Chubo had the honor of being the official knife sponsor of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival this past March. Now in its 27th year, this year’s festival hosted over 250 events, not just in the city of Melbourne, but all over the state of Victory celebrating the innovative chefs, award winning restaurants, wine makers and producers that make the region such an incredible gastronomic destination. Naturally we had a pretty great time and here are some of the highlights.
We pretty much started each morning at Lune Croissanterie. Lucky for us there was an outpost across the street from our hotel! The pain au chocolat was our sleeper favorite, but whatever you choose, be sure to grab a spot in the front so you can watch the meticulous care that goes into the production here.
We kicked off our arrival at the festival with The World’s Longest lunch. This beautiful event in Prahan, featured a team headed up by Karen Martini and and an all female chef line up in celebration of International Women’s Day. You can’t image how smoothly they rolled out lunch for 1,600 people.
Founded in 1867, the South Melbourne Market is a feast for the senses. You can find all manner of provisions, meat, fish, fresh produce and imported items and flowers. It’s ringed by food vendors featuring cuisines from around the globe.
In addition to providing all the knives for the workshops that took place over three days at the House of Food and Wine, our knives were used in all the chef demos. We also had a pop up shop at the venue.
Lucky Melbourne has another gorgeous market on the north side of the Yarra Market. Queen Victoria Market, founded in 1878 is the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere. We got up early, to check out the produce and filled our suitcases with coffee and tea from the small roasters and purveyors that fill up the market.
It is Melbourne after all so we filled up on Avocado Toast and terrific coffee every chance we got. Here is a particularly excellent version at Chef Scott Pickett’s casual spot Pickett’s Deli. Other terrific things were eaten and drank at the following: Lee Ho Fuk, Long Chim, Superfine, Sunda, St. Crispin, Tipo 00, Cumulus, Embla, and HuTong, to name a few! Thank you Melbourne for such warm hospitality! We’re already dreaming of coming back.l
Can you tell us about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I was born and grew up in Honolulu. I always wanted to cook, like since I was 4, for some reason. My parents definitely aren’t in the industry. Both are Japanese, born in Honolulu. I think I’m fifth generation, but I didn’t grow up eating Japanese food. We grew up eating meatloaf and spaghetti, very American. But ever since we were young, my parents always took us out to nice restaurants, so I think that’s probably how I got interested. And I used to watch a lot of cooking shows, like Great Chefs of the Hotels, instead of cartoons. It’s the only thing I really wanted to do.
My first job at a restaurant was a place called Pacific Café. The chef was really French, he’s a founding father of fine dining in Honolulu. I think I was fifteen, so I worked throughout high school just for free. Working there reinforced that I really wanted to do it.
How did you decide to apply to the Culinary Institute of America?
I worked at Roy’s Hawaii Kai in high school. So he’s really my mentor and the reason why I went to CIA. I actually did a Bachelor’s program there, so I spent about 3 and a half years there.
What was it like for like a kid right out of high school from Hawaii to show up in upstate New York?
Super homesick. Culture shock. We traveled as kids but I’ve never been to upstate New York. It’s different. Especially Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park. I started – it’s a crazy story, my start date was October 1st, 2001. It was two weeks after 9/11. Crazy time. There was a class with a start date of September 11 but it was pushed back, so a lot of the kids who were supposed to start on that day were in my class. I remember going to the city, and the steel beams were still burning. It was crazy – my mom said “Don’t go.” and I was like, “What do you mean? I’m gonna go.” So it was a crazy time.
Where did you decide to do your externship?
So I applied to the French Laundry and I applied to Roy’s. Roy said yes first – so I came home and I probably spent 6-7 months here and then – kind of vowed that I would never come home again so after I graduated I worked in San Francisco for Ron Siegel. At that time there was a dining room at the Ritz Carlton, which was probably like the number one fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. I worked there for three and a half years. So he’s definitely a mentor to this day. He taught me everything that I base my skills on today.
Ron was the opening chef for the French Laundry, with Thomas Keller and Steven Durfee, so after I was done with my time with him he said, “Where do you wanna go next?” I wanted to go back to New York, and he said you should go to Per Se. Jonathon Benno, who was Chef de Cuisine at the time, was Ron’s extern at French Laundry back in the day. I called Jonathan and he said come in three weeks and I went in three weeks.
I never really applied for a job, you know how it is. Chef’s call each other and it’s kind of how it goes. I spent two years at Per Se and that’s where I met Anthony and Katherine. [Senia’s Co-Chef Anthony Rush and GM Katherine Nomura] It was a really interesting time. I feel like that was when Per Se was really at their peak. That was maybe 2008 to 2010. They won every award and it was so busy. We look back at who we worked with and everyone now is so successful, it was a pretty daunting crew to be working with. After New York I moved back to San Francisco and I worked for Mourad Lahlou at Aziza. I kind of got burnt out on the French thing and I just wanted to try something completely different. Moroccan is pretty much the most different. So I think the use of spices is what really caught me. Because French cuisines doesn’t use spices, they build flavor in a different way.
I told everyone I was going to work at Aziza and they were a kind of puzzled. I just kind of really bonded with Mourad and I was his sous chef at Aziza, just for a year, and then after Aziza, I had an opportunity to come home and work at Vintage Cave, which I took. We weren’t planning to move home but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down and I stayed there for two years. And after that, I moved back San Francisco and opened Mourad’s new restaurant. I took a couple of my guys from Hawaii with me and they are still there. I even lived with Mourad, he owes me his life. I was away from my family, and my kid for a year.
How did the first ideas for Senia come together? Does it go as far back as working with Anthony at Per Se?
Me and Anthony always worked stations next to each other. We always worked very well together. The crew is so competitive that right away you find people that work really well together, and he was just one of those people. Through the years he would come visit, we stayed in touch and we were both, at the time, planning to do our own restaurants. I think he was having a little more trouble doing that in London, where he was. Literally he texted me and said, “I’ll come to Hawaii.” I was like, “Holy Shit!”
Just like that?
Just like that! Literally, just like that. Two weeks later, things were signed and that’s how it came to be. I think we both wanted to do a small restaurant, where it’s casual but also have a tasting menu offer, which we do at the counter. We were both on the same page with that, it was pretty easy.
Do you feel like you share the same food philosophy?
Absolutely. Philosophy, yes. Style, not really. Very different.
We both grew up in Thomas Keller’s kitchen. Classically we’re trained in the same way, so we do things the same way. I fell in love with Japan over the past five years. And my style, for sure goes more towards that. It’s certainly different than French, but Anthony trained very classic. In that way we’re different.
Do you collaborate on dishes together?
Everything is a collaboration. Everything is pretty joint. There are some dishes that we come up with that, just, we talked about it but I had no say in it. But the tasting menu is very much a collaboration with our whole kitchen. Right now we’ve gotten to the point where we have one person, one cook who does the whole tasting menu – he preps the whole thing. So me and Anthony don’t have to do anything for it, we talk about it a week before and it gets everybody involved.
And how often are you changing the menu?
So we used to kill ourselves and try to change it every week. We really came to this awakening about three weeks ago. So we would kill ourselves every week and just struggle to always do something new. And the cooks weren’t understanding the techniques because we would do it for four days and never do it again. Finally we’re like, “why don’t we change it every month?”
Because we do get return guests a lot, actually, for the tasting. These people would set reservations on certain days every month. So we tried to do different stuff for them. But for the majority of people, we change it every month.
Are there specific ingredients that you’re excited about using right now?
Matsutakes, I love white truffles. We’re not a typical Hawaii Restaurant. We bring things in. And that’s, selfishly for us but also for our cooks, we’re used to working with those ingredients and I really like to use them. In the fall we did a Matsutake Donabe and rice, with a grilled zabuton (steak) for a main course. When I do the main course, I love super simple but super good ingredients, very Japanese I guess, but we play around with everything. The truffle risotto is always on the menu, it’s classic. It’s like the best way to eat it, I think.
What about seafood? Is a lot of what you’re using from Japan, or is it local?
We try to use as much local as possible. I would say, the fish we have here is very good, but also Japan fish is so expensive. We use it occasionally at the counter, but for the dining room, it doesn’t make sense cost-wise for us.
Do you cook at home at all?
What do you like to eat at home, even if you’re not cooking?
Something super simple. My wife’s a pretty good cook, she makes a really good tofu soup. She’s Korean. So kim-chi, tofu soup, 9-grain rice. Something I don’t need to think about when I eat. I hate cooking at home because I don’t have a good kitchen. If you don’t have a good kitchen, it’s awful.
Favorite tools or techniques that you want to share?
Knives. I love knives. I’ve bought too many.
Technique, I’ve always wanted to do ikejime. Learn how to do it. Most of the fish that we get from Japan obviously is ikejime but I would like to learn how to do it with the fish we have here because the number one thing I think that differs from Japanese fish is how they take care of it. How it’s killed, how it’s caught. That’s the quality difference. We could have that quality, I feel, but we don’t know how to do those proper steps after it’s killed, you know. That’s the big difference.
There’s no fisherman in Hawaii that are doing that technique at all?
