Table Talk with Chef Titus Wang

Current Gig
Executive Sous Chef, Delicatessen

About the Chef
Chef Titus Wang began his culinary career at Annisa under the guidance of Chef Anita Lo. He started off as a grill cook and worked his way up to Sous Chef. Eight years later, he left Annisa to become the Executive Sous Chef at Delicatessen in SoHo, a restaurant known for its international comfort food.

Delicatessen: 54 Prince Street (at Lafayette)

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Chef Titus Wang at Delicatessen

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Taiwan and lived there until I was thirteen. The memories I have of Taiwan are of the night markets and the street food. When we came to the United States, we moved to NJ and I went to engineering school at Rutgers University. I only stayed for a year. I realized that I didn’t want to do that with my life, I wanted to cook.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
I always liked to hang around in the kitchen with my mom when she cooked. She makes a cold jellyfish dish that is marinated in garlic and soy sauce. The texture is amazing – crunchy and chewy – with the delicious flavors of garlic and soy. It’s really nice with beers. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I always love raw fish. I like seared or almost raw preparations – those are my favorite. If you have great quality ingredients, you don’t need to do much to it.  I love kampachi – it’s one of my favorite fishes. It’s so fatty yet so refreshing.  Kampachi is great in tartares and ceviches.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
For home cooks, it’s very important to have a sharp knife.  That’s half of the cutting. The other half is your actual knife skill. You don’t want to butcher a fish or debone it with a plastic knife – it’s not going to work. (Laughing)  You’re going to waste a lot of food. If you have a ten ounce rib eye, it will turn into six ounces. I’d also recommend having a lot of clean kitchen towels on hand. People often have only one kitchen towel that is either wet or dirty. When you try to grab a hot pan with a wet towel, the heat goes through the towel and steams your hands. Steam burns are some of the worst burns you can get!

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I think it would be classical… with a little bit of hip-hop. (Laughing)  I chose classical music because I have classical French training as a chef. Before this, I used to work at Annisa with Anita Lo. It was a really amazing experience.  I started my career there and learned everything from her. She worked on the line most of the time, so I worked side by side with her for eight years. She’s also classically trained and we experimented with many different ingredients at Annisa. Here at Delicatessen, we are doing international comfort food. We play around with ingredients from all over the world while still applying basic French techniques. We try to incorporate something fun, too, which is where the hip hop comes in. (Smiling)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I was just in Paris with our executive chef, Michael, last spring for a demo. We went all over the city and tried everything from fine dining to casual dining – it was great.  I also went to Japan a few years ago and it was amazing. The sushi and sashimi are cheap and so much better than any restaurant I’ve been to.  I have always heard good things about Spain and have always wanted to go to Barcelona. I’d also like to go to Southeast Asia. I love street food – that’s where you learn the culture.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
If I weren’t a chef, I would be a cop. Because I love drama. And I’d get to catch criminals. (Laughing)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I have to say Anita Lo. She taught me everything. She’s one of the only celebrity chefs who still works on the line day in and day out. She doesn’t talk a lot, but she is a really great teacher.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I just went to Le Bernardin. Chef Eric Ripert is the god of seafood!  Sometime in my life, I want to work for him. It was one of the best meals I have ever had. Everything was done right. His dishes are not overly complicated in terms of plating and are also not pretentious. The consistency is just perfect.

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?
Oh my God. (Laughing) I can’t give up meat or fish. Fat is flavor, so I can’t give up fat. (More laughter) I guess I could give up starch. But I love noodles! Ok, I choose dairy. There’s not much dairy in Asian food. I can’t give up noodles or fried chicken, so I’m going with dairy. I don’t want to, but if I have to… (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Titus Wang

Table Talk with Chef Edwin Bellanco

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, Vitae

About the Chef
Chef Edwin’s first cooking job in Manhattan was at Gramercy Tavern, where he worked under Chef Tom Colicchio. During the summers, he would head out to Martha’s Vineyard to run La Cucina, a restaurant that he opened with Chef Marco Canora. Several years later, Chef Edwin went back to Cleveland to work at Moxie, before returning to Manhattan and working under Chef David Bouley at Danube and later Bouley. He also spent three months at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA with Chef Thomas Keller. After that, Chef Edwin opened Cru with Chef Shea Gallante in Manhattan, which was awarded a Michelin Star. About a year and a half ago, Chef Edwin opened Vitae, known for its creative, refined, and approachable cuisine.

