How did you get into cooking initially?
By being around food and seeing my mom cook. My mom grew her own vegetables, my dad fished and hunted and I used to watch them cook all the time. I loved watching cooking shows and I think watching all that go down at a young age was my inspiration.
Who have your mentors been over the years?
My first mentor was Jeff Felsinthall at Vong. He’s a culinary instructor now, but he worked at Charlie Trotter’s as a sous chef. He opened Charlies’ back in the day and he was just militant in his approach. And at first, when you are younger and you don’t realize what he’s doing, it comes off that he’s picking on you or you think ‘what’s this guy’s problem?’. But then you go into another kitchen and I saw he was really laying down the foundation for me learning to cook.
Probably my biggest culinary mentor is Carrie Nahabedian at Naha. She just opened a new restaurant Brindille. She’s just a really close culinary chef friend. She has helped me out through thick and thin and her approach is very seasonal. She was the first person who taught me what locavore is, with using what’s around and what’s seasonal and embracing that and having a relationship with farmers, with your fish guy and your meat guy. I think the best thing she taught me is how to portion foie gras. We used to portion it to order and I used to portion and have a scale next to me. And, I guess it’s not the most economical way, but I would weigh out a 2 and ½ ounce portion and she would say, ‘Dale, cut a piece of foie gras that you would want to eat. And, I said all right and I cut this steak of a piece of foie. And I seared it, and she taught me how to cook it. Without her and her cousin Michael, who own Naha and Brindille, I wouldn’t be the chef that I am today.
Other mentors are Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Stephen Starr. Stephen’s not a chef, but Stephen taught me how to look at food and how to eat food and how to look at it from a customer’s perspective. How are your diners going to perceive what you are doing? That’s important to me.
How would you describe your personal culinary style?
I would say we do food that’s pretty fun. We have three restaurants and we just try to have fun with the food. It’s a gastro pub at Thistle, it’s Asian American here at Talde. It’s something that is familiar but has an unexpected surprise to it. That’s what we do.
How was the concept at Talde born?
The concept was a really funny surprise. It was like hey this is what we want to do, we don’t know how to explain it. And one of our close friends was our PR guy at the time, Khong, and he said let’s look at who and what you are. I’m a Filipino-American but I don’t do Filipino food, I do roundabout Asian food. And he said, why don’t we call it Asian American. It describes who you are and this restaurant is who you are, so why don’t we call it that. I was very cautious about it. I mean who wants to go out for Asian American food? But, it was a new term and you grouped it as Asian and it worked and it took off.
What were some of the challenges in opening Talde?
Trying to get a staff together, trying to hire a staff, trying to find what sells, what doesn’t. Really making food that is good enough for the neighborhood, because we are trying to be a neighborhood restaurant. Fortunately, it’s a neighborhood of savvy diners and people who have money to spend on food and really know what good food is. That was kind of our first challenge. Is this food good enough? Is what we’re doing good enough? And you know some of the first dishes like the wedge salad with Chinese bacon and Sriracha. We made that for us, we didn’t make that for the diners. It was selfish, but the neighborhood said if I wanted a wedge salad, I would go to a diner. Why would I need to come here? I just waited an hour and a half for a table; I’m not going to order a wedge salad.
What’s the inspiration for creating new dishes?
New dishes for us is our daily lives. Walking the streets of New York City you get so inspired. It’s the smell of a halal cart at 3am when you’ve had too much to drink or the sounds, smells and sights in Chinatown as you get off the D Train at Grand. I mean that’s life. You walk the streets of New York City and I’m telling you if you aren’t inspired then you need to re-evaluate life and your soul. Even in our sleepy little neighborhood of Park Slope in the afternoon, you walk twenty blocks down into Sunset Park and you might as well be in Mexico. And then you walk over and you’re in Chinatown in Brooklyn. You go to Brighton Beach and you might as well be in Russia. The inspiration is so ridiculous here.
What ingredients and techniques are you focused on right now?
Right now, we’re really into putting things on sticks. That’s my favorite. Anything on sticks. Technique-wise we love the idea of putting things on a stick and charring them. It’s so the antithesis of where modernist cooking is right now – cooking something for 3 and a half days at low temperature. I mean, give me fire and I will cook. I like the idea that it can be so ballsy hot. Let’s get that wok as hot as it can get and let’s char the shit out of it and let’s see what happens. Put some ‘wok hey’ on it, put some fire on it and let it go. It’s so caveman, it’s back to the original way of cooking to just have fire.
What’s your essential cooking tool?
A Kunz spoon, a wok spoon and a Nenox and I’m ready to go.
With your experience on Top Chef , how do you see food television as an influence on diners and the industry?
It’s been a great influence for diners. It gives a great insight into the process and what it is that cooks sometimes have to do. It’s done amazing things for our culinary world. It’s opened us up to a whole new spectrum of people and it’s given a ridiculous pop fan base of people who want to come to your restaurant to check out your food. It’s a little dangerous for culinary professionals though. They might think that they will be famous at some point, that they’re going to reach for stardom as opposed to learning a trade. That’s one thing that is a downside. For every upside, there’s a downside. A lot of these cooks come out of school and they want to be famous and I think why don’t you just learn how to cook first. Learn your trade, learn your craft. It’s like guys who make knives. Someone taught them how to bend, heat, cut, work with metal. If you don’t learn how to do that, how can you make a beautiful piece of cutlery that looks like a piece of art? You can’t. So, for us, if you don’t know how to cook a steak to medium rare, how are you going to create a dish based on a steak if it’s not cooked properly? Everything else is garbage. Every sauce, every foam, every garnish, every oil is garbage unless that steak is cooked properly.
Where do you like to eat?
Right now, I love to eat at Piquat’s Pizza in Chicago. It’s kind of like a foccacia bread and then they burn the crust to get it nice and charred.
I love this place in San Sebastian, Spain that does simple grilled seafood. The deft hand that someone has who takes raw sardines and makes a parsley oil and putting just a little bit of salt on it because they know the sardines are salty naturally. To them, it might seem simple but it’s complex. It’s complex because you didn’t have to do anything to it. It’s not hiding. This is what it is. We have the best fish and we’re putting it on a plate.
In New York, I love a good steak. I love Perla. Michael Toscano’s pasta is ridiculous; he’s a magician. We’re either going to eat there tonight or at Minetta Tavern.
Do you have any advice for young cooks?
Put your head down and cook. Life is harder than just cooking, but if you want to be great at this job just put your head down and cook. Love what you do. Love every aspect of what you do. Love it when it sucks. When you love restaurants so much and you love cooking so much that you love it when it sucks, then you know it’s the industry for you. When the oven’s broken and you just burned your hand and there’s no dishwasher and you still love coming to work, it’s the job for you. It’s a passion. Build a passion for your job because a lot of what we do isn’t pleasant.