I had a long talk with the chef at Sushi Sho, He’s really passionate about teaching the local fisherman about handling fish better, not bruising it but, things have been done a certain way here. It’s so hard to tell an old guy what to do, change the way he does things.
It’s hard to change the culture. There’s got to be some kind of incentive.
It’s got to be a financial incentive, and there isn’t. If they could charge more for doing ikejime I’m sure they would but it also those guys make money on the bulk catch. It’s super labor intensive! I feel like it’s gotta be someone young and passionate rather than the old dog.
Favorite places to eat here, New York, anywhere in the world?
Tokyo. Favorite place, obsessed, probably – favorite places there, Matsukawa, Ishikawa, I love Kaiseki, I love, like simple, the best crab on rice is like magic.
New York, we love to eat at Per Se and their salon, but I really love what Eleven Madison Park does, to me they have the perfect packaging. Nomad is my favorite place to go, to just grab food and drink. I love Nomad.
I love Blackseed Bagels. So good. New York and Tokyo, you can’t beat those cities. San Francisco is great too. Every chance I get, I go to Japan. And I’m still blown away every time.
30,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone.
I tell everybody, it’s really hard to find a bad meal. Like you have to try really hard.
Even 7-11 is good!
That’s what I’m saying! That’s the first place I start when I go there. I get water, and an egg salad sandwich. karagi and onigiri.
How about in Honolulu?
Sushi Sho. That guy is like… I’ve been in shop three times before he moved here, and that guy is just on a different level. So smart. He’s doing aging on local fish… staying really true to edo-mae on local fish. I think he’s by far the best chef in Hawaii.
He’s still cutting edge, he’s just the master. I love what he does. I wish I could eat there every week. Palmetto’s, wine food, there’s a lot of good hole in the walls here. Ethel’s.
Robynne Maii along with partner Chuck Bussler bring a combined 30+ years culinary experience to Fête, their warm and inviting Downtown Brasserie. Taking inspiration from crave-able dishes of many cultures, Fête’s menu celebrates seasonality and culinary tradition in tandem.
Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your background?
I grew up in Honolulu. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that cooked a lot. Not fancy food, since my parents were always on a budget we always had home cooked meals. Maybe we went out to a restaurant a couple times a year, so I grew up eating a lot of good food. Both my parents cooked.
What kind of food would you eat at home?
It’s interesting since both my parents lived on the mainland for a little bit, we grew up eating everything from local style food, like chili, and kalbi, and beef stew, but then we also had things like cacciatore, shish kabob, and lamb, lamb chops, stuff like that. Things that were definitely not in the normal local repertoire. Sweet and sour spare ribs, stuffed cabbage, very eastern European style. The rule at our house was we had to eat everything that my parents cooked. This idea of boycotting just because you didn’t like something, my parents were really strict. I had a smart mouth, so I’d say I’m gonna eat cereal then, and we weren’t even allowed to do that. It was either go hungry and sit at the table with us, or you’re gonna eat what I prepared.
All three of us, my siblings, we love food. We’re not picky eaters.
What was your path to professional cooking?
My first memory of cooking was making eggs with my maternal grandmother. I just love the idea of making my own food. In college I started thinking about it more, but it was very taboo for a profession. Your asian parents, they want you to do something that makes you a lot of money, is super stable, so you can have a family, buy a house, and do all that. When I announced to my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school, they weren’t very pleased, but the deal was since they put us through college that I had to pay for my own culinary education. I quickly realized there was no way I was gonna be able to go to one of the fancier culinary schools, because I just couldn’t afford it, so I came home and went to KCC. [Kapiolani Community College]
Then you went straight into cooking professionally. Tell us a little bit about your background?
I did it in an untraditional way. I cooked for a little bit and thought I wanted to get out of the kitchen, and thought I wanted to do food writing, so I got my masters degree from NYU in food studies. I got my dream job. I went to Gourmet Magazine and worked there for two years, but while I was there I got offered a job in culinary education to run a culinary program, and so I spent over 10 years in culinary education.
How did Fête come to be?
Outside of restaurants, I think people thought we were crazy, because as far as opening up a restaurant we were old, Chuck and I. We were both in our forties, and we had been out of industry for a number of years. We worked for some good people, but we didn’t have a continuous pedigree to woo people with, so it was really difficult. But in that time frame we did a lot of cooking and we entertained a lot. We went out to eat a lot too. For us, Fête was born out of this idea of bringing people together, which is very common, but we saw this trend happening in restaurants where it was less and less fun to eat out. I think that’s why we were driven to entertain more at home, because it was more relaxing.
We have this constant dialogue of having a place where the food is the foundation for the guest’s occasion. We don’t want the food to lord over the table. We want it to support everybody.
Any ingredients that you’re excited about right now in Hawaii?
Right now Mahi is running, so we get that. Mahi was never a favorite of mine because it was from the supermarket and had this grayish color and my mother always prepared it the same way and I was just never really impressed with the fish. Then we started buying fish from Local I’a, which is owned by Ashley Watts. She only sources from day boaters in Oahu waters. It completely changed my mind about Mahi. I think Mahi is one of the most glorious fishes you can have, and when we get it it is this beautiful cotton candy pink. Super fresh.
I think we had a great Ahi dish on the menu last time we ate here.
Yes, Ahi, which is also caught from Oahu day boaters. A lot of people ask us what’s the grade of the Ahi. I don’t know a lot about how they grade, I just know because our Ahi doesn’t go to auction, it’s ungraded, but all of it is fresh. The grade has to do with the oil content, and its texture. It’s an opportunity for us to explain to the guests why it’s different. The color, sometimes it’s very, very red, pinkish, translucent, sometimes it’s very dark and ruby. They’re really captivated. They like it.
Any favorite tools or techniques?
Favorite tools? Chubo knives! Come on.
That’s very kind of you to say that. Other than knives are there any other tools you’re using in the kitchen right now or techniques that you guys like to use?
Emily Iguchi who is our chef de cuisine and I, I like to think of ourselves not as simple cooks. That doesn’t explain it. — We like cooking, so we tend to stay away from gadgets. There’s a lot of knife work in this kitchen. It’s very labor intensive. You can see Louis toiling over here with some knife work. Our food is rooted in very traditional methods, with a strong French and Italian grounding, and Emily is Japanese. There’s a lot going on in the food. We like to reduce things. We like to strain things. We like to make things extra nice for everyone. In the end it has to be tasty. Really sharp knives and a good pair of scissors.
Do you cook at home? When you have time.
Yes, I do cook at home. The cooking is much simpler. On Sundays, Chuck and I are off, and it usually involves roasting something, or putting something in the oven, we have the veggies, a one pan sort of affair. We miss entertaining at home, and Chuck says, “yeah but we entertain every single night,” but it’s different. We love that people come in, but we miss sitting and breaking bread and drinking wine with our dear friends.
Favorite places to eat in Honolulu or anywhere in the world?
Right now, if it’s a special occasion we like Gaku Sushi. It’s pricey and worth every penny. We have such little time off these days that we don’t go out to eat as much as we’d like. We love Senia. They’re very good friends of ours.
Helena’s Hawaiian food is a favorite on the island. In the world, in New York City, I love Prune. It’s one of my favorites. I love Pearl Oyster Bar, because it is still fantastic. Yeah. I always go back there, those two places.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interesting in cooking.
I was born in New Jersey but grew up in Syracuse, New York. My first cooking memory is of my dad teaching me how to make scrambled eggs. My parents were adamant that I learn how to cook, and as I got older and they began to be more comfortable working later, I started cooking for all of us.
My parents travelled a lot for work, and I was fortunate enough to go to Spain, France, Argentina, England and China all before I graduated high school. For me, each trip centered around what I would eat.
I wanted to go to the CIA but my family was adamant that a college education would be best, so I ended up going to University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
I know you studied at St. Andrews, what was the transition from intense scholarship to cooking like?
At St. Andrews, I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between food and conflict. I won an award from it and ended up with a job offer from a food sovereignty rights’ NGO in New Delhi. I moved to NYC as I waited for my visa to come through. I did not want to move back to Syracuse, so I found a sublet in NYC. I quickly realized I needed an income and I also wanted to make sure I was not giving up on a dream of mine, so I started trailing in kitchens. Turns out I would have been giving up on a dream if I moved to India.
The transition however was hard – I went from 14 hours a day in a library to 14 hours a day in a kitchen. I screwed up, a lot, but I loved it and decided I’d work as many hours as possible to make a living cooking and build a culinary skill set. To say it was hard would be an understatement.
Tell us a little about your career history.
The first restaurant I worked in is actually two blocks away from where I work now. The chef at the time shouldn’t have hired me; I showed up without proper shoes or knives. But as he put it, I was educated and could speak English. I ended up only working there for a few months, but I learned that kitchens were where I wanted to be.
Eric Korsch, the newly appointed chef at The Waverly Inn at the time, decided to take a chance on me next. It was here that he and then sous chef Ted Rozzi gave me the culinary education I desperately needed and introduced me to the stamina I would need in the industry.
