Chef Hugh Acheson demonstrates his technique for beef tartare using a Kazan HAP40 Gyutou.
Special thanks to Evan Sung.
Chef Hugh Acheson demonstrates his technique for beef tartare using a Kazan HAP40 Gyutou.
Special thanks to Evan Sung.
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 to Commander’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 at Aureole. 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 like Carhartt 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 restaurant Elske 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 client Cloud 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 the Contra and Wildair 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.
To learn more about Tilit visit them at tilitnyc.com
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.
Photographs courtesy of Evan Sung.
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?
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!
Chef Hugh Acheson demonstrates how to break down a salmon using a deba and yanagi.
Special thanks to Evan Sung.
Chef Hugh Acheson demonstrates how to supreme an orange using a small Japanese paring knife called a kogatana.
Special thanks to Evan Sung.
In the first video in our new knife skills series, Chef Hugh Acheson demonstrates how to break down a chicken using a honesuki Japanese boning knife.
Special Thanks to Evan Sung.
Jesus Perea has created desserts at some of New York’s finest Italian, French, Scandinavian and modern American kitchens. He is now the pastry chef at Cosme, Enrique Olvera’s first restaurant outside of Mexico City, where he has created the most talked about and instragrammed dessert of the year.
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I grew up in the Bronx (New York) and I first started cooking at home. My mother worked and wanted to make sure we were fed well, so she started teaching me to make tortillas and kept going from there.
Where did you get started?
Have you always been a pastry chef?
No, I started in the kitchen, but got interested in pastry because I loved the science behind it.
Who do you consider a mentor?
Working with Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernardin taught me a lot about how I want to work. He touches everything and every night, he stayed until the last plate went out. I really respected his dedication.
Enrique Olvera really seems like a benevolent Father to the team here. What’s your experience been like working with him both in Mexico City and here?
The kitchen at Pujol and the kitchen here are totally different. I mean we have fun at both, but things are much more organized here.
It’s been said that Enrique is against using sugar and wants to take dessert off the menu at Pujol. Is he serious and how do you feel about that?
It’s true, Enrique doesn’t like sugar, but Mexicans like sweets and people order a lot of dessert, especially at Pujol. It’s way more than they do in New York. .
Cosme is certainly the only Mexican restaurant of it’s kind in New York – What do you think the the rest of the world should understand about Mexican cuisine?
Mexican food is all about slow cooking and flavors. When you make something like mole, there are many ingredients, but you should be able to taste each one. That’s hard to do and really hard to find outside of Mexico.
Any new dishes on the menu that you’re excited about right now?
Right now I’m making a chocolate covered marshmallow – called Bubulubu – Instead of the usual almond sablé base, we do chocolate and are using cherries. Because they are perfect right now.
Your Corn Husk Meringue is was one of the most talked about dishes since the restaurant’s opening and probably the most photographed dessert of the year. How did the idea come about?
It was a few things, La Gran Via is a bakery in Mexico City, famous for meringues. Enrique and Daniela (Soto-Innes, Chef de cuisine) grew up with that. We used that idea as a starting point. Also, we knew we wanted to use corn, and make it not too sweet. And Enrique hates waste, so I thought, what could I do with this corn husk? So I charred it and added little by little and it took a really long time, until we were happy with it.
Photography courtesy of Evan Sung
Evan Sung is an accomplished food, lifestyle and travel photographer. He is also a great friend of ours and when we realized that many of the photographs used on this blog were his work, we thought it was high time he had a feature of his own. You can see more of his work at www.evansung.com
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up?
I grew up here in New York City, I was born on the Upper West Side and grew up on the Upper East and Upper West Sides as a kid. But I have lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn for the last 10 years.
How did you get interested in food and photography?
I think I’ve always enjoyed food, but food as a professional pursuit didn’t really happen until after college. I picked up photography late, right at the end of college, just as a hobby that a friend introduced me to. When I got into it more seriously, I studio-managed and assisted at a stock photo agency (Comstock) for a few years. In 2003, I moved to Paris and found work with a photographer, Giacomo Bretzel. He did a lot of travel, food, and lifestyle stuff – we’d go to shoot stories in Italy, Germany, Spain, Monte Carlo, all over – stories about Iberico ham or Italian Olive oil production. That’s where I really started to appreciate food and culture and travel in a way that related to the work of photography. We always got to eat well and travel and meet people exploring the culture of food production and I loved it.
When I came back to NY in late 2004 and started shooting restaurant reviews, first at The New York Sun newspaper, and very soon after, for The New York Times, and I just started to learn a lot more about the food scene, and the food scene was really changing dramatically around that time. I don’t think I had a huge food culture background, although growing up Asian American, you’re eating tripe and snails and all this stuff growing up.
How did you first get started?
So I didn’t really touch a camera at all until the end of college, when I met an artist. His name is Shelton Walsmith, who is a painter and draftsman, photographer. Really multidisciplinary. And we became good friends working at Shakespeare and Company. He and his girlfriend and I all became very close. He was the first person to put a camera in my hands. It was an old twin lens reflex camera, a Yashicamat 124G. Kind of like a Rolleiflex – you look down into the glass and the world is reflected backwards at you. It always looked very cinematic to me looking down into that piece of ground glass. I asked him how it worked and he started teaching me the fundamentals of photography. We would go out on the weekends just taking photos. They had a darkroom, I would sleep over at their place and we’d print late into the night. Sometimes, I’d be printing so late, I would just fall asleep among the chemicals! That was how I first got exposed to photography. Then there’s a whole side story about pursuing an advanced degree in comparative literature. I started down that road, but it just didn’t feel right. In 2000, I decided to leave my graduate program and immediately started working for a stock agency called Comstock, as a studio manager and photo assistant. I did that for 3 years then moved to Paris for two years. When I came back to New York I was shooting anything and everything for a while. But in 2005 started shooting for the New York Sun Newspaper and the very first thing they assigned me was a restaurant review. I’m pretty sure it was the original [Momofuku] Noodle Bar.
You came of age at in the food photography at a fortuitous time!
I think people have written about it already, but that 2004/2005 year was when so much changed. Both in the food scene in New York and food media in general. With Eater and the idea of food photography changed a lot because people were blogging, and there was this whole niche that opened up, whereas before, food photography was a very specific discipline with only a handful of people shooting cookbooks and stuff like that.
Do you have to approach food photography different from travel or fashion?
I haven’t done a ton of fashion since I got married, I took that season off and cook books were starting to become a bigger part of what I was doing and food was always the world I felt most comfortable in. So I’ve take a pretty long hiatus from that. Although there were parts of it that I really did love. It was meeting and photographing creative people. But the fashion world was not really my natural environment although they all love to talk about food, like most people!
People ask me what my style is and in a way I try to be very responsive to what the situation is. If i’m shooting something that is very architectural and sophisticated in its plating, then I’ll treat it more like a graphic kind of still life. But for traveling in Senegal and people are just sort of have these bubbling vats of stew then that’s something that’s very rustic and I approach it from a looser, more documentary point of view. For me it’s dictated by the environment and the situation and not necessarily trying to impose a particular style on any given situation.
Getting back to restaurant reviews, what do you know about it before you go in to shoot?
I wish I had a more exciting answer, but they definitely do a good job of keeping the editorial and art sides separate. At the Times for example, any photographer who shoots those reviews gets a call the week before the review is scheduled to run. Usually the day of, they’ll ask if you can you shoot that night. Sometimes a night in advance, but usually it’s a pretty last minute thing. And that’s it. That’s about all the advance notice that I get. Then you never know what the review is going to say. You get a list of the dishes that the reviewer wants shot and any particular details that they think are interesting, but you definitely don’t know the end result of the review.
Now you’ve shot for the New York Times for reviewers Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton and Pete Wells. Is there a difference between shooting for one versus another?
When I started at the Times in those Bruni years, in the beginning it was always one photo. Usually of the interior space in service. This is all about how food media, and really, the internet, has changed and evolved. I remember they starting ask for more photos – and they started with these audio slideshows with Pete Wells interviewing Bruni about his reviews. That was something that kind of started while I was shooting. But that definitely evolved over time. It really started with just hanging out trying to get that one good photo. Now you can be there for a while. For a Times review I’ll hang out longer than people might expect.
Traveling around the world with a roster of great chefs is many people’s idea of a dream job. What’s your favorite aspect of what you do?
Definitely working with creative people is fun. I always learn something from the people I work with. I’ve been lucky to work with people who have very distinct ideas about their own creativity. I like responding to that, I like collaborating with them around that, and helping to make what they have in their head look as good as possible. Every time I shoot a book or work with a chef on a project like that, my first question at the end is always, “Does that feel like you, like what you had in your head or how you envision yourself?”. For me it’s very much about trying to respond to what my collaborator has in mind and then if it does feel like them, I feel that’s successful.
Lately the projects that I have been lucky enough to travel for have been great. Traveling with Michael White in Italy was amazing. He is so immersed in that culture, having cooked there, grown up there, learned there. It is really like being with an Italian person. Mexico with [Alex] Stupak or Spain with Katie Button and Félix Meana, all these chefs are taking what they learned in their life experience and have brought it to the US and tried to express their version of it. Whatever it is that they are trying to recreate in a way and for me to be able to accompany them and see that and live that with them a little bit gives me a new perspective on them and a different perspective on the food and culture itself. Traveling with a person from that country or really steeped in that culture is so much different and more rewarding than traveling as purely a tourist. Just to be able to be with someone who knows the ins and outs of it, you just learn so much more. The travel aspect is really important to me and I try to find those projects as much as possible.
And I think I just like the world of restaurant people. The world of chefs is so hospitable. I like the little network of people that just springs up from knowing a handful of people, you get connected to other people and I’ve definitely experienced it first hand where people are really just so generous in their extending a welcome to you even if you’re just a friend of a friend. It can feel really genuine and heartfelt, so that’s nice.
It’s so true. Is there a recurring frustration or challenge you find in your work?
There are challenges, but they feel like challenges that are so specific to a photographer, budget can be an issue sometimes and people’s expectation of where you can conduct a photoshoot. Shooting a cookbook, I think there are so many things that are important in addition to the food. The propping and the styling and using all those other elements to tell the story of whatever the chef is trying to express. I think chefs in general look a lot at cookbooks and see just the food. They are looking at how it’s presented and they don’t necessarily look at the plate, or what the plate is sitting on. Sometimes it’s a challenge to express that to a chef. It’s not just a photo of this beautiful food that I want to take, but I want to make a beautiful image that has some depth and texture to it. It’s not just your food on a white plate on a stainless steel pass. There have definitely been cases where chefs really get it. Like oh, let’s have more variety of surfaces, more interesting plates, then there are other chefs, not that they don’t want it, but they don’t think about it. Only through the doing of it, by bringing a prop stylist on board, they slowly start to realize that the food is working with that whole environment to add something more. That’s maybe one thing that I’ve seen come up with cookbooks in the conversation stage, explaining to some chefs why paying for a prop or food stylist can really be beneficial.
How often do you use a food stylist?
For chef-driven projects not so often, usually I trust the chef to present the food the way they want to. I have enough experience that I can tell them if something feels off balance or needs to be replated in someway. But generally, on chef books, the chef has their own team and distinct ideas on what it should look like. From there we collaborate in terms of tweaking things. It’s pretty rare that I’d have a real food stylist involved in that part. I do put a lot of value on the contribution of prop stylists. I think that’s pretty huge.
Any upcoming book releases you want to tell us about?
I’m very excited about Chef Alex Stupak (of Empellon)’s book. [Due out October 20th] That was really a good challenge because it was all tacos. Chef Stupak has a whole dialogue about what a taco means to people: What people think it’s worth and what one can do with it. When the project came up to me, I think as a photographer you worry about a taco book that it will all be crushed up limes, and a Corona, and colorful Mexican textiles – just “Mexican” in that cliched sense. But of course, that didn’t feel right for Alex – his background and his intellectual thinking about the food – so I looked to do something more unique. I wanted to think about the tortilla as a canvas and Alex and his team would treat the taco like that. I think it’s a really delicious-looking book, but it also reflects Alex’s thinking about Mexican food and treats it in a way that is respectful of the complexities that Alex is trying to tease out of it. Jordana Rothman wrote it and she’s a wonderful writer and they’re great friends, so I think they will have a unique take on it from a writerly perspective. That project was fun and we had a lot of creative freedom on it and Alex is just so smart, so I’m excited to see it come together.
Any favorite restaurants in New York?
Im pretty open to a diversity of experiences. Chef Paul Liebrandt’s Corton was always such a great, exciting restaurant, I still regret that that’s gone. But the places that I’m a regular at and always satisfy would be Khe-Yo, or Bar Chuko, or a place in my neighborhood that I go to all the time Sushi Katsuei . Or the Breslin , just to go have a beer and a lamb burger. Robertas, Spicy Village , Upland …. I don’t know… The list never ends…
Ryan Roadhouse, chef owner of Portland’s Nodoguro restaurant was recently named Rising Star Chef by Portland Monthly Magazine.
How did you first get interested in food?
I have always loved eating good food. I was born to very young parents, which allowed me to spend ample time with my food obsessed grandfather. His days seemed centered around making sure dinner was a memorable event. One of my first elementary writing assignments turned into an explanation of the perfect ham and cheese sandwich.
How did you first get involved in Japanese Cooking?
As a teenager. I loved the idea of working in a restaurant. The first restaurant I worked in was a Japanese restaurant. My first day as dishwasher/busboy ended with one of the kitchen guys pouring me a beer, eating Japanese curry for staff meal, and a server handing me 20 bucks. I was pretty impressed.
What was your experience like living and working in Japan?
Sleepless and amazing. The experience began so completely foreign, but quickly became comfortable and familiar. I am still inspired everyday by the experience of being in Japan. The culture, the food, and the people have changed me forever.
How did Nodoguro come about?
It came about out of necessity. I had a particular vision for the type of food and experience I wanted to share with people, but making it a reality was difficult. Most conversations with investors led to the instantaneous compromise of my concept. It became clear that in order to avoid stagnation and continue to grow as a person and a chef I would need to go at it alone. It began with making a seed plan with a local farmer and made Nodoguro a reality as a pop-up restaurant.
What were the greatest benefits and disadvantages to the pop up format?
The advantage of popping up is that you can take risks and test an otherwise untested idea with minimal risk. The downside is that it’s a pain in the ass! Cold storage problems, commissary kitchens, sourcing issues, having no designated space. Unpacking your “restaurant” on the day of service, packing it back up after service, and probably many other disadvantages that I have forgotten already.
How would you describe the food you’re creating at Nodoguro?
Kind of like Kappo cuisine with no rules and lots of surprises
How do you approach dish development and choosing the themes for your menus?
Themes are now crowd sourced (for the most part). I find that it keeps me honest and makes creativity a necessary component of my daily life. I always have a general format in mind for each menu. Everything else is detail shaped by limitations.
Although your cuisine is rooted in Japanese techniques and ingredients, it seems uniquely Portland. Can you tell us about some of the more exciting ingredients you’re working with right now?
Right now the farm is in a stage of seasonal rebirth. Lots of the Japanese herbs are naturalized now and begin to reassert themselves. We have a variety of plants that are being utilized in in the flowering or seed pod stages. We have naturalized benitade, shimonita negi buds, tender nira, karaine seed pods and flowers, komatsuna raab, fresh calendula, Japanese frill mustard flowers, wild currant flowers with things like local salmon, sablefish, and super tender beef tongue.
Essential kitchen tools?
Being a pop up chef has made me a lot better and more resourceful. A sharp knife is the only thing I can’t do without.
Photography Courtesy of FEAST Portland.
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!
Keith Kreeger is a designer artist and maker whose work graces the tables of some of the countries best restaurants. You can find more of his work here.
Tell us a little about where you grew up?
I grew up just outside of New York City in Westchester County. Most of my family is still in New York and I go back for work often. Even though I’m living in Texas, New York is still a big part of my life.
How did you first get interested in pottery?