Vitae: 4 East 46th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Madison)

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Chef Edwin Bellanco at Vitae

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in an Italian and Irish family. My grandmother cooked all the time and made huge feasts for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I used to love going into the kitchen – the smells, the sounds – it was great. I remember sitting in restaurants as a kid, peering into the kitchen and watching the cooks work, thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s so cool, I want to do that!” (Laughing) When I was old enough to get a job, I started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Then I was promoted to be a cook and I loved everything about it. I cooked pretty much my whole way through high school.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
My grandmother made this killer Italian wedding soup that I loved. I’ve never had anything like it. It was the best! Sadly, she passed away. I think my sister held on to some of her recipes, but I’m not sure if that recipe is around.  I wish I knew exactly how she made it!

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
I don’t necessarily gravitate toward one particular ingredient. I do have favorite seasons – I love the fall and spring. I’m kind of on an Asian and Indian kick right now. I try to bring Asian elements into my food, keeping it uniquely my style, while working those amazing flavors into it. Butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and yams are coming into season now, so we’ll make a sweet potato gnocchi here at the restaurant. We’ll most likely braise a lamb leg to pair with it since those flavors go together really well.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I think you should always have a good knife that you maintain and keep sharp. It will make your food look better than other people’s food. (Laughing)  You also want to have a nice spoon – it comes in handy with plating and tasting. I love the spoons that I got from Cleveland when I worked there – they are beautiful, deep spoons that we use to plate everything. The Gray Kunz spoons are really good, too.  I’d also say that you should have a peppermill so that you can season properly, as well as a nice spatula. This is a very Thomas Keller thing. The pastry spatula – a long, flat spatula with a wooden handle – is really great for flipping meat and fish. It probably wasn’t intended to be used in that way, but it’s perfect for handling delicate food.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
Immediately I think of a really progressive punk band. (Laughing) I feel like my thought process isn’t that smooth, it’s kind of all over the place. There are all of these things that go on in my head that I try to grab hold of and put on a plate. Once I have everything figured out, the food itself is more like classical music – very light, appealing, and classic.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I haven’t traveled since I opened Vitae. We’ve been open for a year and half now, and I’ve stuck around to make sure everything goes smoothly. I did travel a lot before that, and I always loved going to Italy. It’s one of my favorite places. I feel like people always say that they love Tuscany, but that’s because cuisine is so great. I’ve been to France and I love the food – it’s my comfort zone. I have never taken a trip to Asia and it’s something that I would love to do. I dream about it! (Laughing) Now that I have two kids, it’s tough to go away for an entire month. I feel like it would be so eye-opening and mind blowing to go to India, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea…  There are so many key ingredients in each country’s cuisine that make it interesting and appealing to me.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I don’t know, I hate to even think about it! (Laughing) I’ve cooked my whole life and it’s just always what I did. My mom was a working mom so I would often make my own meals at home – I didn’t think twice about it. Now, I don’t think twice about what else I would do… maybe because I don’t even know if I COULD do anything else! (Laughing)  I’ve been cooking for so long that it comes so naturally. After graduating from high school, I remember thinking that I really had no idea about what I wanted to do for a career, but I just kept cooking all throughout college. I decided to go to New York and be around the best chefs in one of the best places I could think of. And I haven’t looked back since. (Smiling)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Going back to when I moved to New York, I really tried to treat my career like an apprenticeship. I wanted to surround myself with the best people in the business. Chef Tom Colicchio was my first boss here in Manhattan – he only had Gramercy Tavern at the time. Now I’m really showing my age! (Laughing)  It was such an eye-opening experience for me. I was in way over my head, I could move fast and work hard, but I realized that I didn’t know anything about anything. (Laughing)  It was amazing to be in a place where everyone was 100% dedicated and put out such a great product.  It was the first time that I had ever seen anything like that, and it blew me away. I found it incredible that one chef could get that much talent under one roof. Tom Colicchio is amazing and what he does is amazing. I remember reading an article in the New York Times about Bouley restaurant, and I asked myself, “Who is this Bouley guy?” I ended up working for Chef David Bouley the longest out of anyone in my career. It was fascinating to me to experience those two very different styles. Chef Tom’s style is to let the ingredients shine, and he was more apt to take something off of the plate than put something on. Chef David was the polar opposite – he has so much going on in each dish, so much complexity, and it all worked.  I remember thinking it doesn’t have to be one way or the other, great food is just great food.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I’m a creature of habit and I don’t like to venture out too far. (Smiling) I like to go to Koreatown and Chinatown. If I have a day off, I love to get inexpensive Asian food. I’m always amazed at how delicious and affordable it is!

