Like most second-generation kids, Dale Talde grew up straddling two worlds. He tells the Voice he’d frequently come home to his Filipino mother cooking fish heads, “way before nose-to-tail cooking was a chef’s badge of honor.” During the day, he ate standard Illinois school lunches: chicken pot pie, meatloaf, or whatever else was being offered on what he calls the “Choose Your Own Adventure line.”
Those varying flavors and experiences, and the feeling of living two different lives — a Filipino one and an American one — have given Talde a unique culinary perspective. The former Top Chef contestant explores that point of view daily: in his restaurants Pork Slope and Thistle Hill Tavern, as well as his eponymous Talde — and now in his debut cookbook, Asian-American: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes From the Philippines to Brooklyn.
From a pretty early age, Talde started noticing the different flavors and ingredients in the foods favored by specific cultures. In high school, the future chef worked as a cashier in a grocery store in his hometown Chicago. He paid close attention to what different people would purchase: He saw Indian families buy spices and little to no meat, Polish families leaving with armfuls of sausage, bacon, potatoes, and cabbage, and Mexican families with chiles and green tomato-looking things with husks. These patterns in buying behavior fascinated Talde — an average student at best — in ways chemistry never did. “I had to figure out what a tomatillo was and learn the code,” he says. “Human nature is interesting to me. It’s not like a square root — it was more like, ‘This is a person. This is what they’re eating. This tells the story of their lives. This is tangible.’ ”
Armed with the knowledge that academics wasn’t his strong suit and that he had a love for food, Talde enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) after graduating high school. He fared better there; he was able to quell his hyperactivity by watching and doing rather than sitting at a desk. Talde felt like he’d finally found something he could do well. But it wasn’t until years after graduating culinary school — his first job straight out was at an Outback Steakhouse — when Talde answered a blind ad in a newspaper that just happened to be for a spot at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Southeast Asian restaurant Vong in Chicago, that Talde’s style really started to take shape. Right away, he was fascinated by the way Vongerichten’s fare played with acids. “Even when [a dish] is rich, it feels so light,” he says.”With Jean-Georges, my favorite recipe I ever did was the sweet-and-sour brown-butter mushroom broth. I could tell you the recipe right now.”
Talde took that recipe with him. He also took some important leadership lessons from chef de cuisine Geoff Felsenthal. According to Talde, Felsenthal taught him how to be a real chef. He was exacting about mise en place. He was constantly hounding Talde about keeping his station clean. At the time, Talde thought Felsenthal just didn’t like him, but once he left the restaurant, he realized that Felsenthal was really teaching him how to cook at the top of his game. “He was a ball-breaking motherfucker,” Talde says. “He rode my ass hard. I use his phrase with my cooks all the time now. I go — ‘So, dude, you need to clean your station. What your board looks like is what your brain looks like.’ ”
The experience at Vong and his subsequent sous- and executive-chef positions enabled Talde to build a résumé, and then to try out for Top Chef. A girlfriend at the time got him watching it. He had never seen it before. When the casting rolled into town, his kitchen crew pushed him to try out. Their reasoning: He was an asshole, and assholes get on television.
Talde showed up as the agents were breaking down for the day, but they let him audition. With stints at Vong, Naha in Chicago, Morimoto, and Buddakan, Talde boasted an impressive CV, but he’s convinced that he got the position based on personality. He writes in his book that he started to develop a reputation as “the punk Asian kid, which, to be fair, I was.” So he played into it even more. Still, Talde readily admits that he had some legitimate anger issues to work out. The chef started going to therapy, and it’s been, he says, the best and worst thing he’s ever done. “It sucks, it’s hard, it’s work, at the end of the day,” he says. “But you end up loving yourself more, and that’s where I needed to start.”
Because of that work, Talde feels like he’s become a better person, which he hopes shows in his restaurants. It’s also helped him with his cooking. He’s aware enough to admit that he’s a self-hater who uses bravado to compensate for his lack of confidence in much of what he does, but again, he’s learned to capitalize on his personal perspective and he’s most proud of what he’s accomplished since appearing on Top Chef. “If you like yourself and you’re a better person, you have more confidence,” Talde says. “In this style of food, point of view is clutch.”
That’s what Talde explores in the book: his own story, the dishes that got him where he is, the multicultural backdrop that’s influenced how he cooks and eats. Asian-American features some of Talde’s favorite recipes from his family (including his take on his aunt’s authentic kare-kare) and restaurant (like his famous kung pao chicken wings and crispy oyster and bacon pad Thai) with a fun, smartass voice.
On Thursday at 8 p.m. at Carrino Provisions (8 Erie Street, Jersey City; 201-630-0077), the chef is hosting Kamayan Night, an authentic Filipino feast highlighting recipes from the book. The cost to attend is $75 per person. Visit dinnerandmixtape.splashthat.com.
Short Rib Kare-Kare
Excerpted from the book ASIAN-AMERICAN by Dale Talde with JJ Goode. Copyright © 2015 by Dale Talde, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.
Welcome to Filipino Christmas. There are screaming babies on your left, cases of Miller High Life on your right, and approximately four thousand people in the living room of whatever aunt, cousin, or sort-of cousin was willing to host that year. When I was a kid, I’d wait all year for this. It was my opportunity to eat my aunt Catalina’s kare-kare.