I next followed Ted Rozzi to Crown on the Upper East Side for my first opening. Later a captain at Crown introduced me to Matt Lightner and after trailing 4 times he decided to take a chance on me next. He hired me as a prep cook for his soon to open restaurant, Atera. I felt like I had made it. The kitchen, all the chefs and staff at Atera; it was like nothing I had seen before. The discipline I learned there I carry with me daily.
I next went to Gramercy Tavern where I would spend two years. Through the guidance of Michael Anthony I was able to round out all of the skills I had learned and find my voice as a cook.
I went to California after that and trailed at some incredible restaurants but ended the trip realizing I only wanted to cook in NYC. I helped a friend of mine open a biscuit shop called Empire Biscuit before I found a sous chef opportunity with Major Food Group at Santina. I was sent to open Dirty French first, as Santina’s opening was delayed. I then worked at Santina for almost two years, before I was asked to work on the opening of The Grill, as executive sous chef.
What is your food philosophy
Never drop your standards because of time, pace, space or the people around you. Be as proud of a biscuit you make as an almost impossible razor clam dish. Ignore others that would criticize you for who you work for or where you have worked. As long as you care, put out correct and delicious food, and always work hard, you’re doing it right.
And don’t be scared to screw up, don’t bow out or give excuses. I’ve learned the most through my errors. Just don’t repeat them.
Between Dirty French, Santina and now the Grill you’ve had a pretty intense restaurant opening schedule. What do you love and hate about opening restaurants?
I love the pace and intense drive almost every person involved in an opening has. I love that you set the systems for the kitchen and because of that, you leave a lasting impact. I love that you learn through error, and fix it. I love the lack of sleep and testing of physical limits. I also tire of it at some point but the initial drive is something special. I love cooking new cuisines and dishes. I love openings, but I think that shows.
Are there lessons you’ve learned in the kitchen that you feel apply outside of work?
I believe everything I said in my philosophy applies to outside of a kitchen. I was a shy and unconfident person, particularly in relationship to my body. Kitchens changed that. Be true to yourself, help others, work harder than the person next to you, and most things work out. A bit hippie dippy, but… tough.
Do you sense changes in attitudes about women in the kitchen from the beginning of your career until now?
I’ve been lucky to never have my gender be a real issue in my work life, but again, I think my philosophy speaks to why that has been the case. If you work hard and give it your all, it’s hard for people to judge you because of something like your sex. I won’t say it’s been without bumps in the road, but I try not to dwell on that. I can happily say as the CDC of a huge restaurant with a very big staff, my gender is something that rarely comes up, if anything it is from guests surprised I’m the CDC. I do wish I could find more female line cooks, but I have four on my AM staff which makes me very happy.
Do you cook at home? If so what?
I like cooking pasta at home, fresh or dried. Pasta holds a special place in my heart. My go to is Martelli spaghetti for cacio e pepe. Besides that, it’s normally scrambled eggs and toast or peanut butter and jelly. My boyfriend cooks a fair amount for me when I get home, which is always greatly appreciated. I also have a soft spot for Mighty Quinn’s take out.
Favorite Tools and Techniques
My favorite tools are: my nenox 210 mm gyutou and my neon blue fish spat that most people hate but survived me a year on Gramercy Tavern fish roast.
My favorite cooking technique is cooking over open fire. I worked on the grill station at Gramercy Tavern, where you build and maintain your own fire, and it was a life changer. We cook over wood at The Grill, and it was a huge part of why I was so excited about being a part of that opening, second to the menu.
Are there ingredients you are excited about right now?
I’ve been really excited about the different game birds we have worked with at The Grill. I became very interested in hunting and game when I lived in Scotland, so it has been fun to work with similar products again.
Favorite? places to eat in NY and elsewhere.
I’ve been told I have a lot of favorites, so here’s a short list:
Joe Anthony is the Chef de Cuisine at Gabriel Kreuther restaurant.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interesting in cooking?
I grew up in an active surf and skate community down in south-east Florida. The weather is pretty consistent year around, so I spent a good amount of time outdoors and playing sports. Lots of young people means lots of partying, and my youth had no shortage of that. Hanging with friends and playing music was the norm. I was never a “rise and shine” kind of person, so in retrospect the restaurant industry fit well. However, my career really started out like any other kid trying to make some spending cash. I took the job as a busboy at this local restaurant called 32East in Delray Beach. I remember seeing the intensity and drive the kitchen team had and it was very contagious. It became inspiring to see the level of execution and pride that came with each nightly service. I loved the controlled chaos and the formality of how much a team sport it was. The kitchen took notice that I was intrigued and started giving me bits and pieces of the menu to taste. The menu changed daily, and I became hooked on the sheer creativeness and ever evolving products. This was not a stagnant restaurant and it didn’t have stagnant chefs. I made the decision at 19 that this is what I wanted to do. I was thrown in the fire, but was fortunate enough to have the kitchen boys show me the ropes. I’ve never looked back and have never had another job outside of the restaurant industry.
Painted Hills Beef Tenderloin with Roasted Salsify, Potato Dumplings and Juniper Jus
What led you to come cook in New York?
I spent eight years cooking in south Florida all while staying in the Delray area. I worked for the same group in various positions between the two restaurants they had. At the time, it felt like Florida had a limit on how far you could learn and grow. I knew the next step naturally would be to go and experience life in a big food city. My chef was very supportive and made a few calls for me to trail at some high-end establishments in New York City. I spent the next few years working at Restaurant Daniel and Union Square Café before ultimately joining the Modern and meeting chef Gabriel.
Smoked Eel Velouté, Seven Grain Tuille, Saffron Tapioca, Black Truffle Coulis
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I believe that everything is and needs to be evolving, so therefore my philosophy will change too… but at the end of the day I try to create dishes the way that I want to eat them.
You cooked with Chef Kreuther at the Modern, how is the approach to your menu for Gabriel Kreuther different?
I wouldn’t say our approach is necessarily different, just evolving. The Modern was well established and successful long before I worked there, so it had its style already. A lot has already changed here from the opening to present. However, chef Gabriel’s food in my opinion always has a soul to it and feels somewhat familiar even if you’ve never had it. That’s something I keep in the back of my head and never want to lose with our approach.
You recently returned from cooking in Japan. Can you tell us about that experience and any take aways or eye openers learned there?
I am very fortunate and humbled to be able to experience Japan the way I did. It was part of a cultural exchange program provided by the Gohan Society. It’s a beautiful program they put together every year and I really must express my gratitude.
We spent nine days traveling through Ishikawa, Kanazawa and ultimately ending in Tokyo. It was a great mix of cultural activities such as sake brewing, miso processing, traditional pottery making and staging in restaurants. The first thing they taught me was how to make a classic dashi. It’s something that I always enjoyed, but now have a completely different understanding and respect for. That could pretty much sum up how I feel about the whole experience.
Do you cook at home?
I cook every almost every Sunday at my apartment for my fiancé Nancy. Mostly stew and food that can be reheated all week while I’m at work.
What are you favorite kitchen tools?
I guess my favorite tool has to be my knives. I mean I have one in my hand pretty much every day.
Charcoal Grilled Maine Lobster with Baby Carrots, Toasted Cashew and Jamon Nage
Ingredients you are excited about right this moment?
We use this farmer named Dan Lieber who has become like an ambassador for a lot of the local farms in Pennsylvania. He owns and runs Stardust Farms which produces amazing squab, but he also delivers for a lot of great local produce, grains, and dairy farms within the area. Greenwalk Trout Hatchery has to be one of my favorite new producers to work with. You can tell all the hard work and care that goes into raising the different varieties of trout.
Fluke Tartare with Meyer Lemon Custard, Maine Uni, Yuzu, Wasabi, Finger Lime and Green Apple
Can you share some favorite places to eat in New York and elsewhere?
I recently had a great meal at Shuko and would recommend for sure. Del Posto, Per Se and Olmsted are always solid choices for me. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a drunken night that ends up in K-town though! Outside of NYC I’ll def go with Alinea. Those guys push so hard and are constantly evolving. I have much respect and admiration for the chefs there.
Photographs courtesy of Jannie Huang and the Whale Cove Inn.
Tell us a bit about your career history and how you ended up in Oregon?
I knew by age 12 that I wanted to be a chef, but at the time growing up in Iowa the culinary scene wasn’t what it is now. I worked at one restaurant there for a bit, then went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY graduating in 1997. From there I worked in Mendocino, CA, Park City, UT, Dallas, TX, Denver, CO, Bend, OR, Portland, OR and now I currently own two restaurants on the Oregon Coast: Restaurant Beck and Sorella.
Who are some chefs you consider mentors?
I would say my first chef, the one who showed me the ropes as a very very green cook would be Mark Dym. The other would be Scott Neuman with whom I worked with at Oba Restaurante in Portland, OR, he is now the chef of Jaspers in Houston. He taught be a great deal on the day to day operations of the restaurant business. As far as Chefs that I would consider to be a mentor, even though, I have never worked for him would be Charlie Trotter, his books for me, when I was a very young age was eye opening for come coming from Iowa.
How did you partnership with Whale Cove Inn develop?
Stormee, my wife and co-owner, and I were approached by the GM of the Whale Cove Inn in April of 2009. After a month or so of conversations we came to an agreement. We opened Restaurant Beck, named after my son, Becker in June of 2009.