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?
Well, it can’t be bread. I love bread! (Laughing) You know, I guess I could give up meat.  It might be a little harder to give up fish, though. I like meat, but I find that when I go out, I rarely order it. I do love a good steak from time to time, but it’s pretty heavy, so I could do without it. Yeah, I could definitely give it up!

Table Talk with Chef Edwin Bellanco

Table Talk with Chef Preston Madson and Chef Ginger Pierce

Current Gig
Executive Chefs at Freemans, Peels, and Isa

About the Chefs
Chef Ginger Pierce began her career at Grapevine, a catering company in Northern California, while attending culinary school. Across the country, Chef Preston Madson was cooking at a small Italian restaurant in his hometown in Georgia before moving to Oregon to work at a pizza microbrewery. Both chefs wound up at Roxanne’s, a raw food restaurant in the Bay Area, where they met and began dating. Together, they moved to New York City and spent time cooking at Barbuto under their mentor, Chef Jonathan Waxman. Chef Ginger moved on to work at Provence and Five Points, while Chef Preston went to Cookshop, Provence, and Hundred Acres.  Several years ago, they became the Executive Chefs of Freemans, Peels, and Isa. Along the way, Chef Ginger and Chef Preston got married and had a little boy named Sebastian. They have worked side by side in the same kitchens for eight of the eleven years that they have known each other.

Freemans: 191 Chrystie Street (between Stanton and Rivington)
Peels: 325 Bowery (at East 2nd Street)
Isa: 348 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 

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Chef Preston Madson and Chef Ginger Pierce at Freemans