I took my first class when I was in high school but it was at Skidmore College when I really became serious about working with clay. I took a class during a summer session after my sophomore year, which was a big switch from the previous summer when I had interned on Capitol Hill. About 1 week into that first clay session I was working in the studio 10 hours a day and couldn’t wait to get back in there. About halfway through that session I met Toshiko Takaezu who came to Skidmore every summer to make some work. Next thing I knew I was pulling an all-nighter with Toshiko, her apprentice and a couple of other students as Toshiko made a 6 foot tall thrown form. That level of effort and concentration was amazing to me. I spent the rest of my time in college figuring out how to spend the most amount of time in the studio.
What is the most satisfying/challenging aspect of your work?
Working in the studio is obviously a process driven endeavor. Because of that it’s incredibly rewarding to see the work flow from start to finish on a daily basis. There aren’t too many jobs that allow a person to see the results of their effort every day. It’s very similar to cooking in that sense. In the studio there are steps to follow and you’re constantly reacting to the materials at each stage of the process. Each moment in each round of work becomes information and part of a library of ideas to pull from for future work. I absolutely love revisiting an idea or form with skills and techniques that have evolved through the years.
As for challenges, working in the studio is physical work and certain tasks can be arduous and some are even tedious…but each of those steps is necessary to get the quality of finished work that I’m after. I often joke that as soon as we solve a problem in the studio within a process we’ll add another step or complication. I think the biggest issue in the studio right now is editing down the collections…finding the pieces that work best and the designs that succeed as part of a larger conversation. We are constantly tweaking ideas and trying new things.
In 2009 you moved your studio from Cape Cod Massachusetts to Austin, Texas. What prompted the move and how has the relocation influenced your work?
I loved living on the Cape and I built my first studio there long before I was ready to take on that endeavor. That turned out to be a good thing because I learned a lot about the process and a lot about myself that way. The Cape was so busy for the 4 months a year but in those long winters I often found myself in the studio at odd hours trying as many different things as possible. In 2009 my wife and I decided to move because we were ready for a city again. It turned out to be a good time to move and it definitely brought new inspiration to my work. I have been greatly inspired by the creative community in Austin. It’s a vibrant city that pulls its energy from so many sources…artists, tech companies, musicians, start-ups and the food community are all intertwined and are helping the city grow. I like to say that even my friends with boring jobs are doing interesting things. Without rambling further…I think my work has become cleaner and more contemporary since moving to Austin.
Your work is the canvas for some of the country’s top chefs. Can you tell us a little about the collaboration process when working with chefs?
It’s very exciting to be working with chefs and I love seeing how each of their ideas show up on my work. I’ve always loved working with other creative groups and this collaboration just makes so much sense since so much of my work is made to serve food. The use of handmade wares in restaurants is obviously a trend at this point. What I find most important is that we communicate and educate each other so we keep the quality as high as possible. Just because something is handmade doesn’t give it an inherent good that warrants use. If you look around the tabletop world you even have commercial dinnerware manufacturers coming out with “craft” collections. I’m very deliberate with each piece that leaves my studio and am always thinking of how my work will be used. It’s incredibly humbling for me to know that on a given night around the country that so many people are using my work.
My process of working with chefs has a few options. One version is simply a chef choosing our standard collections for their spaces. Another way to work together is to come up with custom wares for the space. It could be as simple as a variation of one of my collections, which is what we’re doing for Tim Maslow at Ribelle. I just finished working on a series of carafes for another client’s water service. We’re definitely not a fabricating studio, but I’ve been lucky to have gotten calls from chefs who have an idea and give me the creative freedom to run with their ideas. Basically, I can make an entire line of tableware for a space or my work can be used to highlight a part of the service or decor within the greater setting of the restaurant.
As Paul Qui gets ready to open his tasting room I’ve been working on an exclusive line for him. The components are very geometric and modular for kitchen to work with. Paul recently texted me a photo of an egg with a cracked shell asking if we could make it out of porcelain. That’s not something I normally would have tried but we made some porcelain eggs and I think it’s going to be a pretty special part of the experience in the tasting room.
We really enjoyed following your recent trip to Japan on Instagram. Was it your first time there? Can you share what surprised/delighted you, culinarily and or related to Japanese ceramics?
My wife and I were lucky enough to travel to Japan last fall for my brother-in-law’s wedding. The wedding was beautiful, in a Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The history of ceramics in Japan is amazing and I would love to go back for a more pottery-focused trip. We traveled through Tokyo and Kyoto but didn’t make it to any of the outlying pottery villages. We had some amazing meals and since my sister-in-law is from Tokyo we had a great guide for information. The best piece of advice from her was that instead of looking for a restaurant, decide on the type of food you want and go to the neighborhood that specializes in that. Under the train tracks in a smoke filled alley in Ginza we had incredible Yakitori. We had some great meals as part of the wedding group. My wife was a little worried about food so ramen became our safe meal and was our go to food throughout the trip. We also had one splurge meal on our last night in Japan at Ryugin. It was an amazing experience from start to finish. And, as a pottery nerd I was blown away by the level of ceramics used in the restaurant. There was an abalone served with an abalone broth. That broth came in a little cup from a kiln in Shigaraki. I’m sure that the cup was worth at least $1500. The object and its importance to the experience was incredibly inspiring to see.
By far our favorite experience was also the “worst” food of the entire trip. We were in Kyoto and wanted the most un-touristy experience we could have. We kept peeking in restaurants looking for a lack of foreigners and we finally found one. We sat at the counter surrounded by 70 year old Japanese men and ordered the set menu. The 80 year old woman who owned the restaurant tried to communicate to us to make sure that’s what we wanted. It was a meal full of awkward smiles and lots of pointing to explain what everything was. The food was so purely old school Japanese, full of textures and flavors that our western palates couldn’t really handle. But, by the end of the evening one man had finally asked laughingly why we were eating there. Another diner was pouring us shochu from the bottle he brought with him. My wife had about 12 plates of unfinished food in front of her since they wouldn’t clear a dish until all of the food was gone. We took pictures with the owner, her son who helped in the kitchen and her daughter who was serving. They walked us out and we all smiled and laughed and waved. We were going to circle back to get a picture of the restaurant but they were still outside laughing and waving when we were halfway down the block. It was the exact experience we were looking for…welcomed into another culture through food and hospitality.
What are your go to restaurant recommendations in Austin?
The restaurant scene in Austin has just blown up since 2009 and there are so many fantastic choices now. Start any evening with a cocktail at either Whisler’s or Weather Up.
Obviously, I’m going to suggest Qui so you can eat off my so many of my plates. Enjoy the ride that Paul and his crew take you on. One of my favorite restaurants in town is Justine’s Brasserie. It’s like walking into another world and I love what Chef Casey Wilcox is cooking. The pork chop is incredible and the potato gratin is insanely delicious. Make sure you order from his daily menu where he gets super creative and pulls from an array of influences that all work within the brasserie setting. It’s also a great late night choice as the kitchen serves until 1am. I never thought that I’d move to Austin find my favorite sushi restaurant but get to Uchi and enjoy as much as the menu as you can. You’re going to have to get tacos while you’re here and I love the Veracruz All Natural trailer…go for the migas breakfast tacos. Ramen Tatsu-Ya is a must as well. The tonkotsu broth is amazing and the marinated soft-boiled egg is as perfect as it gets.
In Boston get to Ribelle and check out what Tim Maslow is cooking…easily one of the best meals I have had all year. Also, Coppa is fantastic and the lobster rolls at Neptune Oyster are the absolute best I’ve ever had. In NYC I love Sushi Zen for straight up old school sushi. I have had a couple of really great meals at Toro recently. I want Pearl and Ash to open in Austin…great food at a great price and a wine list that satisfies everybody. I’m dreaming of their octopus dish right now. Twice a year I bring a new collection to the market at the Javits. As soon as I finish packing up the show I head directly to Esca for oysters, crudo and one of the daily pastas…it’s a great way to finish the trip…I’m a big fan of rituals.
Tell us a little about your culinary background and how you got into professional cooking?
I started in the coffee business in 1997 at Starbucks as a part time barista. Despite its rapid assimilation into a large commercial entity, Starbucks exposed me to specialty coffee and opened my eyes to this growing segment. I stayed with the company for 3 years before moving into restaurant life. Coffee would remain a focus and a passion.
My first cooking job was preparing staff meal for Fritz Blank and his team at Deux Cheminees in Philadelphia. I had been waiting tables at Davio’s and Brasserie Perrier when I was befriended by local chef Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen. He took me to Fritz as an apprentice. It was laborious and confusing. I was trying to make sense of the old school discipline but I wasn’t totally sold on it yet. I plugged away for 6 months before moving into the garde manger section at Brasserie Perrier.
I didn’t realize what a special time the early 00’s were in American culinaria. Fusion cooking was full tilt and established, pharmaceutical companies had royal expense accounts, chefs were becoming rock stars. Brasserie Perrier was my university. Under Chris Scarduzio, I learned the foundations of French cuisine alongside sensible Italian and rogue Asian cooking. It was a constant state of anxiety: pushing, learning, rising up, fighting, burning. Cooks got fired all the time. Chef knew what and who he wanted on the line, and he wasn’t afraid to get it done his way. It was an amazing experience, and I am forever grateful for all of those I worked with there with, but I was still searching.
I moved on to Salt with Chef Vernon Morales. He had worked for Martin Berastegui and Ferran Adria and I was fascinated with that type of cooking. I was still earning my stripes at being a reliable cook, and Vernon awoke another side to cooking that I needed to learn: the scientific method. Ask questions. Understand the purpose. Anticipate the result. He was technique driven but had a wickedly creative mind. I stayed at Salt until it closed in 2004, and went to Marigold Kitchen to regroup with my Salt counterparts.
After 6 months at Marigold Kitchen, I was fortunate enough to be accepted at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain. Mind numbing cuisine. There were plenty of places in the States to go stage, but the challenge and enticement of being overseas was driving me. Chef Andoni Aduriz teaches cooking as it relates to time and sense of place. His flavors are deceiving. Some are simple, some are complicated, yet all of them represent Spain. I’ve never taken so much enjoyment in preparing vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. I didn’t spend enough time at Mugaritz to fully understand all of Andoni’s philosophy, but it changed my approach and respect for cooking which prepared me for my next job: Paul Liebrandt’s GILT.
Fran Derby from WD-50 came to Mugaritz during my last 2 weeks. Quite frankly, he talked me into the Gilt job. I wasn’t good enough to cook on THAT level…..NYC. A hotel. A badass chef. But I went for it. After Paul talked me into it as well. Gilt was a beast, but an absolutely gorgeous creation. It lived up to its name. I’ve never seen so many talented cooks under one roof. It was special and remains one of my favorite places of employment.
I returned to Philadelphia to open my own place, Snackbar. It was too early in my career to do this, however, everything happens for a reason and it’s another part of my story. I was full of ideas and anxious to show my hometown what I had gathered. Even Philadelphia Magazine called me “Best New Chef” in 2007. I enjoyed being in charge and had some great moments there, but I left to take on a gastropub down the street called Pub & Kitchen. A European inspired gastropub. We did it all. I had a blast, from fish ‘n’ chips to foie gras. La Frieda burgers to cochon au lait. So many good cooks came through there. Many of them are now running kitchens in Philly. We opened a seasonal shore dining restaurant called The Diving Horse that never got the credit it deserved. It was a gorgeous, airy place where we could really cook whatever we wanted to and take full advantage of the coastal New Jersey bounty.
Despite all of this success, I chose to leave the professional kitchen in January 2013.
After years as a chef, how did Rival Bros Coffee come to be?
Rival Bros was launched in Nov 2011 as a mobile cafe in Philly’s Love Park. We took an old DHL delivery truck and made it into a coffee shop. I was looking for another creative outlet, and my passion for coffee was shared by my best friend, Damien Pileggi. He had been working for La Colombe for the past 7 years and was ready to make a move. We have the same values and core ethics. We always wanted to do something together and we were just waiting for the right time. Damien learned to roast coffee, we raised some cash and pulled the trigger.
Tell us about Rival Bros Co-Founder Damien Pileggi and your relationship with him.
Damien Pileggi is a good ol boy. He was raised right and understands being hospitable. We met in high school but became very close friends during the years after that. We waited tables together, we lived together, we hung out together. Our wives were college roommates, so I have him to thank for that intro!!! Damien cares tremendously about coffee and I am continually learning from him.
What were some of the biggest challenges in getting the Rival Bros name out there and getting the cafe funded and open?
As with any business, startup is difficult. Because of my chef background and Damien’s expertise, we gained a following quickly. We chose to work with a PR company for the first few months because we weren’t interested in advertising, but rather sharing our message and we felt that was the best way to achieve results. Damien and I have always been workers, so we were faced with running the books and keeping a tight ship.
At this time we use a number of high end green coffee importers. We have great relationships with them, and they have direct relationships with the farms. We only use coffee that comes from an approved, reputable source. We are concerned with clean water, deforestation, fair wages and education in the origin countries. Coffee is so manual and requires a lot of back breaking skill to gather even a small amount of cherries. We are constantly tasting new coffees. We embrace all forms of coffee, but we are partial to natural process coffees; they have such a deep, unique flavor from the fruit.
There’s a lot of discusssion in the coffee world about the best brewing methods. What are your thoughts there?
Coffee has become very competitive and very scientific. I appreciate the steps of analysis and the consideration it requires, but what trumps all of that is flavor. Every coffee wants to be made a different way. It all depends on how you roast it and when it was harvested. I can’t say what the best method for brewing is—- but I can give you our favorite. We will always love espresso.
What’s your essential or favorite tool to use at the cafe?
We would lose focus and consistency without a digital gram scale. It allows us to make sure the machines are calibrated, our dose is on point and ultimately that our coffee tastes right.
That said, I have to mention the surge of joy I get when I see a dense, syrupy shot of espresso in our café. We have a La Marzocco GB/5— it’s well built and easy on the eyes.
What inspires you right now?
I’m inspired by my wife, Melissa. She’s given me three beautiful sons in 6 years. Raising three kids, caring for two dogs and keeping an eye on me is no easy task. She’s my source of encouragement and my gut check. She doesn’t get awards, but she should.
Any suggestions for restaurants or cafes we should check out in Philly?
There’s a lot of great coffee shops in Philly right now— Elixr, Bodhi, Ox, ReAnimator, Ultimo, Shot Tower etc but my current fave is Menagerie in Old City. They are using great coffee from Dogwood, Ceremony and George Howell. They also have the friendliest staff.
For restaurants, I can’t stop eating at Fitler Dining Room and High Street on Market. Vernick Food + Drink is another ridiculously solid option.
We had the privilege of catching up with Chef Matthew Jennings in Providence recently to talk about how he got into cooking, why he loves egg yolks and the importance of humility.
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up?
I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. Ya know…home of the World Series Champions, The Boston Red Sox?! I spent time growing up both in the city and in the country, in and around Boston.
My first job when I was 14 was in a grocery store, as a stock boy. I’d stock the soft drinks and instant ramen, fold the newspapers and steal Playboys on Sunday mornings when my shift was over. The owner of the grocery store also owned a little café that was next door. I’d hang outside the back door of the café and watch the cooks, dancing around a prep table, with their modified uniforms- cut off pants, brightly colored clogs, piercings and tattoos. I’d watch them spin with fish in their hand, throw a bag of flour over their shoulder. They were so cool. And I wanted to get in there. Bad.
A few more months passed and I asked my boss if I could get some hours in the café. He said “Dish and prep only”. And so I started to get my first hours prepping in the thimble sized, screaming hot cubicle kitchen- fighting through the tears as I chopped onions in a corner, on a fish tub lid for a cutting board, while the cooks threw smoking hot pans into a sink full of soapy water, right near me. I got splashed on, burnt, cut and generally abused a lot. And I loved every minute of it. I was hooked.
What do you like most about New England Cuisine?
