the idea of accessible luxury and neighborhood hospitality. I met Casey Lane (chef of The Tasting Kitchen in Los Angeles) as he was planning to open Casa Apicii. Casey and I have very similar views on cuisine and our approach to Italian food philosophy. We wanted the menu to be interesting, inventive, approachable, local, hand crafted and representative of how Italian culture enjoys dining.
How do you approach menu development?
I use seasonality as the base for constructing the menu. We take ideas from regional research and apply locally grown ingredients.
We recently had one dish on the menu, that paired persimmons with black olive and burrata. Can you tell us a bit about that dish?
You know, you find cheese and fruit all the time we use – persimmons like a melon. I mean, like at the end of the day it eats like a melon and sort of has that taste like a melon. I think that’s kind of where it ultimately came from. To be honest I don’t know where the black olive came from, just kind of evolved that way. I think I was sitting downstairs one day trying to figure out what we’d do with persimmons and saw a big thing of dried dill and when eaten together, it turned out to be really good. I love dill. Maybe because my proclivity is northern Italian, I tend to find things like those northern flavors way more interesting. . The Friulian use of cumin and caraway together, super fun and it kind of evokes this Austrian meets Mexican flavor. For me cumin means Mexican food to me. It’s like when you grew up in LA and you’re used to eating street food you get the flavor of cumin as very reminiscent of tacos for me. Again, you know it’s mostly what you can find, mixing, and matching the same ingredient depending on your application to make it Mexican or Italian or Hungarian.
Can you share some of your can’t live without kitchen tools?
Chef’s knife and slicer, pasta sheeter and extruder
Are there specific ingredients you are excited about right now?
I love working with cold weather items (cabbage, apples, salsify, persimmons) and alternative flours (buckwheat, chestnut, fava, chickpea.)
What do you like to eat or cook at home when you’re not working?
My wife and I try to keep a vegetarian diet outside of work. When dining out we visit restaurants similar to where we work for inspiration and points of reference.
Alex McCrery, a former chef turned designer, started Tilit with wife Jenny Goodman in 2012. Their goal is to provide durable, functional and stylish American-made apparel for the hardworking people of the restaurant industry.
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I grew up in Covington, Louisiana an hour outside New Orleans, my mom and grandmother were great cooks, I was a terrible eater and so in my early teens I started making stuff that I wanted to eat. My mom was basically like.. “if you’re not eating my food make something for yourself or go hungry.” And in New Orleans, Louisiana everyone is interested in food. It’s just part of the culture. After graduating highschool, I cooked a little bit and after college, I went into cooking full time.
What did you study?
Advertising, my degree has actually come in handy since we started the business. I went from Kansas where I went to school, to St. John in the Caribbean. There was an eco resort that is not there anymore, but I basically worked to live. I chose a job in the kitchen and that’s probably where I found out that I loved to cook. They basically had a stockpile of frozen shit. Everybody thinks the island has all this abundant fresh food but truth be told, it’s usually frozen stuff. We got to cook whatever we wanted and people really loved my food and I think that was the catalyst for actually taking it seriously.
When I moved back from there to New Orleans, I gave myself six months to get a job in a real kitchen. I worked first for a Vietnamese chef, who was a James Beard Award Winner Minh Bui in New Orleans. I actually went toCommander’s (Palace) first, applied and they told me I was crazy and had no food knowledge. I could see them laughing at me inside the kitchen. Which I thought was really rude and heartbreaking (laughs) at the time. So I came back and applied six months later got the job and stayed there for three and a half years before moving to New York.
Where was your first position in New York?
When I came to New York I worked atAureole. I went there to do a stage for the summer. At the end of the summer, Hurricane Katrina happened so there were no jobs to go back to. No house. So I stayed in New York and took a job as the chef at Antonucci, which was an Italian Restaurant opening on the Upper East Side. I ran that for 2 years, From there I opened a restaurant in Brooklyn called GOODS. As an owner and chef and quickly closed it 6 months later. As a former owner, that was a great learning experience, also heartbreaking but you have those ups and downs that keep you going. During the same time I was also a private chef and continued that for 4 years while I started Tilit.
How did you get the idea to start the company?
It was a combination of being in the industry forever and wearing and hating the clothes. Then when I went to private, I was the only one wearing the clothes. And I was walking out on the street, going to the grocery store wearing the clothes and feeling absolutely ridiculous. So it just felt like something had to be done. So I went and searched for someone making something cool for chefs, nothing was there. It was the same time that companies likeCarhartt were going nuts with their ‘Work In Progress’ line. And workwear in general became more popular streetwear, but no one would dare do it for chef wear. So we had the crazy idea to do it.
Did you start with aprons?
We actually started Tilit with the idea that we were going to be a clothing line. We started with a shirt a pair of pants, and two wax aprons. We’ve kept the basics of those items. The pants have changed the most, because they take the most abuse. And we really deviated from standard design for kitchen pants, which were baggy, made from a really cheap material and made to be thrown away after three months. It’s just a bad garbage garment. As soon as we got a lot of feedback from everyone as they wore it we tweaked the designs from there.
Still I imagine it’s quite a process from having an idea for style in your head and getting a pattern made and the item produced? Can you talk about the design process and how you were able to bring those steps together?
We were lucky in that I have a friend from school with who was working for Kate Spade and she connected me with one of her friends who was super instrumental in giving us advice and people to be in touch with. Through her I met our pattern maker. I took sketches that I had drawn with details and measurements ~ very rudimentary.
We still work with him a lot and he’s great at interpreting Japanese menswear specifically workwear. He just got it from the beginning and did everything old school. He takes our drawings and creates paper patterns, nothing digital about it at all. He was super intuitive on picking up what we were going for and he introduced us to our manufacturer.
And everything is made here in New York?
Yes, 100%. The patterns are made in Queens and apparel is manufactured in Midtown Manhattan.
How do you go about sourcing materials?
We generally find things we like, test it, wash it, I wear it. We try to get as much as possible from the United States, although there are not a ton of mills left so there’s not that much to choose from. So we go to Italy for stuff like chambrays. Denim and a lot of materials for aprons come from Japan. And we’re getting into custom stuff now, which is a challenge but I think it will be good for us in the long run. The fabric on the pants was tough to get right so we are now custom milling our own.
How much of a role do you think open kitchens have played in your success?
Definitely the increase in open kitchens helped a lot, as well as chefs being owners or partners or invested in some way, other than just employees. When I started out everyone worked for the owner who was someone else. So now the idea that more chefs are owning everything about the restaurant, not just the food, and they are making rounds to the tables and being more out in the open.
At the same time we started the company, the industry started taking ingredients more seriously. You know, wanting it to be local and understanding where things come from, so it seemed like a natural transition as a chef that you’d want to do that with everything in your repertoire, your clothes being part of it. People like to know the story of where things come from, whether it’s your food or the shirt on your back.
Was there one experience that you think was essential to your success?
We were lucky in that we started very small. In hindsight it was fortunate that we failed so miserably with the restaurant, because I was was super risk-averse with all the stress of losing all your money and your dream. I started working on the idea three or four months after closing the restaurant. We didn’t start the business until almost a year later. But I think the idea of starting low risk is what helped us.
We went real small on inventory and kept the line small. We didn’t jump into chef coats because we had no idea what to do at the time. And then we got lots of feedback, and I think by listening to our customer rather than thinking this is what our customers should wear, that really made a big difference. We still do that, we test in a very small way with limited runs to get feedback and then once we know that people love it and it holds up and stands the test of time, then we go bigger.
We heard you’re working on a cool collaboration with David and Anna Posey on their highly anticipated new restaurantElske in Chicago. Can you tell us a little about that?
David has been wearing our stuff for a while. I met David at Blackbird a while ago ~ he had been wearing the chef shirts and I saw some of Anna’s drawings on Instagram and we had the idea to do our own print, for a shirt or an apron – not for pants, we’re not printed pants people. It was one of those things that all lined up and it was perfect. We started going at it from there. And at the same time they were working on Elske and it was the perfect timing because they were just about to figure out their uniforms. It was definitely challenging on our end to get the colors and fabric right to make the prints look super clean and the color we wanted.
Is it for the front of our and back of the house?
This is just for David and Anna, and then we’ll do a limited edition run for retail. And we have aprons for them as well. The front of house will have white shirts from us.
Any new products we can look forward to?
We have trench coats that are new. It’s kind of butcher inspired. During our last Japan trip we thought that lab coat/ trench coats were super in. We just embroidered some today for a new clientCloud Catering. They are our first group to wear it, which is cool. We have a dress for retail as well. On the custom side, we have four dresses in our line for hotels. Also 3/4 sleeve and long sleeve blazers. Tons of stuff that’s custom.
You’ve recently become parents – How has that changed dining out for you?
It’s a lot earlier so you don’t have to wait for a table as much. I also feel the kitchen is fresh at when you come in at 5:30. They are happy to cook for you at that time.
Any recommendations in New York or elsewhere that you want to give a mention to?
Lately we stick close to our neighborhood so theContra andWildair guys are super nice guys and great food. Musket Room has great food and my friend Gerardo (Gonzalez) is about to open up Lalo which we’re really excited for.
Photographs courtesy of Michael Persico, Departure Restaurant and Gregory Gourdet.
Gregory Gourdet is director of culinary operations for Departure Restaurant, with outposts in Portland, OR and Denver, Colorado. A finalist on season 12 of Top Chef and former chef de cuisine for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gourdet’s cuisine highlights a love for asian flavors and ingredients resulting in a culinary point of view that is vibrant, seasonal and delicious.
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I grew up in Queens, New York. My parents were immigrants who moved here from Haiti for a better life and to pursue education and careers in the medical world. I actually was around food often, because we were often cared for by aunts and grandparents and there was always Haitian food simmering- stews, pots of rice, always a jar of pickled chilies on the table and I always loved dessert. We always had Sunday dinners because we were raised Catholic, so it was a big thing to have dinner after mass.
How did you start cooking?