Where did you grow up?
Ginger
: I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. When I was four, my family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. My entire extended family stayed in Alaska, so we often spent summers and holidays there. A lot of my culinary influences are from Alaska, like fishing and learning the different ways that my grandfather prepared fish. I was also really influenced by the Bay Area, which has such amazing produce. Fresh vegetables and fruits are my favorite things to eat, especially avocados. I could put avocado on everything. (Smiling)
Preston: I grew up in southern Georgia, down by Savannah.  I came from a large family where we had big Sunday suppers every week.  I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom and my grandmother – I learned so much from them. After culinary school, I moved out to the Bay Area where I got into the whole fresh produce thing – everything was really fresh.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Ginger: I was an extremely picky eater as a kid. I mostly just ate oatmeal, pickles, and fresh fruit. I wouldn’t eat cooked vegetables – only raw vegetables. It’s amazing to my parents now that I do what I do as a chef. (Laughing) Simple things were always the most satisfying to me. I remember having beer battered halibut – I thought it was the most amazing thing when I was five years old. (Smiling) My grandfather made smoked salmon – Alaskan style smoked salmon, which is more like smoked trout. Growing up in California, we ate Mexican food every day. It’s one of my favorite cuisines. We also ate a lot of fantastic Thai food, Indian food…
Preston: Yeah, I never had any of that until I got out of Georgia. (Laughing) I grew up eating fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens – all of the usual Southern fare.
Ginger: It’s really funny because I never had true renditions of those Southern dishes until we started dating.
Preston: Yeah – when we started dating and started eating meat again. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Preston: I’ve been really into fresh shelling beans, like lima beans – they are so good right now. For some reason they came out really late this year. Cranberry beans are great, too, and I’m still waiting to see fresh black-eyed peas.
Ginger: Some of my favorite things to eat right now are stone fruits, like nectarines and plums, but that’s all kind of coming to an end. I tend to get on a kick with something and I just can’t have enough of it. I’m obsessed with marinated beets right now. I’ve also had some great apples this year. Last night we did a salad with marinated beets, apples, pears, Napa cabbage slaw, maple roasted walnuts and an orange walnut vinaigrette. It was pretty tasty. I love slaws. I’m obsessed with them because I want to eat healthy and feel satisfied at the same time – slaws are a great way to achieve that.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Ginger: A good knife. A nice, sharp knife makes a huge difference. You usually just need one good chef’s knife, although it helps to have a small paring knife as well. Another thing that’s great to have is a mortar and pestle.
Preston: That’s what I was going to say! (Smiling) It’s my favorite thing to use at home. We don’t even have a food processor. If we want to puree something, we just chop it finely and then grind it in the mortar and pestle.
Ginger: It’s also more conducive to preparing smaller amounts of things. With a blender or food processor, you end up making way more than you need. We literally use the mortar and pestle for everything we make at home.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
Ginger: Hmm, that’s tough. Maybe classic rock, like the Velvet Underground. (Laughing) Or Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Preston: Yeah, CCR. I’d say that our food is like rock music that’s easy to listen to.
Ginger:  Classic and straightforward.
Preston: Our styles are so similar because we’ve been cooking together for so long. We’ve known each other for eleven years, and out of those eleven years, we didn’t work together for three.
Ginger: We really like working together. And in this industry, if you don’t, you’ll never see each other because you work so much.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Ginger: South America is great. We really enjoyed the food in Colombia. We also go back to California and to the South often because our families are there. Let me think – where else have we been? We had a great food experience in Amsterdam.
Preston: There’s a lot of French influence in the food there, but it depends on what area you’re in.
Ginger: In Amsterdam, there’s this amazing restaurant there called De Kas. It’s in a greenhouse and they grow a bunch of herbs and different things in there. The cool part about Amsterdam is that there are all of these chefs that open small restaurants and do a prix fixe every night. You just show up and eat whatever they are serving. The restaurants are usually so small that the chef prepares every dish.
Preston: I’d also like to go back to Morocco. That was some of the best food I’ve ever had, and the least expensive. You can get a full meal for so cheap.  We’d also love to go to Italy.
Ginger: Yeah, I’d love to go back to Italy and do a lot of eating.
Preston: That’s pretty much all we do on vacation – just eat! (Laughing)

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
Preston: This is all I have wanted to do since I was four or five, so I honestly can’t even imagine doing anything else.
Ginger: I probably would have reverted back to academia, but it’s hard to say. I really enjoy what I do and I can’t see myself doing anything else.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Ginger: There are a lot of people that are doing really cool stuff.  It’s hard to choose just one because there are so many different reasons to appreciate different chefs. I would say the restaurateur that I admire most is Danny Meyer. The level of service that you experience in his restaurants is far and away better than most other places. I’ve been made to feel so comforted and taken care of. We’ve eaten at a lot of nice restaurants, and the experiences at Danny Meyer’s restaurants have been really high quality.
Preston: I’d say Jonathan Waxman. He’s our mentor. We both worked for him at Barbuto – it was our first job here in the city. He’s a great guy.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
Ginger: Ever since we had our son, it’s been so much harder to go out to eat. I’m sure as he gets older it will be easier, but for now, we go to more casual or lunch spots.  We eat at Barbuto a lot. Our fine dining meals recently have been Gramercy Tavern and Maialino. We also love local spots in Brooklyn, like Vinegar Hill House. Hmm, I’m trying think where else…
Preston: I can’t even remember where we ate out last. We mostly just cook at home.
Ginger: We also have a house up in the Hudson Valley area, so we go up there on the weekends and  cook there.  We tend to eat out less during this time of year – why eat out when there are so many amazing ingredients to cook with? (Pause) Oh! I remember now – the last meal we ate out was Korean BBQ in Flushing for our anniversary.
Preston: That was great. Next time we have to go with more people because there was so much food. I was like, I don’t even know what this is, but I want to try it! (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?
Ginger: That’s really hard. I feel like my first response would be meat and fish because I’m kind of indifferent to it. Then I thought I could give up fat and sugars…
Preston: But then what are you going to put on bread and potatoes? That would suck.
Ginger: True. Fruits and vegetables are definitely a no go. I could NEVER give those up. I think I would give up bread and potatoes. I don’t know.
Preston: Pasta falls into that category…  that sucks for you. (Both laughing)
Ginger: Hmm, I guess I’d say either bread and potatoes or meat and fish.
Preston: Does bacon fat count as part of fat and sugar? I would give up fat and sugar and then just douse everything in bacon fat or duck fat. (Laughing)
Ginger: Where do nuts and seeds fall? Would that be fat and sugar?
Preston: Well, they re-did the food pyramid recently so there’s no telling where they would be now. (Both laughing) All you need is some bacon fat and you’re good to go. (More laughter)