The anticipation of the seasons. We have a very short growing season, so as cooks, we dream a lot. We appreciate seasonal ingredients so much more. By the time spring comes around we have menus planned, and every one of us is scrambling for the first wild onions, radishes, nettles, English peas and artichokes. It’s awesome. As cooks in New England I feel like we have a greater obligation to master the ingredients. To learn how not to fuck things up, because once our season is over, that’s it. No more morels. No more tomatoes. Gone. Until next year. So we have a dedication to the product that is special and intense. It’s like that summer fling you had in high school. As May approaches you are already thinking about seeing that person again, then it is ON for three or four months until you fade back into fall and winter and you wait again until next year. But while it is on, it is intense and fiery….
Is there an ingredient that you are excited about working with right now?
I love everything, but I’ve certainly been on an egg yolk kick lately. It’s just so damn sexy. I love eggs so much and don’t understand people that don’t like them. I love making sauces with them, cooking them slowly, creating custards, pate fruits, curing them, frothing them, folding them raw into salads and noodles. They are so versatile. I’m working on an ‘egg yolk muk’ right now- egg yolks cooked with vinegar, nut oil, fish sauce, methylcellulose and some homemade, sesame based miso. I’m not usually into the molecular shit, but this stuff is amazing. I can’t stop eating it. So rich, but so delicate.
What is the most important thing you can teach a young chef?
Humility. No matter how successful you become, there is always someone more successful, so don’t take your own worth too seriously, or become arrogant in its revelation. I still believe that we are the best cooks when we are still learning. I certainly still am. I learn from my own cooks, from others I work with. That’s what this game is about- learning something every day. I’m humbled everyday by how much I don’t know. It inspires me to learn more and to work harder.
You have a pretty prolific Japanese knife collection. Can you tell us about how you got introduced?
I think I picked up my first Japanese knife- a deba- at a friend’s restaurant probably 15 or so years ago. It intrigued me. It was so alien. So unfamiliar. I was used to such traditional western styles. It felt so awkward in my hand. Fast forward 20 years and I’ve got over a dozen unique Japanese styles, designs, weights, and constructions. I am in love with the notion of ‘right tool for the right job’, and how the Japanese have a much better focus on creating task-specific blades. For me, that is the biggest allure of the Eastern style knife. It hones your focus on an individual task, and teaches you how to master a tool designed specifically for that task. That’s crazy. So cool. I think my favorite right now is my Nakiri. I’m still trying to master that knife. It’s intimidating and yet detailed vegetable work is so inspiring. I look forward to becoming proficient with it. Practice makes perfect I suppose.
Other essential kitchen tools?
A great spoon. Proper sharpening stones. Another perennial favorite is a little flat spatula that came from my grandmother’s silver collection. The thing is amazing. It is hyper flexible and strong, and makes turning scallops in a pan, or rotating vegetables for roasting, or even picking up delicate items, such a breeze. I couldn’t live without it.
Farmstead’s cheese program is pretty serious; can you introduce a few of your favorites that most of us haven’t heard of?
The world of cheese is so vast. We are coming up now on some seasonal cheeses that only come out this time of year, in order to be available for the holidays. I would keep an eye out for cheeses like “Rush Creek Reserve”: a bloomy rinded, soft ripened cheese that is decadent, rich and spreadable. Also cheeses like “Twig Farm Washed” , blow me away. The depth that cheesemakers can coax from the milk is really incredible. American cheeses are undergoing an all-time renaissance right now. People should be inspired to drive out in the country, find a cheesemaker and see what they are doing. Just about every state has talented cheesesmakers these days. It is quite the time to be an aficionado of handmade, American foods.
Well, Farmstead of course. Also, I love my friend’s bistro, New Rivers. Super quaint and so New England. Great vibe and awesome food. Some new spots like Birch and North and doing a nice job. Also, I love sausages, so Wurst Kitchen is a favorite. Out of town, I’d hit Tallulah’s Taco Shack in Jamestown in the summer. It’s dope. And Matunuk Oyster Bar. That’s a great spot. Otherwise, I’ll be at home this winter, braising, smoking meat, baking bread, canning pickles and potted meats for friends. So, come on over. I’ll have a pint waiting.
We had the honor of sitting down with Chef Paul Liebrandt recently to talk about his culinary background, philosophy and his new restaurant project The Elm.
How did u get into cooking initially?
I suppose I stumbled into cooking. It wasn’t like a lot of chefs they have a lineage of a family or….mine didn’t have anything to do with food. I don’t know really. It wasn’t one thing that I was going to go and cook. I just liked food, ingredients. Not one particular thing, definitely not.
Who were your mentors early on?
When I was a younger man, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Gagnaire, Raymond Blanc, people who I had worked for were a huge influence on me in various ways. In some ways for their rigor, their mentality, their focus of how to be a chef from a chef’s point of view. Some for the creative aspect, for purely culinary, purely just the food. And their approach and the way they think about food.
How would you describe your culinary style?
I would describe my culinary style at present to be modern European, contemporary French if you’d like a little more specificity there. I wouldn’t say that it’s too boxed in with being French. There is a lot of influence there from Japanese ingredients and technique to Southeast Asia, as I think there are probably in most modern chefs these days. There are a lot of world influences because the world is obviously a much different place than it was quite a while ago.
What were the steps that led you to where you are now, from Atlas to Gilt to Corton?
Gilt was seven years ago and I was seven years younger. I think any chef when they’re young, every five years is the future. In terms of technology, in terms of in general, most people, that’s the way they look at the future. So, that was the future.
My cooking now is more of an amalgamation of what I was doing at Atlas and French. At Atlas, we were some of the first people to do molecular gastronomy in this country, before Alinea, before any of that. It was more El Bulli-esque kinds of things mixed with that Gagnaire-esque French technique. And, it was very great food. I’ve evolved since then, because I’ve seen the way the food world as a whole around the globe is moving and I like to reinvent my cuisine to a point and keep it fresh and motivated. Some things don’t change, the standards, the rigor, the way that we think about food. The combinations, that doesn’t change; however, because we are seven years on, the techniques and the focus is different.
What inspired you to start work on The Elm, which is a more casual concept than Corton?
I am doing this project because I was approached by my partners there and it was a very good opportunity to have a presence in an area of New York City that is only expanding and is growing in every possible way. And, I think that is a very good way to look at restaurants. I am going to be doing something there that is more affordable than Corton. There will be no white tablecloths, there will be music in the dining room and the dining room has a completely different feel of dining experience. The same PL style on the food; it’s devoid of all the bells and whistles that you have in fine dining, canapés, amuse bouche etc. It will be French style with my interpretation of classical French food with classical French flavors and technique done in a subtle way. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m not trying to do a French brasserie, but we have a good grasp on what we want to do there, which I looked at the market and there is not anything out there like that.
Is it the same foundation?
I mean it’s always the same foundation. We cook a piece of fish and we cook a piece of fish. At Corton, we may be using turbot or shima aji. At the Elm, we may be using skate. But, we still approach it in the same manner. It doesn’t change. When you’re talking about casual food, you’re talking about accessibility. You’re not talking about how accessible on the plate it is. Price is what makes it exclusive or not. If Per Se was $50 per head, it would be thought of very differently because it would be much less exclusive. So, it really does come down to the price of the dining experience. So, obviously the Elm is priced in a more sensitive manner to a bigger, wider audience. So, that makes it more ‘casual’. Although, that’s a difficult word to use because I’m doing a restaurant not a bistro or brasserie. I would prefer to call it affordable luxury. Very good ingredients, cooked very nicely in a really great feel dining room, with a great atmosphere at a price point that most people can afford and can come back every week. And, I feel that is where the future of dining is going. Corton is obviously the 0.1% in this country. In Asia, fine dining is very much there still.
What qualities do you look for in the people you hire?
It’s not necessarily how much experience they have. If a young person comes to me, I’m looking at their will. I’m looking at their drive. If they have an open mind and when they’re shown something if they listen and pay attention and they have that focus. And they have the will to succeed. I give them the tools necessary to succeed but they have to have the will to want to do it. And that is really what I’m looking for when I have a young person come here. And then once I’ve given them those tools, it’s a question of monitoring every day. It’s up to them to make sure and if they decide it’s not for them, then it’s not for them. But, generally it’s the person; we spend so many hours together that I want to enjoy the person’s company that I’m working with. And, do they fit well within a team? Are they a team player rather than an individual? It’s just basic rules of working together.
How about culinary school? Do you recommend it?
No, not necessarily because everybody is different. I didn’t go to the CIA, I didn’t do all that, but that’s me. It doesn’t mean that it was right or wrong. It’s the same as anybody in any career. There’s the way we all think life should go and then there’s the way it does go. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, it’s subjective.
At the moment, are there any ingredients or techniques that are particularly exciting to you?
Because it’s spring, garlic is all over the place right now. We’re doing fresh garlic in all kinds of ways, which is a lot of fun. Not the same as most wild ingredients, but it’s got a lot of character to it. Technique-wise, I’m not one of those chefs who says ‘I’ve invented this new technique’. I’m not like that. I just do what I do; I’ve never been showy about the food. A lot of the European chefs, they are like that, but that’s not me. I think of myself as not just playing with the food, but I’m orchestrating the show every night. I want to move more now to being more of a restaurateur than just a straight chef.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
Realistically, it’s my hands, my palette, my eyes, my senses. If I’m honest, because that’s the biggest tool. Without that, it’s all done. If we’re talking about an actual piece of equipment, a good spoon is always good to have. A good quality Japanese knife, absolutely. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.
What are your favorite places to eat?
En Brasserie. It’s simple, it’s clean, it’s an everyday kind of place. Bar Masa is great; it’s fun and delicious. If I go for sushi, I’m not going at 7, I’m going at 11. So, Blue Ribbon sushi is open then, and it’s really consistent and really, really good. But for me, that is sort of it. If I could eat just Japanese food everyday I would.
You recently spent a week in Japan. How would you compare the food there to what people encounter here in the U.S. or in Europe?
It’s amazing. It’s night and day, it’s oil and water, it’s light and dark. The reverence for the product, the reverence for the technique of just cooking, is far beyond anything in this country. The discipline and the bushido and the craftsmanship, your focus of doing something because that’s what you were born to do, you don’t see that in the U.S. And, I’m not that old but I’m old enough to have touched on a time when that classical French generation was very similar to that. But it’s changed now. Everyone’s got ADD. No one can focus on anything for too long, because they want everything instantly and they don’t want to work for it. It’s a simple thing. The cooks will cook in a particular part of the kitchen for a couple months and then expect to move. To become really masterful and do something until it becomes muscle memory, to do that you have to have patience and understand the longer picture. So, for me, I think it’s very important that remains and I see that in Japan. And, it’s something which is lost here. It’s my home here (U.S.) and I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the truth. And the truth is very simple. It’s worldwide. Its’ not what it was. In Japan, I love that mentality and that approach. It’s ‘Welcome to my home’ and it’s reverence for every single little thing and I love it. I think that is the way life should be. Life would be better if everything was like that and people were dedicated and people were focused.
Do you have any advice for young cooks starting out?
This is not a 100 meters, this is a marathon this business. It’s very hard to tell young people that. They want to jump on it and they want to run and that’s important. It’s good to have that. But you need to obviously be balanced and understand it doesn’t happen all in one day. You do have to be patient. You have to work at it and you have to keep up that ambition. You have to keep up that focus and that drive. When I say to them, I can tell you something, I can show you the door but you have to walk through that door.
Photo credit: Evan Sung
What is your earliest food memory?
My mom baking bread. She made really great crusty whole wheat bread in coffee cans.
What led you to become passionate about Thailand and northern Thai food?
Traveling in Northern Thailand back in the 80’s and 90’s. I can’t recommend travel enough for anyone who wants to learn more about another culture. And I’m not talking about going on a party tour or htting twenty locations in a week. Go there, stay in one place, be curious, let it unfold.
How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s an amalgamation of very traditional Thai technique (lots of mortar and pestle), line cook trickery and Western finessing of traditional Thai cooking technique (where many Thais would boil the shit out of some pork ribs, I will instead simmer…simple as that).
Who are some of your mentors, both in and out of the kitchen?
David Thompson, who made it seem possible for a farang (foreigner) like me to get some kind of grip on Thai cooking; Chris Israel (former boss and chef at Zefiro restaurant in Portland, a seminal eatery that pre-dated most of the current Portland scene, and current chef at Gruner in Portland) who really showed me how to use my palate. Sunny Chailert, my friend and mentor from Chiang Mai who has had tremendous influence on my taste and vocabulary. Willy Vlautin (author of several novels, one of which is currently a major motion picture: “Motel Life”) who said to me once “just tell your story”.
What inspired you to open Pok Pok and what were some of the challenges with the initial opening?
I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been a housepainter for nine years, did not want to work for anyone ever again and did not want to be a painter anymore. That left opening a restaurant.
How did the experience of opening in New York differ from opening in Portland?
Well, it was much fucking harder.
What are the main differences between diners in these two cities?
New York City diners tend to be more open to the more esoteric dishes on the menu, but both cities have embraced Pok Pok equally.
Are there any Thai (or non-Thai) ingredients that you are especially excited about at the moment?
Just picked up a kilo of naam phrik made in Mae Hong Son that has toasted ground thua nao khaep (thin fermented/dried soybean cakes), ground dried fish, salt and chiles, used for making certain dishes in the Tai Yai canon; looking forward to making Koh Phak Kuut (Tai Yai salad of fiddlehead ferns, tomatoes, shallots and this naam phrik, mixed with raw sesame oil and seeds) in the spring.
What kitchen tools do you consider essential?
Mortar and pestle. Since we are on knives here, I love Japanese knives…but I can afford them. Every recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook was made for the beauty shots in Thailand, in a Thai kitchen using cheap Kiwi knives, so no need to have the fancy knives to make this food…but it sure makes it easier.
Favorite places to eat in Thailand, the U.S. and beyond?
I love eating all over Thailand. I can’t really give a favorite spot, but Northern Thai is my first love, followed by Isaan and central Thailand….I love Southern Thai food too but know the least about it. I’d fly to London just to have breakfast at St. John Bread and Wine….and I don’t even like wine.
Photo credits: Evan Sung and David Reamer
We had an opportunity recently to sit down with Chef Chris Cosentino to discuss his culinary background, how he got into offal cookery and his favorite spots to eat in San Francisco and beyond.
How did you get into cooking initially and what is your food background?
My first job was as a dishwasher at an IHOP. Growing up in New England, I also worked on local fishing boats, lobstering and repairing fishing nets with a neighbor who was a fishing captain. Later, I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales and after graduation I moved to Washingon D.C. to work with Mark Miller at the Red Sage and later at restaurants including Rubicon, Chez Panisse, Belon, and Redwood Park in the Bay Area. I became Executive Chef at Incanto in 2002 and have been here ever since.
Who have some of your mentors been both in and out of the kitchen?
Mark Miller taught me to look at history to understand the culture and techniques of cooking. Jean-Louis Palladin had so much passion and love of the craft; he was a true chefs’ chef. Fergus Henderson helped open my eyes to the deliciousness of offal cookery and is just an all around fun guy to be around. Really, there are so many chefs that inspire and amaze me that I could go on forever.
In the U.S., you’ve been a pioneer in nose to tail eating. What inspired you to cook this way and how have diners’ perceptions changed over the years?
I helped out at an animal harvest and saw how much was being thrown away and I swore that I wouldn’t do that anymore. But, the thing about it is that I am not doing anything new. I am just bringing back old recipes that have been put to rest. These are viable cuts of meat that are eaten around the world. Why did we stop eating them? My goal was, and still is, to get people to give these cuts of meat a try. Now, I see more and more diners that seek me out specifically to experience offal for the first time or in a new way.
What’s the creative process for you in creating new dishes at Incanto?
It all starts with the product and then it is just a flow of flavors in my head. I taste the ingredients together before I even start to cook. I want to make sure they are going to work well together. Sometimes, it’s about a texture combination or adding umami to a dish or just using enough acid and herbs to get a balanced dish. Each time is a bit different but the end goal is to make it delicious. If it’s not, it doesn’t make the menu.