How would you describe the food you’re doing there?
You know, my personal answer would be progressive local. Progressive, meaning we cross paths between modern cooking techniques and modern classic French techniques. Local, being that we buy probably 90% of the ingredients we use from Lincoln County.
What is the best part of running a destination restaurant.
I would say running a destination restaurant is very hard under that title. The cool thing is though once season gets up and running we get to see our die hard fans who show up during the months of April and October
What are the challenges?
Having 65% of our sales be during our season and being a destination restaurant. Also, there are challenges when you own, operate, raise a family, etc with your spouse. Our love is strong…but honestly it can be frustrating for both us.
Last summer you opened Sorella, a more casual restaurant. How’s that experience been different?
This experience has been great. It’s faster paced and much less expensive, focusing on handmade Italian Cuisine. Sorella is a much larger restaurant, 75 seats compared to 30 at Beck. I love our bar down there, it has proved a very creative avenue for our bartenders to really work their craft. We definitely do things team driven down there. Stormee and I may be at the top on paper, but we have some of the best employees on the coast and it allows the select few to be creative. It’s refreshing….when I am not replacing a water heater!
Can you tell us about a dish you are excited about right now?
With spring in full swing right now we are seeing a lot of wild greens foraged locally… so an upcoming dish will be called “Gazpacho” it consists of cucumber water combined with juiced wild watercress, seasoned with wild herbs of oxalis and miners lettuce. We finish the whole thing off with house made kefer, puffed black rice, compressed rhubarb and peach, Oregon extra virgin olive oil….and this dish is a sign that more wild herbs are on their way and it will eventually become a dish called “seeds and shoots”….that’s a whole other paragraph.
Any favorite ingredients or purveyors you are working with right now?
Right now anything from the forest. Purveyor wise: Forest Foragers, Newell Seafoods, and Amazon is great being in a rural area.
Essential kitchen tools?
My Takamura R2 is awesome. Then the ‘Luna’ Spoon from World Market…perfect for saucing, quenelles, and rocher.
Can you share some recommendations for dining in Oregon and elsewhere?
For Sushi: Zilla in PDX, For overall experience: Departure, For meat, meat and more meat: OX. Mexican: La Roca in Lincoln City. Cafe Boulud in NYC…and that’s about it…I don’t get out much…business and family keep us very busy!
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.
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.
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.
Mike Thelin is the Co-Founder of FEAST Portland and principal of Bolted Services, where he consults for food and tourism-related promotions, projects, events and initiatives nationally. He also appears on the popular Cooking Channel show Unique Eats.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I grew up in Scappoose, Oregon, which is a suburb to a suburb to a suburb, a tiny town in rural Oregon, 30 minutes, but literally 20 years outside Portland. Very rural community, country music, the word hay is a verb. It’s not what you think of Oregon, but most of Oregon is like that. My family was really multi-ethnic. My dad had 4 daughters from his first wife that were older. One married a Mexican guy, one a Japanese, and my sister Carol’s daughter married a guy from Vietnam. So our normal family get-togethers featured whole roasted goats with the heads on and really smelly condiments. The first time you smell fish sauce, you think it’s disgusting and then you taste it and say, “Where have you been all my life?”
Tacos, sushi, spaetzle. My family just really loved food. People think suburban America doesn’t have a lot of food culture, but I think that is just not how I grew up. It was always a part of life, there was no ‘aha moment’.
Career-wise, what was your first foray into the food world?
I worked in restaurants in my 20s and got a degree in journalism. I tried to do office jobs, but wasn’t good at it. I was so bored, but loved to be around food people, because they were much cooler, in general!” (laughs) I kept going back to restaurants, but I was also interested in business and liked making things happen. I didn’t really figure out how to reconcile those two, but almost 10 years ago, I quit my job and sold my house and moved to Spain for a year. And then when I came back, I knew I had to do something that was in line with my passions. I dedicated myself to food writing and became the food critic for a local paper, Willamette Week in Portland. Then pretty soon there after, I started consulting on events as a way to do something else I liked. I had the aptitude for the events side and really understood how to make them work and how to not bleed money. How to make the chefs happy and the guests happy and how to make sponsors happy was something I was naturally really good at. So that was 2008, I worked on an event called the Indie Wine Festival and it sparked my interest and opened up a door. After that people started coming to me. I had found my calling.
How did FEAST come to be?
At the time I was working on a number of national initiatives. I was the host city chair for IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) in Portland in 2010. We really turned that into almost a food festival. We did all these fun things and then it left and we were all sort of left holding the ball wondering why can’t we do this again. I looked into different opportunities with different people and nothing ever really meshed. I wanted to do a destination festival. I started working on another festival in Austin, TX so there was all these things we were trying to do, but I wasn’t finding the right people. Then I met Carrie (Welch), my partner who had just moved out from New York, and she was new in town and because of that she was just crazy enough to want to do something like this. Plus she had the time and she also had the experience because she worked on New York Wine and Food. So immediately, without knowing each other, we knew we wanted to do a food festival together and we did. That was almost 4 years ago.
How do you go about selecting the Chefs that you invite to FEAST?
First of all, when a lot of people think, who do we want to come to our events, they think who’s hot in the magazines and who’s hot on TV. For us, there are people on our core team, like Emily (Crowley), Carrie (Welch), Jannie (Huang) who just know the food world. We talk about who we think is doing exciting things in the food world. If you look at our lineup it’s a little eclectic. You might see people who are from TV and you might see people who are more random and you might not have heard of, but the undercurrent is, we ask “Is this person doing something really interesting or relevant, regardless of their level of fame?” And, would they be fun to work with, that’s the arbiter there.
We end up with an across the board interesting line up and also about 70% our chefs and everyone involved is local. So we really try to do our best to showcase locality.
New York and Portland keep trading culinary talent such as Matt Lightner, Andy Ricker, Gregory Gourdet and Jim Meehan. What do you think is drawing New Yorkers to Portland and vice versa?
Well one thing I know about New York, now that I live here most of the time, is that New York and Portland are vastly different but at the core they share some values. They are different in that, NY operates in a speed and pace and level that no place else does. But NY is all about the idea and the originality. In food, hype really doesn’t get you that far in NY—at least not for long. Of course, there are exceptions, but Portland is like that too. External validation doesn’t get you that far for that long. At the end of the day, your restaurant is going to survive in Portland because it’s good, not because it’s on TV. I feel like NY is kind of the same way. You can’t fool New Yorkers and you can’t fool Portlanders. That’s one aspect the two cities have in common.
Then what is the biggest difference between NY and Portland relating to food?
In NY at the high end, you have a tremendous amount of phenomenal options. Cities like New York, Chicago or LA, have options that other cities, period, don’t have. I have really enjoyed going to places like Del Posto, or Atera or Brooklyn Fare. There are so many places on another level. Like part of a conversation that’s more global. Portland doesn’t have that as much. The other thing you have in NY that’s phenomenal is the borough of Queens, which is a place I’ve come to love. It’s sort of like what the rest of the country is trying to become. You talk about the newest food hall or the newest food neighborhood. You talk about places like Brooklyn, or the West Village, East Village and it’s all very interesting. But you go to a place like Flushing or Jackson Heights and it’s already that in a different way. The mix of ethnicities and cultures is really what makes New York so fascinating. You cannot run out of places to eat. There are so many.
Is there one thing you miss the most about Portland?
I’m still in Portland quite a bit—so I still get to enjoy the scene there. That said, what makes Portland so special is that really high quality food is just not that expensive. The farmers markets aren’t that expensive. It has a lot to do with proximity to ingredients. The ocean is an hour away. Eastern Oregon, wine regions, produce grows year round. That’s one thing I miss, those incredible farmers markets. Our farmers market in downtown Portland draws as many people to the area on a Saturday as an NBA game. 20,000 people come to this thing and it’s just a beautiful sight to behold. Also you hear people talking about food and sourcing, in Portland, everyone does that. It’s not a talking point, it’s just expected. You go to your neighborhood bar and the meat that they use on their burger is going to be eastern Oregon naturally raised grass-fed beef. The bun will come from some local baker and that’s at a dive bar. So the accessibility of good food that was mindfully created and prepared, I’ve never been in a place that compares to Portland in that regard.
And those breakfast burritos. Why do you think they haven’t caught on here!?
It’s a good question. Stoner food. I think that’s probably what it is. (Laughs) But the mantra of Portland is really people like food that tastes good. It’s a place where people really celebrate the act of joyful eating. There are places that are more thoughtful and experimental elsewhere, but the average meal in Portland, the quality is really high.
How did food carts get to be such a thing?
Food carts are all over the city. There used to be a time when traditional restaurants didn’t like the food carts there because they viewed them as competition that didn’t have to invest in the same infrastructure but could still serve food. There were a lot of people who really criticized that, but now the city really sees these for what they are – not only do they activate the streetscape, because let’s be honest, where all those trucks are in downtown Portland, if they weren’t there it would be just an ugly parking lot with nothing happening. They’ve also proven to be great business incubators. If you look at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, that started as a food truck and Lardo sandwich shop has 5 locations and a bakery and a pasta place called Grassa – they started 5 years ago as a food truck, for people who want to take the chance and say, “Hey, I really want to do food, maybe I don’t want to spend half a million dollars at least to build out a restaurant, maybe I just want to spend 25,000 to see if this is something I want to do. Food trucks have really created an option that didn’t exist.
