2015 Chicago Rising Star Chef Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice

2015 Chicago Rising Star Chef Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice
May 2015

Growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, Abraham Conlon’s palate was influenced by his own Portuguese heritage and the strong Southeast Asian presence in his community. He began his professional cooking career at just 15, gaining knowledge of the classics with which to structure the worlds of flavor he was eager to encounter.

Conlon’s technique bloomed under chef like Jon Mathieson and Franc Giovanni, who trailed under Gray Kunz and Fredy Girardet, respectively. He continued his training at the Culinary Institute of America while also studying fusion techniques with Norman Van Aken. Conlon’s next stop was Chez Asian Bistro in the Dominican Republic, melding traditional Southeast Asian styles with local ingredients, and following that up with Augustine’s at Fredericksburg Square in Virginia, where he became the youngest chef to be awarded a Four Diamond rating by AAA.

Next, Conlon moved to Chicago, where he met his future wife and business partner Adrienne Lo. The couple founded X-marx, an underground experience exploring global, home-style cuisines. But he gave himself four walls and a home with Fat Rice, a partnership between he and Lo, who runs the front of the house. Fat Rice is Conlon’s return to his Portuguese roots through the lens of traditional Macanese cooking. Since 2013, Conlon has been named a James Beard semifinalist for “Best Chef, Great Lakes,” and Fat Rice has earned recognition from Michelin and Bon Appétit.

Interview with Chicago Rising Star Chef Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start in the industry?
Abraham Conlon:
I’ve been cooking since I was 15. I always knew I wanted to be a chef. I worked under Chef Jon Mathieson who learned spices from Chef Floyd Cardoz. I’ve never met Chef Cardoz, but his delicate touch for spices was passed onto Jon and then to me. I eventually went to the Culinary Institute of America and then started working for Chef Norman Van Aken. He only had one restaurant at that time, so he was there all the time. I learned a lot about fusion food and techniques while I was there.

CH: What's the inspiration behind your food?
I’m Portuguese, and I grew up outside of Boston in a neighborhood that was heavily populated by Southeast Asians. A lot of my food is influenced by the Cambodian and Vietnamese flavors and ingredients I encountered back then. At the restaurant, our food traces a lot of Portuguese history, where they’ve been like Macau and the Malacca Straits. We’ve visited a lot of those places, and whenever we go, we cook in people’s kitchens to see what the locals are eating. The more I travel, the more complex my sauces get, but my dish presentations just get simpler. Right now our main focus is Macau, but the food is also connected to Goa and Penang. Some things we do are exactly like the original, but some things we rip off and make our own.

CH: I hear you have a new cookbook coming out soon?
Yeah! It’s called The Adventures of Fat Rice and will be published in the fall of 2016. It’s about our travels and the restaurant. We’re following the routes of the Portuguese traders and sailors and then interpreting how all the different food connections are made. We started in Macau and we hope to go to Goa next.

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
We like to find small producers and work exclusively with them. We maintain those relationships for a long time and become engaged in each other’s lives. The community in Chicago is pretty small. We don’t get to go out as much as we’d like, but we have so many friends who are chefs and they come to see us. It’s a lot of pressure to cook for them, but it’s a good problem to have. We’ve also gotten to a point where we’ve learned that it’s okay to be away for a few nights.

CH: What’s your five year plan?
I hope the restaurant is around for a long time. We want to get to a place where we have something to offer to everybody who walks in the door. We’re looking to expand, to have a bakery, wine bar, and cocktail lounge. A business plan is in the works.