Are there any ingredients or cooking techniques you are particularly inspired by at the moment?
I am inspired by so many different techniques and right now I am reading a lot of old cookbooks and getting re-inspired by the classics. It’s amazing what could be done back in the day without all the fancy equipment we have now, like in the days of Escoffier.
Since Incanto opened in 2002, how has the restaurant evolved? How has the San Francisco dining scene evolved?
The city is forever evolving and at the restaurant I am trying everyday to improve the guests’ experience, with both the food and the service. We did a small remodel a few years ago and continually look for ways to enhance the experience.
What are your thoughts on culinary school? Do you feel it’s necessary?
I think culinary school depends on the person. Some need the direction and thrive in that environment. But, I do find it to be very expensive and can be misleading if grads think it will surely lead them to a future of fame, fortune and grandeur. At the end of the day, the most important trait you bring to the table is a strong work ethic.
As a chef who has had great success with food television, what are your thoughts on how Food Network and others are affecting food culture in the U.S?
Food television has been positive in many ways, but with every positive comes negatives. There are many people around the country now who are eating better and cooking at home because of food TV. There are also a lot of young cooks who only want to be on TV but don’t want to put in the time to really know what they are doing.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in San Francisco or elsewhere?
There are so many incredible places to eat that it’s hard to just pick one. In Chicago, it’s Blackbird and Publican. In New York, it’s Takashi, Empellon, and Hearth and in San Francisco, it’s State Bird Provisions.
Any words of advice to young cooks starting out?
Eat out at great restaurants where you think you might want to work. Read cookbooks and work your ass off. Listen and learn. It’s not personal, it’s business. Make sure that every dish is so perfect you would serve it to your grandmother. Listen, take notes, come prepared, keep your knives sharp and never be late.
We had the honor of sitting down with Shosui Takeda, the owner of Takeda Knives. Takedas’ blue steel knives are highly regarded for their craftsmanship, long lasting sharpness and overall superior performance.
How long have you been making knives and how did you start?
Because my father was also a blacksmith, I started helping out around the workshop when I was an elementary school student. At that time, my goal was to earn some allowance money to go bowling. Honestly though, it was never my intention to follow in my father’s footsteps and I didn’t start truly working as a blacksmith until I was 28.
How has your knife making progressed over the years?
The reason I started to make knives with a very thin blade was because of some comments from a long time customer. He told me “your knives hold a great edge, but the blade is too thick for cutting thick root vegetables like daikon without breaking the vegetable. Can you make your blades thinner?”. These comments twenty years ago changed my approach to knife making. Even after twenty six years of knife making, I still don’t know what the perfect knife is and all I can do is my absolute best every time. I still haven’t produced a knife that I’m one hundred percent happy with.
What are the traits of a good knife to you?
There are so many factors that make a great knife. To name a few: great cutting feel which lasts over time, easy to use, doesn’t chip or get damaged easily, can use for many years, difficult to rust, easy to sharpen. Also, I want our knives to cost the same as what you’d invest in a special pair of shoes. I could go on and on, but these are the basic things I think about every day when I’m in the workshop making knives.
Why do you choose to use Aogami Super Blue Steel? What makes it so special?
As far as the Aogami Super, all of our customers would only choose Aogami Super after using that knife. They say that they just can’t go back to other types of steel. About twenty years ago when we first started using Aogami Super, our main material was Blue Steel #1. Even though those knives held a great edge and were half the price, customers were choosing the Aogami Super. It’s that simple. From a craftsmanship perspective, when I first forged with Aogami Super, it was obvious that is a very very difficult material to work with. Even at this point, it is much harder than using a steel which is just one rank down. I do end up with a higher percentage of failed blades than I would working with other types of steel, but I feel it’s worth it for the end result.
You use a rosewood handle on your knives instead of magnolia. What are the benefits?
Rosewood is much tougher than magnolia. Repairing knives is an important part of what we do and we get knives back that have been used for twenty years. We can see that the rosewood lasts well over time even in professional kitchens. Shapewise, I do feel that the octagonal shape is the most comfortable and can be used by anyone. There are all kinds of different designs out there, but I believe the octagonal handles are the best.
Which of your knives are popular (overseas and Japan) and do you have any plans for new models in the future?
We’ve never once had our own idea of ‘producing a new model’. The reason our knife collection grows over time is all based on customer requests and feedback. We make changes to our knives little by little over time based on these comments.
What is your philosophy towards craftsmanship?
Something that I’ve discovered recently is a true craftsman is a person who doesn’t think in a sales related way. For example, if you think of all the different processes available for knife making, you see there are many ways to make knives that are profitable and easy to sell. You can make knives with press cutters or lasers, use layered steel or have a polished blade. These processes don’t require as much work. But when you have to make a decision on which process to use, a true craftsman chooses the method which creates the best knife for the user. Even if this process means more work to make and sell the knife, this is the path I will always choose. My goal is to pursue the best quality no matter what.
What is the process of forging a knife?
We start out by ordering a type of Aogami Super Blue steel called ‘fukugokouzai’. This combines carbon steel and a soft carbon blend. I feel this is the best quality material to start with.
Next, we cut the materials into the shape of each knife and weld the ‘nakago’ (tang) to each blade. We use a stain resistant steel for the nakago, so there won’t be any corrosion inside the handle of the knife. After welding these two pieces together, I use a hand grinder to smooth the joint between the nakago and body of the knife. Each knife then goes through a multiple-step forging and heat treatment process.
We then reshape each knife with a grinder and use a belt sander to smooth the edges step by step. At this point, we double check the joint between the nakago and the body of the knife. If there is even a slight imperfection, we re-weld and regrind the joint until it’s perfect.
We put a starter edge on to each knife and clean the surface of each blade with a wire brush. The knife is now ready for ‘yaki-ire’, a very important three day heating and cooling process.
To prep each knife for yaki-ire, we coat the blade with a powder made of natural sharpening stones and pine charcoal. In my furnace, I heat lead to 820 degrees Celsius and put each knife one by one into the furnace until it glows the appropriate ‘red’. Once the color is just right, I plunge the knife into an oil bath to cool it and clean it with a wire brush to remove any powder residue.
I have a tub with hot oil, set to 150 degrees Celsius, which each knife goes into after the ‘yaki-ire’ process. At the end of the day, the tub holds all of the knives I’ve worked on. I then heat the oil to 170 degrees Celsius and keep it at that temperature for forty minutes. I let the knives cool and sit in the tub overnight.
The next morning I heat the oil to 170 degrees again and keep it at that temperature for forty minutes. The knives sit in the tub for another twenty four hours. Lastly, I heat the oil to 150 degrees, take out each knife one by one and clean it with wood shavings.
After ‘yaki-ire’, I make sure each knife blade is completely straight.
Next is the edge crafting process. I start out using a ‘san-shaku’ rough grit sharpening wheel and then move onto a flat rotation medium grit sharpening wheel. The final process is to sharpen each knife by hand on a series of sharpening stones and coat with an anti-rusting material.
Lastly, we need to attach the handle. We insert epoxy into each handle and insert the blade, adjusting to the correct angle. The knife is now ready to be boxed up and leave our workshop!
Tell us a bit about where you grew up and early food memories.
I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia – my parents were boat people, which means they fled Vietnam during the war. We came to the US when I was about 5 months old. We lived in Illinois and then my parents moved us out to California when I was eight years old.When we came to the US we were extremely poor and in our case there were three families, two of my uncles and their children, so there were 14 or 16 of us living in the same household. At dinner time and lunch time, I remember all the kids would get together at a table and pick herbs. Everyone had a duty, a job.
I would love to say that I have fond memories of my mom slaving away and making traditional dishes, but growing up in an Asian family, you’re always eating Asian food, and it would get really boring, so I craved for American food and given the choice between a hamburger or a bowl of pho, I would have chosen the hamburger. My parents had a business with catering trucks, so I get asked a lot if this is where I got my inspiration from, but you know, they were never really happy because they worked long hours and used that as an example to my brother and I, to go to school to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.
I spent a lot of time going food shopping with my parents and seeing a variety of different produce. That instilled curiosity in me. And, because my parents worked a lot, they taught us how to take care of ourselves. From kindergarten on, we would boil water and make our own ramen. We would add leftovers and bits and pieces. My fascination and curiosity came from adding and exploring different ingredients and ultimately seeing how they translated.
How did you first get into a professional kitchen?
I was going to college at San Jose State University and I took a break my senior year and I attended culinary school. I didn’t learn anything really, I think everything they taught I already knew from watching Jacque Pepin and Martin Yan on PBS, or cooking at home. I do credit culinary school for requiring an internship to graduate.
I had applied for an internship at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Australia. I wrote a long letter and put together this beautiful packet, but I sent it and never heard back. And it wound down to a week before I had to submit my internship info and my counselor told me there was a restaurant down the street looking for interns, and the Chef, Laurent Gras had just been awarded FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef. I went to the 5th Floor that same day. One of the first things Laurent emphasized was that culinary school does not provide a foundation. Everything I would learn, the foundation I would build in the kitchen would be with him from here on out.
What was it like working for Laurent Gras?
Working with him changed my life. I literally got beaten physically and emotionally to the point where there were many times that I wanted to give up. But, Laurent’s philosophy resonated with me. I learned that practicing makes you not only a better cook but also a better person.
I had a long commute everyday, but it gave me an opportunity to clear my mind and really focus on what I needed to do to not be yelled at, I’d ask myself, ‘What do I have to do today to not get in trouble and to do something that would make Laurent proud?”. Over time things started to change. I remember Laurent telling me “Oh – you’re finally using your brain.” It was a huge compliment and I felt really good.
Now you’re based in Salt Lake City, which must have been a departure from San Francisco. What is the food scene like and how was Forage received?
It’s up and coming. I’ve been here six years now and I never anticipated so much to happen in such a short time. When we opened Forage, we received a lot of accolades early on and that reinforced how I felt about our dining community.
When we first opened, we didn’t know what to expect, but for myself and Bowman (Brown) it was the only thing we could imagine ourselves doing, and if it didn’t work out at least we tried. In the beginning it was very difficult, especially because the format was so different and new to Utah. For tasting menus across the country it’s nothing new or special.
We had a fixed tasting menu (for $72) and an optional 3 course menu for $29. In other cities it might seem cheap, but according to Utah standards it was really high. We got a lot of complaints early on, but once we got food reviewers and writers in and got glowing reviews the restaurant was packed. After we were jointly awarded Best New Chef by FOOD & WINE Magazine, we decided to get away from the three course menu and just do one menu of 14-17 courses, focusing on execution, quality of ingredients and the progression of the meal.
What do you have planned for your next project Ember and Ash?
The main influence for Ember and Ash comes from a really good buddy of mine. Joshua Skenes who has a restaurant called Saison in San Francisco. He was named FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef the same year I was. We’ve worked together a few times and it’s been life changing. At Forage we always cooked over a fire but what Josh is able to do takes it to a whole new level. Josh has incorporated a level of finesse and skill that’s poetic. You’re using the intensity of the heat but not incorporating the smoke or the char and that intensity brings out the deepest point of flavor in a lot of different and often times humble foods such as potatoes or beets or turnips. The flavors are unlike anything you can achieve through conventional cooking methods like sauté, baking, roasting all that.
I decided to incorporate a hearth into Ember and Ash. We’ll have a set menu. We’ll do 4 courses. I wanted to create a more relaxed atmosphere with casual but really attentive service and food that really speaks for itself. Chefs are serving you. I want people to leave feeling happy and surprised. With a price point where they can come back and back.
Your latest project with Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, Beer Bar, just opened in downtown Salt Lake City. How did this come about?
I first met Ty Burell a few years ago when he dined at Forage. At that time I really didn’t know who he was, but learned through my server. Ultimately I went out and purchased season 2 of Modern Family after watching the entire season, I was hooked. Ty, along with his brother Duncan and some partners, opened Bar X, let’s just say it’s a place I frequent a lot. Through spending time there we all became good friends and established a great partnership.
When I heard they were toying with the idea of a beer bar with food, it definitely piqued my interest and I thought it would be a wonderful challenge because it would be totally casual, event though my background is in fine dining. I helped them develop their specialty brat sandwiches, their sauces, fries, kitchen layout and defining their menu. It’s been really fun and well received. And was picked up by Food & Wine for their March issue – Tyler and did a photo shoot, where we got to cook and eat/drink, and shoot the shit together. All said and done, Tyler is an amazing and savvy business person. With the success that he has achieved, he’s still a nice and humble guy that just wants to do good things for the community.
What are your essential kitchen tools?
I love my tweezers, and a lot of people think using tweezers is ridiculous, but to me it’s a tool of finesse. Often times we use small herbs that your fingers would bruise. Our dishes tend to be smaller and tweezers allow for that intricacy that is required and the health department likes it. Blenders are often overlooked, but they do so much. Everything from sauces to purees to making oils and all that stuff. And I take great pride in taking care of my knives. The craftsmanship of Japanese knives is an inspiration and extension of what we are trying to do as chefs.
You’re a spokesman for the the International Rescue Committee, tell us a little about your work there?
I come from a refugee family and we were fortunate enough to come to the US and have someone sponsor us, I know how important the IRC’s work is. Bringing people from war torn countries and giving them a second chance while providing education and workforce services. All that great stuff gets the people up and going.
The division that I work with is called The Roots and basically what we’ve done in Salt Lake City is purchase a huge plot of land and turned it into a farming community. It allows different refugees to get a plot of land so they can grow their own native ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. It’s special for me because get introduced to ingredients I’d never see in supermarkets, like Sudanese Roselle Leaf, which is part of the hibiscus family, it’s really sour. This leaf is kind of red in color as it matures and has a really lemony flavor.
PJ Calapa is Executive Chef at Michael White’s Ai Fiori and Costata.
Do you have an earliest food memory?
Yeah, there’s a few. I grew up on the Mexican border. My Dad’s side of the family is Italian, my Mom’s side of the family is Spanish and food was always around. Every event was surrounded by someone cooking dinner or going out to dinner. My grandfather had a fish business in Texas with commercial fishing boats and he would sell fish to customers all around the United States. I remember going there as a young child and playing with all the fish and smelling all the fish and not being allowed to go anywhere after that because I stunk. But then that fish coming home with us and my mother cooking fish for us, or my grandmother cooking fish for us. Making ceviche and my mother’s ceviche recipe is still ingrained in my head and that will be on one of my menus one day.
How did you get into professional cooking?
So I did it for a long time. I didn’t know that I loved it, I just knew that I was into it. Because of where I grew up, I never actually knew that it could be a career. I graduated from high school, I went to college at Texas A & M, had a degree in Economics and there was no other choice in the family. I remember cooking dinner for my friends in my house for 12 people and it was no big deal. And, I remember someone saying you should be a chef. And I was wondering if that was even possible. This was around the year 2000, not that long ago, but it was so far beyond in my eyes that it could be a profession. I remember calling my parents and them saying no way. I finally convinced them to let me get a job in Texas working in a restaurant and then it all happened after that. There was no turning back at that point. I went to CIA and I’ve been in New York since.
Who were your culinary mentors?
First and foremost, I always give credit to the first place I ever worked, which was called Christopher’s World Grill in Bryan, Texas. Christopher Lampo was a CIA grad and they make everything from scratch and it was the proper kind of restaurant to train at. Especially because in the market in Texas at that time there was a lot of change and people not doing things the right way.
My first job in NY was at Bouley, with David Bouley. The Chef de Cuisine was Cesar Ramirez and I knew I was somewhere special at that point but didn’t know because I was so new to New York. I knew that I did everything wrong at the beginning and I knew that I didn’t want to do it wrong. He instilled a standard in me that will never change. And, I still hold that standard in me and hold it to everyone that I work with and who works for me.
As a chef with experience with both Japanese and Italian cuisine, do you see any parallels?
