Before he built a career under Jean-Georges, Stephen Starr, and Morimoto; before he did Top Chef; and before he became the chef and partner in three different restaurants — Talde (369 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-916-0031), Pork Slope (247 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-768-7675), and Thistle Hill (441 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, 347-599-1262) — in the span of ten short months, Dale Talde learned to make rice.
The son of Filipino immigrants — his parents came to the States in the late 60s after his mother received a work visa for nursing — he was tasked with making rice for his father’s dinner each night, a chore he split with his siblings. And while he thought of that as simply something he had to do, it was his first foray into what would eventually become life in the kitchen, and the groundwork for his interest in the food from his parents’ homeland.
After high school, Talde headed off to the Culinary Institute of America, and when he graduated, he says, he was a terrible cook. He returned to Chicago, where he grew up, and started working at Outback Steakhouse until he spotted an ad for a position at Vong, which he quickly learned was one of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. When he went in for his interview, he was asked to do a tasting. “I was like, I’m a line cook — they want me to cook?” he recalls. “I had to do two dishes in an hour. I fell on my face. It was awful. But they said, ‘It was awful, but we really like your attitude and you seem to be familiar with this food.'” He landed the job, which springboarded him to positions at a number of Chicago restaurants before he moved to New York City.
Here in New York, he worked under Morimoto and then took a chef de cuisine position at Buddakan, eventually making the leap to director of Asian concepts for Starr Restaurants. In 2012, he teamed up with David Massoni and John Bush to open Talde in Park Slope; two days before that restaurant’s debut, they landed the lease for Pork Slope. “I’d never do it again,” he says. Especially because not long after that, the trio took partnership at Thistle Hill, too.
In this interview, Talde weighs in on building restaurants for the neighborhood, fixing mistakes, and what he learned from Stephen Starr.
How did it happen that you ended up opening or owning three restaurants in the span of 10 months?
I would never do it again. We opened up [Talde], and there were lines out the door, and I thought we sucked pretty bad in the beginning, but the neighborhood seemed to enjoy it. I don’t think we hit our stride until six months later. The first two months were brutal. We couldn’t get staffed, and we were working miserable hours. But we made mistakes and learned from them — like not hiring a dishwasher in the beginning. But two days before we were supposed to open our doors, we signed the lease on Pork Slope. It was an opportunity to be in a great location. Thistle Hill was easier — there were always issues: the food cost was too high, the labor was too high — but it wasn’t my restaurant. But because I was always there and they were always asking my advice, it made the most sense to make me a partner, and then I took over the back of the house. That’s a neighborhood tavern — it has to have stuff you want to eat every day, like burgers, steaks, pasta.
You’ve had some challenges at Pork Slope. How have you tackled them?
We built the restaurant we wanted to go to, not what the neighborhood wanted. Now, we’re making it what the neighborhood wants. The High Dive is a great bar, and I think we thought we could intrude on that business, but the neighborhood loves that bar. We are a restaurant, and we’re still evolving. Also, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que went in right down the street. We love what John [Stage] is doing. But Brooklyn has become saturated with barbecue, and that’s what we wanted to be in the beginning. So we’ve now evolved into a pork-centric bar. Also, we fucked up in the beginning. We were like, “There are not even going to be servers! You just order from the bartender!” But people don’t want to wait line. They just want to be served.
Has the concept here at Talde evolved since the beginning?
Totally. In the beginning, we were supposed to do eight plates, dumplings, and some soup. It’s evolved into 26 dishes in the winter and a tasting menu. The New Year’s Eve dinner here was the best food we’ve ever done. Nobody is doing this level of Filipino food in the city. But our every day is still king crab fried rice and Korean fried chicken. I can’t take the bacon pad thai off the menu. Or the lobster tom kha. Or the wonton soup. But you evolve every other way you can and keep it fresh for the neighborhood.
Why this neighborhood?
That was not me at all; that was my business partners 110 percent. David Massoni and John Bush were like, you should come here because there’s a need. And when we walked into the space, there were six bay windows, and then you look at it across the street all lit up — the space spoke to us. Then we lucked into Pork Slope, and Thistle was a no-brainer — it made sense to create a restaurant group.
Where did you get the restaurateur training from?
Stephen Starr. People hate on big box restaurants, but you know how much small restaurants make? Nothing. You want to be that 60-year-old guy pounding away at the 45 seat Brooklyn restaurant? Fuck that. I’m not saying that I think the Guy Fieri fun-land of wasabe guacamole shit is what I want, but if you want a future as a restaurateur, you have to broaden your horizons. Bigger restaurants make more money and offer more to a community. Even in Manhattan. If you have 15 people, you can’t get into a restaurant. but people like Stephen Starr make it possible. You need a place for an event. Also, he is dedicated. I once sat with him and ate the same burger nine times. He used to say, if you’re not eating every day, you’re not doing your job. That’s what I tell my chefs. I want you to be so sick of this food because you’re tasting all the time. I really took ownership at Buddkan and I really enjoyed being there. You’re doing 1,000 covers a night — it’s such a bizarre scale. He really taught me how to look at things from the owners’ point of view.
Talk to me a bit about the state of the New York restaurant industry. Is it different in Brooklyn?