I thought I wanted to be a doctor and ended up going to medical school, at NYU premed one year. After freshman year I realized that it just wasn’t the best fit for me. I was looking for something else and I wanted to get out of the city. I ended up transferring to the University of Montana where I left the city for small town living and pursued wildlife biology. That academic program too was not the best fit for me, but it was out there that I was for the first time cooking on my own. I was living on my own for the first time, renting a house, supporting and feeding myself. I had this awesome roommate who was from Long Island (New York) and we would make big dinners together and it all kind of stemmed from there. It was a small liberal arts college town and we had dinner parties and would make food for each other and hang out and it grew from really enjoying making food for lots of different people.
I got my first job washing dishes at a restaurant and at the same time cooking at a vegetable focused deli. While I was at the restaurant the chef told me I should go to culinary school. Way back then, it was before the cooking channel and reality TV and all this stuff and being a chef wasn’t as glorified and it was a little more under the radar. I started checking out culinary programs around the country and decided moving back to New York would be the best thing for me and ended up going to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). My parents were extremely supportive as I entered my 6th year of college, they believed in me.
My first job out was through my extern at Jean-Georges, I did three months there during culinary school and when I graduated, I sought employment there. I worked for him for six and a half years. Under Jean- Georges and my mentor, his culinary director Greg Brainin I learned the fundamentals of flavor combination and techniques. Making things as clean and delicious as possible was very important to us. My first Chef De Cuisine position was with them at 66 which was a modern Chinese restaurant in Tribeca.
How did you decide to move to Oregon?
My last couple years in NYC were dark. I got super caught up in the party scene and drugs. My sense of responsibly was lost. My life became a series of long nights at clubs, after hours and even shadier after- after hours. Hard days and partying were catching up with me. Some old friends from Jean-Georges had moved to San Diego and were running a big restaurant complex there so I moved to work with them. After8 months I felt that I wasn’t in the best place for me. San Diego didn’t seem like the best fit at that time. My friend Ned Elliot, who is the chef/owner at Foreign and Domestic – was living in Portland, (Oregon) and he suggested I move to Portland. In 2007 I did.
What has your experience in Portland been like?
Portland has been absolutely amazing. I really didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t move here because I read about Portland in the NY Times, I was just looking for something different. But so many life changing things have happened in the eight years I’ve lived here. I’ve gone through a complete lifestyle change. I’ve refocused on my passion and I have found health. I am inspired daily by all the amazing things that we have here in terms of the outdoors, nature, the amazing products we get to cook with and a community who supports all this. It’s really a utopia for a chef.
We are big fans of Portland, what do you think makes the culinary scene here so special?
I think there is truly a sense that you can accomplish anything you want here. We live in a community that supports each other so much that anything is really possible. There’s a huge creative movement and we see that through all the chefs that come here and the types of cuisines represented. Because of the weather here – we have 12 months of growing season. We’re surrounded by woods, farms, vineyards and the ocean so we have a growing area for every type of thing that you could desire. The vegetables, year round fruits, and iconic region defining ingredients like berries, hazelnuts, apples and pears all growing in the pacific Northwest, Dungeness crab, salmon. We even make our own sea salt here. It’s a fantasy land for a chef.
What do you like to eat when you’re not working?
When I’m not working I am out trying to explore and see what everyone else in town is up to. I love to support my friends in the industry. A lot of use the same farms, purveyors and ingredients so it’s really fun to see what other people are doing with them. It’s fun to try to keep up and see what new things are happening here. We also have unique restaurants in the sense that there are tons of pop ups and new food carts coming up all the time and things going to brick and mortar so there is always some kind of creative outlet that we get to experience and that’s really cool. I’m an avid traveler as well. I love and pursue experiencing different culture and cuisines around the world.
How would you describe your culinary style?
The food I cook is Asian inspired, I like to reference historical and classic dishes and interpret them in a modern way, not necessarily changing things completely, but understanding the base of it and having a take on it. Also, I love to incorporate as many local ingredients as possible. We’ll take a traditional soup from Thailand, but we’ll put local Dungeness crab and local organic greens in it to make it something that speaks to where I live currently. With the bounty that we have here, of course you want to highlight it as much as possible.
Were you interested in Asian ingredients before working for Jean-Georges?
I developed my affinity for Asian cuisine working for Jean-Georges. He started his career in Asia at a very young age. He’s one of the pioneers of the fusion movement that was big in the 90s and I caught the tail end of that. We always had a lot of Asian ingredients on the menu. I was always exposed to that and those flavors caught my attention the most.
What was your experience like on Top Chef? Is there something you’d want the audience to know, that it doesn’t?
I think overall it was probably harder than it appears on TV. I think what they don’t show is a lot of times – we’re not just making a few plates for the judges. But we’re making 60, 200 plates, we are actually feeding tons and tons of real people. So it wasn’t just you have to make 6 plates and I overcooked the steak a little. You’re literally in a service for 60 people and you had 2 hours to prep and you have to serve the judges during it. Overall it was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve experienced in my life, but it was definitely rewarding, because I’m a thrill seeker and I live off adrenaline and I love challenges like that. I think overall a lot went on that we had to go through to make the show happen that doesn’t necessarily make it on TV.
Do you have any favorite ingredients you’re working with right now?
Our Portland Chef de Cuisine, Jami Flatt has been fermenting everything in sight and it has been very tasty, informative and fun. From kimchi to early fall fruits like grapes, to rice, root vegetables and sausage. My favorite combo lately is smoked, turmeric fermented daikon which one of our line cooks created actually. It is salty and sour and smoky sweet with the slight medicinal taste of the turmeric- lots of fun, funky umami.
Departure Denver recently opened. Can you tell us a little bit about how that project came together and how it will be different or similar from Departure in Portland?
We had been looking around the country for the perfect fit for our second location for about 5 years. The company I work for, Sage Restaurant Group is based in Denver so it wasn’t too soon before it was realized Denver was the fit. Many other American cities are experiencing a boom but it seems like the boom in Denver is a response to the city’s need. Lots of things are booming in Denver with a result being lots of great new restaurants. Much of what we do at Departure Portland is inspired by the markets and the ingredients we grow here. In Denver we are more focused on traditional Asian flavors and techniques. The Denver kitchen is open and we have 2 counters expanding our sushi and kushiyaki programs. The Denver location also serves brunch and lunch. They have been two fun meal periods to create. We serve pork banh mi, dim sum and coconut flour pancakes just to name a few dishes. Some of our classic dishes like bibimbap, kampachi with taro and of course the wings made their way to Denver. Departure Denver too is a highly designed space. It is inspired by taking your private jet around Asia.
What are your can’t live without kitchen tools?
For me definitely my Chubo knives!
Seriously, I really don’t leave the kitchen without them. They’ve travelled with me around the world. Outside of that a couple KUNZ spoons, a mandoline – I use that a lot and a vita prep blender.
I think Sakai Takayuki Grand Chef was one of the first knives you got from us. How did you choose that series?
I think I like simple knives. I think the first time I went onto the website it was a knife that caught my attention. I was transitioning into more intricate and specific Japanese knives, I think they were shiny too. I purchased one and I loved it and it stayed sharp for a really long time. It was light and functional. It travelled well. And I committed to that series.
I think they’re amazing. But they’re not the most flashy or popular so we thought it was awesome that you were attached to them and built out your collection.
Can you give us some restaurant recommendations in Portland or elsewhere?
As the year ends, I think about my favorite meals of the past year, with my travels, nahm in Bangkok was a meal that changed a lot of things for me in terms of seeing flavor and how you can use so many different aromatics and ingredients in a single dish and where that can take you. I think in terms of technique, dining at Saison in San Francisco earlier this spring was really impressionable. To see how that kitchen runs and the care that they take, the aging and crisping and dehydrating and marinating and the amount of flavor that they’ve been able to get into perfectly cooked and thought out ingredients. That really blew me away.
Locally, Whisky Soda Lounge, the Andy Ricker bar across the street from Pok Pok (also a fav of mine), is the best for late night eats in Portland. Really amazing bold Thai flavors, super casual, open late, really flavorful unique stuff like turkey butt and clams with krachai.
Dylan Ho and Jeni Afuso are a husband-and-wife photography duo with a passion for storytelling—particularly within the culinary realm. They have shot for numerous cookbooks, as well as publications like Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, and Saveur, capturing the people and places that make up global food and drink culture.
As part of a passion project, which began a few years ago, Dylan and Jeni have returned to Japan several times to create a series of photo essays on the country’s craftsmen. They were inspired by the dedication and artistry these makers exhibit within their individual pursuits, and Jeni, as a Japanese-American, who lived in Sakai City for two years was eager to showcase this through her lens.
This past December, we met up with Dylan and Jeni outside of Osaka, to introduce them to one of the knife craftsmen we most admire: Itsuo Doi. His workshop is located in Sakai City, an area that has been the heart of Japanese knife crafting, beginning with samurai swords in 14th century and transitioning to kitchen knives when sword making was outlawed in the 1860s.
Sakai has become a bustling city in and of itself, with residences intermingled among several knife workshops. It is here that you’ll find one of the most well known knife making families in Japan. The business is run by Itsuo Doi, son of legendary blacksmith Keijiro Doi. Keijiro Doi is among Japan’s most celebrated blacksmiths, having recently retired, at age 85. He has won several awards for his craft and is considered by many a living national treasure of Japan. Itsuo Doi started apprenticing with his father at age 24 and has now been practicing as a blacksmith for more than 40 years.
In Japan, knife craftsmanship is a trade as well as an art form—a blacksmith might spend a lifetime perfecting just one skill involving in the making of a blade, and apprentices are not considered proficient until they have been working for at least 10 years. Traditional Japanese singled edged-knives are known for being task specific: the Western style versions are lighter and more balanced, while the single edge knives allow for more exact knife work. This precision is the result of not only the quality of Japanese steels but also the time-intensive process of heating, cooling, forging, and sharpening that each blade undergoes.