When I told people I was going to work at Nobu, they were surprised because I’m not Japanese. But I told them it doesn’t really work like that there. Food is food, the ingredients change, but cooking is cooking. There’s obviously different styles in different regions and differerent countries but at the end of the day cooking is cooking. You cook a piece of meat and you cook a piece of meat. Once I immersed myself in that Nobu culture and the Nobu version of Japanese, I understood what the key ingredients were. But, his ability to expand in different directions, I sort of learned the core ingredients and rules I needed to play by and at that point I just let myself be creative.
Taking that fine dining version of Japanese now, I see immense parallels between Japanese and Italian. The emphasis on ingredients is like none other in the world. You eat at a three star Michelin in Italy and they’ll give you a piece of mozzarella on a plate. But, it’s the best mozarella from the best person from the best town and I love that. I think that simplicity in food is difficult. I think everyone can put twenty different ingredients on a plate but can you do four and do it right. So, Nobu taught me that. The Japanese style taught me that and now I’ve definitely put that into the way I cook now, which is more Western and Italian.
What ingredients inspire you right now?
Anything green. The morels right now are beautiful. I was so impressed with the quality we’re getting from the West Coast so I’m putting on everything right now. We just got our first batch of asparagus from Jersey, which is beautiful purple top asparagus. That, I look forward to because it’s only a month long season. There’s asparagus from around the world twelve months a year, but when it’s right there and in season it’s fantastic. I’ll eat it shaved raw in a salad.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool and technique?
My favorite tool is a knife and my go to is my slicer that I use for everything. If it was an electronic tool, I would say a Vita Prep. The power those blenders have is incredible. It’s funny, we were just cooking in Korea and we noticed the things they didn’t have compared to what we have. And, we were slowed down because they didn’t have these high powered blenders.
We also do a fair amount of sous vide cooking here. I like to use it the way I like to use it though, which is not for a lot of proteins. We have one lamb dish on the menu, which is lamb rack wrapped in lamb sausage and we needed to take the inside lamb to a certain temperature before the sausage did. But, that’s the only protein that goes in a circulator. We do ten different vegetable techniques in a circulator. I feel like that is the best approach for a circulator. Artichokes in the bag, perfect every time. Potato Fondant in the bag, perfect every time. We braise endive in balsamic in a bag. You literally have to add no moisture and it cooks in its own liquid. You can control the temperature, you can control the pressure. We’ve really expanded on technique in that direction.
What’s the process of creating new dishes for the menu?
The main approach comes from me but the sous chefs and I will sit down and have a menu meeting. We’ll talk about the direction we want to go with certain things. Sometimes I’ll draw a complete blank and not have an idea for a dish but at other times I’ll say I want this, this and this. They will put all the components on a plate, and we’ll replate and re-taste and build from there. I feel very strongly about empowering the young chefs as I was and it’s amazing what we can all come up with as a team.
Favorite dish to cook at home?
I love a good Sunday stew. Lately, I’ve been going in the Italian direction where I’ll braise a pork shoulder in tomato sauce. A little fresh pasta, a salad and everything hits the table at once and we can sit down and talk for hours. That’s how we do it and that’s how I was raised. I reached the point in my career where I was cooking six dishes for my family and spending the whole day in the kitchen and then realizing that was stupid. You need to spend time with them. Things that I can make ahead of time but that are still amazing and delicious.
What are your favorite places to eat in New York?
The Breslin makes me very happy. Their terrine board is flawless; we always start with that. I think their Caesar salad is fantastic and if there’s a big group we’ll do ribeye, we’ll do this or that. It’s great for groups and that’s definitely the style we like to eat these days. I always love to go eat good sushi as well. 15 East blew me away recently. The composed kitchen items were great, the sushi was out of this world.
Lisa Q Fetterman is the founder and CEO of Nomiku, a Kickstarter backed start-up manufacturing one the first immersion circulators designed for home use.
Tell us a little about where you grew up and early food memories.
I moved from Shangdong, Jinan, in China to New York in ’94. I was the weird foreigner that came to school with her t-shirt tucked in, didn’t speak English, and didn’t change her clothes every day. Basically if I wasn’t ridiculed I was ignored. One brave first grader came over to my house for dinner and we served her a 1,000 year old egg. I’d never seen anybody’s eyes get that big. She left and I didn’t know if it went well or not. The next day kids were climbing over themselves to say hi to me and were really eager to come over to my house to taste “weird stuff.” It definitely opened my eyes to the power of food and I’ve loved experimenting and meeting people around it ever since.
How did you make the transition from doing a Journalism degree to working in kitchens?
Actually it’s the other way around! I was in college and worked in restaurants as a part time job because I was absolutely in love with the food scene. After I graduated I had to get a “real job” but quickly fell back into the fold of the food world. You can’t hide what you love.
How did Nomiku come to be?
My boyfriend at the time (now husband) is a plasma physicist, since he was getting his PhD and I had just graduated school we needed to have cheap dates. We’d watch Top Chef and then cook for each other, during one of the episodes I said off the cuff, “Oh man, I really want to save up money to buy one of those circulators” he told me he could just make one for me so he did! We had a crude but sturdy solderless set-up and it cooked eggs, it completely blew our minds that at 64C the yolk solidifies before the whites. We got hooked and started taking classes at hackerspaces, soon we learned how to use Arduino and started giving kits to anybody who wanted sous vide for themselves. Before we got married we begged our wedding videographers to help make us a Kickstarter video, we put it up and became the most well funded Kickstarter project in our category at the time. It helped pay for production and we’ve been shipping from October last year.
What was your experience like with Kickstarter?
Kickstarter is a dream and a nightmare. It’s actually all about confronting a lot of your own fears. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of not being liked. If you’re transparent and upfront the truth will literally set you free. However, it’s so hard to get to that point where you just share everything, I don’t like to disappoint and it’s hard to be yourself in front of so many people. The whole thing is a filled with ups and downs, my favorite takeaway from Kickstarter is the rich friendships I’ve received from it, from people who really get my project and connect with my DNA. I’ve made lifelong friends.
You spent quite a bit of time in Shenzhen while planning the production of the Nomiku – Can you tell us about memorable feasts there?
Best eating experiences were this one Buddhist vegetarian restaurant and hot pot, oh the glorious real hot pots of China, it was the best sitting around the table with dozens of people dripping glistening raw meat into bubbling rich broth. The aroma and alcohol made the experience so heady, when we walked out it was as if we just came out of a sauna from heaven. Imagine if you were allowed to eat in saunas— yeah it’s pretty great.
The worst eating experience was when our factory people took us the the “edible zoo”. They had a monitor lizard as well as a raccoon in small dingy cages. They’d have you go to the room first with the menagerie of animals it smelled so awful the and the animals looked so miserable I couldn’t eat anything at the meal.
Having moved to San Francisco from New York, what’s been the biggest lifestyle difference?
I am in love with San Francisco! The produce here— are you kidding me?! Oh the fresh air, the kind neighbors, the tech innovation, it makes me want to twirl around with happiness. I catch myself skipping to work sometimes because I’m so happy. I miss the intensity and public transportation of New York but I catch myself completely infatuated with an aspect of San Francisco every day.
Do you and Abe, your husband and co-founder get a chance to cook much at home? If so, what do you like to make?
We cook most of our meals at home! We get in the routine of making scrambled eggs in our Nomiku, chicken for dinner, octopus, steak. Sometimes we have a routine but most weeks we cook based on what’s available at the farmer’s market and exciting in the butcher shop.
Tell us about Bam, your 3rd founder.
We met Bam when we taught at a hackerspace. He introduced himself as a chef and he is, he’s classically trained at FCI and cooked at Momofuku, Fatty Crab, and Daniel just to name a few. When we were in China making Nom we got pretty burnt out and decided to go on a vacation to Thailand. We found Bam was there about to take a job as an executive chef at a huge corporation so we shared with him our plans for Nomiku. He picked us up and said, “guys, you know I have an industrial design degree from RISD, right?” It was kismet and we went back to China together with him as our co-founder!
Aside from Nomiku, what are you essential kitchen tools?
I gotta have that wooden spoon and my dutch oven. I love it to make tomato sauce on weekends where we can slowly simmer it for 4 hours on the stove. The whole house smells like heaven.
Where should we eat on our next trip to San Francisco?
One of the most incredible food experiences I’ve ever had was at Saison. Once I had a dream that I was eating at Saison again and I woke up with a kind of divine joy that carried me through my day. I’m also happy if you take to Rich Table, Alta, Zuni Cafe, and Prubechu. Prubechu is pretty unique and it’s super new, they serve the food of Guam— I had never had Guamanian food before!
Kevin Sbraga is Chef and Owner at Sbraga and Fat Ham in Philadelphia. He was the winner of Season 7 of Top Chef.
Tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got into food and cooking.
I grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, which is in Burlington County, about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia and both of my parents were bakers. My father owned his own business so I really learned how to walk, talk and eat in the bakery. It all started there. At a very early age, I developed a love for food.
How did you turn your baking history into a professional career?
I think the biggest step actually started with watching PBS television. Loving more of the savory television shows than the baking or pastry shows and really just enjoying food. There was Martin Yan, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, but the one that really sticks out the most for me, was ‘Great Chefs, Great Cities’. That was an amazing show back in the day. They would travel to three different cities with three different chefs. One chef would do an appetizer, one an entree and one a dessert and it showcased chefs from all over the country, from Philadelphia to New Orleans to New York to wherever else.
After that, I think the biggest step was deciding to go to a vocational high school and really starting to experience and enjoy the savory side of things versus the bakery and pastry side.
Appearing on television can be a double edged sword for a serious chef, what were your highlights and lowlights of doing Top Chef?
Top Chef was a really interesting experience. The highlight, obviously was winning. The lowlight was getting through the entire process. It’s gruelling, it really challenged me in every single way – emotionally, spiritually, physically. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done but it was also very rewarding at the end and a lot of great things have come since then.
What were some of the biggest challenges getting in opening your first restaurant, Sbraga?
Finding a location first and then finding investors. You can try to do it yourself, you can try to get a loan or you can go with investors. Just presenting someone with a solid business plan that makes sense to them and having them be willing to take a gamble on you. That is a huge, huge challenge, and a lot of people really don’t realize that.
How has the restaurant evolved since you opened two and a half years ago?
The restaurant constantly evolves. I was looking at the original business plan and the menu and the ideas were so different from where we are at today. We recently just changed the menu and now have a whole ‘pasta and grain’ section. When I first wrote the menu, it was appetizer, fish, meat, dessert and we’ve completely evolved since then. Right now, we have a dish that was foie gras soup that was on the menu for over two years and decided to just take that off and give it away [as an amuse bouche] so everyone can experience it. We went through a period where we had tablecloths and then we removed them and then we just put them back again. Flowers, we had flowers and then no flowers and then flowers back on. The restaurant is like a baby, it constantly grows and needs to be nurtured all the time.
How much of your menu is chef driven and how much is there to appeal to customer requests?
I would say 95% of what is on the menu is chef driven, either by myself or by my Chef de Cuisine Greg Garbacz. And, we serve it and then get feedback. For the most part, we do really really well. There may be a 5% chance that something or someone is disappointed or something is not executed well. We make those changes and everything is visible with an open kitchen. When we see a plate go back that is full or not eaten, it’s pretty obvious that there is an issue. We are pretty much in control of the experience.
How do you approach creating new dishes for the menu?
It’s interesting how dishes come together. It’s changed over the years. When I was younger, it started with a lot of sketching and thinking of shapes and how they would go work together. Right now, it’s very very different. Mostly, depending on the time of the year, it comes from ingredients. What ingredients are in season and what will pair well. Some of it has to do with cooking technique. Some of it has to do with our ability to execute out of the kitchen. But, really what we try to do is take an ordinary ingredient and pair it with something that is extraordinary. Something that may be slightly different. It may be a spice, it may be a fruit, it may be a vegetable, it may be a different cooking technique for that product. But, at the end of the day we just want to create delicious food.
What inspires you right now?
I’m inspired by people, I’m inspired by fellow chefs, I’m inspired by ingredients. I’m really really inspired by travel, because I get the opportunity to taste and try different things. With techniques, right now I’m most passionate about grilling and roasting. I think it’s a lost art and I think it’s really going to continue to make a comeback. There was a time when we were doing everything so avant garde and I think we are going back to really basic cooking. How can we control the fire properly. How can we make sure it cooks evenly. Things like that are really exciting to me right now.
You mentioned travel as a big inspiration. Where was the food culture inspiring for you?
Most recently, I was down South and the food culture there is absolutely amazing. That’s how we developed the second restaurant, Fat Ham. It’s just by being inspired by what we saw and tasted. I’ve been influenced by a lot of places I travel to, but the South has been the biggest in terms of influencing a concept for me.
How would you describe your style?
My style, my food is Modern American and what that means is great ingredients, global influence, America as a melting pot. Here, at Sbraga, there are no boundaries. It’s really about a high level of execution. You may have a dish that has curry in there, another that has fennel, another has fenugreek. We play around with it. At the Fat Ham, it’s rooted in good Southern cooking. I’m also getting ready to open a new concept and that’s based on grilling and raw bar, that wood fire cooking. To me, this is all American food, just great ingredients.
Favorite kitchen tool or piece of equipment?
I would say the wood burning grill is my favorite piece of equipment. We’ve done that since day one at Sbraga. There has never been a menu that hasn’t had that component. As far as a tool, honestly, it’s as simple as a spoon. Spoons are very versatile – we can use it to plate, we can use it to taste. I can use it to bang on a table to get someone’s attention. It’s one of those things I can’t live without it and I use it often.
Favorite dish to cook on your day off?
It sounds silly but it’s probably Grilled Cheese. I had it yesterday for lunch – it’s comforting, it’s something I remember from childhood and it’s just good. At home, I really enjoy simple things. I don’t like to make it too complex. Often, I’ll do one pots meals. I enjoy the simple things.
American, Swiss or Cheddar?
American. It melts great, it’s gooey, it has a pretty neutral flavor. I’m the most basic guy. Give my Wonder Bread or Stroehmann, butter and cheese and that’s it, I’m good.
Recommendations for eating out in Philly?
The first one that comes to mind is Stella Pizzeria; I’m there often. It is just so comforting, it’s always consistent. And, the second one is Pho Ha on Washington Avenue. It’s consistent, it’s quick and delicious. Those are my two go-tos in Philadelphia.
Alina Martell is the pastry chef at Ai Fiori, Michael White’s contemporary Italian restaurant in New York’s Langham Place Hotel.
Tell us a bit about where you grew up?
I grew up in a town called East Lansing, Michigan. East Lansing is a great suburban town just outside the capital and the home to Michigan State University.
Both my parents also grew up in Michigan. My mother is Mexican American and my father’s family owned a dairy farm in southwest Michigan. I grew up with all kinds of good food. My mother cooked a lot and always had baked goods of some sort in the house.
How did you start cooking professionally?
After going to school at University of Michigan I initially worked in politics and law. I had always loved cooking and started out doing some catering on the side. A family friend worked part time in a bakery at one of the few nicer restaurants in the area. She said they were hiring and I decided to give a try. I realized I was having a lot of fun doing something I was good at. I knew I needed to train somewhere else so I came to NYC to go to school and to find a job.
Did you train in savory cooking as well as pastry?
I never trained formally as a savory cook but taught myself mostly from reading cookbooks and flipping through food magazines. When I first started cooking I used to plan dinner parties for friends and take recipes straight from the pages of Bon Appetit. I still enjoy savory cooking but I love pastry. To me pastry is just pure luxury, but an everyday luxury. You do not need it, but it is so much fun and so satisfying. I make a living feeding people sugar, but hopefully it is something that makes them happy.
What was your first restaurant in New York?
