Table Talk with Chef Deepak Ballaney

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, International Wings Factory

About the Chef
Chef Deepak Ballaney’s first job was at IBM in the Information Technology department in India. Eventually, he switched careers and went into the Hospitality field, where he worked for the Taj Group of Hotels.  Chef Deepak came to the United States in 2003 and continued to work as a hotel consultant for another six years. At the peak of his hospitality career, he decided to follow his passion and enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, Chef Deepak consulted for several restaurants, including two Indian restaurants (Akbar in Edison, New Jersey and Delhi Heights in Queens, New York) and a Mexican restaurant, El Dorado. In 2012, he decided to make his dream of opening his own restaurant a reality. At first, he couldn’t decide between fine dining or doing something more casual that would help him create his own brand. Chef Deepak went with his gut and opened International Wings Factory in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2013. IWF serves up tasty wings, burgers, and sandwiches and is known for their unique sauces with global flair.

International Wings Factory: 1762 First Avenue (between 91st and 92nd Street)

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Chef Deepak Ballaney in the kitchen at International Wings Factory

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Bombay, India. At first, my life was exactly what my parents wanted it to be. If your father is a scientist, then you will become a scientist. Just a very typical Indian family. I graduated with majors in chemistry and physics, and got a job at IBM. But my long-time dream was always to attend culinary school and have my own restaurant.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Scrambled eggs, but done the Indian way. It’s called Bhurji.  The eggs are made with clarified butter (ghee), a lot of masalas, onions, tomato, and prepared on a flat iron skillet. No matter what time of day, I can always eat them. I used to love to eat them at three in the morning after a long night of drinking. (Laughing) They are the best!

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I use spices a lot, but my all-time favorite ingredient is chipotle pepper. I use a lot of them in my cooking along with other Mexican chilis. Since I own a wing place, my favorite sauce is buffalo sauce. It’s the base of many other sauces that we make here at IWF.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I would say that everyone should own a whisk and a spice rack. Some of the spices that I cook with most often are cumin, black pepper, and cayenne.  They are absolutely essential. So much flavor comes from good spices! I also highly recommend the Vitamix blender.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
Definitely house music.  Most of the time, there are no vocals – it is just clean music with simple rhythms. It’s very upbeat and it makes me happy to listen to it. I play it all the time in the restaurant. I have seen people from all over the world come in, and after five minutes, they are bopping their heads and tapping their feet to the house music. The good vibes are contagious! (Laughing)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Mexico, Thailand, Spain, and India are my favorite countries because of their cuisine. Flavor-wise, these countries contribute so much. Their flavors give life to any food. I have actually never been to Mexico — I tried to plan a trip there on three different occasions, but something always happens and I had to cancel. It’s number one on my list for places to visit.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I would probably be an actor. I always tell people, the restaurant industry is like Broadway. We put on our best face every day – it’s basically like putting on a show. I love it. (Laughing)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Thomas Keller is number one to me. He has a good history with food. I have not had a chance to eat at French Laundry, but I have been to Bouchon and Per Se. I think it’s an amazing experience to dine at his restaurants. It shows how much effort goes into each step from sourcing the food to putting it on the table. I would love to spend just one day in French Laundry to learn everything that they do.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
When I want fine dining, I love Per Se and Daniel.  For every day eating, I enjoy going to Pongsri for Thai food and Marseille for French.  As for Indian restaurants, Yuva Indian Grill or The MasalaWala are great. My latest passions are ramen and dumplings – I’m always looking to try something new. The problem with the chef lifestyle is that unfortunately there is not much time for eating out! (Laughing)

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Bread and Potatoes. That was an easy one. I very rarely eat carbs, so I won’t miss them very much!

Table Talk with Chef Deepak Ballaney

Table Talk with Chef Esther Choi

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, Mokbar

About the Chef
Chef Esther has been involved in the restaurant industry since she was fourteen years old. After high school, she worked in marketing and helped out at her parents’ restaurant in her spare time. Chef Esther realized that her true passion was food and decided to quit her corporate job to pursue her dream. She moved to NYC to attend the Institute of Culinary Education. While in school, Chef Esther simultaneously worked as a line cook at Ilili and interned at Rachel Ray magazine, followed by Food Network. When her internship at Food Network ended, Chef Esther continued to work there as a full-time employee for two years before moving on to La Esquina for about six months. In early 2014, an opportunity arose to open her own restaurant in Chelsea Market. Mokbar, which means “eat bar” in Korean, is a ramen shop that uniquely combines traditional Korean flavors with Japanese-style ramen noodles.

Mokbar (in Chelsea Market): 75 Ninth Avenue (between West 15th and 16th Street)