Who are your ‘ones to watch’ in Portland?
I think Earl Nimson, of Langbaan, he’s not so under the radar, but he has a tasting menu in the back of his Thai restaurant in Portland. There’s also there’s a place called the People’s Pig, porchetta sandwich, they just moved into a brick and mortar location. I always tell people to check that out. Then there’s Ryan Roadhouse who has a place called Nodoguro, he’s doing interesting things.
I think one of the most interesting things about Portland, is that from the media, you expect it to be a facsimile of Brooklyn, but in reality Portland feels pretty authentic.
A lot of things people did in Oregon, like canning, pickling, preserving, fishing, hunting, that’s Northwest life. Wearing a beard and flannel, it’s because it’s cold. People are into coffee because during the wintertime it can be dark. So we drink a lot of coffee. A lot of those things that you see in Portland are authentic things there—not trends. And I’ve heard people say that Portland is copying Brooklyn, but most Portlanders aren’t even aware of place called Brooklyn, they just do their own thing and don’t think of the rest of the country.
Are there aspects of Portland that you’re relieved to be away from?
I think every place’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness and Portland being inward looking has fostered a really great community, because of that it’s doesn’t look externally for inspiration. Like any movement or scene, any time you have a community of people that draw off each other’s ideas, that’s the basis of true creativity. Whether you’re talking about the great farm to table chefs in California in the 1970s or abstract expressionists in New York’s art scene – I think it can also create a degree of provinciality. But I think it’s changing and Portland is becoming more a part of the national conversation, and chefs like Andy, Matt and others have made such a name for themselves.
Any details you can share for FEAST 2015?
We’re looking at changing a few things, maybe adding a new big signature event. We’re working on bringing more international chefs from northern Europe and possibly Japan, the year after, to do some collaborative dinners. For us, we just want to continue to be on the edge and do interesting things. More and more we’re interested in looking at what’s happening in the neighborhoods and cities around the country, and finding what we’re inspired by, then saying, how can we bring that to Portland for 4 days every September.
Photography courtesy of Runner & Stone, Mayumi Kasuga, Ho Kyung Lee and Karen Wise.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food?
I’m from Long Island originally and I think I was always interested in food, I used to hang out in the kitchen a lot as a kid and try and cook. From the age of 16, I was a busboy in a restaurant and worked in food service throughout college. Then I got diverted. My undergraduate degree is in natural resource management – environmental science. Halfway through, I realized that was not going to be my future, so I switched to engineering. After working in engineering for a few years, I realized that was not the route either. The whole time being involved in restaurants in one way or another.
Were you always drawn to bread baking?
No, that was the last stage of it. It was always cooking and front of house. After engineering, when I got back to the kitchen I started from the bottom and worked all stations and realized maybe the hot line wasn’t for me, so I went into pastry and started bread when there was a lag in pastry opportunities and really fell in love with bread baking the best.
How has where you started with bread evolved into what you’re doing now?
The first and most formative, as far as learning the basics, was as an overnight baker at Amy’s Bread. Around 2002, Amy’s Bread was one of the big names in town and their product is really great and they do a huge variety. The overnight shift was a lot of production, so it was a good place to learn. I was lucky to work with really talented bakers that showed me the ropes.
Then my time at Per Se was really great for broadening my ideas on different flavors of bread without only using spices, fruits and nuts, because we couldn’t. At Per Se, the bread had to go with all courses. There couldn’t be flavor conflicts, so the focus is more on different flours and different pre-ferments for changing flavor profiles of bread. Not just adding stuff that tastes good. It was also great for refining fermentation and shaping, because the bread had to be at the same level all the time, and beautiful as well as delicious.
At various points, I did stages, including one in France and one in my dad’s hometown in Germany. Those were both really inspirational and helped shape my ideas on bread. I think all those experiences come together in the style we have now at Runner & Stone, which I would describe as a European-style, maybe a little rustic, but with certain refined aspects and techniques present, even if they aren’t outwardly apparent in the bread.
What was your biggest take away from your time working in Germany?
Pretzels. I grew up eating these pretzels, so I went to work in the bakery in my father’s home town. It’s a two minute walk from my Aunt’s house. To work there was cool from a personal point of view. They made other bread too, but I can’t say any were revelations. They were all good ryes, and that was all interesting to see, but the takeaway was really the pretzels, pretzels and more pretzels.
And in France?
In France I worked in a bakery called L’Etoile de Berger, which is just outside of Paris proper, with three outlets in suburbs and they have a central viennoiserie and pastry kitchen that I also worked at. That was after Per Se and it was really great to be exposed to some really wonderful product and a more traditional French style, while working with bakers that approached things in a way that’s totally different from the way American bakers do.
The oldest person there was probably twenty years old, but they’ve all been baking for ten years and so they have a really different relationship with the job and with bread. After having come from fine dining that was really fun to experience, a different aesthetic and approach to food. The owner, Franck Debieu was really great, even though I spoke very little French and our conversations were often him speaking and me nodding and not understanding what was really happening. He was really great about getting me involved in all aspects of the bakery, from the pastry to the viennoiserie to the daily bread baking and every time he saw me, he was always checking in to make sure I saw everything. All the people there were really supportive of me and my lack of French!
Can you tell more about your experience at Per Se?
It’s probably the hardest job I’ve had, and I think anyone who works at Per Se would probably say that, just because there is so much pressure to try and achieve a certain level, every single day, that no detail can be forgotten. It’s not acceptable to run out of a product and you’re creating an experience and even with the bread, you’re part of it. It’s super challenging, but as a result, I think I left feeling much better suited to own my own business and to tackle any product I had in mind, because I’ve been exposed to all the variables and what could go wrong and how to fix it and still maintain a certain level. As with any job the more challenging it is, the more rewarding it is and that stood true for my time at Per Se.
Also, it was really great working with professionals. Every single person there, from the general manager to the director of operations to the dishwasher was serious about his or her job and so there is a level of commitment and seriousness about food that was really inspirational. It never felt contrived or ridiculous or what was being asked of you was too much, because everyone was committed to the same goals. The group dynamic carried the whole process, it was really a special experience and one that I’m super grateful for.
Then how did Runner and Stone come about?
I always wanted to own my own business and I wanted to do a retail vs. a wholesale bakery, but a retail bakery in New York is not really a moneymaker, just because I don’t think New York can have a bread culture the way Europeans do, where they buy bread sometimes multiple times a day, but each day at the very least. So in order to open a retail location knowing that the revenue from bread sales is going to be a lot less than with a wholesale bakery, we decided to pair it with a restaurant. I’ve known [Chef] Chris Pizzulli for almost twenty years and he was looking to do his own thing too and we just decided it would be a great partnership. He’s my husband’s cousin, so we’ve traveled and spent holidays together, always talking about food and developed a relationship around food that continues.
When we lived in Italy, Chris came to visit and we cooked with his cousins in Puglia, we traveled around and ate all different kinds of food and realized we were on the same page when it came to hospitality, what’s important and not important both in managing people and food service. So that’s how the idea for the bakery and restaurant combined came about. The rest was just us answering questions and solving problems as they came up.
You started selling bread before the restaurant came to be?
As soon as I got back from Italy, we basically had a business plan and started to pursue financing as well as looking for spaces, but that process ended up taking a over a year, so just to keep going and to keep me busy (Chris was still working at Blue Ribbon full-time). We started selling bread and pastries at markets. The first market we did was New Amsterdam Market, (may it rest in peace – for now), and then we got into the Brooklyn Flea Markets including Smorgasburg in Williamsburg.
At that time I was working with Hot Bread Kitchen (http://hotbreadkitchen.org/) helping with their production and Jessamyn Rodriguez was kind enough to let me use their kitchen overnight when they weren’t using it. So we did production for markets there and that wound up being a great way to fine-tune our recipes and our aesthetic and decide what products we were going to move forward with. At the same time, it kept us busy and got some press attention out there in anticipation of the opening.
Are there any products that failed or were not received as you had imagined?
I’d say any failures we had were the first iterations of our recipes. Our original croissant dough and baguette were different than the ones we opened Runner and Stone with. I’d say they were less good.
Then we changed the format of some things, like we used to make our brioche in a 2 kilo batard, that we would cut to order, something I’d seen in France and loved the idea of. People didn’t really get that. They still have trouble with our large format miche. The idea that you’re only getting a quarter of it seems weird to people. Little things like that.
For the most part, it was a way for me to test things, and see what sold in the market. If something disappeared the following week, no one was crazed, not like when you’re picking up the same thing everyday Monday through Friday on your commute to work. So it was a good chance to find out what people were buying and not buying.
One of our biggest sellers has always been our white baguette, which I think is really great, but some of our whole grain products are certainly more interesting. I think people shy away from it because they are buying bread for sandwiches specifically, not to eat with dinner or for cheese, which would be where you could get a more flavorful whole grain bread. At the market, people are asking what bread keeps for a long time and what works well with sandwiches. The crustier breads are a tougher sell. I wish people ate bread differently in some respects. Fresh bread is a revelation that a lot of people don’t have. I also get that in New York people work 50-60 hour weeks and don’t have time to shop for bread every morning.