When I first got to New York, a friend from culinary school took me to wd~50 for a dessert tasting. I remember having Chef Sam Mason’s Manchego Cheesecake with an herb coulis and it was the most interesting dessert I’d ever tasted. A week later, never really having had a job in a serious restaurant kitchen, I walked in and dropped off my resume. I talked to a cook at the time named Bill Corbett, now the executive pastry chef for The Absinthe Group in San Fransisco. I just wanted to work there and they took me on as a stagaire. I worked at wd~50 just a few days a week but it was with an all star team of talent, including Sam, Bill and Christina Tosi. I was very fortunate to learn from all of them.
After finishing culinary school, I was hired by Johnny Iuzzini at Jean-Georges. I spent a few months working in Nougatine and then moved upstairs to the JG kitchen. I remember being a little bit terrified and completely overwhelmed. It is an intimidating kitchen.
It’s often said that Jean Georges is one of the most well run kitchens anywhere. Was that your experience?
Jean-Georges is a very well run kitchen. The food is beautiful and precise and the standards are very high. It is an awesome kitchen to train in. The pastry kitchen in particular was culinary school all over again. I think you never know how much you’ve learned from a place until you’ve left. In the midst of it, the kitchen is sometimes monotonous. Doing the same dishes over and over again. But at the end of it, or when you move on the to next kitchen you realize the amount you have learned is impressive.
And from there you went on to Corton?
Paul Liebrandt was getting ready to open Corton and had hired Robert (Bob) Truitt to be the pastry chef. Bob was a friend and I knew Paul through my husband. I know they were recruiting pastry cooks and needed help to open. At the time I was working at the French Culinary institute on a website called PastryScoop.com. I initially started at Corton a few days a week but eventually took a full-time job there. There was a pretty amazing staff of cooks and chefs that opened Corton. Every day there was a challenge in the best possible way. Paul is demanding but for good reason and I am incredibly proud to have just contributed.
And how did you come to Ai Fiori?
Bob was leaving to take the pastry chef job at Ai Fiori and there was a great opportunity at Ai Fiori, but in general at Altamarea Group. Michael White’s restaurant group was expanding. My husband, Amador Acosta, had opened Marea with Chef White with a lot of success. I knew it was a good group to join and that it would be a new challenge. We had always had a small, close-knit team at Corton, just two or three of us and a very modern particular style of desserts. At Ai Fiori it was going to be a crew of 7 or 8 doing breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week in a dining room that could seat 160 people.
I’ve been here going on four years. Bob is now the executive pastry chef for AltaMarea Group. I have always had a great staff here. A lot of the pastry cooks have moved on to be sous-chefs and chefs at the other AltaMarea group restaurants. I think Ai Fiori is great training ground because of the scope of what we do. We do viennoiserie for breakfast, classic tarts and desserts for lunch like mille feuille and Paris-Brest, and modern plated desserts for dinner. We do a bit of bread production and have a great chocolate program. We get to practice everything.
And so, inevitably, when AMG is in the planning stages of a new restaurant I know Bob is going to take at least one of my cooks or sous chefs. I think that is what makes the program here at Ai Fiori and within AMG so great: there are always new challenges and opportunities for our staff.
What makes a successful composed dessert?
I think every chef has his or her own style. My style is influenced a lot by Bob and the sort of things we have been making for the past few years. I also think there should be an element of familiarity and surprise with dessert. For me creating dessert is always a balancing act.
At Ai Fiori we are able to do a lot within the frame of being a French-Italian restaurant, highlighting the cuisine of the Rivera. One of the classics here is our Ligurian olive oil cake. We have had it on the menu in some form since we opened. Sliced for breakfast, assembled with ice cream and fruit for lunch and as an element of a dinner dessert. Right now we have the olive oil cake on the dinner menu, layered with Sicilian pistachio, strawberry gelee and mascarpone mousse. Topped with fresh strawberries and a candied violet nougatine. The flavors—olive oil, mascarpone, pistachio—are all Italian but to me the dessert tastes like the perfect strawberry shortcake. It is not a complicated dessert, by no means all that innovative and the flavors are simple but it is one of my favorites.
We have freedom to play with what we create. We have a range of very classicly styled desserts with familiar flavors to desserts that are completely deconstructed. I like to have a vacherin on the menu and a lot of times we take apart the elements of a classic vacherin (sorbet, ice cream, meringue, etc.) and put it back together in fun ways. I saw a beautiful vacherin Michael Laiskonis did with a meringue that was formed in a ring and standing up on a plate. It was a bit of a high wire act to do for a busy restaurant like Ai Fiori but we found a way to make it work. Our dessert also included a pomegranate, green apple and lime. It ended up being a popular dessert I think in part because it was something surprising and interesting to see.
Is there one particular ingredient you’re excited about this moment?
We have a lot of fun with chocolate at Ai Fiori. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with Valhrhona. Recently we got in a single origin dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Loma Sotavento 72%. Valrhona made the chocolate in limited production and a portion of the sales benefit a school in the Dominican Republic near the cacao plantation where this chocolate is produced. We wanted to really showcase this particular chocolate so we designed a dessert around it. The dessert is a chocolate chiboust tart, baked to order. There is a bit of coffee infused into a ganache and chocolate covered candied cocoa nibs. Just to make it even more appealing we made a marsala gelato that we wanted to taste a like tiramisu—rich, lots of egg yolks and cream and a bit of coffee and marsala wine. It is a very satisfying dessert if you are a chocolate fan.
Your husband Amador Acosta is a Chef for Altamarea group (Chef/Kitchen Operations Director). Do you two cook at home much?
We cook a lot. Actually he cooks a lot. We probably stay in and cook at home five nights a week. My diet at work is not all that great and I know I consume far too much sugar, so we eat pretty healthy at home. Plus it is just how we like to eat. The usual is roasted chicken or a steak that we split, green vegetables and potatoes, a glass of wine and call it a night. I don’t do a lot of baking at home save the occasional pie or batch of cookies.
For some reason, or maybe because we both grew up in the midwest, we like canning and jamming. Come summertime when the good produce is at the Greenmarket we will start jamming everything. We are both big fans of peaches. Peach jam, peach pie, peach mostarda, peach anything.
Also love cherries. I have a friend whose family has an orchard in Northern Michigan, and they have these great cherries called balaton cherries. Balaton are like morello cherries, tart but with a dark flesh, so perfect for canning. If it is a good cherry season, they will send me a freight shipment from Traverse City. I hand them out to chefs and bartenders around the city. Bartenders like them because they’re good for making brandy or homemade maraschino cherries. Last year we got 100 lbs of balaton cherries straight from the farm.
Do you have any dining recommendations should we find ourselves in East Lansing?
There is as great restaurant that recently opened called Red Haven. One of the owners is a high school classmate, Nina Santucci. Initially Nina and her husband opened a food truck called The Purple Carrot that was a huge hit. I am very glad to see them and their restaurant doing well.
People that are new to Japanese knives and even some more experienced users often have questions about what makes Japanese different and how the various knife shapes can be used. What follows is our simple guide on the most common knife types and their specific uses.
Gyutou / Chef’s Knife
Gyutou are the Japanese equivalent of a typical European chef’s knife. They are the ideal all-purpose kitchen knives and can be used for most tasks. Japanese gyutou are typically lighter and thinner than a European knife, are made out of a harder steel and as a result, hold a better edge. The design features nothing to obstructing the edge of the handle end of the blade, so it can be sharpened and thus used entirely. The word gyutou in Japanese means ‘beef knife’.
Santoku / Multipurpose
Santoku, which means ‘three virtues’ in Japanese, is an all-purpose knife with a taller blade profile than a gyutou. Its three virtues are the knife’s ability to cut fish, meat and vegetables. Santoku have a flatter ‘belly’ than gyutou and can be used comfortable with an up and down chopping motion rather than a ‘rocking’ type cut.
Sujihiki / Slicer
Sujihiki knives are the equivalent to a European slicer with a few differences. First, the blade is typically thinner and made out of a harder steel, allowing for better edge retention. Additionally, the bevel on the blade is sharpened at a steeper angle, allowing for a more precise cut. Sujihiki can be used for filleting, carving and general purposes.
Petty / Paring
Petty knives are small utility or paring knives that are ideal for small, delicate work that a chef’s knife can’t handle such as delicate produce and herbs, small fruits and vegetables.
Honesuki / Boning
A honesuki is a Japanese boning knife and differs from its Western version, in that it has a triangular shape and a stiff blade with very little flex. The honesuki works incredibly well for deboning poultry and cutting through soft joints. Typically it has an asymmetrical edge although 50/50 balanced versions (not favoring left of right handed use) exist. Due to its shape and height, the honesuki can also function nicely as a utility or petty style of knife.
Hankotsu / Boning
A Hankotsu is a Japanese boning knife and differs from a Western boning knife in its shape. It has a thick spine and durable blade with none of the ‘flex’ found in a Western boning knife. Originally suited to debone hanging meats, it is excellent at cleaning loins, but can function as a petty or utility knife on the fly.
Nakiri / Vegetable Knife
Nakiri knives are the double edged Western style equivalent of a single edged Japanese usuba knife. Thanks to their straight blade, nakiri are ideal for julienne, brunoise allumette an other precision knife cuts for vegetables. Also a great tool for cutting into very hard skinned produce like pumpkins and squash.
Yo-deba / Butchery
Yo-deba knives are heavy, durable knives with a thick spine, which are used for fish and meat butchery. They typically feature a 50/50 balance so they are appropriate for both left and right handed use.
Yanagi / Slicer
Yanagi are single-edged traditional Japanese knives used in a long drawing motion to cut precise slices of sushi, sashimi and crudo and their single-edge means they are able get incredibly sharp.
Takobiki / Slicer
Takobiki are a variation of a yanagi and originated in the Kanto (Tokyo) region of Japan. They are also single-edged allowing for an incredibly sharp edge and are used for slicing sushi, sashimi and crudo. Its rumored that the blunt tip end was favored by sushi chefs in Tokyo because tight spaces meant they had less distance between themselves and customer, so the flat edge tip made for a safer experience.
Deba / Butchery
Deba are traditional single bevel Japanese knives with a thick spine and a lot of weight. They are used for fish butchery, filleting and can also be used on poultry. Their size varies depending on the size of the fish or animal that is broken down.
Usuba / Vegetable Knife
The usuba is a traditional Japanese vegetable knife with a single edge. Single-edged knives are able to get incredibly sharp and are favored for precise vegetable work. The Kamagata Usuba, pictured above has a curved tip, which is a regional variation from Osaka.
Kiritsuke / Slicer
The kiritsuke is a traditional Japanese knife with an angled tip that can be used as either a sashimi knife or as an all-purpose knife. In restaurant kitchens in Japan, this knife is traditionally used by the Executive Chef only and cannot be used by other cooks.
Pankiri / Bread Knife
Pankiri are designed and used for slicing bread and baked goods. The ridged teeth are designed specifically for this purpose and can cut though hard crusts as well as delicate items without crushing.
This video is the first part of a series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video, we demonstrate the correct technique for sharpening a 70/30 edged Japanese knife.
We had a chance to sit down and talk with Chef Gavin Kaysen. Chef Gavin is the Executive Chef at Cafe Boulud in New York City and head coach for the United States’ Bocuse D’Or team.
How did you get into cooking initially?
I started out working at Subway actually, and not that it really inspired me to cook for a living, but I did learn what taking care of people meant.
It was not until my mentor, George Serra moved in next to us to open a restaurant when I got the bug to be in this business. He taught me a lot about this business but mostly he taught me what it meant to love what you do.How would you describe your culinary style and how has it evolved over the years?
What’s a new ingredient that you’ve discovered recently or started incorporating into the menu at Cafe Boulud?
We are using a lot of chili’s right now for our new voyage menu…they have been fun and very hot to expereiment with.
What’s your philosophy on guest hospitality in your restaurant?
Through humility, genuine care, warmth, graciousness and love, we commit ourselves to welcoming every guest and treating them the way we would if they were in our own homes.
What’s one or two kitchen tools you couldn’t live without?
A sharp knife and a spoon
How did you get involved with the Bocuse D’Or and what’s your current role with Team USA?
I became involved back in 2005 when I went to Lyon for the first time to watch the competition as a spectator. I then represented the USA in 2007 and shortly after that, helped Chefs, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse create the Bocuse d’Or USA foundation. I am currently the head coach for team USA.
As far as other chefs, who inspires you?
Many, it is too hard to pinpoint one….but I am always inspired by the people and the chefs who take risks with their career and their food.
Can you tell us about your favorite places to eat in NYC or elsewhere?
Again, too many to say, but if I had to pick one favorite high end place it would be Le Bernadin. They are simply amazing at what they do and I cherish every meal I have had there.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Chef Dale Talde recently to talk about his approach to cooking, his favorite places to eat in New York and beyond and advice for cooks just starting out.
How did you get into cooking initially?
By being around food and seeing my mom cook. My mom grew her own vegetables, my dad fished and hunted and I used to watch them cook all the time. I loved watching cooking shows and I think watching all that go down at a young age was my inspiration.
Who have your mentors been over the years?
My first mentor was Jeff Felsinthall at Vong. He’s a culinary instructor now, but he worked at Charlie Trotter’s as a sous chef. He opened Charlies’ back in the day and he was just militant in his approach. And at first, when you are younger and you don’t realize what he’s doing, it comes off that he’s picking on you or you think ‘what’s this guy’s problem?’. But then you go into another kitchen and I saw he was really laying down the foundation for me learning to cook.
Probably my biggest culinary mentor is Carrie Nahabedian at Naha. She just opened a new restaurant Brindille. She’s just a really close culinary chef friend. She has helped me out through thick and thin and her approach is very seasonal. She was the first person who taught me what locavore is, with using what’s around and what’s seasonal and embracing that and having a relationship with farmers, with your fish guy and your meat guy. I think the best thing she taught me is how to portion foie gras. We used to portion it to order and I used to portion and have a scale next to me. And, I guess it’s not the most economical way, but I would weigh out a 2 and ½ ounce portion and she would say, ‘Dale, cut a piece of foie gras that you would want to eat. And, I said all right and I cut this steak of a piece of foie. And I seared it, and she taught me how to cook it. Without her and her cousin Michael, who own Naha and Brindille, I wouldn’t be the chef that I am today.
Other mentors are Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Stephen Starr. Stephen’s not a chef, but Stephen taught me how to look at food and how to eat food and how to look at it from a customer’s perspective. How are your diners going to perceive what you are doing? That’s important to me.
How would you describe your personal culinary style?
I would say we do food that’s pretty fun. We have three restaurants and we just try to have fun with the food. It’s a gastro pub at Thistle, it’s Asian American here at Talde. It’s something that is familiar but has an unexpected surprise to it. That’s what we do.
How was the concept at Talde born?
The concept was a really funny surprise. It was like hey this is what we want to do, we don’t know how to explain it. And one of our close friends was our PR guy at the time, Khong, and he said let’s look at who and what you are. I’m a Filipino-American but I don’t do Filipino food, I do roundabout Asian food. And he said, why don’t we call it Asian American. It describes who you are and this restaurant is who you are, so why don’t we call it that. I was very cautious about it. I mean who wants to go out for Asian American food? But, it was a new term and you grouped it as Asian and it worked and it took off.
What were some of the challenges in opening Talde?
Trying to get a staff together, trying to hire a staff, trying to find what sells, what doesn’t. Really making food that is good enough for the neighborhood, because we are trying to be a neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately, it’s a neighborhood of savvy diners and people who have money to spend on food and really know what good food is. That was kind of our first challenge. Is this food good enough? Is what we’re doing good enough? And you know some of the first dishes like the wedge salad with Chinese bacon and Sriracha. We made that for us, we didn’t make that for the diners. It was selfish, but the neighborhood said if I wanted a wedge salad, I would go to a diner. Why would I need to come here? I just waited an hour and a half for a table; I’m not going to order a wedge salad.
What’s the inspiration for creating new dishes?