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Chef Esther Choi at Mokbar

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in a little town called Egg Harbor Township in Atlantic County. It’s in South Jersey right next to Atlantic City.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
To be honest, I loved candy!  (Laughing)  When I was really little, I was a picky eater. I literally never wanted to eat. In order for my parents to get me to eat anything, they would say, “If you finish your food, we’ll give you candy.” Even though I didn’t eat much, I always remember wanting to be in the kitchen. I would follow my grandma everywhere while she cooked. When I was in third grade, I moved to South Korea for a few years. Over time, I fell in love with Korean cuisine.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
My favorite ingredient will always be kimchi. I don’t think that will ever change. I can incorporate kimchi into every dish – I could probably make it into candy or ice cream if I tried!  (Laughing)  In every type of cuisine that I have cooked, I have always incorporated kimchi. I like to experiment a lot with making different types of kimchi – we make about eight or nine different types in house at Mokbar. I use it as a side dish as well as a main ingredient on our menu.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I’m so Asian and I can’t help myself… I have to choose chopsticks! (Laughing) They are very useful when it comes to cooking and plating. Chopsticks are just so versatile and can be used to do so many things. I use the longer wooden ones all the time.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
The food at Mokbar would definitely be Korean pop music from the ‘90s. I love ‘90s K-pop! (Laughing) While I was growing up, it was such a big part of my life. When I cook at home, I get inspired by listening to jazz.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
To be honest, I haven’t been to many other countries. I lived in Korea, but have not been back in eight or nine years. When you travel or eat out at restaurants a lot, you can be heavily influenced by those cuisines and other chefs’ ideas. In a weird way, I think not traveling very much has worked to my advantage. My palate and mind are like blank slates. I think that it keeps things very clean for me and forces me to be more creative. In the future when I get the opportunity, I would love to travel all over Asia and Europe.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
This is such a hard question! (Laughing)  I think I would definitely be doing something in the art world – something creative. That’s where my true strengths lie and that’s what I love to do. Ever since I was little, I was always interested in art, drawing, and creative things.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I don’t really have a specific mentor, but I do draw inspiration from everyone around me, from my cooks to dishwashers.  One person that I have always been a big fan of is Jamie Oliver. I’ve been following his career since the very beginning – I love what he’s doing and his philosophy on food.  I also really respect Chef Hooni Kim, who helped to bring Korean food into the forefront here in New York City.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I always love Koreatown – it’s so much fun. I love eating Korean food and I love soju!  (Laughing)  I also love Japanese food and I like going to hole-in-the-wall places. I’m not a fan of fine dining – I prefer more casual spots with a rustic style of cooking.  Pocha 32 was my go-to spot in K-town.  I’ve been going for about 8 years and I love it, but it’s becoming much more popular now and it’s always crowded. So I started going to Flushing for Korean food and have discovered some great spots that are still under the radar.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
You’re killing me!  (Laughing)  I think I would choose bread and potatoes since I’m not a huge fan of heavy starches. Actually, that was pretty easy!

Table Talk with Chef Esther Choi

Table Talk with Chef Tin Vuong

Current Gig
Chef/Owner, Blackhouse Hospitality Management:
Abigaile (Hermosa Beach, CA)

Wildcraft (Culver City, Los Angeles, CA)
Little Sister (Manhattan Beach, CA)
Dia de Campo (Hermosa Beach, CA)
Wolven Steak & Whisky (Hermosa Beach, CA)

About the Chef
Chef Tin Vuong  was born in California to a Chinese family who fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon.  After Chef Tin completed his bachelor’s degree in economics at UCLA, he decided to combine his business skills with his passion for food by enrolling in the California Academy of Culinary Arts in San Francisco. Shortly after graduating, he became the Executive Sous Chef at the St. Regis Hotel and Resort in Monarch Beach, CA. In 2012, Chef Tin moved on from his position as Director of Culinary Operations at Sapphire in Laguna Beach to become the Executive Chef of Abigaile in Hermosa Beach. Since then, he has become the Chief Operator and Chef/Partner of Blackhouse Hospitality Group, which owns five restaurants in Southern California and plans to open three more in Spring & Summer 2015. At Little Sister, Chef Tin puts a modern spin on traditional Vietnamese dishes and is constantly looking for new approaches to old classics.

Little Sister: 1131 Manhattan Avenue, Manhattan Beach, CA
Abigaile: 301 Manhattan Avenue, Hermosa Beach, CA
Dia de Campo1238 Hermosa Avenue, Hermosa Beach, CA
Wildcraft9725 Culver Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232
Wolven Steak & Whisky: 117 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach, CA

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Chef Tin Vuong at Little Sister

Where did you grow up?
San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County, California

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Pho

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
At any moment… that would be EGGS.  Makes everything better!

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
A hand blender.  It is super cheap and can do so many things. Most importantly, it saves time.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be?
Gangsta rap

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Vietnam and Hong Kong

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
Probably being a “suit” doing some sort of financial job.  I’d be hating life, but making that paper.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
David Chang

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
For regular daily eats: Chipotle and In-n-Out.  I don’t do fancy restaurants that often.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Bread and potatoes.  They just aren’t that interesting!

Table Talk with Chef Tin Vuong

Table Talk with Chef Jason Pfeifer

Current Gig
Chef de Cuisine, Maialino

About the Chef
Chef Jason Pfeifer has always had a strong passion for food. After graduating high school, he hiked up the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, where he lived in the woods and developed an extreme fascination with mushrooms.  A year later, Chef Jason hiked to the Sunnybank Inn in North Carolina, which gave him the opportunity to forage and cook for the Inn guests. He went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America and did his externship at Gramercy Tavern, where he stayed after graduating for about two years before moving on to work under Chef Thomas Keller at Per Se. In 2009, he helped to open Maialino, a neighborhood trattoria from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, located in Gramercy Park. Chef Jason has been cooking at Maialino for the past five years, taking a short break along the way to work at Noma in Copenhagen. As Chef de Cuisine, he creates delicious, comforting dishes that celebrate local ingredients and draw inspiration from both Rome and New York City.

Maialino: 2 Lexington Ave (at East 21st Street)

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Chef Jason Pfeifer at Maialino