How do you go about sourcing your flour?
When I got back from Italy, I went to a seminar about the local grain economy that was emerging in the early 2000s and I met June Russell from Greenmarkets who was really spearheading the development of that. I was working with Hot Bread Kitchen who were and are still using mostly local grains, and they were one of the first bakeries in Greenmarkets to meet the new regulations for local grains, which I think was 10-15% of your flour has to be local. Some of the other bakers were grandfathered in and have since increased their usage to where the average is now more than 50% local grains among all the bakeries.
Aside from June, I also met Elizabeth Dyck from OGRIN (Organic Growers and Research and information Sharing Network), who is a plant scientist and does a lot of work with testing different wheats and I got involved with their process. Together we worked on taste tests with different wheats. The local flours are really flavorful, but it appealed to me from an environmental science aspect as well. The buckwheat in the bread makes it look really beautiful and it tastes different and it’s also just a nice challenge. I think there are thousands of breads we could make, but as part of the creative process, it’s interesting to start with a set of ingredients that know you have to work around. That helps focus me on recipe development. I start by knowing I want to use this flour.
Did you explore bread at all during your time living in Italy?
The only work I did relating to bread was teaching for Slow Food Milan, who had organized a few classes on a farm outside Milan. That was really cool, just 30 people in a farm-house, hand mixing bread and we had one little convection oven that we’d process all the bread through, while everyone sat around and talked and drank wine. It was a particularly Italian experience.
In Italy I was working in a pasta shop for a year, which helped with the fresh pasta aspect at Runner & Stone. That was a wonderful experience with a group of people who were so open and willing to share. Then I worked on dairy farm that made it’s own cheese and spent a little bit of time with other cheese and sausage makers.
Outside of panettone, I didn’t find any bread that I particularly wanted to learn, but there’s no breaking into a panettone bakery. It just doesn’t happen. No one wants to share that with you.
Can you tell us about the process of developing pasta for Runner & Stone?
The bakery and kitchen develop the pastas together, or the kitchen will tell us what they need and we’ll work on different shapes and flavors, but then once it’s in production they help with it. We have a pasta extruder, so once we have the recipe, the kitchen handles that. The hand shaped pastas like the orecchiette, almost everyone who works here knows how to make them. The ravioli and sheeted pastas get done in the bakery.
How did you decide on Gowanus as the location?
Gowanus just kind of happened. We were looking everywhere, Lower East Side, East Village, Ditmas Park and all different neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. This was a neighborhood Chris knew, because he’s worked at Blue Ribbon Brooklyn, which is two blocks away and he knew that it was changing and more and more things were opening. We were bidding on the space across the street, which became The Pines while in negotiations for that space, we saw a For Sale sign on this building. We called the realtor, not with hopes of buying the building but to find out if it was purchased yet and who was going into the retail space. The realtor put us in touch with our current landlords. We had a phone conversation, which what we thought would take 10 minutes, but turned into an hour-long conversation about what we like and don’t like about social spaces and our ideas on food and hospitality and realized it was a perfect relationship.
Everyone told us we’d know the right space, we’d feel it in our gut, which I thought was BS, but I really felt as soon as we did a walk through with the owners it seemed like the only choice for us. Then the neighborhood started picking up and everything seemed to align.
The space has received much praise and attention in the design world. How did you approach the design of the space?
Our landlords are both architects, their firm is called Latent Productions in TriBeca, but they bought it with plans to redevelop the whole building. So Chris and I didn’t really have any ideas on design, we just knew we needed a bakery and a kitchen and that we wanted it to be kind of casual, but nice, so the fact that the space came with designers was just an added bonus. Sal and Karla, our landlords and the principles of Latent, had some pretty strong ideas about what they wanted for the space and I think they enjoyed the challenge of incorporating two kitchens and the transformation of the space from a morning to an evening destination and how light plays into that. That was just serendipitous that they were so excited about this project and we were so excited about having someone that was so excited about the project. We just got lucky with that coming together.
How did the famous building blocks that resemble flour sacks come about?
That was Karla’s idea. She had mentioned it to me early on in our conversation. We are thinking of doing this, could you get me a few flour bags? We were doing market production at the time so we brought her different sizes from different companies and she picked one that worked out well and they developed these blocks. Then they became a real central part of the design. Then we went on to continue collecting flour bags from my production, Hot Bread Kitchen’s production, Daniel’s commissary kitchen’s production. There was definitely a few months of me trekking all around Manhattan with a granny-cart full of empty flour bags.
Did you get to see how this went down?
They were building them in the basement so they had a set up where they’d do 40 at a time. There’s over a thousand blocks in use. The bag would fit into this framework and they’d line the bag with plastic so it wouldn’t stick to the concrete. Then the framework allowed them to bulge, but stay within their specifications so they could be used to build with. So they would set the mold and then a day or two later break down the framework and take out the bags and start over again. It was definitely exciting when the first ones came out because I didn’t really have a picture in my mind what it was going to be like. Until that first wall went up, it was a just a pile of weird looking blocks in the back yard.
Runner and Stone is getting ready to celebrate its second anniversary, which is certainly an achievement in New York’s difficult restaurant climate. What do you hope for your team to accomplish in the upcoming year?
What I would love to see for Runner & Stone in the upcoming year is continued growth without compromising our current standards for ingredient sourcing, traditional, slow production techniques, and the strong, personal relationships we’ve built and continue to build with our customers.
Gaku Shibata, along with his wife Christy, owns Yopparai and Azasu in New York’s Lower East Side.
Can you tell us a little about where you’re from and how you got involved in the food world?
I was born in Tokyo, but I left Japan when I was 20. After highschool – I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and had little motivation so I did many part time jobs, but I knew I wanted to study abroad, especially in the U.S. – so I tried to save money for tuition, but after two years, it wasn’t enough. My mother found out tuition in China was less than half of Japan or the U.S. – so I decided on that and went to Beijing Foreign Studies University. I didn’t have any interest in China, but I tried to like. After getting there I really tried to like it.
What was your first impression?
Twenty years ago China was really different. I was the first Japanese student after Tianamen. You know – June 1st – since then, China wasn’t expecting any foreign students and foreigners over all were much less than now, but I had a really great time. I stayed four years and studied English and Chinese and International Relations, really I didn’t study anything, but got experience on how businesses could operate in China. At that time I met my wife, Christy who was there on a short program from Pennsylvania and we wrote each other for 10 years and then got married.
After leaving China – I worked for several companies, but I learned I’m not good at working for somebody else, it’s kind of an embarrassing thing, but I can not fit in with Japanese conservative companies, so I would feel really uncomfortable and quit after two months and then I started to have lots of part time jobs, as a waiter or bartending at the American Club in Roppongi. I starting thinking about starting a business.
First, I started a Chinese Mandarin school in Tokyo – at the time everyone wanted to start a business in China – so it was good timing. Then I was importing hot dog pushcarts from New Jersey to Japan, and also importing Oscar Meyer hot dogs. We sold a lot. We had a pushcart at Tokyo Dome – a major baseball stadium, and horse racing and around Roppongi area. We called it NY Hot Dog – NYHD in Japanese it sounds like NYPD – and the uniform looked like New York City’s Police. We did that for about 2 and half years, and then I worked importing other things, but at that time it was the bubble, so the economy was slowing down, so I started to cash out all my businesses. My wife was offered a job in New York, so we decided to come here.
My English was not really good enough for business, so I thought my only chance was to do something related to a restaurant. My wife is American and I took her everyplace in Tokyo and she really liked it, so I saw the potential to have authentic Japanese food in New York City. We came a couple times for sightseeing, but I never felt satisfied as a Japanese with the Japanese food here.
I started working for a restaurant in Japan, Aburaya. My head chef at Yopparai, Junya Miura, it’s his father’s place. A thirty year old historic Izakaya in Roppongi. I was a regular there and I told his father – I’m moving to the U.S. and want to start a Japanese food business. I was over 30 years old – so to be an apprentice at that age is kind of crazy. He thought I was not serious, so he said “I don’t think so”, but the next day I shaved my head, same as my master. I wanted to show him I was serious. So we talked again, and I said, “I really want to study. I don’t need money”. And then he gave me a chance. It was a great experience. Working five days a week, he showed me how to use knives, ingredients, recipes and management also. I really respect him and appreciate him a lot for that.
I told Junya – I’m going to start a business in New York sometime soon, so please get ready. I have permission from your father to take you with me. But when I got to New York it was really hard, no friends, no experience. I have some English difficulty – so the first year was really hard. It was 2006, and I started working as a prep cook at Japanese restaurants, working in the basement, coming in really early to chop vegetables and open oysters. It was really tough, but because I had a dream and stuff, I was able to bear it.
