Interview with Chef Tony Liu of August – New York, NY
Amy Tarr: What inspired you to become a chef?
Tony Liu: I like to eat! That’s the first reason. In high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do career wise. I grew up in Hawaii and I liked to surf, so I worked part time in a restaurant as a dishwasher so that I could surf during the day and work at night. I fell in love with the restaurant atmosphere.
AT: You went to the CIA – how was it? Do you think culinary school is essential for aspiring chefs today? And do your parents object to your chosen profession?
TL: I started at CIA when I was 21, after finishing a culinary program in Hawaii. It was a great experience that provided a strong foundation. The chef instructors were very inspiring and really made me push myself to absorb as much as I could. You don’t have to go to culinary school--some of the top chefs like Thomas Keller, didn’t. I don’t necessarily look for culinary school background when I’m hiring. If you have experience and are motivated to learn, I’ll just as likely to hire you as someone who went to culinary school. My parents were always very supportive of my decision to become a chef.
AT: You’ve worked alongside some amazing chefs – Roy Yamaguchi, Gray Kunz, Daniel, Mario, and you spent time in Spain with Martin Berasategui. Who would you say is your primary mentor?
TL: One of the people not mentioned is Floyd Cardoz, who I worked for at Tabla – I consider him a mentor, as well as Alex Lee (former Daniel executive chef) and Mario Batali of Babbo. I’ve taken a lot away from each experience with all of the chefs I’ve worked for. I spent the most time in the kitchen at Daniel, my first job in New York. It was phenomenal working in the kitchen with Daniel, Alex, and the rest of the talented staff. I tried to soak up as much as I could, be there all the time, and work as much as I could.
AT: do you think it’s important for young chefs to get experience cooking overseas? Why?
TL: Yes. My experience working in Spain with Martin Berasategui broadened my horizons. I also think travel is important. It opens you to different techniques and styles that you need to grow. For example, there’s one dish on our menu in the summer with green peppers. When I was in Spain, I tried pimentos de Padron, these little green peppers that never make it out of Spain. But I remembered that taste sensation, and in Hawaii, we have little Japanese delis where they sell shishito peppers that are very similar in flavor and texture. I saw the shishitos at the greenmarket in Union Square and prepared them in the style of the Padron peppers – it’s now one of our biggest sellers.
AT: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
TL: I worked at lot of higher end places and I really appreciate what those restaurants are doing. What I like about working at August is bringing the standards of a fine dining restaurant to a more casual neighborhood restaurant—a place that more people have access to and can eat at more often.
AT: Who do you consider your peers in the industry? What chefs do you most respect?
TL: I like what Wylie Dufrene is doing, he is really pushing the envelope. Not a chef, but I respect Danny Meyer and his team on how they run their businesses.
AT: What is your favorite “secret” ingredient? Why?
TL: It’s not so secret, but I really like sweet and savory combinations, so some of my favorite ingredients are things like currants and pine nuts.
AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
TL: The paddle for our wood burning oven – its not the most exciting thing but we cook a lot in our wood burn oven so we need to shuffle things in and out. It’s a pretty standard peel: wooden to enter, metal to retrieve. The wood burning oven itself is pretty indispensable—at least 50 % of the menu comes out of it. We use our Staub casseroles for serving and cooking. For example,we use our cast iron receptacles for eggs, pancakes, Brandade de Morue, and raclette.
AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
TL: For poultry, we use the Chinese technique of pre-cooking them: place the bird in cold, seasoned stock and bring it to a boil with the lid on. Turn off the heat, and the lid forms a vacuum seal. Let it cool down in the pot, surrounded with water and ice. It’s almost like sous-vide without the machine. You get moist meat with minimal shrinkage. The meat can then be crisped up in a pan. It only works with poultry though. I learned it from my aunt, who is a great cook.
AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
TL: What do you like to eat? I’m looking to see what kind of passion they have for food. If they have the passion, they’ll be willing to put in the long hours and put up with a hot kitchen, cramped work space, and so on—and be happy doing it. It takes a lot of passion to be a cook. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to get very far.
AT: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
TL: I’d say, don’t be taken in too much by the Food Network and other media—be careful of the glamorization of the food industry. Those chefs paid their dues before they got their book deals and tv shows. Before you do all the TV and cookbook stuff, you really have to pay your dues and you really have to want it. You have to love the food.
AT: What are your favorite cities for culinary travel? Why?
TL: San Francisco--I love places like Zuni Café because the food is so straightforward and so flavorful. I also recently traveled around Italy—It was great eating in Rome because the recipes are so classical and are so much a part of the foundation for a lot of what we eat today. I also always love to return to my hometown, Honolulu, because of the many types of really good ethnic foods available.
AT: Where are your favorite restaurants to go in the city?
TL: I have so many favorites, it’s hard to choose a few. Some of my current favorites are Tia Pol, Fuleen Seafood in Chinatown, and Christie’s (a Jamaican beef patty place in Brooklyn), En Japanese Brasserie.
AT: Tell me about the biggest challenges you faced in opening up your own restaurant.
TL: We opened early in 2004 and I found one of the biggest challenges was learning to work with the wood burning oven. It’s a really good oven, but it has its challenges. Also, the physical space of the restaurant itself was a challenge. We’ve got three separate kitchens—two that are separated by the major thruway that goes through the restaurant, and another downstairs for prep and desserts. Upstairs we’ve got four burners, a flat top, and the oven. Because the kitchen is so spread out, it requires more staff than most restaurants this size.
AT: Are you involved in any events?
TL: We do Days of Taste, which is a partnership with local elementary schools. The students learn about food and making better choices. They come over to August and make pizzas and salads. We get to influence and shape how kids are eating—and expose them to leafy, green vegetables that taste good!
AT: What trends do you see emerging in the culinary industry?
TL: Molecular Gastronomy is coming more into play, with techniques and equipment that cut down on labor costs and create more consistent products. People may not use all of it, but they’ll take certain elements and incorporate them into their own style. At August, we use a lot of old recipes, but innovation and technology is good, too. If you don’t use any of it, you’re going to stagnate and die. But you need to know where to draw the line.
AT: Where do you see yourself in five to10 years?
TL: Still cooking, probably in New York. Beyond that, I don’t know. Ownership would be great. I’m open to different styles of cuisine, too. Someday I’d like to incorporate more Asian influences into my cooking.
Chef Tony LiuAUGUST
359 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10014