It’s vibrant, fresh, and always changing, which I love. There are parts that suck– like trying to get employees and keeping employees. I think the young culinarians want to be famous — and we’re part of it, those of us who have been on Top Chef. Top Chef is good — it brings people into the restaurant. But it creates a fucked up workforce that just wants to be famous before they can sear a steak. I have a great group here; I’m lucky.
I feel like downtown Brooklyn is hot. That’s my next location.
What role has TV played in your career?
It was a springboard. I’m happy to have done it. But my goal was never to be famous — I wanted to open restaurants, and I stick by that. I love it. Opening restaurants sucks, but it sucks like that awful 90s song that you’re embarrassed you listen to now. It sucks in an awesome way.
How does food TV and media play into the industry at large?
I talk about the negatives, but there are positives — we get people in here from Geary, Indiana saying, “My sister lives in Brooklyn, and when I found out she lives near your restaurant, we had to come to your restaurant.” That didn’t exist 20 years ago.
What about the review cycle?
It sucks, but you have to deal with it. Wells came in here and gave us one star, and we thought we were two stars, but we fucked up. We fucked his table up. And we paid for it. I wrote him the next day — I gave him a Tim Tebow speech: You’re not going to find someone who works harder to show the neighborhood that it has a two star restaurant that got a one star review int the Times. We will fight to get there — we made so many changes to make sure that what happened that night did not happen again. And he came a year after we opened. That sucked.
What are your goals?
We’re opening Jersey City in nine or 10 months. That’s a big operation — it has 135 seats. We’re doing retail for the first time. We’re doing Italian food for the first time. Italian is my favorite food to cook at home. I’d love to expand to other cities. I’d love to be part of big restaurants in Brooklyn — I live in downtown, and I’d love to put a big restaurant down there. I want to keep expanding and I want to make sure the restaurants we have are getting taken care of and I want to pay off our investors.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I feel like the luckiest dude in the world. In two months, I could be the head cook at Denny’s and say, man I had a fucking awesome run. Not everyone gets to do what they love on a day to day basis. Hopefully, my legacy is that I’m a guy who loved to have a good time. Professionally, it’s that I’m a chef who enjoyed a good time, enjoyed good food, taught some people how to be professionals and how to think on their own. Personally, I hope people think I’m a caring guy.
Best place in the city for a coffee or a tea:
I used to live on 2nd Avenue and 9th. Right across from my house was Mud Coffee. Of all the places I’ve lived, that was the best.
Best place in the city for a drink or a beer:
Angel’s Share. They have this yuzu-shiso-vodka thing. I’m not even a vodka-drinker, but I love what they did with shiso in that drink.
Best place for a special occasion:
Jean-Georges. One night, I had a five-course tasting menu at Daniel and then I walked to Jean-Georges and had a solo tasting menu at Jean-Georges. Both were amazing dinners. I ended up puking on the subway on the way back to Queens.
Best place to be when you have nowhere to be:
Washington Square Park. I would sit there for hours and people watch.
Quintessential New York restaurant:
Yakitori Taisho. Mad ruthless shit would happen there when I was working at Morimoto.
Person you’d most like to cook for:
Charlie Trotter. God rest his soul. I wouldn’t be in the business I’m in if it wasn’t for him. He was such a force in Chicago. I cooked for him when I was working at Vong. But I wish he could have had a chance to come to my place.
Someone you’d really love to have cook for you:
I have a laundry list of places I’d like to go eat. I’m going to go old-school. Auguste Escoffier. Or Marco Pierre-White at his old-school joints.
Dish you could eat forever:
My mom’s chicken adobo. I grew up eating it, smelling it, watching her caramelizing the onions. It wasn’t until three years ago that I realized how she did that. Chefs like us cook things really softly. She was like, no. Get the oil really hot, throw the onions in, and take them to the point they’re almost burning then throw the chicken in.
Something you love about the NYC restaurant industry:
We have everything here. It’s so accessible. I have so many options for the best pizza in my neighborhood. Even my utility slice place is bangin’. You don’t have that option in other cities. It’s not at your fingertips like it is here. I feel like I get spoiled. This is the best food city in the world, hand’s down. You go to other places, and you come back, and you’re on the plane craving something.
Something you wish you could change:
How hard it is for small restaurant groups to operate. New York City does not make it easy for people to operate here. It’s unforgiving. Like the health inspectors — those fines are crippling. The taxes.
Place that doesn’t get enough credit:
Speedy Romeo, Fort Greene. That dude is the man. I wish he delivered to my house.
Person that doesn’t get enough credit:
Wylie Dufresne. He’s one of the reasons I came to New York. He was trying to push it so much harder than anyone, and he never really got the credit for it. You know how many awful versions of his food are out there? He’s just doing him. He’s just so chill.
Pressing industry issue:
Obamacare. It’s so arbritrary — if you have 50 employees, you have to offer insurance. Shouldn’t that scale be placed on sales?
What have we missed?
Chefs self-medicate. We’re only happy doing what it is that we do, and we don’t make our mental health a priority. Seeking help, dealing with demons — we’d rather go to work than deal with that. Going to work is a safe place. I’ve had to deal with some trauma. You come out the other end, and the world opens up — but it’s a constant struggle. Weakness is frowned upon. It’s easy to be like, that motherfucker’s crazy — but no, man, I’ve had some issues in my life.