Table Talk with Chef Chris Li

Current Gig
Sous Chef, Malbec House

About the Chef
Chef Chris Li started cooking in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at Casbah. After that, he went to Red Room and worked under Chef Chris Bonfili, who became his mentor. Chef Chris worked at several other restaurants in Pittsburgh before moving to NYC to work at Commerce, ABC Kitchen, and Esca, before returning to Commerce as Sous Chef. In June 2013, he helped to open Malbec House, a unique restaurant that features the wine, cuisine, and Tango culture of Argentina.

Malbec House: 428 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place & East 4th)

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Chef Chris Li at Malbec House

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Miami, Florida with Cuban and Chinese parents. A lot of people think of Miami as a superficial party city, but it’s actually a really interesting place with a lively arts and restaurant scene. Growing up, I didn’t realize that I came from a very foodie family. Food was always a central part our lives. My grandmothers, aunts, and mother were very into cooking and that brought all of us together.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
The roast chicken that my Cuban grandmother made was something that I loved to eat as  a kid. It basically consisted of her pouring all of the spices from her cupboard onto the chicken – that was her Pollo Asado. It’s the most delicious thing in the world to me. My grandmother on my father’s side is half Chinese and half Cuban, and she didn’t like to cook until she married my grandfather, who is Chinese. As she got to know her mother-in-law, an austere Chinese woman, she taught her how to cook. My grandmother is very fast in the kitchen and has a certain touch when it comes to cooking snapper and picadillo (a Cuban Creole ground beef dish with potatoes, olive, rice, and a fried egg on top). Eating at her house is fun because it’s such a boisterous atmosphere – all of the dishes are ready at different times and everyone eats as the food comes out. My grandmother also learned how to cook Chinese food from my grandfather, who was a line cook for most of his life. She continues to host dinner at her house with all of my cousins.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I’ve noticed that plums are really nice this year. When Executive Chef Rodrigo Sieiro put a plum soup on the menu, at first I thought it was kind of strange. But after tasting it over and over, I found it really interesting and great for summer. Yesterday, I went to Allswell in Brooklyn and convinced my wife to order a tomato and plum salad – it was delicious, and the plums were sweet and tart. I really like plums in a savory preparation.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
You can do almost everything you need to do with a good knife.  When I cook at home, I always need a bottle opener. (Laughing) One thing that home cooks usually don’t have is a cake tester. You can use it test the internal temperature of any food. For example, if you’re boiling potatoes, you can poke the potato and see if there is any give. If you’re making mashed potatoes, you can drag it through the potatoes and if it slides through easily, it’s ready. Also, if you’re unsure about cooking fish, chicken, or meat to a certain temperature, poke it with the cake tester. The temperature of the food gets transferred to the cake tester immediately. You can tap it on a sensitive part of the body, like your wrist – here in the kitchen we tap it on our chins. If it’s warm, it’s around medium rare, if it’s starting to get hot, it’s medium. If it’s so hot that it burns your skin, it’s medium well. Other chefs have taught me to do this and I taught the guys here in our kitchen to do the same. .. our meat temperatures are really consistent.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
My personal style is still developing. What I enjoy making the most are traditional dishes of my heritage – I’m Cuban and Chinese. If I had to pick a music style, it would be something very orchestrated and classical –  and easy to listen to.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I haven’t traveled that much, but I visited Spain while I was in college and, shortly after college, I traveled to Mexico. That was right around the time that I became more interested in food and more adventurous with what I ate. I have always been fascinated by Mexican cuisine – by how much history is behind it, how rooted it is in the land, and how it has developed.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
Before I became a chef, I was a seventh grade English teacher. I was certified to teach seventh to twelfth grade. I’d probably still be a teacher today if I hadn’t gotten so into cooking. One of the reasons I became a chef is because there is constant teaching and training involved in working in a kitchen, and it is very hands on, which I like. I stopped teaching not because I didn’t like teaching anymore, but because I didn’t like the paperwork. (Laughing)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Earlier, I talked about a restaurant in Brooklyn called Allswell — the chef is Nate Smith. I was actually there last night for the second time. It’s rare for me to go back to the same restaurant because I don’t get to go out very much. I am really impressed by the food, the execution, and the design of the place. I also really like Diner and Marlow & Sons – I have been a fan of both of those restaurants for a while. It’s casual food that is executed at a very high level and it’s always top notch. The chefs there are Kenneth Wiss and Nick Perkins, both very professional and really nice guys that are able to run very busy restaurants and put out a great product.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
Besides the two restaurants that I just mentioned, I also really like Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. I’ve been there a couple of times – it’s an amazing restaurant. And Commerce, where I used to work – I love eating at the bar. Every time I go back, I’m always impressed with the food.

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 could probably live without meat and fish. I love cooking them and it would be hard to not eat my family’s food anymore, especially the Cuban food, but there is a lot more variety in the other food groups. The things you can do with flour and water are sort of endless. And I definitely wouldn’t want to give up butter or dairy! (Smiling)

Table Talk with Chef Chris Li