Lisa Q Fetterman – Founder and CEO of Nomiku

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 – Chef and Owner at Sbraga and Fat Ham, Philadelphia

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 – Pastry Chef at Ai Fiori, New York

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 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.