Dan Catinella: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Malcolm Livingston II: I can't even remember! I love it. My family always cooked. I was always interested in cooking and wanted to take it seriously, so I got into the Art Institute of New York City when I was in high school. I actually wanted to be a dentist before culinary school, which is ironic because now I destroy people’s teeth.
DC: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
ML: I recommend it if you are coming out of high school. Check out a degree program if you want, but a lot of culinary schools back track you. You can learn just as much in the field as you can in school. I would say if you are coming out of high school or if you don’t have a college degree, you can go but it’s not necessary. You will learn more by cooking in a good restaurant.
DC: Who would you consider to be your most influential mentor? Who influenced your career the most?
ML: I have to say Alex Stupak. I gained foundation from my first pastry chef, refinement and technique at Per Se, but here they pushed me in a way a no pastry chef has. They made me want to be extremely creative. From Alex, I kept trying to push the boundary of still using my classical training and applying his methods and technique. He would say, “You have to think differently about food; people come here because they want to see something that looks like a tart but is completely different.”
DC: What's your proudest accomplishment to date?
ML: Not getting fired. I’ve been blessed and done really well for myself. I'm proud of the success. I only worked at Le Cirque and Per Se. To come from just those places to here and being on TV and stuff, it’s amazing.
DC: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
ML: I’m happy with some of the decisions I’ve made. I never thought it was necessary to go to Europe, but I would love to go. I don’t think it would have changed who I am today but it would be a good experience. I haven’t had the most training in bread; I would love to further my knowledge in bread.
DC: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path?
ML: Buttermilk Channel. It’s homey and I like it a lot. I love Ippudo for Ramen. I went for like a month straight.
DC: How do you develop the flavors in your dishes?
ML: I use a volatile compound list to put together dishes. It outlines numerous similarities to find unique flavor profiles that work well together.
DC: What goes into creating a new dish?
ML: I start with a flavor, and then look at how I would want to eat it. I’ll think of texture and maybe base it on something like crème brûlée. I’ll layer the flavors into different textures to mimic the crunch of the sugar and a different creamy element below. I also learned a lot from Wylie. He does a lot of testing to make sure everything is just right. wd~50 is a great environment and Wylie is a great chef to be around and is open to testing.
DC: Would you say you are a perfectionist?
ML: In a way. I want things to look a certain way. But I understand what my staff is capable of, and I want them to have freedom to be creative. I’m really open to ideas. The à la carte menu had a bit of carte blanche on plating. Now that it’s a tasting, everything should be consistent.
DC: Where will we find you in five years?
ML: Hopefully still doing amazing things. Long term, I would like to have a small shop. I want to do commercial candies, and understand the process. I’m talking to Mars’ head R&D guy. I’m finding an interest in industrial candy. That guy all day long just works with candy, and I'm really interested in seeing that process. Commercial candies are incredible. Especially in Japan—some of the candies are just out of control. A lot of the tools they use we have here, and I just want to further my knowledge in that field.