Table Talk with Chef Zia Sheikh

Current Gig
Sous Chef, North End Grill

About the Chef
Chef Zia Sheikh’s culinary journey began in New Jersey as Food Service Manager for Aramark. Over the next few years, he gained experience at several different restaurants in NJ and as a Culinary Student Extern at The Mercer Kitchen in Manhattan. Chef Sheikh moved on to Philadelphia, PA, where he became Chef Tournant at 10 Arts by Eric Ripert and Zahav. In 2009, he returned to NY and trained under Executive Chef Floyd Cardoz as Sous Chef at Tabla, before heading to ABC Kitchen under Executive Chef Dan Kluger. About a year and a half ago, Chef Sheikh was reunited with Chef Floyd Cardoz at North End Grill, where he is currently the Sous Chef.

North End Grill: 140 North End Avenue (between Murray and Vesey)

img_4031

Chef Zia Sheikh enjoying dinner at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Staten Island, NY – born and raised there. The culinary scene is mainly Italian, so I grew up around a lot of pastas and pizzerias. I wasn’t exposed to that many different ingredients when I was younger – there weren’t really any farmer’s markets or high end ingredients around. But eventually, over time, I purposely put myself out there to start tasting everything I could and I just fell in love with it.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
As a kid, I loved my mom’s cooking and the diner fare and pizzas in Staten Island. My mom is a really good cook – she’s the one that actually taught me how to cook. As a kid, she made Indian food for our family. I hated spice when I was growing up so my mom made sure that everything was pretty mild. You’re always gonna love home cooking, you know? (Smiling)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
My favorite ingredient at the moment is corn. I love the summer season – there are so many things you can do with corn. If you roast it over any type of fire – a stove burner, a barbeque, an open wood fire – the char works really nicely with the sweet flavor of the corn. It’s so versatile and there are lots of things you can do with it, like salads, entrees, anything.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
If I could pick five things, I’d say a good non-stick pan, a good knife, a good spatula, a good thermometer, and a good cutting board.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I’m into all different styles of music, but I would have to pick classical. My food is not really out there, and I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel. I’m just trying to make what’s already out there better.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I think NYC has the best culinary scene. Philadelphia is also pretty cool, as well as Boston. I haven’t done much traveling internationally, but I’d love to check out Spain, Italy, and Japan.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I probably would have followed the route that my parents wanted me to take – Engineering – which I absolutely hate.  (Laughing)  I took a class back in college, a ten week course where a new engineer from a different field came in each week to talk about what they do. After the fourth week, I just gave up on it. Listening to what they do on a daily basis, I just couldn’t see myself doing it. I need something chaotic, something stressful, and something very hands on. I’ve always been really artsy and into cooking.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
My first choice would be my boss, Floyd Cardoz. I really respect what he’s done in his career, taking his background and mixing it with classical European technique. Especially when he was at Tabla, which was my favorite restaurant, I just loved his style of food. After meeting Chef Floyd, I loved his philosophies, the way he manages people, his passion, and his drive.  After him, I would have to go with some of the great chefs, Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria, because I really respect what they’ve done. Thomas Keller was not trying to re-invent the wheel, just make things better. Ferran Adria is full of ideas and constantly changing. He looked at an ingredient and thought about how it could evolve. Does a peach have to stay a peach? No. He would change it and manipulate it to create something that people had never tasted before.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
It depends on my mood… and it depends on my budget (laughing). I love all different types of foods and styles.  I really respect all types of restaurants and what they do. If I go to a four star restaurant, I enjoy trying what’s new. I also love having bourbon & barbecue and I love going to pizzerias. As long as a restaurant is doing what they do really well, I’m into it. In the city, one of my favorite restaurants is Craft (Chef Tom Colicchio). I love Craft for what it is because it’s so simple. They take really good ingredients and don’t do much to them. They tell you it comes from this farm, this is how it was raised, and then they cook it really well.  ABC Kitchen is also a favorite because Chef Dan Kluger always stays seasonal. He has a very strong commitment to using what’s local.  And Casa Mono has always been one of my favorites. They’re just doing simple food and doing it really well.

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’d have to go with Bread and Potatoes. I could totally do without them.  There are so many dishes that you can create that are great without those ingredients.  Now, if it were from a cooking standpoint, it would probably have to be fat. A very skilled chef can cook without fat, cream, or butter.

Table Talk with Chef Zia Sheikh