At that time my wife got a job offer in LA – so we moved again. I was doing a really low level job, but my wife is an executive, so it’s tough with man’s pride – but we spent that time focusing on her career. That was the hardest time. I didn’t like LA, the vibe is so different from New York. I grew up in Tokyo – where the vibe is more similar. LA is a nice place with great weather and people are nicer than New Yorkers, but you know, I never felt comfortable… but I stayed and worked in a sushi bar. And then after two years, we had the chance to come back to New York. And I got more obsessed about starting a business. I’d been in the states for five years now and really needed something for myself, so I brought Junya over from Japan and we started to open Yopparai.
In our opinion, Yopparai is one of the most beautiful spaces in New York. Where did the design inspiration come from?
I didn’t want to have too much of a typical authentic interior, because this is New York. The concept is authentic Japanese food, but the feel should be New York. I had a friend who’s an architect, and he helped me visualize my idea.
I have a sake sommelier license, but I’m not into talking about sake and the process. I’m more of a drinking sommelier. I just like to drink and get drunk. I shouldn’t say, I don’t care about the details of a sake but for me it depends more on the weather, who are you drinking with, what are you eating? It’s really complicated, all these factors together. Ultimately, I want to have a good time with sake at my place. I’m not here to give a lecture. If people want me to warm up daiginjo.. if they like it and are happy – I’m happy too. I’m gonna tell them, I don’t recommend it, but if you really want to I’ll do it. I’m easy going. My concept at Yopparai is that I want every customer to have a smile and good buzz.
Judging from personal experience, it seems you’re very effective in that goal!
Eating is the pleasure of life. It’s not about what degree the sake is at. I want to create a good condition to enjoy sake.
How did you collect all the different and beautiful sake cups?
I spent 10 years building my own collection, each time I went back to Japan, so that’s every sake cup on the shelf. When people order high-end sake – or when my favorite customers come in, I like to use my personal collection.
Do you have to approach Japanese food differently in NY?
Having a restaurant is really hard, because what New York needs and what I want to provide is sometimes different. I’ve spent six years in the US, I know what New Yorkers want, so we decided to make the food really authentic, we don’t want to use avocado or truffles, I know it’s good and I understand that, but at that time there was a boom of big box restaurants, Nobu, Megu, Buddakan, Tao – fusion restaurants, so I decided that I don’t want to chase anyone. I don’t want to do ramen or sushi. There’s enough in New York City. There were great sake places in New York – Sakagura, Decibel. I respect them, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to sell something made in Japan.
Tell us about your new restaurant Azasu.
I liked the Lower East Side, I had a lot of ideas that I couldn’t do, because Yopparai is high end. Lots of customers wanted shochu or beer and it’s hard to say no. So I had the idea for a casual place. I wanted younger customers and people to come in and enjoy ‘cup sake’ here, thinking in a few years, they can graduate to Yopparai. I thought of it as a ‘Gateway Japanese Booze’ restaurant. That’s the idea with everything from Japan – whiskey, beer, shochu.
These are two interesting restaurant names, if you speak Japanese, Yopparai meaning “Drunkard” and a Azasu, a kind of slangy way to say “Thanks very much much” Where did the idea for these come from?
I thought it needs to sound good, With ‘Yopparai’ – P is like Sapporo, Azasu the sound was most important. It could be Spanish, Russian or African, it could be anything, but I wanted something catchy.
Can you tell us about this freezing drink machine.
We serve Hoppy – which is a non alcoholic hop drink [for mixed drinks]. We’re the first official restaurant, but Hoppy’s president gave me 3 conditions. 1 – Hoppy must be really cold. 2 – We have to freeze the shochu and 3 – We had to freeze the mug. So we have this 24 degree shochu [on tap], and this is NY so I want something catchy – so I was looking on the web and found this magic froster – it’s from Spain, so this is the first one in NY. People like it, some complain it’s too noisy, but most people like it.
Any favorite places to Eat in New York?
I love Cagen, I respect the chef a lot. The sushi and soba is amazing. I can say it’s the best soba in New York. It’s three bites, but really great. That’s it for going out, because lately I’m really busy.
This past September, Chubo had the great pleasure to take part in FEAST Portland, a phenomenal food festival celebrating the Pacific Northwest’s wealth of local craftsman, food products and culinary talent. Now in its third year, FEAST hosts a stellar line-up of internationally recognized chefs and culinary industry leaders to showcase the very best that the region has to offer. With the net proceeds going towards ending childhood hunger in Oregon and around the country through Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and Share Our Strength, it’s a ton of fun for a very worthy cause.
We came to take part in the festival’s Grand Tasting event, which hosted 15 local breweries, 33 wineries and 17 artisan food makers along with a main stage for demos by top culinary talent. For the Chubo Booth we brought along a wide selection of knives for guests to try out. We were super excited about the response from our visitors and made lots of new friends. The list of restaurants and wineries we’re dying to try around the country keeps growing!
On Friday our friend Chef Hugh Acheson from Empire State South, The National, Five and Ten and The Florence stopped by to demo some of our knives by breaking down a beautiful whole salmon from Foods in Season. Other highlights included his mango ‘porcupine’ and some nice fine julienne work.
On Saturday we got to hang out with Portland’s own, Nodoguro. Chef Ryan Roadhouse who impressed everyone with his fierce Japanese knife skills by demoing katsuramuki on daikon with our usubas and also breaking down a king salmon using the Japanese method.
We made the rounds at the festival events and parties and ate our share of crazy delicious things.
At the USA Pears Night Market, it was great to see our hometown New York City represented well with Public Chef, Brad Farmerie’s Laksa and Anisa Chef Anita Lo’s grilled quail. The line for Departure Chef Gregory Gourdet’s carmelized pork looped all over the Night Market, but was well worth the wait. Lucky Peach Editor in Chief Chris Ying summed it up pretty well when he said, “I just want to stand here and eat pears”. They were truly exceptional.
The festival wrapped up in a most perfect fashion with a Brunch Village hosted by Tillamook. Like most of the FEAST events, the country’s most buzzy dishes are all on offer in one location. Our weeklong craving for an Asian breakfast was delightfully satisfied with Alvin Cailan of LA’s Eggslut’s take on kimchi fried rice. The fact that we frequent their shop in New York didn’t stop us from bee-lining to Black Seed Bagel’s booth for the perfect Montreal style bagel (which we heard was baked all night in Roman Candle Baking Company’s oven) and of course we braved the monumental line for Aaron Franklin’s brisket taco.
We spent the last day in Oregon driving through the Colombia River’s Gorge to Hood River, where we visited The Kiyokawa family’s orchard. We gladly paid the over charge fee on our suitcase filled with their tarragon pickled cherries and huckleberry jam and some last summer peaches for the road. We made a brief wine stop at Hood River Winery for some of their fantastic Pinot Noir. We drank in the view and picked up a bottle for our Tokyo Staff.
Lastly we had one of the most incredible and memorable dinners of the past year at OX. Greg and Gabi Denton and their fantastic team are putting out some incredibly delicious and soulful takes on Argentinian inspired Portland food. Their Fresh Clam Chowder with Smoked Marrow Bone and Jalapeno is one of the most inventive and delicious bowls of food you can imagine. It’s truly a stunner and we’d recommend a trip to Portland for that dish alone, not to mention every other fire grilled thing on the menu.
Thanks to the whole team at FEAST who worked tremendously hard to pull off an epic event. And to the nice people at Will Leather Goods for the gift bag which is getting a lot of use at the farmers market both in NYC and Tokyo. Hope to see you all next year!
This video, beautifully produced by Eater, features Chef Paul Liebrandt discussing the essential knives and techniques for any cook. Featured are Chubo’s Takeda, Kagekiyo, Takamura and Saji Takeshi knives.
Keith Kreeger is a designer artist and maker whose work graces the tables of some of the countries best restaurants. You can find more of his work here.
Tell us a little about where you grew up?
I grew up just outside of New York City in Westchester County. Most of my family is still in New York and I go back for work often. Even though I’m living in Texas, New York is still a big part of my life.
How did you first get interested in pottery?
I took my first class when I was in high school but it was at Skidmore College when I really became serious about working with clay. I took a class during a summer session after my sophomore year, which was a big switch from the previous summer when I had interned on Capitol Hill. About 1 week into that first clay session I was working in the studio 10 hours a day and couldn’t wait to get back in there. About halfway through that session I met Toshiko Takaezu who came to Skidmore every summer to make some work. Next thing I knew I was pulling an all-nighter with Toshiko, her apprentice and a couple of other students as Toshiko made a 6 foot tall thrown form. That level of effort and concentration was amazing to me. I spent the rest of my time in college figuring out how to spend the most amount of time in the studio. What is the most satisfying/challenging aspect of your work?
Working in the studio is obviously a process driven endeavor. Because of that it’s incredibly rewarding to see the work flow from start to finish on a daily basis. There aren’t too many jobs that allow a person to see the results of their effort every day. It’s very similar to cooking in that sense. In the studio there are steps to follow and you’re constantly reacting to the materials at each stage of the process. Each moment in each round of work becomes information and part of a library of ideas to pull from for future work. I absolutely love revisiting an idea or form with skills and techniques that have evolved through the years.