Table Talk with Chef Preston Madson and Chef Ginger Pierce

Table Talk with Chef Colleen Grapes

Current Gig
Pastry Chef, The Harrison and The Red Cat

About the Chef
While attending culinary school at Johnson and Wales, Chef Colleen Grapes got her first cooking job at Al Forno in Providence, RI.  After graduating, she worked at Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange, NJ, before moving on to work in Manhattan at Rue 57Time Café (all three of them), The Metropolitan Opera House, and Irving Mill.  Chef Colleen also spent some time in Brooklyn at DresslerDumont, and Dumont Burger.  Currently, she is the Pastry Chef at The Harrison and The Red Cat with Chef & Owner Jimmy Bradley, where she has been creating delicious desserts for a total of eight years.

The Harrison: 355 Greenwich Street (at Harrison Street)
The Red Cat: 227 Tenth Avenue (between West 23rd and 24th Street)

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Chef Colleen Grapes at The Harrison

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Caldwell, New Jersey. It’s a great location because it’s about half an hour from the city, from skiing, from the beach, and from the mountains. I got to experience a little bit of everything – I thought it was pretty perfect. (Smiling)

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
As a kid, I did a lot of cooking and baking with my grandmother, my mom, and my great-grandmother. We always made sweets, cookies, puddings, etc.  Butterscotch pudding was my favorite when I was growing up, and I always got it as a special treat when I was sick. Tapioca was also a huge favorite, as well as cheesecake. To me, when I was little, cheesecake was fancy. (Laughing) To this day, I absolutely love cheesecake.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Late spring, summer, and early fall are a pastry chef’s dream – stone fruits are out, berries are out. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I would say right now I’m really into plums. They are absolutely beautiful. I also recently got some mesquite flour so I’m starting to fool around with that, it’s got some great chocolate and nut undertones to it. And it’s gluten free. I like to keep things interesting. (Laughing)

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
The internet. Google! I don’t know what I would do without it! (Laughing) I would say get a good range of cookbooks. Even though I’m a vegetarian, I have good meat cookbooks at home and good savory cookbooks, too. I don’t always look at things from a pastry point of view – there are always techniques and other things that I can learn and incorporate into my pastries. Another item I’d suggest is a toaster oven.  At home I do EVERYTHING in my toaster oven. I’ve lived in my apartment for 2 years and I’ve never turned on my oven. In my last apartment, I lived there for 5 years and I only turned my oven on twice. I live and die by my toaster oven!