New dishes for us is our daily lives. Walking the streets of New York City you get so inspired. It’s the smell of a halal cart at 3am when you’ve had too much to drink or the sounds, smells and sights in Chinatown as you get off the D Train at Grand. I mean that’s life. You walk the streets of New York City and I’m telling you if you aren’t inspired then you need to re-evaluate life and your soul. Even in our sleepy little neighborhood of Park Slope in the afternoon, you walk twenty blocks down into Sunset Park and you might as well be in Mexico. And then you walk over and you’re in Chinatown in Brooklyn. You go to Brighton Beach and you might as well be in Russia. The inspiration is so ridiculous here.
What ingredients and techniques are you focused on right now?
Right now, we’re really into putting things on sticks. That’s my favorite. Anything on sticks. Technique-wise we love the idea of putting things on a stick and charring them. It’s so the antithesis of where modernist cooking is right now – cooking something for 3 and a half days at low temperature. I mean, give me fire and I will cook. I like the idea that it can be so ballsy hot. Let’s get that wok as hot as it can get and let’s char the shit out of it and let’s see what happens. Put some ‘wok hey’ on it, put some fire on it and let it go. It’s so caveman, it’s back to the original way of cooking to just have fire.
What’s your essential cooking tool?
A Kunz spoon, a wok spoon and a Nenox and I’m ready to go.
With your experience on Top Chef , how do you see food television as an influence on diners and the industry?
It’s been a great influence for diners. It gives a great insight into the process and what it is that cooks sometimes have to do. It’s done amazing things for our culinary world. It’s opened us up to a whole new spectrum of people and it’s given a ridiculous pop fan base of people who want to come to your restaurant to check out your food. It’s a little dangerous for culinary professionals though. They might think that they will be famous at some point, that they’re going to reach for stardom as opposed to learning a trade. That’s one thing that is a downside. For every upside, there’s a downside. A lot of these cooks come out of school and they want to be famous and I think why don’t you just learn how to cook first. Learn your trade, learn your craft. It’s like guys who make knives. Someone taught them how to bend, heat, cut, work with metal. If you don’t learn how to do that, how can you make a beautiful piece of cutlery that looks like a piece of art? You can’t. So, for us, if you don’t know how to cook a steak to medium rare, how are you going to create a dish based on a steak if it’s not cooked properly? Everything else is garbage. Every sauce, every foam, every garnish, every oil is garbage unless that steak is cooked properly.
Where do you like to eat?
Right now, I love to eat at Piquat’s Pizza in Chicago. It’s kind of like a foccacia bread and then they burn the crust to get it nice and charred.
I love this place in San Sebastian, Spain that does simple grilled seafood. The deft hand that someone has who takes raw sardines and makes a parsley oil and putting just a little bit of salt on it because they know the sardines are salty naturally. To them, it might seem simple but it’s complex. It’s complex because you didn’t have to do anything to it. It’s not hiding. This is what it is. We have the best fish and we’re putting it on a plate.
In New York, I love a good steak. I love Perla. Michael Toscano’s pasta is ridiculous; he’s a magician. We’re either going to eat there tonight or at Minetta Tavern.
Do you have any advice for young cooks?
Put your head down and cook. Life is harder than just cooking, but if you want to be great at this job just put your head down and cook. Love what you do. Love every aspect of what you do. Love it when it sucks. When you love restaurants so much and you love cooking so much that you love it when it sucks, then you know it’s the industry for you. When the oven’s broken and you just burned your hand and there’s no dishwasher and you still love coming to work, it’s the job for you. It’s a passion. Build a passion for your job because a lot of what we do isn’t pleasant.
This is part two of our video series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video, we demonstrate and explain the correct technique for sharpening a 50 /50 edged knife. Chubo brands that have a 50 / 50 edge are Takeda and Tojiro.
Timon Balloo is Executive Chef at Sugarcane and Bocce Bar in Miami, Florida.
Could you tell us about where you grew up and about some of your childhood food memories?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, growing up to a Chinese Trinidadian mother and very close to Chinatown. So, growing up, my food influences were definitely dim sum on the weekends and watching Martin Yan’s show ‘Yan Can Cook’. Honestly, that was the most inspirational factor in my deciding to go into the culinary arts. I revere Martin Yan – he’s an idol to me. On Saturday mornings, instead of watching cartoons, I’d watch Martin Yan. My mother actually had a small in house catering business where she’d cater and make egg rolls, lumpias and all these Chinese specialties for corporate events. So, I’d be around the table helping her and all of that inspired the craft of working with my hands and the smells of food. It’s funny because growing up, I actually chose to major in Finance because I thought being a chef would be unattainable. At that time, there was no Food Network, so shows like Martin Yan were really revered. Needless to say, I didn’t know about the long hours or lack of holidays, the Christmas and New Year’s of not seeing your family. But, at the end of the day it was the only thing I would do for free. If I was willing to do it for free, then why not work at it.
Mentors? Culinary side and business side?
After moving to Florida from San Francisco, I looked for the best chefs to work for. I sought out chefs in the culinary demographic known as the ‘Mango Gang’. Allen Susser, Mark Militello and Norman Van Aken were spearheading the culinary scene in the Florida demographic. I sought out people who had worked in their restaurants, focusing on Floridian style cuisine and running high caliber restaurants. I was able to work for Alan Susser, who was making avant garde food at the peak of the trend. It was very interesting to see what it takes to run a fine dining kitchen and he also inspired me to understand what regional food was.
Michelle Bernstein at the Mandarin Oriental was also an inspiration. She was making a lot of waves, up and coming and cooking like a badass. And it was there that she taught us how to be line cooks, how to be passionate chefs, how to really just cook your ass off and put the flavor on the plate. And to me, she’s just one of the best chefs and cooks out there. She taught me soul.
I was really fortunate to work with Angel Palacios. He was the Chef at Madrid’s La Broche before they opened La Broche Miami. That was the peak of molecular Spanish cooking. He taught me how to be intellectual with all the textures, foams and dust that they were doing at that time and how to deconstruct dishes and deconstruct flavor elements into their purest flavor form.
Lastly, was Chris Russell, who is at the Cookery in the James Hotel. When working for Chris, he showed me how to respect local ingredients. How to look for everything from leaves to berries and how to look for indigenous things. What were the Indians using? What were they using for sustenance? What grew as a bush outside your door here in Florida? How do you look for laurel leaves, the different types of mangoes and citrus? How to respect those elements and how to incorporate those into your food no matter where you are.
What were some of the challenges with opening Sugarcane?
When we first opened, it was a challenge because we were the most ambitious restaurant in the neighborhood. Midtown Miami was developed but still somewhat vacant due to the economic crisis. We were the furthest south in the neighborhood so it was ambitious to bring people in. The food went through a lot of changes. Do we cook food that is trendy? Do we cook for the masses? Whereas, we have me as a chef who wants to cook more aggressive food, in terms of flavor profiles and ingredients used. I want to use everything from pig stout to the tail to the ear and feature that. And, not necessarily everyone wants to eat those items. So, we still held true to that philosophy by using things like crispy barbecue pig ears. At the time we opened, we had beef tongue toast, bone marrow and everything form sweetbreads to octopus. Also, we wanted to stay true to my philosophy of using a lot of prodcut from Florida farms and seafood from Florida fisherman. We really wanted to position ourselves as a community restaurant. We’re not on South Beach, we’re not here for the tourists. We’re for you and by you and that is how SugarCane positioned itself.
How has the restaurant evolved?
You have to stay current. You have to challenge yourself and challenge the diner. It’s been difficult to change the menu because people demand these favorites. The more you become an anchor, you become set. So, we try to stay modern and still give people what they want. What gives us our strength is we really solidified ourselves as a Latino restaurant. We keep on giving the strong flavors and the community supports it.
What are some ingredients that you’re excited about?
At Sugarcane, the big ingredient I’m in love with is Spam. Everything is about Spam. Growing up in California, with a large population of Polynesians, Pacific Islanders and Asians, spam symbolizes street food, the food truck population, a hipster style of food. We’re playing with musubi (Japanese style Rice balls) on the menu, which in South Florida people are unaware of. It symbolizes and allows us to keep pushing things in a new direction and showing people you should respect us for bringing good food.
At Bocce Bar, it’s our ode to Guanciale. We use it in everything. One of my favorite pastas is pasta with Guanciale and cockscomb.
What are your go to tools in the kitchen?
Always a proper plating spoon. A plating spoon is defined by its ability to perform multiple functions. You sauce properly, you can use it to pick up protein if you can’t get to your fish spatula. It’s the proper swooshing element if it’s sturdy enough. Sometimes you use it to help you grab a stack of pans. I’ve never been a tweezer chef. I do respect tweezers now, but still the hand can be the best thing. A good pair of tongs. The ability to reach into the oven to pull something out. Also, a good peeler and a microplane are important.
Favorite places to eat in Miami or elsewhere?
In NY, I love just going to Eataly and eating at all those little restaurants. I used to love going to the mall as a kid. Eataly is like the food court mall for adults done right. They’ve allowed the public to walk into a chef’s cooler and purchase everything that you couldn’t purchase at the grocery store. So, that part is very romantic. To be able to walk and pick up one or two things at every stall, it makes a more sophisticated diner and it fulfills all levels of gastronomic diners.
Memorable meals when I was in Atlanta for Food & Wine last year was eating at Empire state South and Holeman & Finch. It was my first time in the South and was especially exciting since the South has imparted so much into the culinary trend in the last several years. From bourbons to the pork belly Cochon renaissance, the South is strong. It was also nice to go to Linton Hopkins’ restaurant Eugene and eat in this great little restaurant, where you walk in and see the charcuterie display hanging in the kitchen. And the use of everything from Doritos to other dishes using only local agriculture. I thought that was very powerful because it wasn’t a stiff fine dining restaurant but it hit all the principles of what fine dining is and in an approachable way.
Ming Yoo Tofu and BBQ in Ft Lauderdale – consistently I can go and have kalbi ribs and tofu hot pot and it’s one of the best.
Words of advice for young cooks?
Experience. How do you get experience? Luckily for the kids now, we’re in a technological renaissance. Before, we were not exposed to social media, YouTube or the internet. When you get out of culinary school, get a stage. When you’re not working, immerse yourself in information. Check out menus online, watch YouTube for technique, and there’s so much information. Gather knowledge and experience via all these vessels. Sometimes you have to push the kids to the trough. You have to engulf yourself more in extracurricular. Be a sponge and gather knowledge through all these mediums. You’ll become a better chef.
Matt Hoyle is the Executive Chef of Nobu 57 in New York, NY.
Can you tell us about where you grew up and your food influences? I grew up in the Northwest of England, in Lancashire. My grandparents cooked much more traditional English food, like offal and pigs’ ears, pies and stuff like that, which my mother really didn’t like. She made more continental than English food, but when I became older, I would then see it in restaurants, and it’s become a big thing again. It sort of skipped a generation or two. We kind of forgot it and then had to rediscover it as a nation of cooks.
How did you first get into cooking? After I finished school, I worked in two fish & chip shops in the town where I lived. I really liked food and cooking before that, but that was where I started to really enjoy the environment of cooking.
Who do you consider mentors? Obviously, Nobu-san has been a huge mentor, as well as Mark Edwards at Nobu London. Also, Terry Laybourne at 21 Queen Street in Newcastle. It was the only Michelin starred, fine dining restaurant in the northeast of England. I worked in his kitchen for three or four years, working and learning every section from larder to veg to sauce.
What attracted you to Japanese cuisine? I knew very little about Japanese food before I started at Nobu. In the North of England, it just didn’t really exist. The simplicity of the food really excited me. The technique is very precise. Knowing exactly what you want, whether it’s how you cut fish or how you cook it. I loved the food and it really spoke to me. Also, the way the kitchens were run was just different. The way Mark Edwards ran the kitchen in London was so different than any other kitchens I’d worked in. He allowed us to have a voice rather than knocking us down.
Are New York diners different than the diners in London? In general, London & New York are fairly similar cities. In New York though, you would have a full dining room and maybe two bottles of wine in the whole room at lunch time. In London, it’s more of a ‘let’s have another bottle before we go back to the office’. That European thing still exists there. The lunches are quite different.
What are some of the more popular dishes at the restaurant? We sell a lot of Japanese Wagyu beef. The quality of the Wagyu has come back better than ever after it was banned for a few years. Vegetable dishes are becoming more and more popular in their own right, not just as side dishes. Black cod is obviously still a best seller.
As a chef, what ingredients are you enjoying now?
What are the essential tools you tell your new cooks they must have? A sharp knife. More of the cooks are using Japanese knives than they were eight years ago. I tell them they don’t need a full set, just start with one good chef’s knife. Learn how to sharpen it.
What are your favorites tools in the kitchen? For myself, I love plating chopsticks, but I don’t expect the cooks to have them. For kitchen equipment, it’s the Rational oven. It’s kept the restaurant open a long time. When all my other ovens break down, it keeps going and you can cook very precisely or overnight.
For young cooks starting out, what advice do you give them? You need a work ethic or you need to pick one up pretty soon. That’s essential.
Favorite places to eat in NY?
My wife is West African so we get a lot of West African food. There’s a place in Harlem called Ivoire, which is really good. For English pies, I like Harlem Shambles. They make Steak & Kidney, Cornish pasties, Aussie meat pies. For pork pies, Myers of Keswick is fantastic. They make everything in the back. My favorite for Japanese is Yakitori Totto.
Chubo is excited to take you inside the workshops of knife craftsman in Sakai, Japan, who are still making knives completely by hand. Each knife is forged and crafted in the tradition of generations of Japanese blacksmiths. This is the second part of a two part series on the forging of these traditional knives.
After completing the forging, hammering, shaping and tempering, each blade is ready to have its edge crafted. This is done by hand on a series of sharpening wheels, starting from rough grit, moving to medium grit and then on to fine grit. Each blade is then sharpened by hand on natural fine grit sharpening stones to refine and hone the edge and bring it to its desired sharpness. This is a delicate process that takes years to master.
Knives are stored in anti-rusting liquid before the edge crafting process.
Master Sharpener Oda checks the wheel for flatness.
Master Sharpener Oda puts the final sharpening touches on a deba knife.
The final step in the knife making process is attaching the handle. The handles on traditional knives are made out of high grade Japanese magnolia, a hardwood, that is light, difficult to crack and resistant to water. Each handle is cut to size depending on the knife and is bolster fitted with water buffalo horn. The last step is to heat the tang of the knife and insert and hammer into the handle.
The craftsman cuts the magnolia handles to size.
Each handle is fitted with a piece of water buffalo horn.
The handle is attached to the knife and it is now ready to be used.
Chubo is excited to take you inside the workshops of knife craftsman in Sakai, Japan, who are still making knives completely by hand. Each knife is forged and crafted in the tradition of generations of Japanese blacksmiths. This is the first of a two part series on the forging of these traditional knives.
Forging the Blade
Traditional Japanese knives, such as yanagi, usuba and deba are handmade in a multi-step process by several craftsmen over a period of several days. The first step in the process is forging the blade. A piece of soft iron is joined to a piece of carbon steel and the blade is repeatedly forged, hammered and shaped. The high carbon steel will become the blade’s edge and the soft iron becomes the body and spine of the knife. Using the soft iron for the body and spine reduces brittleness and makes sharpening the knife easier for users.
Craftsman Doi is joining the soft iron and carbon steel in preparation for hammering, forging and shaping the blade.
Craftsman Doi hand-shaping the blade gradually into its desired shape as an usuba knife.
It is essential to brush the blade with a wire brush during the forging and shaping to keep the blade dust free.
Craftsman Doi shaping an usuba knife.
Many of the tools used in the shaping, hammering and forging process have not changed for centuries.
Even with the most skilled blacksmiths, there are certain blades that don’t make the cut. These are discarded and recycled.
After each blade has been forged, shaped and cooled, it is hammered to further shape and strengthen the blade.
Further hammering and shaping
After the hammering and forging, the blades are readied for the ‘yaki’ phase. The purpose of this process is to harden each blade to enable it to take on an edge. To prepare for yaki-ire, the furnace must be heated to precisely 720 degrees. This is judged and regulated completely by eye, based on the shade of red of the glowing coals.
