Interview with Chef Akhtar Nawab of The EU - New York City

September, 2007

Tejal Rao: How did you get into cooking?
Akhtar Nawab: I went to a liberal arts college for a year, but I wasn’t particularly motivated or excited about it so when I was 19, I moved back to my hometown in Kentucky and took a job at a restaurant as a bus boy and dishwasher. When a job opened in the pantry I worked there for a while. It was a meaningful experience – I think I craved the discipline because I was so rambunctious.

TR: A lot of cooks envy chefs like you, who started really young.
AN: It did give me a head start. I was exposed to the industry at a young age because of that job, which was really a matter of luck. After being there for four years, I moved to San Francisco. I was 23 when I enrolled at California Culinary Academy.

TR: How was that, after you’d already worked in a restaurant?
AN: It wasn’t really worth it in the long-run, but I met some really great people who helped me get good positions.

TR: Your first job out of culinary school was at Bizou, how was that
AN: Loretta (Keller) is one of the best cooks I have ever met. I learned integrity and the importance of good ingredients when I worked with her; she’s a really important mentor for me.

TR: Thoughts on culinary schools?
AN: I don’t really recommend them; I think schools are meaningless. People who can afford them often don’t even follow through with their careers once they graduate. I care so much more about recognizable references when hiring someone. As long as you’re here everyday and do your best, I don’t care about whether or not you had formal training.

TR: What about stages – where have you staged?
AN: Jardiniere and Charlie Trotter.

TR: What are some of your favorite underappreciated ingredients?
AN: Dandelion greens, puntarelle, and radicchio – bitter greens are so versatile. Really good butter is important too.

TR: What are a few of you favorite flavor combinations?
AN: Asparagus and morels; pickled cherries and Schezwan peppers; cêpes and Marcona almonds.

TR: What’s your most indispensable tool?
AN: Cake tester to test the doneness of everything and a Winston CVAP. I worked with Howard Richardson [corporate chef at Winston Industries] at my very first job in Kentucky.

TR: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
AN: I ask if they will be here everyday and do their best.

TR: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AN: I am dissatisfied with the quality of cooks out there right now because I feel the necessary dedication is lacking. You have to carefully consider whether or not this is the career that you really want. You have to go into it fully aware of the kind of commitment it requires.

TR: What are your favorite cookbooks?
AN: Grand Livre de Cuisine by Alain Ducasse and Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras.

TR: What languages do you speak?
AN: Spanish

TR: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
AN: I’d like to go to India. As I get older, I find their food more and more exciting. The regional cuisines are different in very subtle ways. They take a lot of care in their flavoring and execution.

TR: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in New York? What are your favorite dishes there?
AN: Mary’s Fish Camp on Charles and West 4th. They make New England style seafood that is really well seasoned. Their salt and pepper fried shrimp is great. I also love Oriental Garden on Elizabeth and Canal and Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches on 2nd street and avenue B for, well, Vietnamese sandwiches – we just had them for family meal today.

TR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AN: I have a reputation for being an absolutist, but really I come from a school of very thoughtful cooking. Simple is the most misused culinary term these days. Everyone gets their ingredients from the greenmarket, everyone is committed to the products – the question is, what do you do with it?

TR: Which person in history would you most like to share a meal with?
AN: I play bass guitar, and Giddy Lee, the bass guitarist from Rush, is my hero. I’d like to share a meal with him.

TR: What about stages – where have you staged?
AN: I play bass guitar, and Giddy Lee, the bass guitarist from Rush, is my hero. I’d like to share a meal with him.

TR: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
AN: I’d be a musician.

TR: What would you call your band?
AN: Violet Mustard, not that I’ve given this any thought.

TR: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
AN: I want to be involved in a few projects outside of the restaurant industry, but still cooking. I’d never want to be so successful in other areas that it took me away from cooking. Making food and giving people a good experience, that’s what makes me happy.