Tejal Rao: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Arnel Esposo: I was the oldest kid in the family so when I was really young, about nine, I would buy fish with my mother at the market. I cleaned the fish and cooked the rice. When I was eleven we moved from the Philippines to the Baltimore area and I continued cooking for the family. Right after high school, I joined the army and rather than do logistics or infantry, I decided to be a cook. My grandfather was a cook in World War II, so that was inspiring for me.
TR: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
AE: I spent 2 years working at the Kilkaerny castle just outside of Dublin, living in a stable turned into a dorm for the cooks. George Smith mentored me when I first started out there. Then when I came back to DC I helped open Citronelle with Michel Richard. He helped to refine my taste. I also worked at Red Sage with Morou whose enthusiasm and energy is limitless—the man gets excited talking about peas!
TR: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
AE: Culinary school is very important because you learn the basics of cooking: stocks, sauces etc. But I think apprenticeships can be even more valuable if you pick a great place. Finding someone who will really mentor you makes all the difference.
TR: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AE: Have an open mind, lots of patience and respect for chefs that have been around for longer than you—there’s always something to learn from them. Look deeper than the surface and appreciate everyone with experience. The more you ask, the more they’ll teach you.
TR: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
AE: I watch their demeanor and always look for a bit of a sense of humor. Humor is a must in the kitchen. I also want to know if they know the basics; so many kids come out of school but they don’t know how to cut a brunoise! I ask them the basics: how to make certain cuts, how to make the classic sauces, how to make a demi-glace. They have to know this stuff!
TR: Are there any ingredients that you’re particularly drawn to lately?
AE: I really love citrus zest. And in the Winter I love using dried spices and warm fruit together.
TR: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
AE: It’s between my Kerschl sushi knife, my 12 year old Swiss peeler and my Microplane. I use the Microplane for everything, flavoring oils, grating gingers and dried spices, zesting citrus. I find it really brings out the flavors and textures of ingredients.
TR: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
AE: Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. I always go back to Charlie Trotter’s first two books and Gordon Ramsay’s first book.
TR: Where do like to go for culinary travel?
AE: I love going to Ireland. My wife’s Irish; we love the oysters, fish and chips, black pudding, bacon and Guiness!
TR: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path –in DC?
AE: I love Pho 57 in Wheaton and I love my local sushi place, it’s called Sushiko.
TR: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
AE: I’d be a cooking school instructor.
TR: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
AE: I’d like to open a place with my wife where we come up with a changing daily menu. It’ll be something small with soups, sandwiches, pastries, and home baked bread.