For Itsuo Doi, every step of the knife making process is done by eye and by hand. There is very little technology involved in the procedure; knives are made using the same tools that have been in the family for hundreds of years. Stepping into the workshop feels almost counterintuitive to the hi-tech, futuristic factories for which Japan is so distinguished—the warehouse is dark, the tools are rusty, and the wooden walls are faded. And yet, the quality of the knives produced by the the Doi family is incomparable.
We are honored to present this series depicting the Doi family’s extraordinary knifemaking process through Dylan and Jeni’s eyes.
For its Takayuki Sakai knives, Doi-san uses Aogami 2 Blue steel, noted for its superior edge retention, toughness, and durability.The process begins with the heating of the blade. In order to do this, one must heat the charcoal to a very precise temperature—Itsuo Doi can determine this simply by looking at the color of the charcoal. The blade is then heated over the fire, and forged into the exact shape that it needs to be. Doi-san does not possess any kind of mold or measurements for shaping the knives, but each comes out looking almost exactly identical to the one before. After each blade is forged and shaped, it is cooled, and then hammered again to strengthen and sharpen the blade. Even with Doi-san’s highly skilled hands, there are always blades that don’t meet his precise standards for knife making, and end up getting recycled—in fact, just a small percentage of the blades created in the warehouse end up becoming knives.
Next comes the ‘Yaki’ phase, whose purpose is to harden the blade. Once again, the process requires a very specific furnace temperature—720 degrees—which Doi-san can determine simply by looking at the color of the coals.
The final parts of the knife making involve crafting the edge of the blade—an extremely delicate process done by hand on a series of natural fine grit sharpening stones—and finally, attaching the handle. Like most Japanese knife makers, Doi-san uses Japanese magnolia to craft the handles due to its sturdiness and resistance to water. Lastly, handles are fitted with a water buffalo horn and attached to the blade.
To make even a single blade, this entire order of operations will take at least three or four days. Only about 12 knives are completed each day, making each one extremely special. In fact, the company name, “Chubo,” means “restaurant kitchen” in Japanese—an homage to the rigorous, high standards evident in the country’s sense of hospitality.
More of Dylan + Jeni’s photographs from Sakai Takayuki can found here.
Greg Baxtrom and Ian Rothman are a chef/farmer duo who are partners in Olmsted, a 50-seat ingredient driven restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
IR: I’m from West Hartford, in Central CT, a middle class suburban neighborhood. None of my friends or family were raised in an agricultural family. When I was in middle-school my grandmother passed away. We went to her estate to claim a few things that were meaningful to us, I picked a dumb cane, which is a common house plant and a couple of chairs. This plant stayed in my room all through Middle School and High School. When I brought it to college, it promptly started dying, leaves and branches yellowing and falling off. It had a lot of meaning to me, so I went to my friend who had a room full of plants and asked her to help me save this plant. So we took cuttings, rooted them in water, transplanted them into sand and potted them back into soil. The whole process worked, intrigued me, and that was exciting. I wanted to know how she learned it and she said in an organic farming/gardening class that she had taken. So that next semester I took that class and it opened up the world of farming to me in college. Now in the restaurant, we have dumb cane plants represented on our living wall.
GB: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, 30 minutes south of the city. It was a pretty small town, my parents bought a small farmhouse when they got married. It had a barn, silo, corn crib and a chicken coop, but they didn’t farm it. Someone else had bought the surrounding farm land. It was a pretty suburban life, but surrounded by cornfields.
I grew up on fast food 3 or 4 nights a week and don’t think I had a mushroom until I was in culinary school. I got into cooking through the boy scouts. When I started something I wasn’t allowed to quit, even when I had a good reason. So, 18 years in the boy scouts. As you get older, you have to start cooking three meals a day when you’re out camping, which I was doing for weeks if not months at a time since I was young.
Just like setting your tent up properly or rolling up your sleeping bag so it fits in the compression sack just right, I started to like that challenge of making the beef stew better than the other guys bringing theirs in a can. So then, after noticing that, and doing a couple of boy scout culinary competitions, there was a summer camp at Kendal, the culinary school I ended up going to, and it confirmed for me that I wanted to cook. I started right out of high school.
Can you share some of your career highlights?
GB: My first job was at Wendy’s. I started off as fry cook, I liked that station, but one time I got really badly sunburned and it was hard to reach under the heat lamps. That experience stuck with me.
IR: He hasn’t been outside since!
GB: After Wendy’s I went to a country club, but my options were limited as a 15 year old kid. While in culinary school, I did three different, three-month internships. One in France, another was at a bakery, Fleckensteins, in Mokena, run by two master bakers. After that, I went to Alinea. It happened to be the very beginning, Grant (Achatz) was testing food at Nick Kokonas’ house and I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but it was on Halsted (Street) and I lived on Halsted and my culinary school was on Halsted, so….
So your first real kitchen job was at Alinea?
GB: Yeah, I guess so. I worked an unusually long time without getting paid. Grant milked that as long as he could. It wasn’t until I graduated culinary school that he started paying me and even then it was like $21,000 a year. $300 a week or something like that. I was there for three and a half years. Then I left to jump around, mostly because I set up a stage at Mugaritz. If you could find a place to stay at that time, you could make it a few months on very little cash. You just needed to buy beer and a coffee once a day. I got housing so I stayed at Mugaritz for three months, then staged at El Bulli and Arzak as well.
I came to New York and worked at Per Se. After some time, Grant ate at Stone Barns. Dan Barber asked him if he knew of anyone looking to move up. Grant recommended me, the move felt like the right opportunity so I took it. After two years at Stone Barns, I spent four years bouncing around, learning how to approach build-outs and open restaurants. I did that at North End Grill, Atera, Lysverket and worked as a private chef for two years.
How about you Ian?
IR: After university I founded an organic vegetable farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. I did that for five years. Then I moved to New York and the first job I got was at Dickson’s Butcher Shop in Chelsea Market. I saw it as a way to pay rent while still supporting farmers and agriculture. While working there I met Kate Galassi, who had been working for Compose, the restaurant in the space Atera would take over. Kate said “You should meet this new chef, he’s from Portland and loves agriculture and food. It started with a coffee with Matt (Lightner) and talking about how to create access to the outdoors when there is no outdoors to access. We came up with the (indoor) garden in the basement of Atera and that was almost four years. After that I started working with other restaurants to build green spaces.
How did you two know you wanted to work together?
IR: We were both in unique positions (at Atera). I wasn’t part of service, although I was working a lot, there was some flexibility in when I had to be there. Greg was there just to lend a hand to anyone who needed it, I worked in this refrigerated room, and while everyone was silent in the main kitchen, everyone would come into the cold room to vent for nine minutes and then go back out. Everybody talked to me.
So Ian was like the therapist?
IR: It was pretty wild. In that room talking was allowed for whatever reason. Greg had grown up surrounded by farmland and I liked farmland and we started having conversations.
GB: It really came from me asking questions and picking his brain. How do I make this farm (at my parents house) that can service my restaurant?
IR: We started planning that and taking every single layer that we could and peeling it back and back and back and rebuilding it and talking about how to make a farm that would support a restaurant.
GB: A couple of years ago, I remember talking to these friends of mine — not industry people — just friends asking what I wanted my restaurant to be like. What do you want your guests to feel. My answer would be ‘challenged or intrigued or confused’ (laughs) All these stupid things. Bill Kim said that to me in Chicago – keep your parents in mind when you open up a restaurant. Do you want them to feel uncomfortable in your own restaurant? It took four years for me to really understand that I don’t want a sterile environment where it’s just about me and my food. It’s almost the opposite. Now we just want to create something special and appealing. Not — here’s this box of everything that we’ve learned and either you get it or you don’t sort of thing.
Who are some chefs or people in the industry you consider mentors?
GB: For me Grant (Achatz) is by far my biggest influence. For whatever reason he took me under his wing when I was there and I’ve always been able to go back to him and Nick for advice. We’ve always stayed in touch. I don’t know how I got that lucky.
As we know, Grant came in to eat recently. What was that experience like?
GB: He came up to me and we hugged each other and I said, “I’m terrified. I want to throw up a little bit.” And he just laughed. He couldn’t have been more supportive though. His reservation was 6:00 in the beginning. I took that as meaning he had something to do afterwards, and he was squeezing it in. Then he changed it to 8:30 – but I still had the same mindset, that he gets bombed on all the time. He has such long experiences. He has other things to do, so I was sending out the food as fast as possible basically.
He just refused to move onto the next thing until he was finished and he just sat here for five hours and we closed the restaurant and he just hung out for another hour. When it was over I had to go outside by myself and sit for a minute. It was a huge thing for me. It’s funny because I was on such a high that Tuesday, I was telling everyone. What did he say? He wouldn’t tell me anything negative. I was just like… forget the critics, nothing else matters. Of course, that day I turned around at 5:30 and I’m in the shits and there’s a major restaurant critic.
IR: For me, having come from the farming world, I really had no idea what I was getting into when I met Matt and signed up to be a part of the Atera team. What it meant to work for him or that kind of restaurant, trying to be the best in the world. I remember one of the first months telling Jamie (Young, former Atera chef de cuisine) “I don’t know what I’m doing – I have all this kitchen work and I don’t know how to complete it”. Jamie said you have to watch Michele Bras – Inventing Cuisine. That will help you to understand what’s happening here. I went home and I watched it and watched it again, I probably watched it over a dozen times over the course of my tenure at Atera, because it was a world I had no interaction with previously. Since then, I’ve come to understand better how restaurants at the highest levels work.
The garden at Olmsted is one of the most beautiful and Instagrammed places in the New York this summer. Can you tell us about what you have going on there?
IR: It’s set up in two beds. The outer bed is an example of things we use. Sunchokes, fiddlehead ferns and asparagus. But just a few feet of each. It’s not enough to support the restaurant. Then the inner bed is our actual growing of a product to support a dish on the menu. We’re planting radishes on a five week cycle and it’s very lucky that it’s actually worked out that the greens are sufficient to supply all we need. It’s really exciting.
GB: There are a few things that it can keep up with like the lemon balm and nasturtium — it’s more functional than I would have ever expected.