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in North Carolina. I lived all over – Raleigh, Durham, Hot Springs, and Candor. I moved around a lot when I was a young. I spent most of my youth there, but lived in Minneapolis briefly before moving to New York.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Barbecue is such a huge thing in North Carolina. I remember going to family reunions where there would be whole pigs cooking all day long, and everyone would run over to take pictures when they flipped the pig to the other side. (Laughing)  It was a lot of fun. As far as my family goes, my mom worked as a pastry chef for a local bakery and my grandmother was also very talented when it came to pastries. My grandfather was really the only savory cook. Every year, my mom baked me a cake for my birthday and it was always elaborate. I remember one year she made a cake with football players all over it. (Laughing)  My family was an inspiration to me when I was a kid, and I always associated food with fond memories.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
What I’m getting from the market that I’m in love with right now are Asian pears and apples.  They are exceptional. For me, being so close to the Union Square Market is awesome. It’s such a great resource for finding ingredients at their peak. I fall in love with ingredients here and there throughout the year, and if I find one thing that really stands out, I fixate on it and incorporate it into the menu in different ways. Currently, we are using apples in a raw fluke crudo dish and Asian pears in a radicchio salad with balsamic and parmesan.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I would say just a good chef’s knife. It is the hardest thing for me to cook in other people’s kitchens now, especially when I go home to see my family and they want me to cook. That’s why I started flying with my own knives. (Laughing)  It’s such a basic tool for chefs, but a lot of people don’t realize their importance and how much easier cooking becomes when you have a good, clean, sharp chef’s knife.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
My all-time musical love is Tom Petty. I saw him in concert with my dad when I was thirteen years old at a big amphitheater called Walnut Creek in North Carolina. I remember the free-spirit feeling that was in the air – it was such a cool, relaxed vibe. Since that one show, Tom Petty has been an artist that I listen to on a daily basis.  I also listen to a lot of blues and jazz. John Coltrane is one of my all-time favorites as well. I love to cook and listen to music at the same time. My musical taste does have a big influence on my food, and I can definitely feel the direction in which I go culinary based on what I’m listening to. Taking into consideration all of the experiences from the different restaurants that I have worked in, I consider which components are going to be elegant and which are going to be rustic, and I try to bring them together. When it comes to plating, we try to achieve ‘harmonious scattering’. We don’t want things to look too intentional, but we do want them to look beautiful.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Going back down South is always awesome for me. Barbecue is the first thing I get as I start heading down there. I have a motorcycle and I take it down 95 all the way to Carolina. Once I hit Virginia, I start hitting all of the roadside stops. I hit up all of the Virginia barbecue and then once I get to the Carolinas, I check out all of that barbecue, too.  It’s amazing. Outside of the US, I had some incredible food when I was in Denmark – really interesting stuff that I had never tried before. By far, my most prominent memory of international cuisine is the time that I spent in the Philippines. I was in Manila for a few days and traveled around the rest of the time. It was such a profound experience. I got to try so much interesting food:  balut (boiled duck egg with a small embryo inside), dinuguan (a savory stew made of pig’s blood and innards), and much more. And I really got to be a part of the cooking process. When we opened Maialino, the menu was heavily influenced by my trip. Someone said, “Hey, let’s do this whole roasted suckling pig”, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve done that before! This is how we did it when I was in the Philippines.”  We had all of these suckling pig legs left over and I said, “Well, I have an idea. Let’s do crispy pata!” So we had crispy pata (a Filipino dish of deep fried pork legs) on our menu, along with chicharrones with a vinegar dipping sauce, which I ate as a street food every day in the Philippines. I was there for two weeks and it totally changed my world, food wise.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I would be a mechanic, for sure.  (Smiling)  I have an obsession with motorcycles! If I’m not in the kitchen, I’m at home playing with an engine. I took one of those career assessments when I was really young and the results said I should be a mechanic or something where I could use my hands. As a child, I was also interested in art. So cooking for me is a blend of all of those things — I’m able to use my hands and senses as well as my artistic side to create something beautiful.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Let’s see. That’s a really hard question because there are so many great chefs. Each one is very unique and there are different things that I appreciate about each person’s style and cuisine. I’ve had the privilege of working for a few truly amazing chefs, including Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno, who are some of the greatest influences in my life. Working with Rene Redzepi was unlike anything I’d ever done before. And then there’s Michael Anthony and Nick Anderer, who are both incredible. They are all so different and inspiring in their own ways.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I love a restaurant called Hagi on 49th Street. It’s a little hole in the wall that serves lots of crazy offals and weird fried things. It’s super simple and they have an awesome cheap sake menu. Such a fun place! I’ve had some great meals at Estela and I enjoy Ignacio Mattos’ food.  I live in Brooklyn, right by Roberta’s, which is my go to, for sure.  I think that Roberta’s has had an effect on the neighborhood in the same way that Maialino has had an effect on this area. We tried to model Maialino after a Roman trattoria and make it feel like an extension of the neighborhood, and Roberta’s has done the same. It’s such an amazing spot and the food is fantastic.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
I spent about two and half years of my life as a vegan and another couple of years as a vegetarian. At the time, it was about knowing where my food was coming from and being conscious of my health and what I was putting into my body. As I became a chef, I realized that there are really great reputable sources for proteins and fish. Instead of cutting those things out completely, I focus on finding great places to work with to source those ingredients from. If I had to give up anything, I guess it would be sugar and fat, as hard as that would be. I love eating meat and fish and I definitely can’t give up vegetables or starch!

Table Talk with Chef Jason Pfeifer

Table Talk with Chef Kyle Knall

Current Gig
Executive Chef, Maysville

About the Chef
Chef Kyle Knall began cooking at a neighborhood restaurant Birmingham, Alabama, when he was fifteen. He them worked for his brother, who is also a chef, at a fine dining restaurant in Birmingham while in high school. After graduating, Chef Kyle attended culinary school in Birmingham and went on to work for Chef Frank Stitt at Chez Fonfon for several years. Chef Kyle moved  up north to New York City and worked under Chef Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern for five years, where he was the  sous chef for the last two.  In late 2012, he opened Maysville, the Manhattan offshoot of Brooklyn’s Char No. 4. Maysville is an American whiskey bar and restaurant named after the Kentucky port town where bourbon was born. Chef Kyle’s menu features  fresh, seasonal ingredients, many of which are smoked or charred in some way.

Maysville: 17 West 26th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenue)

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Chef Kyle Knall at Maysville  

Where did you grow up?
I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up in the suburbs right outside of the city. There was tons of great food and lots of variety, from really nice restaurants to soul food restaurants and barbecue. The food is unbelievable!