To prepare for yaki-ire, each knife is coated with clay to ensure even heating. Each blade is heated, tempered and quenched in water to complete the process. The process of yaki-ire is extremely difficult and takes many years for blacksmiths to master. Even master blacksmiths with decades of experience do not forge every blade perfectly and only a percentage of these blades make it to market.
Usuba blades are covered in clay in preparation for ‘yaki-ire’
After removing the knife from the furnace, it is plunged in water to complete the ‘yaki-ire’ process.
Matt Conroy is the Executive Chef at The Little Prince in Soho, New York.
Tell us a little about how you got into cooking professionally.
I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, north of Boston. It wasn’t a really food focused upbringing, but my Grandfather was a good cook. He had ten kids and was good at making do with what he had. He made great soups and stews and when people would ask for recipes we’d laugh because he would just always say ‘to taste’. I got my first job in a kitchen when my neighbor, who worked at a diner, was looking for someone to crack eggs on the weekends and that’s how I ended up cooking.
How did you end up working for Tony Maws?
I first read about Craigie on Main in Food and Wine Magazine. It was a place I knew I wanted to work, but I didn’t have the experience necessary at that point, so I took a job in Vermont and really learned the basics and worked my way up to become a sous chef. We closed for six weeks every year and I used the time to go work for Tony for free. At the end of it, he offered me a job, but I went back to work one more season in Vermont before starting at Craigie.
Working for Tony was the hardest year of my life. It’s one of the places where you hate it at the time and then you miss it for sure. I learned a lot about technique and discipline and attention to detail. Tony was always saying ‘Never compromise’ and that’s something I’ve taken to heart and try to instill in my cooks.
How did you come to New York?
I had done Boston, and New York was the logical next step. I knew Alex Stupak from connections in Boston and knew what he was doing in New York with Empellon. I was not interested in Mexican food, but I was interested in his style, so I came to New York to work for him. Alex’s plating is beautiful. I learned a lot, especially about attention to detail and plating, but it was also interesting to see how a [trained] pastry chef approaches a dish. I also learned a lot about chilies, which don’t factor a lot into French cuisine, but I know I can go for a chipotle chile, when I want to add smokiness to a dish, without a lot heat.
How would you describe the food at Little Prince?
We’re definitely a French Bistro at heart, but we don’t limit ourselves to traditional ingredients. I get inspired by what’s fresh in the market, and try to use the whole animal as much as possible. With chickens, it’s usually paté from the liver and stock from the feet. I feel strongly that nothing should go to waste.
In November we started a Sunday Supper Series as a chance for me and my sous chef to be creative. It pushes us to put our heads down and create new dishes. Sometimes they make it onto the menu. Recently, we started with the goal of creating a vegetable focused starter and came up with a dish of roasted carrots and burnt vinegar honey. It was really well received and stayed on the menu.
What ingredients are you excited about right now?
Salt Cod is an ingredient I’ve been playing with a lot. It’s very traditional French, and it can seem boring, but it can also be interesting. For a recent dish, I started with a salt cod fritter and at the end of the day, sea urchin is really eggs, so I created an aioli out of it.
What are your essential kitchen tools?
A sharp knife is one I have to have. And you don’t have a sharp knife without those stones. Also, I always keep a pepper mill at my station and a Kunz’s spoon for basting, saucing and tasting.
Who have your mentors been?
Aside from Tony Maws and Alex Stupak, Rogan Lechthaler of Downtown Grocery in Ludlow, Vermont taught me a lot about charcuterie. I think he runs a great kitchen and was the first chef I worked for who focused on using local products. Being in Vermont we used lots of great local farms.
Favorite places to eat and drink in New York?
I live in Brooklyn, and on my day off I usually go around the corner to a Mexican place Antojitos Mexicanos and get a torta. I’ve been to Estela twice, which is rare since there are so many restaurants in New York City. I feel the menu is really suited to a cook’s taste. The food is really well balanced with just enough salt and acidity. I also like Roberta’s a lot. I know I can always get a great pizza and some really interesting appetizers.
In my hometown, there’s a place call Harrison’s Roast Beef. It’s a simple sandwich of house roasted beef, with cheese and some special sauce, but every time I go back I want one of those.
We recently had the privilege of sitting down with Chef Jason Hua to discuss what inspires him, what it was like to work for Jean Georges and how he incorporates new ingredients into the food at The Dutch.
Tell us a little about how you got into cooking professionally?
I grew up in LA. I left when I was 17 to go to Boston University, where I studied Business and Finance, but I started cooking in the middle, working at restaurants. I actually did finish school, but when I left, I came to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America. I had already worked at good restaurants in Boston, like Clio and Uni, but for the sake of experience, I went to work at Jean Georges as an intern on the amuse bouche station. It was a humbling experience. I learned there is never a job or position beneath me and you can always learn what is happening around you without being on that station.
I spent four years cooking there until reaching the sous chef position and then went on to stage at the Fat Duck in Bray, England. I was Chef de Cuisine at Fiamma under Fabio Trabocchi, then I went to Boqueria before coming to The Dutch. Cooking is my bread and butter. It is my craft, and I intend to practice it until I am physically unable to. I am grateful for all the people who have shared their knowledge with me, and I intend to teach the cooks who work with me the right way to do things.
How would you describe the food at The Dutch?
It’s American Food. We cook what we like to eat and do it the best possible way we can. Our menu can have anything from prime steak to shellfish towers, sandwiches, pies, mexican tripe, fried chicken, curries. We enjoy making dishes around ingredients we are excited about each season and that is also what inspires us.
What inspires you?
Travelling, reading, farmers, the people who work hard in our restaurant daily to achieve a common goal. Museum visits are a great source of relaxation and intellectual exercise. It is always refreshing to see talented craftsmen in other industries committed to being the best at what they do and they inspire me. Getting outside to run or bike is a great way for me to recap my week and look forward to goals I would like to focus on for the restaurant each week. I am always excited to try something new and achieve more at our restaurant. Even though we spend many hours in our restaurant, I always feel like there is not enough time in one lifetime to learn everything I would like to learn. The pursuit of further knowledge and skill in my craft keeps me excited to constantly move forward.
What ingredients are you excited about right now?
My buddy, Evan Strusinski is a is a forager and right now he’s getting lots of matsutake mushrooms from Maine that we’re using in many different dishes. We are also aggressively changing our bread program and working closely with the Baker James Belisle of Lafayette. Emily, our executive sous chef and Patrick, our sous chef found roasted buckwheat that is amazing. I want to put it on everything from grilled fish to yogurt and berries. It is part of our job as chefs to consistently see what new ingredients are available and use it responsibly.
What are your essential tools?
Obviously a sharp knife. I like a Nenox 9.4″ chef’s knife, Michel Bras utility knife, and an 8.2″ Masamoto knife. For equipment, we have a Southern Pride Smoker that we use everyday. We smoke our own bacon, turkey, pastrami salmon. I also love having a plancha and the one we have is the best one I have used in any restaurant. And a cake tester; I’ve been using it to test the doneness of fish for so long i can’t remember how I checked fish before.
In New York, you are known for having quite a knife collection. How did you first get into Japanese Knives?
I was working at Clio, which was my first serious kitchen. Ken Oringer looked at some stuff I cut and he just threw it away. So I got my first Japanese knife, which was an 9.4″ Masamoto chef’s knife. I realized how thin the blade was and the more experienced chefs there showed me how to sharpen it, clean it and how to take care of it. I realized how important that is to doing your job properly.
How has dining changed in New York in the 10 years since you started cooking here?
I think the public is much more knowledgeable now. You can bring in more unusual ingredients and they are more receptive. Dining out is more spontaneous and the dining public know where to find good food because of social media. I am amazed how in tune my non-restaurant friends are with the dining scene here. I worked in and loved 3 Michelin Star restaurants, but it’s not the kind of food most people eat all the time. I am very happy cooking at The Dutch, and it is where I want to continue to grow and evolve as a cook in NYC.
One of the main reasons i love living here is because the food keeps getting better. The ingredients available are better. The available options of what to eat on any given day are endless in NYC.
Do you have any advice for young cooks starting out?
You need to have dreams, even if they constantly change. It is what keeps you motivated in a very unforgiving yet fulfilling profession. If you do the work right, you cannot fail. There is no substitution for first hand experience. You cannot be proficient at trussing a chicken, making pasta, making omelettes or shaping bread just by reading about it on the internet and making it a few times. It requires doing one task hundreds if not thousands of times to really master it. After that, you still need to keep practicing. Treat yourself like a professional athlete. You need to build your hand skills for your craft and keep yourself physically and mentally healthy at all times. Respect your coworkers; you will spend most of your life with them. Read as much as possible. Be humble. Be patient. Have FUN!
Favorite places to eat and drink in New York?
I love Kyo-Ya in the East Village. Especially their pressed sushi. Speedy Romeo in Brooklyn – I always get the St. Louie pizza and they have the best ceasar salad. I always have a craving for Shake Shack for the shack burger and concrete. I like Dominque Ansel bakery for canele and DKA [Kouign Amann]. In Jersey City, where I live, I like to go to Taqueria Downtown and Mitsuwa market. The best cookie ever is chocolate chip walnut from Levain Bakery and the best gelato is Il Laboratorio Gelato. Brooklyn Fare and Blue Hill Stone Barns if it’s fine dining. Pok Pok NY for Thai. Locanda Verde for Italian – Chef Ron Rosselli is great. Pouring Ribbons for amazing cocktails. Dead Rabbit in the Financial District for drinks and The Room – for a huge selection of beer.
On September 29th, a handful of America’s most visionary chefs, culinary and hospitality minds gathered to ponder an increasingly relevant and difficult to answer question, “How do we define American Food?”. The Roots of American Foodways, presented by Imbibe + Inspire’s Stephen Torres took place on the top floor of the Hotel 71 Wyndham in Chicago. Chubo was honored to be part of a thought provoking and enlightening day of talks followed by a stunning meal from some of the world’s most talented chefs. Highlights below. Photography courtesy of Evan Sung and Imbibe + Inspire.
The program kicked off the morning session with Chef Hugh Acheson of Georgia’s 5&10, The National and Empire State South. Hugh’s talk entitled, “ Don’t Eat the Red Herring: The Quest to Define American Food” and cleared up myths about the heritage of southern food traditions.
Melanie Dunea is the creator and photographer behind “My Last Supper“, a series that asks famous chefs and food personalities, “What would be your last meal on earth?” Melanie spoke about “Food Porn: Painting and Photos” Tracing our obsession with capturing what’s on our plates and what it means for culinary culture today.
Dave Beran, Chef of Next in conversation with Francis Lam on, “Telling Stories through Meals and Menus” It provided a rare glimpse into what goes into creating a story driven menu like the ones found at Alinea and now Next, Specifically charting how a concept or intangible idea ultimately winds up on a diner’s plate.
BlackBird Pastry Chef, Dana Cree treated us to a mind blowing ice cream social with flavor combinations like Malort (Chicago’s original wormwood spirit) Bubble Gum (deriving its flavors from the very natural vanilla, banana, orange and lemon) as well as Raspberry Licorice and Burnt Honey.
Ed Lee of Louisville, KY’s 610 Magnolia spoke about “The Antho(a)pology of the ‘Other’ American Cuisine” a truly fascinating insight into how foreign culinary traditions are appropriated and often misunderstood.
Lastly Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park spoke about “Establishing Cultural Roots” The talks were followed by cocktails from Chicago’s Rare Tea Cellar.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Robby Cook to talk about his influences and inspiration as an American sushi chef.
How did you first get into cooking professionally?
When I was in high school, I worked in a grocery store as a side job. And then in college, I started working with more Asian ingredients and I became interested in sushi school. And, I just kind of went for it from there. I was going to the University of Iowa and college wasn’t really happening, so I started making sushi on my own and that was when Iron Chef was getting big. I got into cooking more and had nice ingredients where I was living at the time. And then I moved to Santa Monica and went to sushi school there.
My first was Josh DeChellis at Sumile. After sushi school I went to culinary school in New York City (ICE). I hooked up with Josh and learned a lot from him. At Sushi school, it was Toshi Suguura, who is a very cool guy who taught me quite a bit. After that, I got my first cooking job at Sumile. My first sushi job though was at Angura with Osamu Inno, a very cool Japanese Rasta guy. Not so traditional Japanese, so he really schooled me up.
Makoto Okuwa at Morimoto was also a mentor. He really took me under his wing and pushed me to become head sushi chef after he left. And, Chef Morimoto has also been an incredible mentor, for pushing me to be the best, to understand food as well as customers’ needs.
What kind of sushi are you doing? Is it traditional or more of a fusion?
Sushi is pretty straightforward and traditional. You need to have the basics before you can grow and expand on that. My sashimi dishes are more plated and have more modern style sauces and more composed dishes. I think you have to have overall composition when you are a sushi chef. And, plating is important as well.
I have nothing but respect for Chef Morimoto. He’s backed me up since day one. I have my skills to prove it. A lot of people, when they do sit at the sushi bar, they might not appreciate it at first, but once they see me work it’s a different story. Even some Chinese and Korean sushi chefs, who may not have the skill set, are accepted more than me. Nowadays, I have so many regular customers, if someone doesn’t want to sit in front of me, they can slide down the sushi bar (laughs).
What gives you inspiration for new dishes?
Sushi wise, we have the four seasons. So, there are different types of fish for each season. So, I start with a nice fish that has just come into season and a couple vegetables and another side ingredient that is seasonal, then play around with the flavors. But, I try not to add too many ingredients. It’s up to three or four ingredients and let the fish do the talking. Let the fish stand out first and foremost. Our knife skills and the way we treat fish here that’s what should be recognized.
What ingredients or techniques are you using at the moment?
I’m using agar a lot now in summer dashis. Like chilled gelatin style. It’s good for shellfish and sashimi. Salmon – I’m doing kombu jime, kind of like smoking. We take wild king salmon and then use the kombu to smoke it. The smoke goes up through the kombu and you get a really nice sea flavor.
Where is the fish at Morimoto sourced from?
We have our own company at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. We’re very blessed; I’ve met them on several occasions. I deal with them directly and nobody in New York touches our fish. Our guy at Tsukiji picks the fish Thursday morning and it’s here Friday morning. They send us what’s good in the market and Chef Morimoto gave me a lot of freedom to order and keep the quality of fish high. As far as local fish, we have a purveyor who sources the wild king salmon and local fluke. I also really like Korean fluke. It has very nice fat content and is super fresh. I also really enjoy using Korean baby abalone. That’s another one of my favorite ingredients.
On my day off, I like Luke’s Lobster. Nobody knows who I am and I can go in and send emails and texts and just eat there. Never had a funky lobster roll. Everything is always fresh and direct from Maine. I also like Setagaya Ramen. I usually get the tsukemen before I come into work on Tuesdays. If I get to Brooklyn, I go to Talde and Chuko Ramen. For sushi, I like Ushi Wakamaru.
You’ve traveled to Japan on several occasions. What are the differences between sushi chefs in Japan and the U.S.?
Sushi chefs in Japan have stricter standards and are more rigorously trained. A lot of people in the States go through the ranks and say they’ve been a sushi chef for twenty years but their skills are terrible. Whereas in Japan, you really have to go through the steps and learn everything. Here, it’s a little more fast tracked. But, on the other hand, you’re not so traditionalized. You can open up and step outside of the box and do other things. It’s not just basic, straightforward sushi all the time.
Any advice for young cooks starting out?
Have a sharp knife first. Let your skills show and be confident. Jump in there and do it. Also, have a basic knowledge of what you’re doing before you apply to that certain job.
This is part four of our video series where we demonstrate the various sharpening techniques and tools essential to properly maintain your knives. In this video demo, we demonstrate the proper way to sharpen a single edged Japanese knife. Typically, yanagi, deba and usuba knives have a one sided edge.