How about the quails? We know they are pets and not food, but are you able to use the eggs?
GB: One of the first things that Ian did while we were building this thing is plant some horseradish. He rooted it and it grew and we do this french toast thing – pain perdu — we caramelize it and put a quail egg on top. Just one bite and we try to do it when we can.
Olmsted has an impressive tea program. Can you tell us how that came about?
IR: That was just about having a relationship with Jeff (Ruiz), who also did the tea program at Atera. That was our way to bring Jeff into the project. And let him showcase what he’s passionate about.
GB: For me it’s two parts, the more talented people with skills around, the more you want to give them the opportunity to share what they’re passionate about. We like Jeff and he has a thing for teas so why not let him have an outlet for that. And then with the garden, we wanted something lunch related… like tea time in the garden.
Who are some favorite purveyors you’re working with?
IR: Mauer Farm provides our Guinea Hen – it started small buying 25 hens a week. But it grew and we’ve literally dwindled their stocks.
GB: She said thank you – but now I have to close for a while.
Do they only raise Guinea Hens?
IR: I think Guinea Hens is their thing. We had to take a break because it was so successful. But the cool thing is — it started out we had this dish on the menu – Guinea Hen Two ways.. really great, but as we grew, so was the amount we were able to buy.
GB: She also has all these eggs that she didn’t want to fertilize because she didn’t want the farm to get that big – and there is no market for guinea hen eggs – starting out I had never even thought about them, but now we buy them for the chawanmushi. And we’re using the livers in a mousse we run 8-10 jars a night.
IR: Through this one relationship, we have three dishes.
Can you share some of your favorite New York restaurants with us?
GB: I love Casa Mono – it’s been a while since I’ve been been there, but the razor clams when they have them are a favorite. Just roughly chopped garlic and lemon on the plancha.
IR: I’m going to go with my staple. Blue Ribbon Bakery + Kitchen – I spend a lot of my free time there. They offer pulled pork as a topping and it’s amazing. I’ll pretty much add it to anything.
Kyle Hildebrant is a partner at the branding agency OVO by day, and in his off time, publishes the culinary blog Our Daily Brine. Billed as a “personal journal of food exploration and experimentation”, it is focused on topics like fermentation, preservation, charcuterie and salami. We highly recommend checking it out.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food? Was there a moment when it really clicked for you, in regard to the kind of culinary projects you’re interested in?
I was born in Roseburg, a small town in Southern Oregon. We actually lived outside the city limits of an even smaller town called Dillard—which last I checked, had a population about 500 souls. We lived atop a hill with a long, gravel driveway so steep it required a somewhat precise entry angle and sufficient momentum to ensure you didn’t end up sliding down backwards—something few of our relatives would even attempt.
If you were city-folk, you might have called our place a farm. There were several sheds and a main barn, three times the size of our modest mobile home. Water was from the well and a good portion of the food came from our garden. We had cats, dogs, chickens, goats, a couple pigs, a cow, a horse, and at one point what seemed like thousands of rabbits. As a way for my father to supplement his lumber mill worker income, we’d raise and sell rabbits to a local abattoir on the weekends.
That all lasted until about 1989 when the local economy collapsed. The lumber industry, who’d been plagued by environmental battles and labor disputes found itself in a multi-state union strike that put an entire economy on hold over night.
We moved south, to Phoenix, Arizona, in search of work; trading the rural life for suburban bliss [sarcasm]. I lived there some 24 odd years—for the most part hated it—then in 2010 I moved with my now wife, Lisa, to Portland, Oregon. Portland is home. Outside of missing family, we couldn’t be happier here.
Spanish dried chorizo
As for how I came to be interested in culinary pursuits, that’s a question I’ve been asked many times now, and one I really don’t have a great answer for. There wasn’t really any one inciting incident or ah-ha! moment for me. It’s been more of a slow progression; a lot of little moments that have gradually led to an obsession.
I’d like to think that as a child I was more open-minded to a wider range of flavors. It seemed like your average kid couldn’t get excited about anything outside of the typical mac and cheese, chicken nugget and pizza repertoire. Whereas I was the weird one eating onions like apples.
My childhood is dotted with these very distinct food memories—and maybe more specifically, scent and flavor memories. Warm milk, straight out of the utter; lips coated in fat from a chicken and dumpling soup; Crown Prince brand kipper snacks with saltine crackers; the first time I smelled lamb cooking; spinach stewed with butter; liver and onions; and fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes. The lingering smell of tomato vine on your fingers is just as good as it gets for me.
Spanish chorizo, during drying process
What is your approach when tackling a new project? Seems the word ‘recipe’ falls a little short in discussing what you do.
You might describe my approach as obsessive. When I am interested in any particular topic I research it fanatically. I’ve never been content with just knowing the how. I need to know the why. For example, many cooks would be content knowing how to get the perfect sear on a steak. Some may even know several different methods to achieve that same end. And that’s perfectly fine. But for me, I want to know why. Why is that brown crust so delicious? What is happening at a molecular level? Who is this Maillard guy? How did a French physiologist who studied the metabolism of urea in our kidneys lead us to a better understanding of cooking?
To address “recipe”: I’m personally interested in the components or building blocks of recipes. So, rather than a complete dish, I like to dig into the ingredients that the dish is composed of. Maybe that is a fermented vegetable broth, or a salami, like ‘nduja. I think most chefs—and I’m not classifying myself as “chef” here—look at recipes as a sum of different parts. They think “Ah, I could use that ingredient in this way…”, or “I could take this fermentation method for miso and apply it to something like chickpeas.”. If you look at a progressive restaurant like Noma, they have a team of folks that work outside of the restaurant, in their lab, working on different methods or fermentation or ways to enhance or manipulate raw ingredients. That’s more where my interest lies. Behind the scenes, building the blocks used to make a dish.
‘Nduja, midsmoking over beech wood
Any anecdotes about a trial that went horribly wrong?
Gochujang. I’ve failed twice. The second time I set out to attempt it, I found myself scouring the aisles of our local Korean market, searching for something—I think it was fermented soybean powder. I asked a worker if they stocked it, when this little old Korean lady overheard my request and interrupted. She asked why I wanted that. I tell her that I’m going to make gochujang and she laughs. A silly-white-guy sort of laugh. She tells me: “You don’t make gochujang. You buy gochujang.”, pointing to the aisle behind us, which is packed floor-to-ceiling with the stuff. She goes on to say: “Korean people don’t even make gochujang…” as she walks away.
I’d like to say I didn’t let that deter me, but I failed a few months in and I haven’t tried again since. The issue here, in Portland, is that it’s not as hot as in Korea. You’re supposed to keep the stuff in the sun during the summer days, and bring it back inside every night. And you have to stir it every day, or it goes moldy. Mine went moldy. One of these days I’ll prove her wrong.
Is there something you’ve wanted to tackle for a while, but haven’t. If so, why?
Sake. Beer. Wine. Despite all of the fermentation I do, I’ve never ventured into alcoholic beverages. I’m not sure why. Sake is of particular interest, but requires such a commitment of time and long periods of sustained oversight. One day.
Cheese is another frontier that I’m really eager to explore in more depth. Really, the list is long. And I do keep a list.
Although it is certainly on the upswing, mainstream preserving in America seems to have been forgotten for a while. What do you think is driving its resurgence?
That’s a great question. I think people are tired. Humanity has always had this drive to be more, to be better. Faster horses. Cars. Automated machines. Computers. Networked everything. It’s progress. But I think deep down inside of us all we long for simplicity. If you ask people what they want, they will tell you options. Choices. I call it the Mexican Restaurant Menu Syndrome. You’ve seen those menus at mexican restaurants that have a million different dishes, right? But people really do not want to choose. It’s one of the reasons that In-and-Out burger is so successful. It’s why we see restaurants around the world rolling out tasting menus. Or the litany of new, high-end restaurants who only offer prix fixe dining, allowing no choice at all.
We’re overwhelmed with choice and starved for authenticity. We have a thousand Facebook friends yet have never said a word to our neighbor.
I seems like the resurgence of food preservation is a manifestation of our desire to connect to something more tangible. Food is key to our existence. And I think these type of practices, like canning, feel honest and rewarding. I could go on. No doubt there’s no single reason, but I think that’s at the heart of it. It’s what’s driving all of this “back to our roots” way of living.
From your writing and recent travels, Asia must be a topic of interest to you. Is there something you can share that you’ve learned from Asian cultural perspectives?
I fell in love with Japanese culture as a young boy. My grandmother’s brother spent a lot of time in Japan and would return to our little town with all of these Japanese treasures. Woodblock prints. Records. Incense burners. Dolls. Pottery and porcelain tableware. I would retreat to my grandmother’s den, light incense, and spend hours staring into this display case crammed with Japanese artifacts. Our tiny town was free of much worldly influence and our TV had maybe a channel or two. So, for me, this was like opening a window to a whole new world.
My first serious foray into cooking was Japanese cuisine. I learned to make dashi before I learned to make chicken stock. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, by by Shizuo Tsuji, was one of the first cookbooks I purchased. Today, the majority of food I cook is Asian-inspired. Primarily Japanese, with a bit of Korean and Vietnamese influences.
I recently returned from a month in Vietnam. I and a few others were invited by Cuong Pham, the owner of Red Boat fish sauce, to come spend time with them and check out their operation. My wife and I traveled with Michelle Tam and Henry Fong of the beloved Nom Nom Paleo, Vietnamese author and chef, Andrea Nguyen, food stylist, Karen Shinto, chef Chris Cosentino, chef Jenn Louis, and a few others. I fell in love with the Vietnamese people. It was an incredible experience. The Pham family was impossibly welcoming. We traveled with them for a few weeks; starting in Saigon, then to the island of Phu Quoc where the Red Boat facilities were located. We ate an absurd amount of food. Like 4-5 full meals a day. That experience, the people and the food, will no doubt have an immense impact on how I approach cooking moving forward. There’s just so much to learn and nothing is as illuminating as leaving your comfort zone and immersing yourself in a different culture.