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Growing up, we always had a big salad with dinner along with everything else we were eating. When my mom would clean the kitchen,  I remember grabbing the salad bowl, tilting it, and drinking the rest of the vinaigrette. To this day, I love acid and always use it when I cook. My mom would make dinner for us four days a week so we always had home-cooked meals. Her father is from Italy, so if we didn’t go to my grandfather’s house on Sunday for pasta, my mom made it at home. I have such great memories of eating her food.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Right now, I would have to say tomatoes because they are just coming into season.  We are doing a tomato salad with a basil emulsion featuring a few different kinds of tomatoes prepared in various ways, along with some marinated fresh cherries and red currants. That’s probably my favorite dish right now. My number one ingredient of all time is lemon. I use lemon juice as much as I use salt. Just like everything needs to be seasoned properly, I think everything needs a little touch of acid. It’s something I always have at home and every station in the kitchen has it as well.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Definitely a microplane. Also, a fish spatula – a small one that you have a lot of control over when you’re using it. And a cake tester for when you’re cooking meat. You put it right on your lip and you can tell how done it is.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I think it would be along the lines of something similar to Neil Young.  Just classic American music – very soulful. For me, Neil Young epitomizes what my food is all about.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I really like to travel throughout the United States. I was in California recently – Napa, Sonoma, and San Francisco. The food out there is really fresh and super seasonal.  It’s most like the food that I learned how to cook. I also enjoy traveling down south to experience the soul of the food down there. I love Alabama, of course, and Charleston, South Carolina, is great.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I have no idea. (Laughing) I went from being a child that always misbehaved to getting into cooking. There was no in between. (Laughing)  Maybe if I wasn’t cooking, I would be growing food in some shape or form, or raising animals on a farm. But not out in the country – I’d like to stay in the city.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I would have to say Frank Stitt and Michael Anthony. My two mentors. If you look at their approach to food, their philosophies, and their ingredients, they are very similar. I’m very lucky that they were my two chefs.  I would also have to say Michael Tusk of Quince and Cotogna out in San Francisco. All three are so talented and very humble to the ingredients. They are very thoughtful chefs and I appreciate that about them.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I usually stick to one restaurant, which is Frankies in Brooklyn. That place is amazing. But I do like to try a new restaurant every few weeks. I went back to Luksus, the restaurant that’s in the back of Torst, a beer bar in Greenpoint, for the second time. The chef/owner, Daniel Burns, worked at Momofuku and was the pastry chef at The Fat Duck and Noma. I really liked it a lot. In Manhattan, I like ABC Kitchen and Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, along with Prosperity Dumplings in Chinatown.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Bread and Potatoes, for sure. I like bread, pasta, and potatoes, but for me, vegetables are the center of the way I cook. Proteins like meat and fish are just as important. And I am obsessed with cheese and milk, so that was a super easy one for me to answer! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Kyle Knall

Table Talk with Chef Tommy Mosera

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, Tommy Lasagna

About the Chef
Chef Tommy opened his first restaurant in a college town in Atlanta, Georgia. After a few years, he moved back to New York to attend culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education. He then opened a fine dining restaurant in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which he enjoyed, but his heart was always with Italian food and pasta. The idea of opening a restaurant based around a classic lasagna with bolognese sauce was just the right fit. Tommy Lasagna, named after Chef Tommy, opened up in Manhattan’s Flatiron District about two and half years ago and has been serving homemade lasagna and fresh pastas ever since.

Tommy Lasagna: 119 East 18th Street (between Irving Place and Park Avenue South)

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Chef Tommy Mosera outside of Tommy Lasagna

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Brooklyn and moved to Staten Island when I was seven years old.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Every Sunday, my family went to my grandmother’s house for dinner. It was huge dinner with a ridiculous amount of food, starting off with antipasto and things like that. At some point, my grandmother started frying veal cutlets and my grandfather was on the barbecue making lemon chicken. Dinner would start at 2pm, and at 9pm, we were still eating! At the end of the night, my grandmother would bring out the cold cuts so that we could make sandwiches. Today, we all look back and laugh because we can’t figure out how we were ever able to eat all of that food! (Laughing)  Sunday dinners in particular are some of the most vivid memories that I have of my childhood. Another dish that I loved was something that my mother used to make at home: pork chops with red sauce and white gigante beans. It was a really special dish for us.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Right now, ramps are in abundance so we’re starting to work with them. There’s such a short time frame to use them, so we need to take advantage of it! One of the dishes we’re making is rigatoni with ramps, fava beans, a little bit of chicken stock, and sun dried tomatoes. I also love grilled ramps with a little olive oil – nice and simple.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I think the most important appliance for a home cook is a KitchenAid mixer. It’s so versatile – you can bake with it and you can use it for savory dishes, too. There are so many attachments that you can get, including awesome pasta attachments that allow you to make all different types of pastas at home. It’s so useful!

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I would say classic rock. I love classic Italian dishes, but I like to put my own spin on things. People consider Tommy Lasagna an old school Italian joint with a modern twist. I also love to have classic rock playing while I’m here at the restaurant!

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
My last trip was in the Caribbean – my wife and I went to the Bahamas for our honeymoon. We got to try all of these little kiosks on the beach that had such fresh seafood.  It was great!  Before opening the restaurant, I went to Italy for three weeks and traveled around to seven different cities for inspiration. It was so helpful for me to see what they’re doing in Italy and how it compares to what we’re doing here in New York. My favorite cities were Florence and Milan – the food was incredible! Capri was also amazing. I was there for three days and really had a chance to relax. When I get the opportunity to travel again, I would love to go to France and Spain.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
There was a time when I took a break from cooking and got involved in real estate. Not just selling real estate, but actually building houses.  We went into low income areas and rebuilt dilapidated houses. I’ve always been passionate about creating and building – whether it be a dish or a house.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I always go back to my Italian roots. What Mario Batali has done for the food industry is incredible. You go into his restaurants and there is just something so special about what he does. I sometimes walk through Eataly just to get inspired. I really admire everything that he has done.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
When I go to Staten Island, there is a Spanish restaurant called Espana Royale that I really enjoy. They make great Sangria out of dried fruits – it’s delicious. The food is also creative and inventive. I have a few favorite Italian restaurants in Staten Island, including one called Bocelli. I actually don’t spend much time in the city since I live in New Jersey. Whenever I’m in the mood for good Italian, I go to Staten Island!

