Since Thomas Chen opened Tuome (536 East 5th Street, 646-833-7811) in the East Village earlier this year, he’s been praised nearly constantly for his ability to take the same ingredients diners see at New American restaurants across the city and make them into something exciting and unique. This capability is what earned him, and Tuome, the title of Best New Restaurant in our Best of NYC 2014. But to Chen, he fits in quite squarely with a lot of chefs in this city who are making a go of opening extremely personal restaurants. “People are doing more uncommon things than they used to,” he says. “They’re exploring different kinds of ingredients and what they can do with different types of cuisines. That’s why a lot of people call themselves New American — there’s no real definition. It’s innovative food that’s different than everything else. Like here, I use Asian ingredients, but not ingredients that are commonly used in Chinese cuisine. I create dishes that make sense but do not have classification.”
Chen’s affinity for Chinese cuisine comes from his parents; they ran a Chinese restaurant after they immigrated here in order, Chen says, to survive. As a result, their son understood how to use those ingredients inherently, but even after he headed off to culinary school, he wasn’t sure that was what he wanted to explore.
In fact, it took the chef awhile to come to cooking at all. He became an accountant, but the profession made him so miserable, he began to cast around for something else to do. “I always loved cooking,” he says. “Even when I was four years old, I was always cooking something. I loved it even in high school.” So he enrolled in night classes at a culinary school to see if he could make the transition. When he graduated, he moved behind the burners full time.
Chen built his skill set at fine-dining mecca Eleven Madison Park, where, he says, “I learned a lot about texture and the importance of balancing texture and flavor. You have acidity, sweetness, and spiciness playing in your mouth. I really embrace that in my cooking, and incorporating that balance into Asian ingredients brings out exciting flavors.”
He moved next to Commerce, where he learned to run a restaurant in addition to working in the kitchen. “It was kind of my goal to open a restaurant in a small place,” he says. “Commerce helped me understand the whole process.”
And then, ready to step out on his own, he began looking for spaces in the East Village. He found one on 5th Street, which he describes as his “dream block”; the address is so small, it only allowed for a tiny kitchen. That was OK with Chen: Despite his fine-dining background, which made him used to working with armies of chefs, he wanted to create something a little more personal. “It’s difficult for someone to open a fine-dining place or a big restaurant now,” he says. “There’s a lot of cost involved, and a lot of risk. I would rather have a small place where I could oversee everything, see what’s going on, and see and talk to the guests, but still produce food that’s perfectly executed.”
Finding the real estate was one of Chen’s biggest challenges in opening. The other was putting together his staff. “Finding good people is extremely difficult,” he says. “You want people to believe in a new restaurant, in a product they haven’t seen. I’m lucky; I have a really great staff right now.” A shortage of good people in general, though, is one of the most pressing issues in the industry, says the chef. And it’s a major reason why he thinks new restaurateurs should “be prepared to not sleep.”
Now that the doors are open, though, Chen derives motivation from making people happy, and he feeds on that happiness when he stops by tables during a meal. “I think most diners like to see who’s cooking their food,” he says. “When I come out, I see excitement, and that makes me happy.”
If you haven’t yet been to Tuome, Chen recommends you “start with something cold. I think the beet salad. Then go into the deviled eggs. For me personally, I love chicken, so that’s what I tend to order, but the ‘Pig Out’ has been really popular. People have been asking for the peanut noodles separately. Maybe someday.”
And now that he’s settled, he can begin to look toward his goals. “My longtime goal was to open my first restaurant, so it was really exciting to open up this place,” he says. “So for now, my focus is on making this restaurant successful. In the future, I will possibly open up more restaurants.”