Round two with Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle
This is part two of my interview with Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Like most cooks, I enjoy the creativity of coming up with new dishes, but the most satisfying and challenging part is improving. Before we opened Uncle, I had a pretty good understanding of ramen, but ever since we really started focusing on ramen, I've learned so much to make it better, yet the process has become simpler. I'm definitely not an expert, but committing yourself to one dish and constantly trying to make it better and having our customers notice the difference is very satisfying.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? I don't own a copy, but I know Modernist Cuisine has changed how food professionals look at food. It's very interesting to learn the science behind it all and how it What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The freedom to travel. I grew up alongside some great food cultures by traveling to Asia, Europe and other parts of the United States. For me, eating great food is almost more important than learning how to cook it.
Fantasy splurge: I'd love to have a Yamato noodle machine. I looked into it, however, and they cost as much as a nice car.
Favorite cooking show: I grew up without cable, so I watched a lot of PBS and Jacques Pépin when I was younger. I remember trying to make French rolled omelets the way he did when I was eight or nine. I really enjoyed Mario Batali's original Molto Mario series, too, because he did a great job of explaining the cultural details that created micro-regional Italian cuisine. I'm currently watching the Mind of a Chef series on PBS, and it's really awesome, because it shows the creative process that goes into a dish. And, of course, I watch No Reservations, because Anthony Bourdain has every food-obsessed person's dream job.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty is the most detailed and authentic Sichuan cookbook I've found. Other than ramen, I'm pretty much obsessed with Sichuan food. It's not really that well understood, but it's gutsy and delicate at the same time. We're doing a Japanese eggplant dish right now that has a Sichuan-inspired, fish-fragrant sauce.
Favorite dish on your menu: The chashu ramen. It's the dish I've worked the hardest to improve upon since we've opened because it's our closest take on something traditional or authentic. We're probably on the sixth version of it right now, and while it's not the most exciting dish, it's deceptively simple yet complex to create. From the custom-made noodles to the broth to the layering of flavor, it has a lot of nuance and depth that I don't think most people will notice. But I get great satisfaction from making it and eating it. In fact, I crave it on my day off.
Biggest menu bomb: We opened with a raw, sliced Colorado striped bass dish with a buttermilk dressing, cornbread crumbs, lemon, jalapeño and chives. I thought it was a really tasty dish incorporating a local fish that most people don't know tastes good raw. In the end, though, it didn't sell, and I'd like to think people just weren't ready for that type of dish from a noodle bar. Maybe I'll bring it back.
Weirdest customer request: I think asking for non-alcoholic beer is pretty weird. And some people get really mad that we don't serve hot tea.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: It's not the texture or taste, because it's actually delicious, but the appearance of mantis shrimp is strange to me. They look like that bug from Men in Black.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? If money didn't matter, I'd open a super-traditional noodle shop with eight seats, outfitting it with the nicest equipment and a much larger kitchen than needed so space wouldn't be a constraint.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't learn the recipe; learn the technique.
Craziest night in the kitchen: A few years ago, I was running the kitchen at the Park Tavern in Capitol Hill during a huge blizzard in March. The city basically shut down for a couple days and everyone was stranded at home, but the Park Tavern stayed open, so everyone within walking distance came to the bar. I was there by myself because none of my other cooks could make it in due to the snow. I cooked by myself for a packed bar from 3 p.m. until the kitchen closed at 1 a.m. I ran out of most of the substantial food halfway through dinner, and people were just happy to get anything to eat after that. I made a lot of weird things that night with whatever I had to work with, but that day totally broke me.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not having your mise en place. Most of the time when you go down in flames in the kitchen, it's not because of something you did right then and there; it's something you didn't do six hours ago, when you were getting your station ready.
Which chef has most inspired you? Thomas Keller. The French Laundry Cookbook was the first cookbook I read -- and cooked out of -- that didn't dumb food down. Instead, it shows the true passion and dedication for treating ingredients the right way, using the right techniques and striving to cook those ingredients to perfection. I think it also sets a benchmark for other cookbooks because it's also a great read and has amazing photography.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert and David Chang, just because I think it would be a blast.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd choose Ferran and Albert Adrià's kitchen because I'm very interested in the actual creative process of how people come up with new ideas.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Passion, ambition and intelligence. Most people can be taught how to cook a dish, but I want cooks who think about food and question food and want to keep getting better. We have a collaborative environment, and I want to know other cooks' ideas, because you never know where inspiration might come from.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The first week at Uncle was the most stressful and humbling time in my life. I felt way in over my head and had that "Oh, crap" moment, where I felt like I'd made a huge mistake in opening in the first place. I'm still very humble now, because you never know what's going to happen. We could be out of business in a year -- you know, grand opening, grand closing. I don't take success for granted, because I'm aware that come tomorrow, everything could be gone.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Saturdays have started to get crazy. We'll get people lining up outside before we even open, and just minutes into service, we'll have a full restaurant. The crew starts to get focused when they see a small mob of people waiting outside before we open. All the orders are coming in at once, and it's awesome to crush that first turn and get it out of the way. It's a lot of fun when the house is on fire, the music is loud, everyone is in sync and the food looks awesome. Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Definitely opening Uncle. It was a great achievement for me just to help build the restaurant, manage construction, deal with the city and get the doors open. It was a head-smashing process, and luckily I've had the support of my girlfriend, family, friends, staff and a lot of other good people. All the unexpected attention and awards we've gotten this year have been a huge plus, and I'm thankful to have found a niche of customers that embrace the restaurant for what it is.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: The cost of food. Using higher quality, local, sustainable, organic and all the other buzzword categories results in significantly higher food costs. A lot of diners don't realize how expensive food is, and the cost of ingredients is only going to increase in the future.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? That I have no idea what I'm doing.
Last meal before you die: A green-chile breakfast burrito from just about anywhere, although I really like Javier & C Diner and New York Deli News, which does them on Saturday and Sunday. I'd want dim sum for lunch, an amazing steak and fried chicken for dinner, and banana cream pie for dessert.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Pickled jalapeños. I'll eat them with anything.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? When I was in elementary school, my dream was to design sneakers. Hopefully, I'd be living in Oregon and working at Nike.
What's in the pipeline? We're trying to continually improve the food at Uncle and develop the menu to be more concise but better. And I'm always thinking about -- and planning -- the next restaurant. We're also thinking about opening for dinner seven days a week and maybe adding lunch. We need some new equipment, though, to make the prep easier, so those goals are probably a ways off.
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