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Being “Tommy Lasagna”, I can’t give up bread and potatoes, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do what I do! (Laughing) I would say sugar, but it’s including in the same group as fat, so that’s out. Looks like I would have to give up fruit and vegetables! It’s a bit unhealthy, but whatever. I’m willing to make the sacrifice! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Tommy Mosera

Table Talk with Chef Stephen Collucci

Current Gig
Pastry Chef, Colicchio & Sons

About the Chef
Chef Stephen Collucci graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and gained pastry experience in New Jersey before moving on to work at Rene Pujol, a French restaurant in Manhattan.  Chef Stephen joined the Craft Restaurants team in 2006 and has been with them ever since. Eight years ago, he started off at Craftsteak New York where he was in charge of bread production. A year later, he moved out west to head up the pastry team at Craft Los Angeles. It wasn’t long before Chef Stephen returned to the east coast to become the pastry chef at Craft and Craftbar in New York. In January 2010, he joined the opening team at Colicchio & Sons, where he continues to share his beautifully creative and delicious desserts with diners.

Colicchio & Sons: 85 Tenth Avenue (between West 15th and 16th Street)

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Chef Stephen Collucci at Colicchio & Sons 

Where did you grow up?
I’m a Jersey boy! I was born in Newark and my family has lived in Westfield for the past twenty years. Now that I live in the East Rutherford area, I love the fact that I can go home and escape to quiet NJ, but I get all of the excitement and opportunity of the city when I’m here for work.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
I come from a big Italian family, so Sunday dinners were really important to us. Growing up, we lived right next door to my grandparents. All of my aunt, uncles, and cousins would go to my grandparent’s house for dinner — it was so much fun.  When my parents went to church on Sundays, they would send me next door to see my grandparents and help them make Sunday dinner, up until I was about five or six. Even though my heart is in the pastry world, one of the first things I learned how to make when I was three was meatballs  – it’s actually one of my earliest memories.  I would roll little baby meatballs and my grandma would hold me up so I could throw them into the pot. Back then, it seemed like a gigantic pot. I’ve seen that pot since then and it’s not nearly as big as I thought it was!  (Laughing) She also used to sit me down and have me peel garlic, which probably kept me occupied for hours. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
We literally just got rhubarb in this past week. Rhubarb is one of my favorite ingredients to work with — I look forward to it all year. Out of everything, it’s definitely one of my favorite things to play with because it’s so unique. Right now, we’re utilizing it in a couple of different ways. I have a few “go to” flavors that I love and I always try to use them in a completely different way than the year before. Last year, I was into a lot of rose, lychee and pistachio with rhubarb. This year, I’ve got a little bit of that on the menu, but I try to incorporate different components, like vanilla bean crème caramel with poached rhubarb and dehydrated chocolate mousse with lemon and ginger. One of the great things about Colicchio & Sons is that I have a lot of room to play and be creative. Up front in the Tap Room, it’s a little more casual, and in the main room, it’s more fine dining. We’re doing a rhubarb pie in the Tap Room which is has more of a homey feel — it’s ooey, gooey and warm. In the main dining room, we’re using it in more refined ways, like a beautiful poached rhubarb and a rhubarb sorbet. I love incorporating the same ingredient in various ways — cold, hot, crunchy, etc.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Being in the pastry world, a lot of people don’t pay much attention to their knives.  I feel like it tends to get neglected, as knives are not the highest priority for a pastry chef. Now that I am a little more experienced, I know how important it is to have a good set of sharp knives.  If you invest in a good set and maintain them, they can last for a lifetime.  I am a big believer in spending a little more for a one time investment that is solid and reputable rather than replacing something expensive every few months.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
That’s a great question! I have never been asked that before. (Laughing) The first thing that comes to mind is pop.  I like to put a little pop of color on every dish.  I also like to have very recognizable components on my dishes along with something exciting and dramatic.  I think that a lot of our dishes are very eclectic – we’re an American restaurant, but today American food can encompass a lot of different flavors, like Middle Eastern, Asian, etc.  I think pop music represents that eclectic style right now. To some extent, I’d also say soul and R&B because I think my target audience is each guest’s inner child. If a man in a business suit in his fifties comes in and my dessert can make him think of his grandmother’s cobbler, that’s so exciting to me.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Even though I haven’t been there yet, Italy is definitely on my radar.  I can’t wait to go!  I love going to the West Coast when I can. The produce is so good out there! I love experiencing the markets and eating fresh ingredients. Not that NY doesn’t have that in its own way, but it’s definitely a different vibe out in California. I love going to San Diego – the La Jolla area – and San Francisco. I have a very good friend who just moved out to SF and I told her to start making a list of all of the restaurants we need to try so that when I visit, we can go out and eat everywhere. (Laughing)

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I honestly don’t know. Definitely something creative, though. I can’t see myself in a typical 9 to 5 job where I put on a suit every day. It would have to be something more unconventional. Before I went to culinary school, my parents asked me what else I could see myself doing.  And I honestly couldn’t — and still can’t — see myself doing anything else than being a chef.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Claudia Fleming – she is an idol of mine. She has inspired me so much. I received her cookbook when I graduated high school and I studied that book like it was the bible! I didn’t even know who she was back then. Now I work for Tom Colicchio who wrote the foreword for her book. So the whole experience has been very circular. Claudia is incredibly inspiring and I really admire her, both as a chef and as a person. I would also have to choose Karen Demasco — she is someone that I really look up to. I had the privilege of having some crossover time with her before she left Craft. She has managed to live the dream and balance a home life. That’s really important to me – to see someone who did it and made it seem effortless. It gives me the confidence that I will be able to do the same when I start to have kids and build a family. I want to be able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I enjoy the Momofuku company as a whole. Saam Bar is fantastic. I also love going to little restaurants where you can kind of fly under the radar. I also love places where you can share everything – family style – and the lighting is really dim and cozy. For me, dining out is all about enjoying the company of loved ones and friends.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
You’re killing me with this! (Laughing) Well, I love ice cream so much, and carbs are, like, everything. And I can’t live without fruits and veggies. This is the hardest question ever! (Laughing) I think I could give up dairy if I had to. (Pause)  Wait – that’s not my final answer.  I think I could give up protein, actually. Yeah, I could give up meat and fish. But only if I absolutely had to! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Stephen Collucci