Red Boat owner, Cuong Pham, and Kyle Hildebrant; standing in front of fish sauce fermentation barrels
Any specific ingredients you are particularly excited about right now?
Honestly, I’m still a bit obsessed with fish sauce. While it’s just not possible to make something comparable to the quality of Red Boat, or some of the other Vietnamese makers, I’ve been enjoying the process. I even just recently commissioned a hand-made wood barrel to be made specifically for fermenting fish sauce.
I’ve been experimenting with making different vinegars, miso, tofu, and of course I am always making various type of salami. ‘Nduja, a spreadable salami that originates in Calabria, Italy, has been of particular interest lately.
Favorite purveyors you can share with us, both near and far?
My good friend and occasional partner in crime, Evan Brady, runs Craft Butchers’ Pantry—in the off time he’s not working alongside Agostino and Antonio Fiasche, who own ‘Nduja Artisans. Craft Butchers’ Pantry are sourcing some amazing stuff from Italy that you cannot get anywhere else. Various hard-to-find casing for salami, Calabrian peppers for ‘nduja, and a whole bunch of other stuff that is exciting for those of us making salami. ‘Nduja Artisans is also making the best ‘nduja available outside of Calabria, Italy. Not to mention all of the other excellent salumi.
I’m also starting a collaboration with Creminelli Fine Meats, who are making some of the best artisan salami available in the States. If you’re ready to have your mind blown, order some of the Tartufo (black summer truffle) salami from these guys. It’s something special.
And there’s also Hanna Instruments. They are providing a wide range of scientific instruments to the food industry. We collaborated about a year back and they made me the first prototype of a pH meter that was designed to measure pH of salami–and other foods—during fermentation. Since then that meter has gone into production and a lot of people in the industry are using it. It’s exciting to see that collaboration result in this new tool, the Halo FC2022 pH Meter, that didn’t before exist, be available now. On that topic, I’ve recently published a small book that is a guide to testing pH in food and drink.
Prototype pH meter collaboration with Hanna Instruments
Kitchen tools you’d have a hard time living without?
A knife, right? Although that smacks of the expected answer, it is the truth. I’d have to say my knife roll, a Nomiku immersion circulator and a scale. The circulator I can probably live without, but it’s so handy, especially when cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. I also may need to add my phone to that list. I keep all of my completed recipes in Paprika Recipe manager. And all of my notes on in-progress recipes, experiments, menu plans, prep lists, etc., are in Evernote. Also, if you have never used it, Siri can be super helpful for quick conversions, like: “Siri, how many grams in a cup of water?”. And on that subject, can we please all agree to stop using volume and Imperial measurements in the kitchen?
Any restaurants or chefs that you are especially inspired by?
That’s another really tough question. I have a huge amount of respect for Jamie Oliver. I started to get more serious about cooking in the early ‘00s when he was just starting his first show, The Naked Chef. Here was this young guy, passionate about food, cooking for parties and friends. I identified a lot with that. Now there are a million and a half “Celebrity Chefs”, at that time there were just a couple TV shows about cooking and he was certainly the youngest. Moreover, he seems to be a man of integrity. He’s doing some great things with his money. I feel like he’s used his platform to make a very positive impact on the world. And for that, I have a great deal of respect. As for his food, and his cooking, there’s not a lot there I find personally inspiring. Italian cooking—outside of salami—is not something that resonates with me.
Nobu was one of the first chefs I found inspiring, from a culinary perspective. Later on, Morimoto. Jacques Pépin, Julia Child and Ming Tsai were inspirations, primarily because they all had shows on PBS, and my access to any sort of “paid” television was limited.
Discovering Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking was another big milestone in my combined interest in food and science. I’m always astounded by his ability to simplify an immensely complex topic and make it digestible for all. I believe it was Einstein that said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” McGee is a man of prodigious talent.
One last one: James Peterson. Not a celebrity chef and probably a guy that is way too often overlooked. Sauces, a ‘91 James Beard Cookbook of the Year winner, is insanely comprehensive. And Cooking, another James Beard award winner, is one of the most fundamentally influential books I have read to date. When people tell me they want to get into cooking, and ask for book suggestions, that’s where I point them. Everything—outside of practice—that you need for a solid basis in French technique is in that book. And it’s immensely accessible.
Photography Courtesy of Kyle Hildebrant and Jeff Newton.
Photographs courtesy of Jannie Huang and the Whale Cove Inn.
Tell us a bit about your career history and how you ended up in Oregon?
I knew by age 12 that I wanted to be a chef, but at the time growing up in Iowa the culinary scene wasn’t what it is now. I worked at one restaurant there for a bit, then went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY graduating in 1997. From there I worked in Mendocino, CA, Park City, UT, Dallas, TX, Denver, CO, Bend, OR, Portland, OR and now I currently own two restaurants on the Oregon Coast: Restaurant Beck and Sorella.
Who are some chefs you consider mentors?
I would say my first chef, the one who showed me the ropes as a very very green cook would be Mark Dym. The other would be Scott Neuman with whom I worked with at Oba Restaurante in Portland, OR, he is now the chef of Jaspers in Houston. He taught be a great deal on the day to day operations of the restaurant business. As far as Chefs that I would consider to be a mentor, even though, I have never worked for him would be Charlie Trotter, his books for me, when I was a very young age was eye opening for come coming from Iowa.
How did you partnership with Whale Cove Inn develop?
Stormee, my wife and co-owner, and I were approached by the GM of the Whale Cove Inn in April of 2009. After a month or so of conversations we came to an agreement. We opened Restaurant Beck, named after my son, Becker in June of 2009.
How would you describe the food you’re doing there?
You know, my personal answer would be progressive local. Progressive, meaning we cross paths between modern cooking techniques and modern classic French techniques. Local, being that we buy probably 90% of the ingredients we use from Lincoln County.
What is the best part of running a destination restaurant.
I would say running a destination restaurant is very hard under that title. The cool thing is though once season gets up and running we get to see our die hard fans who show up during the months of April and October
What are the challenges?
Having 65% of our sales be during our season and being a destination restaurant. Also, there are challenges when you own, operate, raise a family, etc with your spouse. Our love is strong…but honestly it can be frustrating for both us.
Last summer you opened Sorella, a more casual restaurant. How’s that experience been different?
This experience has been great. It’s faster paced and much less expensive, focusing on handmade Italian Cuisine. Sorella is a much larger restaurant, 75 seats compared to 30 at Beck. I love our bar down there, it has proved a very creative avenue for our bartenders to really work their craft. We definitely do things team driven down there. Stormee and I may be at the top on paper, but we have some of the best employees on the coast and it allows the select few to be creative. It’s refreshing….when I am not replacing a water heater!
Can you tell us about a dish you are excited about right now?
With spring in full swing right now we are seeing a lot of wild greens foraged locally… so an upcoming dish will be called “Gazpacho” it consists of cucumber water combined with juiced wild watercress, seasoned with wild herbs of oxalis and miners lettuce. We finish the whole thing off with house made kefer, puffed black rice, compressed rhubarb and peach, Oregon extra virgin olive oil….and this dish is a sign that more wild herbs are on their way and it will eventually become a dish called “seeds and shoots”….that’s a whole other paragraph.
Any favorite ingredients or purveyors you are working with right now?
Right now anything from the forest. Purveyor wise: Forest Foragers, Newell Seafoods, and Amazon is great being in a rural area.
Essential kitchen tools?
My Takamura R2 is awesome. Then the ‘Luna’ Spoon from World Market…perfect for saucing, quenelles, and rocher.
Can you share some recommendations for dining in Oregon and elsewhere?
For Sushi: Zilla in PDX, For overall experience: Departure, For meat, meat and more meat: OX. Mexican: La Roca in Lincoln City. Cafe Boulud in NYC…and that’s about it…I don’t get out much…business and family keep us very busy!
Mike Thelin is the Co-Founder of FEAST Portland and principal of Bolted Services, where he consults for food and tourism-related promotions, projects, events and initiatives nationally. He also appears on the popular Cooking Channel show Unique Eats.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I grew up in Scappoose, Oregon, which is a suburb to a suburb to a suburb, a tiny town in rural Oregon, 30 minutes, but literally 20 years outside Portland. Very rural community, country music, the word hay is a verb. It’s not what you think of Oregon, but most of Oregon is like that. My family was really multi-ethnic. My dad had 4 daughters from his first wife that were older. One married a Mexican guy, one a Japanese, and my sister Carol’s daughter married a guy from Vietnam. So our normal family get-togethers featured whole roasted goats with the heads on and really smelly condiments. The first time you smell fish sauce, you think it’s disgusting and then you taste it and say, “Where have you been all my life?”
Tacos, sushi, spaetzle. My family just really loved food. People think suburban America doesn’t have a lot of food culture, but I think that is just not how I grew up. It was always a part of life, there was no ‘aha moment’.
Career-wise, what was your first foray into the food world?
I worked in restaurants in my 20s and got a degree in journalism. I tried to do office jobs, but wasn’t good at it. I was so bored, but loved to be around food people, because they were much cooler, in general!” (laughs) I kept going back to restaurants, but I was also interested in business and liked making things happen. I didn’t really figure out how to reconcile those two, but almost 10 years ago, I quit my job and sold my house and moved to Spain for a year. And then when I came back, I knew I had to do something that was in line with my passions. I dedicated myself to food writing and became the food critic for a local paper, Willamette Week in Portland. Then pretty soon there after, I started consulting on events as a way to do something else I liked. I had the aptitude for the events side and really understood how to make them work and how to not bleed money. How to make the chefs happy and the guests happy and how to make sponsors happy was something I was naturally really good at. So that was 2008, I worked on an event called the Indie Wine Festival and it sparked my interest and opened up a door. After that people started coming to me. I had found my calling.
How did FEAST come to be?
