"I'm not doing this to be recognized, but to be recognized is an honor. When you realize how much your parents have sacrificed for you, it's not hard to bust your ass."
When we walk into Talde in Park Slope, Boyz II Men plays loudly in the speakers and partners Chef Dale Talde, David Massoni and John Bush are swaying, smiling and singing. A few times while we speak we have to stop to take in a lyric or harmony. This is what happens when you're in your thirties and own it while you work.
Talde—the restaurant—fits the Park Slope crowd well. The atmosphere is stylish but relaxed. The menu is both modern "fusion" and just plain delicious food. The cocktails are mighty tasty. Talde—the chef—is calm, clear, and articulate in his conversation, and gets a touch emotional when describing how hard his parents worked to give him the opportunities that brought him to his first restaurant.
So how does this all come together? We does it mean to be a first-generation Asian-American in the second generation of Asian-American chefs in NYC? We had a chat to find out.
Where did your first strong memory of food come from? I was eight or nine and we went to Chinatown in San Francisco. It was everything you would think of for that perfect San Francisco element—foggy streets, kinda cold, bums everywhere. We went to a congee house and my parents said, "you can get anything you want." And I said, "anything?!" There were a hundred menu items there! And I ended up getting Peking duck congee. I thought it was amazing that my parents weren't going to tell me, "you're not going to like that." They were like, "just eat whatever you want." That was a very strong moment. I don't remember the food being that great, but I remember the experience was great.
Going along with strong memories, what's your strongest memory of your first kitchen job? My first job out of culinary school was at Outback Steakhouse. I was the grill and I was terrible. I was terrible! Undercooked chicken, missing tickets. I was like, "man, I don't even know what I'm doing right now."
What did you learn from that job? That I would never want to do something like that ever again. Every day I smoked a joint in my car and walked right into the restaurant. I was pathetic—I was a terrible cook there. But shit happens.
I heard that you were really nervous opening up Talde—that you wouldn't be taken seriously by the crowd or critics. What was the concern? A lot of my concern is that people have an idea of what I am from watching Top Chef. And sometimes a lot of the people on that show get a bad rap—that we're not serious chefs, that we just wanted to be on T.V., that we're fame whores etc. But there's a lot of us just using it as a springboard to help our businesses and open our restaurants.
And when you come from a Stephen Starr restaurant, I think the perception people have about you is that you don't cook. And nothing could have been further from the truth at Buddakan. Stephen Starr was one of those people who would say, "I need a monk fish dish by Friday. There's eight chefs, I want eight dishes." And so on top of having to serve 900 people you're forced to make a dish in front of others that has to fit and get criticized. It created a competitiveness between chefs and I loved it. People in that arena of restaurants get pegged, "you weren't in a hard-core restaurant owned by an individual chef." No, I wasn't. Actually it was an enormous corporation and it was a lot of pressure.
What did you learn about yourself as a chef in that period? You have to sift through a lot of your own bullshit when you have to make food and sit there and eat it with the person you're making it for. It's intense. Because this guy is your boss. Forget about the fact that you can get kicked off a show—this is the person who writes your paychecks. Who's critical because he's your employer. And ultimately what he says is the law.
What kind of bullshit did you wade through? Well, when I started out I would look at the dish and say, "I want it to look like this," instead of, "I want it to taste like this." There I did that total flip: don't make aesthetic the primary focus—it has to taste good. You're not making works of art, you're making things people have to consume. If you're going to use a technique—cool—but keep it to yourself. Who are you trying to impress, yourself or your guests? I owe Stephen a lot for that. He would say, "Stop cooking to impress me. Cook me something that I just want to eat."
Your dishes sort of span traditional Asian and American influences, but in loose ways. Is there a dish specific to a memory, that you crafted to recreate something personal to you? The green mango salad. I'm from Chicago and my grandmother used to take care of us. She was really old—like 85—and she would roll her own cigars and sometimes she'd just chew them for the buzz. When we would go to sit there and watch a Cubs game, she would sit there with green mangoes—totally unripe sour mangoes—and shrimp paste. And we would just eat it like that. And I had kinda forgotten about it until I went to Malaysia and we had a green mango salad and it reminded me of just sitting in the living room with my grandmother, her in a rocking chair smoking a blunt. I was like, "holy shit, dude." It just took me right back there, so I knew I had to do that dish at this restaurant.
There's been so much written about second-generation Asian-American chefs lately. Where do you see yourself amongst that? I'm so proud and honored to be mentioned in those. I think Danny [Bowien] said it best, that David Chang was our champion. He grabbed that torch and ran with it and we're all just like, "if he can do it, we can do it." I'm happy to be a part of it.
A lot of this is just a matter of time, you know what I mean? My parents came here like a lot of parents did in the late sixties / early seventies. Their role coming to America was to survive and do better for their children. Our role is to thrive. It's up to you—whoever you are in whatever you're doing—to thrive and be recognized. I'm not doing this to be recognized, but to be recognized is an honor. When you realize how much your parents have sacrificed for you it's not hard to bust your ass. My mom worked 16 hours a day until just a few years ago. It's just our time. We're just old enough to really kind of put our stamp on what we do.
Is NYC home now? Do you plan to stay? I intend on being in Brooklyn for as long as I can. I want to make my roots here. I want to start a family here. Hopefully we can continue to find places in Brooklyn because we know there are people out there that need places. You need to go where there's a need.
If you could pick a restaurant in New York City that you could eat at every day for the rest of your life—and budget and borough were not inhibitors—what calls to you? What Harold [Dieterle] is doing at Kin Shop—that Crispy Duck Laab with mustard greens and a side of sticky rice—wow, when I first ate it, it really reminded me of home. Eating something spicy, and something sour and sweet, and then some rice... if I could eat lunch there every day I'd eat it. Kin Shop, for sure.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer, alternative baker and frantic private chef who is haunted by a certain Perilla leaf she wants to eat every day. She can be found at www.thedustybaker.com. Tweet her at @dustybakergal.
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