Table Talk with Chef Steve Dustin

Current Gig
Executive Chef, Monument Lane

About the Chef
Chef Steve Dustin started off his culinary career in Michigan at a tiny burger joint. Three months later, he got a job at the 1913 Room in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, where he worked his way up from room service to fine dining. Chef Steve moved to Atlanta, Georgia to take a job at Canoe, the largest four star restaurant in the country, before coming to New York City to work for Chef David Bouley at Bouley.  He then spent three and a half years as the Sous Chef at The Harrison in Tribeca. Chef Steve decided to take a break from the city and ventured out to Boulder, Colorado where he ran two restaurants, one Latin American and the other Vegetarian. He eventually found his way back to New York City and ran Mesa Grill for Chef Bobby Flay for a year before returning to The Harrison as the Chef de Cuisine for two years. In January 2013, Chef Steve became the Executive Chef at Monument Lane, a casual American restaurant in the West Village that features seasonal and sustainable ingredients from local farms.

Monument Lane: 103 Greenwich Ave (between West 12th and Jane Street)

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Chef Steve Dustin at Monument Lane

Where did you grow up?
I am a Michigan boy. I grew up in the southwest corner of Michigan in a little beach town called South Haven. It’s a tiny tourist town with lots of beach action. I was there for about eighteen years before moving to Grand Rapids. And that’s where I started cooking.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
I love good food. It doesn’t have to be fancy. When I was kid, I was addicted to buffalo chicken wings. And I don’t think much has changed since then! (Laughing) Buffalo chicken wings are my number one favorite thing in the world. (Smiling)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Right now, in the fall, it’s all about squash. I’m using pumpkin to make pumpkin bread for brunch, we’ve got acorn squash paired with burrata, and we’re doing a chicken dish with kabocha squash. I have squash all over the menu!

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
You’ve got to have a sharp knife. Besides that, I would recommend getting a good mixer and a good blender. Kitchen Aid mixers have so many great attachments that go with it – you can make pastas and all sorts of things. The blender comes in handy for making soups, purees, and sauces.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
It would have to be the Grateful Dead. I’m a Deadhead and a fan of jam bands. I love the harmonies – when there are so many crazy things going on at once, and they all come together in the end. Kind of like my food. (Laughing)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Hmm, travel wise, I’d have to say… Brooklyn! (Laughing)  I really like going to Brooklyn because they have some killer barbecue spots. I go to Fette Sau all the time. There are a lot of BBQ spots popping up in the city, but Fette Sau is one of the originals and it’s really good. I also like Southern food.  I lived in Atlanta for three years so I got to know it. I haven’t done a whole lot of international traveling, but I would love to go to Spain. I think Spain is one of the hottest spots in the world for food. They let the food speak for itself and let the ingredients be what they are.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I actually went to college for chemistry and physics. Back then, I was really into science and organic chemistry. I wanted to get into pharmaceuticals – not so much selling them, but trying to make them better and cheaper. But once I started cooking, I fell in love with it. I really enjoy the team aspect of it. It’s kind of like a sports team – everyone works hard and plays hard. I like the artistic side of cooking, too.  So, yeah, I just fell in love with it and went with it!

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I think that with me being here at Monument Lane and this being the first restaurant I’ve worked for that truly focuses on local farm to table and sustainable food, I would have to say Dan Barber. I went to dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns two years ago for my birthday and it was an incredible experience. What an incredible meal! It was crazy to have twelve courses of food and really not have that much meat, just one pork dish. Every other dish consisted of only vegetables. It was really cool that they served single utter butter that they got from one local cow and they knew exactly which cow it came from.  My wife and I went there in June, so it was right when vegetables were starting. It was amazing. I have never had a tasting menu like that before. By the end of it, we felt so good and had eaten so well. Dan Barber is awesome.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
If I have an opportunity to go to a fancy spot, I like to go to Eleven Madison Park. I’ve been to a few places where it felt so formal and stuffy – it was kind of like food church. I didn’t enjoy myself.  Eleven Madison Park really hits the nail on the head with great service and knowing how to read their customers really well. They can have fun with you while you’re enjoying super high end food. One of my favorite go-to spots is dell’anima. It’s open late so I go there after work. The food is awesome – I could go there several times a week and never get bored.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
That’s an easy one for me. Carbohydrates! I am not a bread eater or a potato eater and I’m not big into pasta or rice. I love vegetables and I do like meat, although I’ve cut back on it a lot.  What an easy question! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Steve Dustin

Table Talk with Chef Bryce Shuman

Current Gig
Executive Chef, Betony

About the Chef
In high school, Chef Bryce was determined to become an actor. When he didn’t get in to the acting schools of his choice, he started working at a restaurant in North Carolina. Three years later, Chef Bryce made the life-changing decision to attend culinary school in San Francisco. He worked at Postrio and Rubicon in SF before heading to Delaware, where he met and became good friends with Chef Hari Cameron at Nage.  Chef Bryce came to New York City in 2007 and worked under Chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park as Sous Chef and Executive Sous Chef for almost six years. In May 2013, Chef Bryce and fellow EMP alum, Eamon Rockey, opened Betony, a modern American restaurant named after a plant in the mint family.  Betony, which was awarded three stars by the New York Times, is already well-known for its creative, approachable, and downright delicious food.