At the time I was working on a number of national initiatives. I was the host city chair for IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) in Portland in 2010. We really turned that into almost a food festival. We did all these fun things and then it left and we were all sort of left holding the ball wondering why can’t we do this again. I looked into different opportunities with different people and nothing ever really meshed. I wanted to do a destination festival. I started working on another festival in Austin, TX so there was all these things we were trying to do, but I wasn’t finding the right people. Then I met Carrie (Welch), my partner who had just moved out from New York, and she was new in town and because of that she was just crazy enough to want to do something like this. Plus she had the time and she also had the experience because she worked on New York Wine and Food. So immediately, without knowing each other, we knew we wanted to do a food festival together and we did. That was almost 4 years ago.
How do you go about selecting the Chefs that you invite to FEAST?
First of all, when a lot of people think, who do we want to come to our events, they think who’s hot in the magazines and who’s hot on TV. For us, there are people on our core team, like Emily (Crowley), Carrie (Welch), Jannie (Huang) who just know the food world. We talk about who we think is doing exciting things in the food world. If you look at our lineup it’s a little eclectic. You might see people who are from TV and you might see people who are more random and you might not have heard of, but the undercurrent is, we ask “Is this person doing something really interesting or relevant, regardless of their level of fame?” And, would they be fun to work with, that’s the arbiter there.
We end up with an across the board interesting line up and also about 70% our chefs and everyone involved is local. So we really try to do our best to showcase locality.
New York and Portland keep trading culinary talent such as Matt Lightner, Andy Ricker, Gregory Gourdet and Jim Meehan. What do you think is drawing New Yorkers to Portland and vice versa?
Well one thing I know about New York, now that I live here most of the time, is that New York and Portland are vastly different but at the core they share some values. They are different in that, NY operates in a speed and pace and level that no place else does. But NY is all about the idea and the originality. In food, hype really doesn’t get you that far in NY—at least not for long. Of course, there are exceptions, but Portland is like that too. External validation doesn’t get you that far for that long. At the end of the day, your restaurant is going to survive in Portland because it’s good, not because it’s on TV. I feel like NY is kind of the same way. You can’t fool New Yorkers and you can’t fool Portlanders. That’s one aspect the two cities have in common.
Then what is the biggest difference between NY and Portland relating to food?
In NY at the high end, you have a tremendous amount of phenomenal options. Cities like New York, Chicago or LA, have options that other cities, period, don’t have. I have really enjoyed going to places like Del Posto, or Atera or Brooklyn Fare. There are so many places on another level. Like part of a conversation that’s more global. Portland doesn’t have that as much. The other thing you have in NY that’s phenomenal is the borough of Queens, which is a place I’ve come to love. It’s sort of like what the rest of the country is trying to become. You talk about the newest food hall or the newest food neighborhood. You talk about places like Brooklyn, or the West Village, East Village and it’s all very interesting. But you go to a place like Flushing or Jackson Heights and it’s already that in a different way. The mix of ethnicities and cultures is really what makes New York so fascinating. You cannot run out of places to eat. There are so many.
Is there one thing you miss the most about Portland?
I’m still in Portland quite a bit—so I still get to enjoy the scene there. That said, what makes Portland so special is that really high quality food is just not that expensive. The farmers markets aren’t that expensive. It has a lot to do with proximity to ingredients. The ocean is an hour away. Eastern Oregon, wine regions, produce grows year round. That’s one thing I miss, those incredible farmers markets. Our farmers market in downtown Portland draws as many people to the area on a Saturday as an NBA game. 20,000 people come to this thing and it’s just a beautiful sight to behold. Also you hear people talking about food and sourcing, in Portland, everyone does that. It’s not a talking point, it’s just expected. You go to your neighborhood bar and the meat that they use on their burger is going to be eastern Oregon naturally raised grass-fed beef. The bun will come from some local baker and that’s at a dive bar. So the accessibility of good food that was mindfully created and prepared, I’ve never been in a place that compares to Portland in that regard.
And those breakfast burritos. Why do you think they haven’t caught on here!?
It’s a good question. Stoner food. I think that’s probably what it is. (Laughs) But the mantra of Portland is really people like food that tastes good. It’s a place where people really celebrate the act of joyful eating. There are places that are more thoughtful and experimental elsewhere, but the average meal in Portland, the quality is really high.
How did food carts get to be such a thing?
Food carts are all over the city. There used to be a time when traditional restaurants didn’t like the food carts there because they viewed them as competition that didn’t have to invest in the same infrastructure but could still serve food. There were a lot of people who really criticized that, but now the city really sees these for what they are – not only do they activate the streetscape, because let’s be honest, where all those trucks are in downtown Portland, if they weren’t there it would be just an ugly parking lot with nothing happening. They’ve also proven to be great business incubators. If you look at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, that started as a food truck and Lardo sandwich shop has 5 locations and a bakery and a pasta place called Grassa – they started 5 years ago as a food truck, for people who want to take the chance and say, “Hey, I really want to do food, maybe I don’t want to spend half a million dollars at least to build out a restaurant, maybe I just want to spend 25,000 to see if this is something I want to do. Food trucks have really created an option that didn’t exist.
Who are your ‘ones to watch’ in Portland?
I think Earl Nimson, of Langbaan, he’s not so under the radar, but he has a tasting menu in the back of his Thai restaurant in Portland. There’s also there’s a place called the People’s Pig, porchetta sandwich, they just moved into a brick and mortar location. I always tell people to check that out. Then there’s Ryan Roadhouse who has a place called Nodoguro, he’s doing interesting things.
I think one of the most interesting things about Portland, is that from the media, you expect it to be a facsimile of Brooklyn, but in reality Portland feels pretty authentic.
A lot of things people did in Oregon, like canning, pickling, preserving, fishing, hunting, that’s Northwest life. Wearing a beard and flannel, it’s because it’s cold. People are into coffee because during the wintertime it can be dark. So we drink a lot of coffee. A lot of those things that you see in Portland are authentic things there—not trends. And I’ve heard people say that Portland is copying Brooklyn, but most Portlanders aren’t even aware of place called Brooklyn, they just do their own thing and don’t think of the rest of the country.
Are there aspects of Portland that you’re relieved to be away from?
I think every place’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness and Portland being inward looking has fostered a really great community, because of that it’s doesn’t look externally for inspiration. Like any movement or scene, any time you have a community of people that draw off each other’s ideas, that’s the basis of true creativity. Whether you’re talking about the great farm to table chefs in California in the 1970s or abstract expressionists in New York’s art scene – I think it can also create a degree of provinciality. But I think it’s changing and Portland is becoming more a part of the national conversation, and chefs like Andy, Matt and others have made such a name for themselves.
Any details you can share for FEAST 2015?
We’re looking at changing a few things, maybe adding a new big signature event. We’re working on bringing more international chefs from northern Europe and possibly Japan, the year after, to do some collaborative dinners. For us, we just want to continue to be on the edge and do interesting things. More and more we’re interested in looking at what’s happening in the neighborhoods and cities around the country, and finding what we’re inspired by, then saying, how can we bring that to Portland for 4 days every September.
Photography courtesy of Runner & Stone, Mayumi Kasuga, Ho Kyung Lee and Karen Wise.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I’m from Long Island originally and I think I was always interested in food, I used to hang out in the kitchen a lot as a kid and try and cook. From the age of 16, I was a busboy in a restaurant and worked in food service throughout college. Then I got diverted. My undergraduate degree is in natural resource management – environmental science. Halfway through, I realized that was not going to be my future, so I switched to engineering. After working in engineering for a few years, I realized that was not the route either. The whole time being involved in restaurants in one way or another.
Were you always drawn to bread baking?
No, that was the last stage of it. It was always cooking and front of house. After engineering, when I got back to the kitchen I started from the bottom and worked all stations and realized maybe the hot line wasn’t for me, so I went into pastry and started bread when there was a lag in pastry opportunities and really fell in love with bread baking the best.
How has where you started with bread evolved into what you’re doing now?
The first and most formative, as far as learning the basics, was as an overnight baker at Amy’s Bread. Around 2002, Amy’s Bread was one of the big names in town and their product is really great and they do a huge variety. The overnight shift was a lot of production, so it was a good place to learn. I was lucky to work with really talented bakers that showed me the ropes.
Then my time at Per Se was really great for broadening my ideas on different flavors of bread without only using spices, fruits and nuts, because we couldn’t. At Per Se, the bread had to go with all courses. There couldn’t be flavor conflicts, so the focus is more on different flours and different pre-ferments for changing flavor profiles of bread. Not just adding stuff that tastes good. It was also great for refining fermentation and shaping, because the bread had to be at the same level all the time, and beautiful as well as delicious.
At various points, I did stages, including one in France and one in my dad’s hometown in Germany. Those were both really inspirational and helped shape my ideas on bread. I think all those experiences come together in the style we have now at Runner & Stone, which I would describe as a European-style, maybe a little rustic, but with certain refined aspects and techniques present, even if they aren’t outwardly apparent in the bread.
What was your biggest take away from your time working in Germany?
Pretzels. I grew up eating these pretzels, so I went to work in the bakery in my father’s home town. It’s a two minute walk from my Aunt’s house. To work there was cool from a personal point of view. They made other bread too, but I can’t say any were revelations. They were all good ryes, and that was all interesting to see, but the takeaway was really the pretzels, pretzels and more pretzels.
And in France?
In France I worked in a bakery called L’Etoile de Berger, which is just outside of Paris proper, with three outlets in suburbs and they have a central viennoiserie and pastry kitchen that I also worked at. That was after Per Se and it was really great to be exposed to some really wonderful product and a more traditional French style, while working with bakers that approached things in a way that’s totally different from the way American bakers do.
The oldest person there was probably twenty years old, but they’ve all been baking for ten years and so they have a really different relationship with the job and with bread. After having come from fine dining that was really fun to experience, a different aesthetic and approach to food. The owner, Franck Debieu was really great, even though I spoke very little French and our conversations were often him speaking and me nodding and not understanding what was really happening. He was really great about getting me involved in all aspects of the bakery, from the pastry to the viennoiserie to the daily bread baking and every time he saw me, he was always checking in to make sure I saw everything. All the people there were really supportive of me and my lack of French!
Can you tell more about your experience at Per Se?