As for challenges, working in the studio is physical work and certain tasks can be arduous and some are even tedious…but each of those steps is necessary to get the quality of finished work that I’m after. I often joke that as soon as we solve a problem in the studio within a process we’ll add another step or complication. I think the biggest issue in the studio right now is editing down the collections…finding the pieces that work best and the designs that succeed as part of a larger conversation. We are constantly tweaking ideas and trying new things.
In 2009 you moved your studio from Cape Cod Massachusetts to Austin, Texas. What prompted the move and how has the relocation influenced your work?
I loved living on the Cape and I built my first studio there long before I was ready to take on that endeavor. That turned out to be a good thing because I learned a lot about the process and a lot about myself that way. The Cape was so busy for the 4 months a year but in those long winters I often found myself in the studio at odd hours trying as many different things as possible. In 2009 my wife and I decided to move because we were ready for a city again. It turned out to be a good time to move and it definitely brought new inspiration to my work. I have been greatly inspired by the creative community in Austin. It’s a vibrant city that pulls its energy from so many sources…artists, tech companies, musicians, start-ups and the food community are all intertwined and are helping the city grow. I like to say that even my friends with boring jobs are doing interesting things. Without rambling further…I think my work has become cleaner and more contemporary since moving to Austin. Your work is the canvas for some of the country’s top chefs. Can you tell us a little about the collaboration process when working with chefs?
It’s very exciting to be working with chefs and I love seeing how each of their ideas show up on my work. I’ve always loved working with other creative groups and this collaboration just makes so much sense since so much of my work is made to serve food. The use of handmade wares in restaurants is obviously a trend at this point. What I find most important is that we communicate and educate each other so we keep the quality as high as possible. Just because something is handmade doesn’t give it an inherent good that warrants use. If you look around the tabletop world you even have commercial dinnerware manufacturers coming out with “craft” collections. I’m very deliberate with each piece that leaves my studio and am always thinking of how my work will be used. It’s incredibly humbling for me to know that on a given night around the country that so many people are using my work.
My process of working with chefs has a few options. One version is simply a chef choosing our standard collections for their spaces. Another way to work together is to come up with custom wares for the space. It could be as simple as a variation of one of my collections, which is what we’re doing for Tim Maslow at Ribelle. I just finished working on a series of carafes for another client’s water service. We’re definitely not a fabricating studio, but I’ve been lucky to have gotten calls from chefs who have an idea and give me the creative freedom to run with their ideas. Basically, I can make an entire line of tableware for a space or my work can be used to highlight a part of the service or decor within the greater setting of the restaurant.
As Paul Qui gets ready to open his tasting room I’ve been working on an exclusive line for him. The components are very geometric and modular for kitchen to work with. Paul recently texted me a photo of an egg with a cracked shell asking if we could make it out of porcelain. That’s not something I normally would have tried but we made some porcelain eggs and I think it’s going to be a pretty special part of the experience in the tasting room. We really enjoyed following your recent trip to Japan on Instagram. Was it your first time there? Can you share what surprised/delighted you, culinarily and or related to Japanese ceramics?
My wife and I were lucky enough to travel to Japan last fall for my brother-in-law’s wedding. The wedding was beautiful, in a Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The history of ceramics in Japan is amazing and I would love to go back for a more pottery-focused trip. We traveled through Tokyo and Kyoto but didn’t make it to any of the outlying pottery villages. We had some amazing meals and since my sister-in-law is from Tokyo we had a great guide for information. The best piece of advice from her was that instead of looking for a restaurant, decide on the type of food you want and go to the neighborhood that specializes in that. Under the train tracks in a smoke filled alley in Ginza we had incredible Yakitori. We had some great meals as part of the wedding group. My wife was a little worried about food so ramen became our safe meal and was our go to food throughout the trip. We also had one splurge meal on our last night in Japan at Ryugin. It was an amazing experience from start to finish. And, as a pottery nerd I was blown away by the level of ceramics used in the restaurant. There was an abalone served with an abalone broth. That broth came in a little cup from a kiln in Shigaraki. I’m sure that the cup was worth at least $1500. The object and its importance to the experience was incredibly inspiring to see.
By far our favorite experience was also the “worst” food of the entire trip. We were in Kyoto and wanted the most un-touristy experience we could have. We kept peeking in restaurants looking for a lack of foreigners and we finally found one. We sat at the counter surrounded by 70 year old Japanese men and ordered the set menu. The 80 year old woman who owned the restaurant tried to communicate to us to make sure that’s what we wanted. It was a meal full of awkward smiles and lots of pointing to explain what everything was. The food was so purely old school Japanese, full of textures and flavors that our western palates couldn’t really handle. But, by the end of the evening one man had finally asked laughingly why we were eating there. Another diner was pouring us shochu from the bottle he brought with him. My wife had about 12 plates of unfinished food in front of her since they wouldn’t clear a dish until all of the food was gone. We took pictures with the owner, her son who helped in the kitchen and her daughter who was serving. They walked us out and we all smiled and laughed and waved. We were going to circle back to get a picture of the restaurant but they were still outside laughing and waving when we were halfway down the block. It was the exact experience we were looking for…welcomed into another culture through food and hospitality. What are your go to restaurant recommendations in Austin?
The restaurant scene in Austin has just blown up since 2009 and there are so many fantastic choices now. Start any evening with a cocktail at either Whisler’s or Weather Up.
Obviously, I’m going to suggest Qui so you can eat off my so many of my plates. Enjoy the ride that Paul and his crew take you on. One of my favorite restaurants in town is Justine’s Brasserie. It’s like walking into another world and I love what Chef Casey Wilcox is cooking. The pork chop is incredible and the potato gratin is insanely delicious. Make sure you order from his daily menu where he gets super creative and pulls from an array of influences that all work within the brasserie setting. It’s also a great late night choice as the kitchen serves until 1am. I never thought that I’d move to Austin find my favorite sushi restaurant but get to Uchi and enjoy as much as the menu as you can. You’re going to have to get tacos while you’re here and I love the Veracruz All Natural trailer…go for the migas breakfast tacos. Ramen Tatsu-Ya is a must as well. The tonkotsu broth is amazing and the marinated soft-boiled egg is as perfect as it gets.
In Boston get to Ribelle and check out what Tim Maslow is cooking…easily one of the best meals I have had all year. Also, Coppa is fantastic and the lobster rolls at Neptune Oyster are the absolute best I’ve ever had. In NYC I love Sushi Zen for straight up old school sushi. I have had a couple of really great meals at Toro recently. I want Pearl and Ash to open in Austin…great food at a great price and a wine list that satisfies everybody. I’m dreaming of their octopus dish right now. Twice a year I bring a new collection to the market at the Javits. As soon as I finish packing up the show I head directly to Esca for oysters, crudo and one of the daily pastas…it’s a great way to finish the trip…I’m a big fan of rituals.
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.
What’s the curation process for your single origin and blends? Do you favor particular growing methods, philosophies or regions?
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.
How did you get into cooking initially?
My first job when I was 14 was in a grocery store, as a stock boy. I’d stock the soft drinks and instant ramen, fold the newspapers and steal Playboys on Sunday mornings when my shift was over. The owner of the grocery store also owned a little café that was next door. I’d hang outside the back door of the café and watch the cooks, dancing around a prep table, with their modified uniforms- cut off pants, brightly colored clogs, piercings and tattoos. I’d watch them spin with fish in their hand, throw a bag of flour over their shoulder. They were so cool. And I wanted to get in there. Bad.
A few more months passed and I asked my boss if I could get some hours in the café. He said “Dish and prep only”. And so I started to get my first hours prepping in the thimble sized, screaming hot cubicle kitchen- fighting through the tears as I chopped onions in a corner, on a fish tub lid for a cutting board, while the cooks threw smoking hot pans into a sink full of soapy water, right near me. I got splashed on, burnt, cut and generally abused a lot. And I loved every minute of it. I was hooked.
What do you like most about New England Cuisine?
The anticipation of the seasons. We have a very short growing season, so as cooks, we dream a lot. We appreciate seasonal ingredients so much more. By the time spring comes around we have menus planned, and every one of us is scrambling for the first wild onions, radishes, nettles, English peas and artichokes. It’s awesome. As cooks in New England I feel like we have a greater obligation to master the ingredients. To learn how not to fuck things up, because once our season is over, that’s it. No more morels. No more tomatoes. Gone. Until next year. So we have a dedication to the product that is special and intense. It’s like that summer fling you had in high school. As May approaches you are already thinking about seeing that person again, then it is ON for three or four months until you fade back into fall and winter and you wait again until next year. But while it is on, it is intense and fiery….
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.
Favorite places to eat in Providence? Elsewhere?
Well, Farmstead of course. Also, I love my friend’s bistro, New Rivers. Super quaint and so New England. Great vibe and awesome food. Some new spots like Birch and North and doing a nice job. Also, I love sausages, so Wurst Kitchen is a favorite. Out of town, I’d hit Tallulah’s Taco Shack in Jamestown in the summer. It’s dope. And Matunuk Oyster Bar. That’s a great spot. Otherwise, I’ll be at home this winter, braising, smoking meat, baking bread, canning pickles and potted meats for friends. So, come on over. I’ll have a pint waiting.
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.
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.
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. And then?
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.