Betony:  41 West 57th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenue) 

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Chef Bryce Shuman at Betony

Where did you grow up?
It’s hard for me to say where I grew up because I feel like I’ve been growing up until this very moment. (Laughing)  I was born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and lived there until about the second grade. My family moved to Pennsylvania, where I stayed until the seventh or eighth grade, and then we moved back to North Carolina – first to Greenville, then Winston-Salem, and back to Greenville again. Needless to say, I moved around a lot when I was younger.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
My dad used to make tuna melts for me as a kid. When we opened Betony, I had a version of a tuna melt on the menu. I just love them.  I also loved eating at my mom’s house during the holidays. She’s a great cook who is constantly pickling things and baking different types of breads. It was my responsibility to make the salads and set the table.  It was also my job to clean up afterward. (Laughing)  For the holidays, we would have some sort of roast along with boiled dill potatoes, soup, and homemade bread. We always ate dinners together as a family and we were never allowed to take food and sit in front of the TV. I think cooking really brings people together – it’s such a bonding experience.
My favorite BBQ place is B’s Barbecue in Greenville, North Carolina. It’s this little place, basically a shack, and it’s amazing. They even have a road named after them: B’s Barbecue Road. There are smokehouses out back where they smoke whole hogs — Carolina BBQ style — and they serve it with chicken, corn sticks, coleslaw, Brunswick stew, boiled potatoes, and rice. When B’s runs out of food, they close, so if you’re not there by 1pm, you’re not getting anything. (Laughing) They are located close to a hospital, so you see this tiny shack and down the street, there are all of these doctors with their Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMWs parked along a ditch – it’s quite the juxtaposition. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I really like acorn squash. That was another thing that my mom prepared when I was a kid. She cut it in half, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and a little bit of brown sugar, scooped some butter into it, put a clove of garlic and some thyme in there, and threw it into a hot oven and roast it until it got all soft and caramelized.  It’s like candy. Right now I’ve got this pasta dish on the menu that is essentially an acorn lasagna with acorn squash. We take acorn flour and make pasta out of it – we roll it out and laminate herbs into the dough.  Then we take the acorn squash and roast it, just like my mom did, scoop it out, put it in the blender to make a nice puree, and add some brown butter. That goes on the bottom of the plate. We turn the acorn squash into banana fingers and confit them in a little bit of olive oil before searing them in brown butter. When trimming down the acorn squash, we use the extra trimmings to make the sauce. It gets roasted down in a pan with garlic, thyme, sage, and shallots, then we hit it with a little bit of cognac and white wine. After the alcohol cooks out, we reduce it down, add some chicken stock, simmer it, strain it, season it with lemon juice, melt butter into it, and blend it until it’s frothy.  So we’ve got the pasta, acorn squash puree, acorn squash sauce done. Then we add crumbled bits of parmesan, herbs, grated nutmeg, and a crumble of pumpernickel, pumpkin seeds and caraway for some crunch. It’s really tasty… and it all started with a simple acorn squash.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
There are little things that we use in a professional kitchen that I think are convenient to have at home. I don’t want to sound silly by saying that you should have a pair of tweezers, but there are mid-sized tweezers (in between tongs and the little guys) that you can use to do a ton of stuff, like sautéing and picking things up very delicately. If you are searing pieces of beef or turning veggies over in a pan, they come in really handy and I find myself using them at home a lot when I cook. A small offset spatula helps, too. I also use a cake tester a lot at home. When I’m cooking potatoes for puree, I know exactly when the potatoes are done. When I’m cooking meat, I know what the temperature is inside. The cake tester comes in so handy when doing all of these other things besides actually testing how done a cake is.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I love music. I have turntables set up in my living room and I collect drum & base and jungle records. I used to play them – but only for parties at home or for friends, not out in nightclubs or anything like that. (Laughing)  I also collect a lot of jazz and bluegrass, as well as eighties pop and freestyle.  I’m really into bluegrass, which has a very distinct style. I would say that my food is most similar to bluegrass because it’s fun and it has soul. It feels very comfortable, but at the same time, you need to have an incredible amount of technique in order to pull it off and make it sound good. It’s approachable and it just makes you feel good.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I enjoy going to Blackberry Farm in the mountains of Tennessee. Sam Beall is the owner and Joseph Lenn is the executive chef. You stay in these cute little cottages and they teach you fly fishing and take you shooting. The food is amazing. They’re raising truffles in the hills and have trained truffle dogs by a guy who used to be a dog trainer in the circus. Pretty awesome! It’s such a beautiful place. In the future, I would really like to go to Southeast Asia and spend six months or a year there. I just love the cuisine!

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I really loved to DJ for a while and I thought that I would figure out a way to do it for a living. I also wanted to be an actor when I was in high school. I was pretty much obsessed with acting and ended up going to a conservatory for my senior year of high school. I came to New York to audition, but didn’t get into the acting schools that I liked. At that point, I was like, “OK, I’ll take a year off to grow as a human being and experience more things so I can bring some more life into my monologues.” (Laughing)  I needed a job so I started washing dishes at a restaurant back in North Carolina. It was great –and I met my wife there. (Smiling) I moved up through different kitchen stations, from dishwashing to cold apps, then hot apps, saute, the grill, and finally, I was promoted to chef de cuisine. After three years, I came to this crossroads and was like, “Well, what am I going to do now?” I decided to go to culinary school out in San Francisco, and the rest is history!