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
That’s so hard because I’m all over the place with music. My favorite band in the world is Clutch, but I’m also a huge fan of Beethoven.  I believe in mixing it up a bit. I never have just one favorite thing – to me, that’s no fun. My food style ranges from classical music all the way to rock (Clutch) and heavy metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest) and even some Jamiroquai. (Smiling)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I recently got back from Cambodia and Laos – that trip was AMAZING. The cuisine is incredible and the people are just beautiful. When I travel, I try to go to places that I’m not familiar with, where I don’t speak the language, and where I’m out of my comfort zone. It’s challenging and it allows me to open myself up to discovering a whole new world. I like to go to more of the street vendors and the local spots rather than fancy places.  When I travel, it’s all about the fruits. The coconuts, mangos, and banana flowers in Cambodia and Laos were just amazing.  I also had some great fruits in Costa Rica. I didn’t even know what guanabana or a soursop was until I went there and had a shake. When I asked the guy what it was, he put his hand up and walked away. Then he came back with this guanabana milkshake. It was incredible!  After I returned to NY, I was inspired and made a key lime tart with guanababa sorbet and fresh raspberries and mint.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
One of two things – because you know there can never be just one! (Laughing)  I would either like to arrange flowers for a living or I would want to be a brew master. Flowers and beer! I love them both.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
That’s a tough one! I’d have to pick a few of my friends because I know them very well and can see how their personalities are reflected in their food.  Chef Sue Torres (Suenos) cooks real Mexican food – it’s incredible. She sources out her own corn and they hand make all of their tortillas. Chef Anita Lo (Annisa) – her food is amazing, and Chef Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter) – her food is to die for. Also, I have to mention Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. Chef Justin Smillie is a ham! His food is off the hook.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I try to go somewhere new each time I have the chance to eat out. Some of my old standbys are Blue Ribbon, Rai Rai Ramen, Ippudo, and Di Fara Pizza. Di Fara is like a temple. He makes each pie to order, so you wait up to an hour for each pie. It’s so good that you WAIT. (Laughing) He’s a craftsman. He pulls out the pies with his bare hands, he hand cranks the cheese, he cuts fresh marjoram and basil from a plant and puts it on the pizza. There’s nowhere else in the city that does that.

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?
Hey, that’s so not fair! (Laughing) That’s like asking me which hand I would cut off! That’s like asking me if I only had two puppies, which one I would give away! Really? Really?? Hmm, maybe meat and fish… but I just love foie gras! And lobster! Maybe bread? NO! I can’t answer this, I really don’t know. I’m leaning toward meat, but if I go out to eat and I see foie gras on the menu, I don’t see anything else — I have to have it! And I can’t say sweets because that would be just shooting myself in the foot.  Got another question? (More laughter) I really can’t say, I need everything! It’s too heart-wrenching to decide! I really tried, but I can’t pick one. I plead the fifth! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Colleen Grapes

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

Table Talk with Chef Nimesh Maharjan

Current Gig
Executive Chef, Race Lane (East Hampton, NY)

About the Chef
Chef Nimesh Maharjan started off as a dishwasher at 29 Fair Bistro in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he worked his way up the ranks and went on to become Sous Chef.  In 2009, Chef Todd English took over the restaurant, renamed it Figs at 29 Fair, and appointed Chef Nimesh as the Executive Chef. This was the turning point in his culinary career.  A few years later, a new opportunity arose in Long Island and Chef Nimesh moved to East Hampton to become Executive Chef at Race Lane, a creative American restaurant using fresh, local ingredients.

Race Lane: 31 Race Lane, East Hampton, NY

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Chef Nimesh Maharjan at Race Lane in East Hampton

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. I moved to the US when I was 20 years old.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
There was a lot of cooking in my home while I was growing up.  Watching my mom cook was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. She makes a fermented vegetable stew with soybean that I love. It takes a long time to prepare – a whole month just to ferment the vegetables! The flavor is so good. The memory of it stays with me for days. (Smiling)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
It’s tough to pick just one. In the middle of summer, tomatoes are getting really ripe and corn is just perfect. I would choose these two ingredients at the moment because I use them a lot on my menu. I like simple cooking and enjoy using these ingredients to make tomato tarts and roasted corn succotash.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Beside a sharp knife and good pots and pans, I would suggest having a Vitamix blender. In my kitchen, this is such an essential item.  I would be paralyzed without it! (Laughing)

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I would say soul music. Whatever I cook comes from the inner core of my heart and soul.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
There are lots of places – too many to mention!  I am definitely looking forward to my travels in France, Italy, and Spain. Their cuisines are extraordinary and I’m excited to experience real gastronomy where I will definitely have lots of great experiences to learn from.

If you had not gone to the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
If I wasn’t cooking, I am pretty sure I would be doing something related to soccer. I have always wanted to be a soccer player. (Smiling)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
That’s a tough question, as it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve learned a lot on my own, but there are a few chefs that I am really grateful to. One of them is Chef Charles Sallie, who is my guru, and without him I wouldn’t be cooking today.  Also, Chef Todd English and Chef Joe Brenner, who both believed in me and gave me the opportunity to run their restaurant, and Chef Pino Maffeo, who has been very influential in my life.  I have always admired Chef Thomas Keller, Chef Michel Roux, Jr., and Chef Marco Pierre White. Hopefully one day, I will have the chance to work in their kitchens!