It’s probably the hardest job I’ve had, and I think anyone who works at Per Se would probably say that, just because there is so much pressure to try and achieve a certain level, every single day, that no detail can be forgotten. It’s not acceptable to run out of a product and you’re creating an experience and even with the bread, you’re part of it. It’s super challenging, but as a result, I think I left feeling much better suited to own my own business and to tackle any product I had in mind, because I’ve been exposed to all the variables and what could go wrong and how to fix it and still maintain a certain level. As with any job the more challenging it is, the more rewarding it is and that stood true for my time at Per Se.
Also, it was really great working with professionals. Every single person there, from the general manager to the director of operations to the dishwasher was serious about his or her job and so there is a level of commitment and seriousness about food that was really inspirational. It never felt contrived or ridiculous or what was being asked of you was too much, because everyone was committed to the same goals. The group dynamic carried the whole process, it was really a special experience and one that I’m super grateful for.
Then how did Runner and Stone come about?
I always wanted to own my own business and I wanted to do a retail vs. a wholesale bakery, but a retail bakery in New York is not really a moneymaker, just because I don’t think New York can have a bread culture the way Europeans do, where they buy bread sometimes multiple times a day, but each day at the very least. So in order to open a retail location knowing that the revenue from bread sales is going to be a lot less than with a wholesale bakery, we decided to pair it with a restaurant. I’ve known [Chef] Chris Pizzulli for almost twenty years and he was looking to do his own thing too and we just decided it would be a great partnership. He’s my husband’s cousin, so we’ve traveled and spent holidays together, always talking about food and developed a relationship around food that continues.
When we lived in Italy, Chris came to visit and we cooked with his cousins in Puglia, we traveled around and ate all different kinds of food and realized we were on the same page when it came to hospitality, what’s important and not important both in managing people and food service. So that’s how the idea for the bakery and restaurant combined came about. The rest was just us answering questions and solving problems as they came up.
You started selling bread before the restaurant came to be?
As soon as I got back from Italy, we basically had a business plan and started to pursue financing as well as looking for spaces, but that process ended up taking a over a year, so just to keep going and to keep me busy (Chris was still working at Blue Ribbon full-time). We started selling bread and pastries at markets. The first market we did was New Amsterdam Market, (may it rest in peace – for now), and then we got into the Brooklyn Flea Markets including Smorgasburg in Williamsburg.
At that time I was working with Hot Bread Kitchen (http://hotbreadkitchen.org/) helping with their production and Jessamyn Rodriguez was kind enough to let me use their kitchen overnight when they weren’t using it. So we did production for markets there and that wound up being a great way to fine-tune our recipes and our aesthetic and decide what products we were going to move forward with. At the same time, it kept us busy and got some press attention out there in anticipation of the opening.
Are there any products that failed or were not received as you had imagined?
I’d say any failures we had were the first iterations of our recipes. Our original croissant dough and baguette were different than the ones we opened Runner and Stone with. I’d say they were less good.
Then we changed the format of some things, like we used to make our brioche in a 2 kilo batard, that we would cut to order, something I’d seen in France and loved the idea of. People didn’t really get that. They still have trouble with our large format miche. The idea that you’re only getting a quarter of it seems weird to people. Little things like that.
For the most part, it was a way for me to test things, and see what sold in the market. If something disappeared the following week, no one was crazed, not like when you’re picking up the same thing everyday Monday through Friday on your commute to work. So it was a good chance to find out what people were buying and not buying.
One of our biggest sellers has always been our white baguette, which I think is really great, but some of our whole grain products are certainly more interesting. I think people shy away from it because they are buying bread for sandwiches specifically, not to eat with dinner or for cheese, which would be where you could get a more flavorful whole grain bread. At the market, people are asking what bread keeps for a long time and what works well with sandwiches. The crustier breads are a tougher sell. I wish people ate bread differently in some respects. Fresh bread is a revelation that a lot of people don’t have. I also get that in New York people work 50-60 hour weeks and don’t have time to shop for bread every morning.
How do you go about sourcing your flour?
When I got back from Italy, I went to a seminar about the local grain economy that was emerging in the early 2000s and I met June Russell from Greenmarkets who was really spearheading the development of that. I was working with Hot Bread Kitchen who were and are still using mostly local grains, and they were one of the first bakeries in Greenmarkets to meet the new regulations for local grains, which I think was 10-15% of your flour has to be local. Some of the other bakers were grandfathered in and have since increased their usage to where the average is now more than 50% local grains among all the bakeries.
Aside from June, I also met Elizabeth Dyck from OGRIN (Organic Growers and Research and information Sharing Network), who is a plant scientist and does a lot of work with testing different wheats and I got involved with their process. Together we worked on taste tests with different wheats. The local flours are really flavorful, but it appealed to me from an environmental science aspect as well. The buckwheat in the bread makes it look really beautiful and it tastes different and it’s also just a nice challenge. I think there are thousands of breads we could make, but as part of the creative process, it’s interesting to start with a set of ingredients that know you have to work around. That helps focus me on recipe development. I start by knowing I want to use this flour.
Did you explore bread at all during your time living in Italy?
The only work I did relating to bread was teaching for Slow Food Milan, who had organized a few classes on a farm outside Milan. That was really cool, just 30 people in a farm-house, hand mixing bread and we had one little convection oven that we’d process all the bread through, while everyone sat around and talked and drank wine. It was a particularly Italian experience.
In Italy I was working in a pasta shop for a year, which helped with the fresh pasta aspect at Runner & Stone. That was a wonderful experience with a group of people who were so open and willing to share. Then I worked on dairy farm that made it’s own cheese and spent a little bit of time with other cheese and sausage makers.
Outside of panettone, I didn’t find any bread that I particularly wanted to learn, but there’s no breaking into a panettone bakery. It just doesn’t happen. No one wants to share that with you.
Can you tell us about the process of developing pasta for Runner & Stone?
The bakery and kitchen develop the pastas together, or the kitchen will tell us what they need and we’ll work on different shapes and flavors, but then once it’s in production they help with it. We have a pasta extruder, so once we have the recipe, the kitchen handles that. The hand shaped pastas like the orecchiette, almost everyone who works here knows how to make them. The ravioli and sheeted pastas get done in the bakery.
How did you decide on Gowanus as the location?
Gowanus just kind of happened. We were looking everywhere, Lower East Side, East Village, Ditmas Park and all different neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. This was a neighborhood Chris knew, because he’s worked at Blue Ribbon Brooklyn, which is two blocks away and he knew that it was changing and more and more things were opening. We were bidding on the space across the street, which became The Pines while in negotiations for that space, we saw a For Sale sign on this building. We called the realtor, not with hopes of buying the building but to find out if it was purchased yet and who was going into the retail space. The realtor put us in touch with our current landlords. We had a phone conversation, which what we thought would take 10 minutes, but turned into an hour-long conversation about what we like and don’t like about social spaces and our ideas on food and hospitality and realized it was a perfect relationship.
Everyone told us we’d know the right space, we’d feel it in our gut, which I thought was BS, but I really felt as soon as we did a walk through with the owners it seemed like the only choice for us. Then the neighborhood started picking up and everything seemed to align.
The space has received much praise and attention in the design world. How did you approach the design of the space?
Our landlords are both architects, their firm is called Latent Productions in TriBeca, but they bought it with plans to redevelop the whole building. So Chris and I didn’t really have any ideas on design, we just knew we needed a bakery and a kitchen and that we wanted it to be kind of casual, but nice, so the fact that the space came with designers was just an added bonus. Sal and Karla, our landlords and the principles of Latent, had some pretty strong ideas about what they wanted for the space and I think they enjoyed the challenge of incorporating two kitchens and the transformation of the space from a morning to an evening destination and how light plays into that. That was just serendipitous that they were so excited about this project and we were so excited about having someone that was so excited about the project. We just got lucky with that coming together.
How did the famous building blocks that resemble flour sacks come about?
That was Karla’s idea. She had mentioned it to me early on in our conversation. We are thinking of doing this, could you get me a few flour bags? We were doing market production at the time so we brought her different sizes from different companies and she picked one that worked out well and they developed these blocks. Then they became a real central part of the design. Then we went on to continue collecting flour bags from my production, Hot Bread Kitchen’s production, Daniel’s commissary kitchen’s production. There was definitely a few months of me trekking all around Manhattan with a granny-cart full of empty flour bags.
Did you get to see how this went down?
They were building them in the basement so they had a set up where they’d do 40 at a time. There’s over a thousand blocks in use. The bag would fit into this framework and they’d line the bag with plastic so it wouldn’t stick to the concrete. Then the framework allowed them to bulge, but stay within their specifications so they could be used to build with. So they would set the mold and then a day or two later break down the framework and take out the bags and start over again. It was definitely exciting when the first ones came out because I didn’t really have a picture in my mind what it was going to be like. Until that first wall went up, it was a just a pile of weird looking blocks in the back yard.
Runner and Stone is getting ready to celebrate its second anniversary, which is certainly an achievement in New York’s difficult restaurant climate. What do you hope for your team to accomplish in the upcoming year?
What I would love to see for Runner & Stone in the upcoming year is continued growth without compromising our current standards for ingredient sourcing, traditional, slow production techniques, and the strong, personal relationships we’ve built and continue to build with our customers.
Gaku Shibata, along with his wife Christy, owns Yopparai and Azasu in New York’s Lower East Side.
Can you tell us a little about where you’re from and how you got involved in the food world?
I was born in Tokyo, but I left Japan when I was 20. After highschool – I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and had little motivation so I did many part time jobs, but I knew I wanted to study abroad, especially in the U.S. – so I tried to save money for tuition, but after two years, it wasn’t enough. My mother found out tuition in China was less than half of Japan or the U.S. – so I decided on that and went to Beijing Foreign Studies University. I didn’t have any interest in China, but I tried to like. After getting there I really tried to like it.
What was your first impression?