Which chef do you admire most right now?
To be truly inspired, I need to have a personal connection. I tend to be inspired most by the people that I know and work with. Chef Daniel Humm has been such a huge influence in my life.  He is such a determined and talented chef who has taught me so much. He’s the most incredible chef that I have ever worked for.  Another chef that I admire is Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. He’s a super talented guy who always finds the greatest ingredients. The way he uses them is just fun and delicious – everything he makes tastes so good. He was the first chef to turn me on to matsutakes, which are my favorite fungus, maybe even more than a white truffle. They have such a great flavor and aroma, it just knocks my socks off every time I smell a bowl of them (taking a big sniff and laughing). I have great respect for all of the chefs that I have worked with along the way.  Brett Cooper of Outerlands in San Francisco was one of my culinary school classmates. He’s a brilliant chef who is doing some really amazing things.  Christopher Kostow, who also worked for Chef Humm and is now running The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, is such an incredibly talented chef. He’s so driven and super passionate. I have a lot of respect for the chefs at The NoMad – Abram Bissell, James Kent, Angela Pinkerton, and Chris Flint. They are all amazing and talented chefs.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I tend to seek out Thai or Chinese restaurants. I really like spicy Szechuan and Isan Thai food!  I like going to Café China and Wa Jeal. I haven’t been to Legend yet but I want to check it out. Zabb Elee in the East Village is pretty tasty, too.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
This is a terrible question! (Laughing) I think it would have to be Bread and Potatoes. I could do alright without them. I definitely could never live without vegetables because that’s most of what I eat. Now, I don’t claim to be healthy – I cover them in fat, sugar and lots of butter. Fat and sugar are what make life worth living. (Laughing)  I just love meat and fish too much to give them up. I might be able to give up dairy. It’s gotta be between dairy and bread. Man, this is hard! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Bryce Shuman

Table Talk with Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson

Current Gig
Chef de Cuisine, The Cecil

About the Chef
Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson started off his culinary career as a dishwasher for a country club in the Poconos. He always knew he wanted to be a chef, and after seeing a commercial for the Culinary Institute of America, Chef JJ told his mother that was where he would go to school – and he did just that. After graduating from CIA and moving to New York City, he worked at a number of restaurants, including Jane, Tribeca Grill, The Smith, Tropica, and Centro Vinoteca. Chef JJ is currently the Chef de Cuisine at The Cecil in Harlem, an Afro-Asian-American brasserie that opened in late September 2013.

The Cecil: 210 West 118th Street (between St. Nicholas Ave and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd)

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Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson at The Cecil

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania (the Poconos) in a full house with my mom, dad, and grandparents. Everyone in my family lived around the corner from each other. My Puerto Rican grandmother would cook dinner every night and I used to hate all of the food she made. (Laughing) She used to make beets, butternut squash soup, and asopao, a soupy Puerto Rican rice dish – all of the flavors that I love today as a chef, but hated as a kid. She used to pull my ear and force me to eat. I’m really glad she did because it paid off. (Laughing)

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
I loved to eat lasagna… and pasteles, which we made with pureed plantains, cassava root or yuca wrapped in a banana leaf and stuffed with pork or shrimp. I also loved slow roasted pork shoulder. My mom is half Puerto Rican and Bajun (her dad is from Barbados) and my dad is African American, so I grew up with a great mix of cultures. When we would come to New York, we would eat sweet potato pie, braised collard greens, and pigs feet – which I didn’t eat at the time, but do now!

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
My favorite ingredients are something that I use as a foundation for a lot of different dishes:  onions, tomatoes, bird’s eye chili, ginger, and garlic. I find that it’s a good combination of acidity, sweetness, and spiciness. It’s my own mirepoix. Here at the restaurant we use it as the foundation for our piri piri sauce.  My favorite ingredient that is in season right now is beets.  I get these great baby beets out of Ohio from The Chef’s Garden. I called them the “Skittles” of cooking – they are naturally sweet and I love to slow roast them.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
If you can invest in good oil, do it. I recommend spending an extra couple of dollars to buy grape seed oil. It’s a great oil to cook with because there is no smoke point and it’s pretty healthy for you. I would also recommend good pots and pans – cast iron pans are great for the kitchen – and a good cutting board. I always like having fresh herbs in my kitchen. It’s a good excuse to go to the supermarket and buy what’s in season.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
The first thing that pops into my head is Lauryn Hill. Something classic. Like, it comes out today and you love it, and twenty years from now, you’re still listening to it and it’s just as good as it was back then.  I also think of Michael Jackson, who I grew up listening to. As a teenager, it’s great, and now that I’m old, and it’s still great. (Laughing)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I was in Ghana about a year ago for sixteen days. It’s a mixed culture of Asians and Africans that produces such great food. There’s a lot of seafood — prawns, grouper, spiny lobster — as well as noodles, sesame oil, and dumplings.  It was an amazing personal and culinary experience for me. I think everyone should travel the world. My friends say, let’s go to Vegas or Miami, and I’m like, let’s go to Colombia or Costa Rica! This time last year I was in Costa Rica eating mahi mahi ceviche on the beach for five dollars. It was so fresh and so great. I would love to travel to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean Islands. I haven’t been to Barbados in a long time so it would be awesome to go back as an adult.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I would probably be coaching basketball. I played a lot of ball as a kid and my dad runs a non-profit basketball program in the Poconos. When I decided that I was going to be a chef, I started coaching the kids. We’ve got kids playing all across the country now. I haven’t been able to coach in the last two years because I’ve been so busy with cooking, but it’s really fun and exciting. It reminds me of the kitchen – this fast-paced flow of back and forth, execution, and team work.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I admire Alexander Smalls, the Executive Chef here at The Cecil.  He didn’t go to culinary school, but is so talented and is able to execute really well.  I also admire Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill, who I consider one of the most consistent chefs in the country. Brian Ellis of The Smith and the Corner Table Restaurant Group is awesome. He’s a mentor of mine and a really great guy. He can open restaurants and make sure the food is consistent at every location – no matter which one you go to, it tastes the same every time. I really respect that.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I read the NY Times every Wednesday and create a list of where I want to go. (Laughing) Right now, I want to check out Khe-Yo, Le Bernardin, and my buddy’s restaurant out in Long Island City called Blend. By my apartment, my go-to spot is Thai House. If I’m downtown, I like Otto, Alta, and Blue Ribbon.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
This is so hard because your body needs everything! (Laughing) OK, OK, if I have to pick something, I’d give up fat and sugar. I can still make food taste good without it. (Smiling)

Table Talk with Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson