Thinking of all three of your restaurants, what is your favorite dish on the menu?
For me, the most soul-satisfying dish has the most simple concept but with the most complex execution, and that's the French onion soup at Deuxave. I feel like when people eat the French onion soup at Deuxave, they are perplexed by the perfection in the simplicity of the dish, and it's interesting because it's not something that really fits into the greater scheme of things at the restaurant. It takes nine hours to cook the onions and about three days to make the broth, and I think people can really taste that. It's a real soul-satisfying dish on a rainy or cold day, but it's also a dish that really shows off technique. I also think that I feel differently about different dishes on any given day.
Do you have a favorite place to go for inspiration for your menus?
I think my inspiration really comes from my sous chefs and my chefs de cuisine. Additionally, one thing I really try to focus on is what's going on in my brain and what's going to make me happy or what makes my chefs happy. There's a lot of talent out there, but I don't look to other restaurants for inspiration because I really try to push a creative environment here in which we build compositions by thinking about flavors. Of course, like any other chef I like to go to places like Chinatown to eat and experience flavors that I may not have classically been exposed to, but I'm not the type of chef who goes out to a restaurant and then writes his menu the next day based on what I had the night before.
I do a lot of reading, and I encourage my chefs to as well, but it's important to keep one's reading diverse. I think it's really easy to have your thought process swayed by other chefs and other plates, but you have to keep your brain from switching over. We get our inspiration for our menus here at the restaurant by having jam sessions about ideas with our chefs, and I think it produces a really unique and honest product. I also find a lot of my inspiration in farms and in fisherman and whatever fish they're catching. I also get inspiration from whatever herbs and vegetables are growing in the rooftop garden at Dbar.
What is your current favorite ingredient to work with? [This interview was conducted earlier in the fall.]
For me, this time of year is when my foraging season really starts to ramp up, and although I forage lots of wild edibles, I'm most passionate about wild mushrooms. In a couple of weeks I'll be very excited about finding my first hen of the woods mushrooms of the year. It's been a dry year, so I've only foraged about 200 pounds of wild mushrooms, lots of chicken mushrooms, blue chanterelles, black trumpets, and a couple of porcini. But really for me, the hen of the woods season is very exciting. I also find a lot of peace and clarity when I'm out in the woods foraging. Hopefully we get some rain here in the next couple of weeks so that it's a fruitful season.
What is your favorite food memory?
The first time that I knew I loved food wasn't in my own household. Looking back, I realize now that my own mother and father were not good cooks, and I can safely admit now that I made friends with kids based on how well their mothers cooked. I know that probably sounds a little wild, but a good quality factor of a friend in my youth was whether or not they would allow me to have dinner with them regularly or if when dinnertime came, they'd send me home. [Laughs.] If they sent me home, the friendship just wasn't going to work out.
I do distinctly remember a couple of friends whose mothers were outstanding cooks, but there was one friend whose mother really showed me how delicious food could be. They were a Puerto Rican family, and I'd say that from the time I was 11 or 12 until the time I was 17, I had more meals in their house than in my own family's house. She was a magnificent cook; I'm thinking back to how brilliant she was with rice. It sounds like something really simple until you've really mastered how to cook rice. I just remember eating pork and chicken over beautiful yellow rice, and then she'd deep-fry the egg until the yolk was perfectly runny and just place it over the rice. Being exposed to various ethnic cuisines as a child growing up in Peabody was what made me realize that food made me really happy. I was fortunate to learn that at a really young age, and I started working in restaurants at 11 or 12. I just had found my passion.
What is your current favorite dish or current favorite restaurant in the Greater Boston area?
That's really hard. For just food, if you take service and ambiance out of it, I've had the most mind-blowing meals of my life at Gourmet Dumpling House in Chinatown. I've had people look at me sideways when I've said that, but I think it's one of the best restaurants in the city. I've probably eaten there more times than any other place in the city, and I've rarely been disappointed. I think that their technical execution of Chinese cuisine — and I haven't spent a lot of time in China, but I have spent some time there — I think that they really understand the intricacies and depth of flavors.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you ask me what the best restaurant is, including service and ambiance, I would be inclined to say that it's O Ya. But it's not necessarily what I crave.
It's hard for me to state my favorite dish; I get so many cravings for burgers and ramen...YumeWoKatare. There are days that I crave that dish so much I swear I'd run through a brick wall for it. If there are 100 people waiting, I don't care; I will wait.
I've always loved the Vietnamese restaurants in Dorchester, and I think that it's severely underrated. I lived in Dorchester for eight years, and I got to know a lot of restaurants, but the Vietnamese food is so brilliant, and it has a special place in my heart.
If you do cook at home in your spare time, what is your favorite thing to make?
I do cook at home, often. My favorites are definitely seasonal. In the summer I really enjoy grilling, but as far as cooking, I'm really passionate about braising. I feel like that's something that I don't really get to express in my restaurants. There's just a rusticity that doesn't necessarily fit in conceptually with my restaurants, so I take a lot of passion and pleasure doing it at home. It's something that I really enjoy doing.