Twenty years ago China was really different. I was the first Japanese student after Tianamen. You know – June 1st – since then, China wasn’t expecting any foreign students and foreigners over all were much less than now, but I had a really great time. I stayed four years and studied English and Chinese and International Relations, really I didn’t study anything, but got experience on how businesses could operate in China. At that time I met my wife, Christy who was there on a short program from Pennsylvania and we wrote each other for 10 years and then got married.
After leaving China – I worked for several companies, but I learned I’m not good at working for somebody else, it’s kind of an embarrassing thing, but I can not fit in with Japanese conservative companies, so I would feel really uncomfortable and quit after two months and then I started to have lots of part time jobs, as a waiter or bartending at the American Club in Roppongi. I starting thinking about starting a business.
First, I started a Chinese Mandarin school in Tokyo – at the time everyone wanted to start a business in China – so it was good timing. Then I was importing hot dog pushcarts from New Jersey to Japan, and also importing Oscar Meyer hot dogs. We sold a lot. We had a pushcart at Tokyo Dome – a major baseball stadium, and horse racing and around Roppongi area. We called it NY Hot Dog – NYHD in Japanese it sounds like NYPD – and the uniform looked like New York City’s Police. We did that for about 2 and half years, and then I worked importing other things, but at that time it was the bubble, so the economy was slowing down, so I started to cash out all my businesses. My wife was offered a job in New York, so we decided to come here.
My English was not really good enough for business, so I thought my only chance was to do something related to a restaurant. My wife is American and I took her everyplace in Tokyo and she really liked it, so I saw the potential to have authentic Japanese food in New York City. We came a couple times for sightseeing, but I never felt satisfied as a Japanese with the Japanese food here.
I started working for a restaurant in Japan, Aburaya. My head chef at Yopparai, Junya Miura, it’s his father’s place. A thirty year old historic Izakaya in Roppongi. I was a regular there and I told his father – I’m moving to the U.S. and want to start a Japanese food business. I was over 30 years old – so to be an apprentice at that age is kind of crazy. He thought I was not serious, so he said “I don’t think so”, but the next day I shaved my head, same as my master. I wanted to show him I was serious. So we talked again, and I said, “I really want to study. I don’t need money”. And then he gave me a chance. It was a great experience. Working five days a week, he showed me how to use knives, ingredients, recipes and management also. I really respect him and appreciate him a lot for that.
I told Junya – I’m going to start a business in New York sometime soon, so please get ready. I have permission from your father to take you with me. But when I got to New York it was really hard, no friends, no experience. I have some English difficulty – so the first year was really hard. It was 2006, and I started working as a prep cook at Japanese restaurants, working in the basement, coming in really early to chop vegetables and open oysters. It was really tough, but because I had a dream and stuff, I was able to bear it.
At that time my wife got a job offer in LA – so we moved again. I was doing a really low level job, but my wife is an executive, so it’s tough with man’s pride – but we spent that time focusing on her career. That was the hardest time. I didn’t like LA, the vibe is so different from New York. I grew up in Tokyo – where the vibe is more similar. LA is a nice place with great weather and people are nicer than New Yorkers, but you know, I never felt comfortable… but I stayed and worked in a sushi bar. And then after two years, we had the chance to come back to New York. And I got more obsessed about starting a business. I’d been in the states for five years now and really needed something for myself, so I brought Junya over from Japan and we started to open Yopparai.
In our opinion, Yopparai is one of the most beautiful spaces in New York. Where did the design inspiration come from?
I didn’t want to have too much of a typical authentic interior, because this is New York. The concept is authentic Japanese food, but the feel should be New York. I had a friend who’s an architect, and he helped me visualize my idea.
I have a sake sommelier license, but I’m not into talking about sake and the process. I’m more of a drinking sommelier. I just like to drink and get drunk. I shouldn’t say, I don’t care about the details of a sake but for me it depends more on the weather, who are you drinking with, what are you eating? It’s really complicated, all these factors together. Ultimately, I want to have a good time with sake at my place. I’m not here to give a lecture. If people want me to warm up daiginjo.. if they like it and are happy – I’m happy too. I’m gonna tell them, I don’t recommend it, but if you really want to I’ll do it. I’m easy going. My concept at Yopparai is that I want every customer to have a smile and good buzz.
Judging from personal experience, it seems you’re very effective in that goal!
Eating is the pleasure of life. It’s not about what degree the sake is at. I want to create a good condition to enjoy sake.
How did you collect all the different and beautiful sake cups?
I spent 10 years building my own collection, each time I went back to Japan, so that’s every sake cup on the shelf. When people order high-end sake – or when my favorite customers come in, I like to use my personal collection.
Do you have to approach Japanese food differently in NY?
Having a restaurant is really hard, because what New York needs and what I want to provide is sometimes different. I’ve spent six years in the US, I know what New Yorkers want, so we decided to make the food really authentic, we don’t want to use avocado or truffles, I know it’s good and I understand that, but at that time there was a boom of big box restaurants, Nobu, Megu, Buddakan, Tao – fusion restaurants, so I decided that I don’t want to chase anyone. I don’t want to do ramen or sushi. There’s enough in New York City. There were great sake places in New York – Sakagura, Decibel. I respect them, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to sell something made in Japan.
Tell us about your new restaurant Azasu.
I liked the Lower East Side, I had a lot of ideas that I couldn’t do, because Yopparai is high end. Lots of customers wanted shochu or beer and it’s hard to say no. So I had the idea for a casual place. I wanted younger customers and people to come in and enjoy ‘cup sake’ here, thinking in a few years, they can graduate to Yopparai. I thought of it as a ‘Gateway Japanese Booze’ restaurant. That’s the idea with everything from Japan – whiskey, beer, shochu.
These are two interesting restaurant names, if you speak Japanese, Yopparai meaning “Drunkard” and a Azasu, a kind of slangy way to say “Thanks very much much” Where did the idea for these come from?
I thought it needs to sound good, With ‘Yopparai’ – P is like Sapporo, Azasu the sound was most important. It could be Spanish, Russian or African, it could be anything, but I wanted something catchy.
Can you tell us about this freezing drink machine.
We serve Hoppy – which is a non alcoholic hop drink [for mixed drinks]. We’re the first official restaurant, but Hoppy’s president gave me 3 conditions. 1 – Hoppy must be really cold. 2 – We have to freeze the shochu and 3 – We had to freeze the mug. So we have this 24 degree shochu [on tap], and this is NY so I want something catchy – so I was looking on the web and found this magic froster – it’s from Spain, so this is the first one in NY. People like it, some complain it’s too noisy, but most people like it.
Any favorite places to Eat in New York?
I love Cagen, I respect the chef a lot. The sushi and soba is amazing. I can say it’s the best soba in New York. It’s three bites, but really great. That’s it for going out, because lately I’m really busy.
This past September, Chubo had the great pleasure to take part in FEAST Portland, a phenomenal food festival celebrating the Pacific Northwest’s wealth of local craftsman, food products and culinary talent. Now in its third year, FEAST hosts a stellar line-up of internationally recognized chefs and culinary industry leaders to showcase the very best that the region has to offer. With the net proceeds going towards ending childhood hunger in Oregon and around the country through Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and Share Our Strength, it’s a ton of fun for a very worthy cause.
We came to take part in the festival’s Grand Tasting event, which hosted 15 local breweries, 33 wineries and 17 artisan food makers along with a main stage for demos by top culinary talent. For the Chubo Booth we brought along a wide selection of knives for guests to try out. We were super excited about the response from our visitors and made lots of new friends. The list of restaurants and wineries we’re dying to try around the country keeps growing!
On Friday our friend Chef Hugh Acheson from Empire State South, The National, Five and Ten and The Florence stopped by to demo some of our knives by breaking down a beautiful whole salmon from Foods in Season. Other highlights included his mango ‘porcupine’ and some nice fine julienne work.
On Saturday we got to hang out with Portland’s own, Nodoguro. Chef Ryan Roadhouse who impressed everyone with his fierce Japanese knife skills by demoing katsuramuki on daikon with our usubas and also breaking down a king salmon using the Japanese method.
We made the rounds at the festival events and parties and ate our share of crazy delicious things.
At the USA Pears Night Market, it was great to see our hometown New York City represented well with Public Chef, Brad Farmerie’s Laksa and Anisa Chef Anita Lo’s grilled quail. The line for Departure Chef Gregory Gourdet’s carmelized pork looped all over the Night Market, but was well worth the wait. Lucky Peach Editor in Chief Chris Ying summed it up pretty well when he said, “I just want to stand here and eat pears”. They were truly exceptional.
The festival wrapped up in a most perfect fashion with a Brunch Village hosted by Tillamook. Like most of the FEAST events, the country’s most buzzy dishes are all on offer in one location. Our weeklong craving for an Asian breakfast was delightfully satisfied with Alvin Cailan of LA’s Eggslut’s take on kimchi fried rice. The fact that we frequent their shop in New York didn’t stop us from bee-lining to Black Seed Bagel’s booth for the perfect Montreal style bagel (which we heard was baked all night in Roman Candle Baking Company’s oven) and of course we braved the monumental line for Aaron Franklin’s brisket taco.
We spent the last day in Oregon driving through the Colombia River’s Gorge to Hood River, where we visited The Kiyokawa family’s orchard. We gladly paid the over charge fee on our suitcase filled with their tarragon pickled cherries and huckleberry jam and some last summer peaches for the road. We made a brief wine stop at Hood River Winery for some of their fantastic Pinot Noir. We drank in the view and picked up a bottle for our Tokyo Staff.
Lastly we had one of the most incredible and memorable dinners of the past year at OX. Greg and Gabi Denton and their fantastic team are putting out some incredibly delicious and soulful takes on Argentinian inspired Portland food. Their Fresh Clam Chowder with Smoked Marrow Bone and Jalapeno is one of the most inventive and delicious bowls of food you can imagine. It’s truly a stunner and we’d recommend a trip to Portland for that dish alone, not to mention every other fire grilled thing on the menu.
Thanks to the whole team at FEAST who worked tremendously hard to pull off an epic event. And to the nice people at Will Leather Goods for the gift bag which is getting a lot of use at the farmers market both in NYC and Tokyo. Hope to see you all next year!
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.