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I don’t go out that much, but when I have free time on my day off and depending on who I am with, I will usually go for Sushi or Asian cuisine.

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 impossible to answer because each group is related to each other. This is hard to even think about right now! (Laughing) I will say Fat and Sugar because I can substitute those ingredients with something else. For the other groups, there really aren’t any good substitutions!

Table Talk with Chef Nimesh Maharjan

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)

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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

Table Talk with Chef Laurence Edelman

Current Gig
Executive Chef and Owner, Left Bank

About the Chef
Chef Laurence Edelman began his culinary career by shucking oysters at Cooter Brown’s Tavern & Oyster Bar in New Orleans during undergrad. After finishing school, he moved to Boston and worked at several upscale restaurants – Upstairs at the Pudding, L’Espalier, and Sel de la Terre – before settling in New York City. Here in Manhattan, Chef Edelman learned how to make Italian pastas at Felidia and spent a number of years at The Red Cat as Sous Chef. He describes his time at The Red Cat with Chefs Jimmy Bradley and Bill McDaniel as “transformative”. Chef Edelman went on to work at Barbuto under Jonathan Waxman and then became the Executive Chef at The Mermaid Inn and The Mermaid Oyster Bar. Two years ago, he opened Left Bank, which is known for its fresh, seasonal American cuisine.

Left Bank: 117 Perry Street (at Greenwich Street)

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Chef Laurence Edelman outside of Left Bank

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in South Orange, New Jersey. It’s a suburban town. I had a really nice childhood there.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
The parents of one of my best friends used to drive into the city to Zabar’s every weekend. They had a station wagon.  When they came back home, they would pull that station wagon into their driveway and I would just be there, waiting. (Laughing)  By the way, we’re still really close friends, and I buy meat from him now.

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
This year has been very strange for vegetables. It took a long time for things to show up at the markets. Zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes finally started to come around – they’re great. But mostly it’s about fruit for me this year, which is kind of rare because I’ve never been super into fruit. In particular, the peaches, especially white peaches, which we have made pies with at the restaurant. I’ve been doing a lot of baking this year.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Besides a good knife, good cutting board, and heavy pots and pans, I’d say one black steel pan that you only use for eggs. You never wash it, you just wipe it out and that’s it. Just use it for simple eggs, nothing fancy. No cheese or anything else. There’s also a can opener that you can get from Korin, a Japanese company. We have one in the Left Bank kitchen – it’s really handy!

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
I would say Jazz because it’s very improvisational, like my food. I pretty much decide in the moment what a dish is going to be like.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Vietnam was an incredible food experience. We were there for two weeks and it was incredible. We took tours of the markets, and we had an interpreter and a guide with us. There’s not a lot of refrigeration where we were in Hanoi. People go to the markets three times a day – every meal they go to the market to buy what’s there, it’s all alive and very fresh.  That was pretty amazing. I like to go to Paris for anything baked. And I really want to go to Vienna next.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. I have a camera now and I take pictures on my iPhone. Instagram is where most of them end up.  At the time, I thought it was the coolest job you could have. You get to travel and you’ve got to really…  get down in the bush. Know what I mean? (Laughing)

Which chef do you admire most right now?
That’s a really good question and a really hard one to answer. There are so many great chefs out there. I think the chef who is kicking the most ass right now is Justin Smillie, the Executive Chef at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. He has something in him that makes him stronger than most other people that I know. He’s incredible to watch. He is also impossible to work for, but he’s incredibly talented. (Laughing)

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
Left Bank opened two years ago, and I haven’t done as much dining out as I’d like to. But I do go and check out other West Village restaurants to see who’s in the neighborhood and what people are eating. I know I just mentioned Il Buco, but that’s a really good one.

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 impossible! (Laughing) I can’t give up bread and potatoes – that equals pasta. I’m so depressed right now just thinking about it.  (More laughter)  I don’t know… probably Milk and Dairy. I just wouldn’t have cheese anymore, which would be terrible, but I could survive. The rest of the stuff I need too badly!

Table Talk with Chef Laurence Edelman