Not that the other food wasn’t dope, too. There was Mom’s wonton soup, and her Christmas ham, lacquered with caramelized sugar and pineapple juice. Someone always brought arroz Valenciana, a Filipino version of paella, yellow from turmeric rather than saffron and made with sticky rice, Chinese sausage, shrimp, and peas. I ate like a beast but always saved room for several servings of kare-kare, a classic Filipino stew rich with peanuts and funky from shrimp paste. Aunt Catalina reserved the stew for Christmastime, because it took a long time to make. She used oxtail and innards. I rock short ribs. The stew’s so rich you might need some charred cabbage, eggplant, and long beans to go with it.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon annatto seeds (achiote seeds; available at Latin markets)
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 medium Spanish onion (½ pound), very roughly chopped
1 (2-ounce) knob peeled ginger (about 4 by 1½ inches), roughly chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 fresh red Thai chiles, halved lengthwise (including seeds)
1/3 to 1/2 cup Shrimp Paste Soffrito (page 194),or well-stirred Barrio Fiesta brand
spicy ginisang bagoong
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 medium tomato (about ½ pound), very roughly chopped
4 cups well-shaken coconut milk
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
5 pounds boneless beef short ribs (excess fat trimmed) or chuck roast, cut into
approximately 3-inch pieces
5 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
Garlic-Chile Vinegar (see recipe)
Thinly sliced cilantro stems
Unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted
1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Combine the oil, annatto seeds, and turmeric in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot, set it over medium-high heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil is a reddish color, about 1 minute. Add the onion, ginger, garlic, and chiles and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are brown at the edges, about 5 minutes. Stir in the shrimp paste and sugar and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes more. Use your hands to add the tomato, squeezing the pieces to release their juice. Cook, stirring occasionally and scraping the pot to release stuff that’s stuck to it, until the tomatoes begin to fall apart, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Stir in the coconut milk and vinegar, and let it come to a boil. Add the beef in a more or less even layer, tightly cover the pot, and cook in the oven until the beef is very tender but not falling apart (more like pot roast than pulled pork), about 3 hours.
4. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beef to a plate and strain the liquid into a large bowl, discarding the solids. Return the liquid to the pot, set it over very low heat, whisk in the peanut butter until it’s fully combined, and return the beef to the liquid. Season with salt (or even better, more shrimp paste) to taste, turn the heat to medium, bring the liquid to a simmer, stir well, then turn off the heat.
5. You can eat it right away—topped with the garlic-chile vinegar, cilantro stems, and toasted coconut flakes—but it’s even better a few days after you cook it.
6. Let the beef cool in the liquid, cover, and store it in the fridge. Gently reheat it when you’re ready to eat.
Shrimp Paste Soffrito
Makes about 1½ cups
Let’s get one thing straight: You can absolutely ignore this recipe and substitute the spicy variety of Barrio Fiesta brand ginisang bagoong—often labeled as “sautéed shrimp paste”—when you make Spicy Green Mango Salad (page 155), Singapore Chile Lobster (page 138), and Short Rib Kare-Kare (page 129). I say that not just because I’m a lazy cook who likes to save himself work if he can, but also because what you can order online is actually a little better than what you’ll get from my recipe. Mine is just an attempt to re-create this jarred product before I could get it regularly and at a low enough price to make it work within the weird world of restaurant economics.
Now that you know it’s optional, I’ll tell you that making this stuff at home involves toasting belacan (Malaysian fermented shrimp paste sold in blocks on the shelves of many Asian markets), and toasting belacan stinks your kitchen up like nothing else. Wait, forget “kitchen”; it stinks up your whole crib. You’re meant to toast the belacan not “until fragrant” or any of that bullshit; you want to toast it until you think there’s a problem, until it smells like something has gone horribly wrong. If you’re up for it, you damn well better make a big batch, because you don’t want to stink up your apartment more times than you have to and because it keeps well in the fridge and freezer (mainly because the main component is already rotten). Even better, do the toasting outside on a medium-hot grill if you can. Then your girl won’t hate you. Your neighbors probably will, though.
2¼ ounces belacan (a quarter of an 8.8-ounce brick), coarsely crumbled with gloved hands
½ cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons annatto seeds (aka achiote seeds; available at Latin markets)
1 pound tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
1 medium Spanish onion (about ¾ pound), roughly chopped
10 medium garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 (1-ounce) knob peeled ginger (about 2 by 1½ inches ), roughly chopped
10 fresh red Thai chiles, stemmed and roughly chopped (including seeds)
2½ teaspoons turmeric powder
½ cup distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Put the belacan on two layers of aluminum foil and fold to make a package. Put it on the oven rack and bake, turning it over once, just until it smells really, really nasty but before your neighbors call the police, about 5 minutes. Set the package aside.
2. Combine the oil and annatto seeds in a large skillet, set it over medium heat, and wait for the seeds to sizzle slightly, about 5 minutes. Strain the bright-red oil, discarding the seeds.
3. Return the oil to the pan, set it over medium heat, and add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, chiles, and turmeric. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the toasted belacan and cook for 5 minutes more to infuse the mixture with its flavor. Let the mixture cool to warm.
4. Puree the mixture in a blender with the vinegar and sugar until very smooth.
5. Store the soffrito in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 month or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Makes about 2 cups
At my parents’ house in Chicago, no eating goes down without this stuff nearby. My mom, the Queen of Recycling, would keep it in all sorts of weird-ass containers, like pancake syrup bottles. A superior Southeast Asian version of black pepper in a shaker, this mixture lets everyone at the table add acid and heat to whatever he or she is eating, whether that’s fried rice or spaghetti and meatballs.
2 cups distilled white vinegar
6 or so garlic cloves, peeled
1½ teaspoons black peppercorns
4 or so fresh red Thai chiles, stemmed
Combine the ingredients in a glass jar, cover tightly, and let sit at room temperature for at least 4 days. It keeps for several months at room temperature.