By Dale Talde
With JJ Goode
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Born in Chicago to Filipino parents, Dale Talde grew up both steeped in his family’s culinary heritage and infatuated with American fast food–burgers, chicken nuggets, and Hot Pockets. Today, his dual identity is etched on the menu at Talde, his always-packed Brooklyn restaurant. There he reimagines iconic Asian dishes, imbuing them with Americana while doubling down on the culinary fireworks that made them so popular in the first place. His riff on pad thai features bacon and oysters. He gives juicy pork dumplings the salty, springy exterior of soft pretzels. His food isn’t Asian fusion; it’s Asian-American.
Now, in his first cookbook, Dale shares the recipes that have made him famous, all told in his inimitable voice. Some chefs cook food meant to transport you to Northern Thailand or Sichuan province, to Vietnam or Tokyo. Dale’s food is meant to remind you that you’re home.
Table of Contents
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There's a pig's head in the oven again. I'm just a kid, no more than six years old, but I'm not surprised when I peer over my aunt's shoulder as she opens the oven and I see the pig's sleepy eyes staring back at me. At my aunt's house, there was often a pig's head in the oven. I'm not talking about on special occasions. I'm talking about on some random Thursday—even when she had no reason to think we were coming over. The pig's head was the Filipino equivalent of cheese and crackers. It was just-in-case-there's-company food.
My mom preferred fish heads to pig. She was always hitting the supermarket to ask the fish guy whether he had any lying around that he'd be willing to part with at no charge. He typically did, because none of his other customers wanted them. Way before nose-to-tail cooking was a chef's badge of honor, Filipino moms were eating off-cuts for the thrift of it.
After my mom's 16-hour shift at the Chicago hospital where she worked as a nurse, she got to come home to cook dinner—lucky her—for my dad, my brother and sister, and my bratty ass. She cooked Filipino food almost exclusively—or at least an immigrant's approximation. It was called Fil-Am food (short for Filipino-American) and was as Filipino as you could get without having access to half of the proper ingredients. When we made fried rice, we made do without the Filipino sausage called longaniza and used Spam instead. At some point, Mom got fed up with the lack of Asian vegetables around town and started trafficking, sneaking seeds back into the U.S. in her purse when she returned from trips to the Motherland and planting them in the garden. That way, we could have bitter melon and water spinach. Mom was thrilled that she could get canned sardines, though. It might have been her favorite ingredient. She would cook soffrito, the Spanish and Italian flavor base made from slowly sizzled vegetables, the Filipino way—tomato, garlic, and onions cooked down until the onions were almost burnt but in a good way—and dump in cans of sardines in tomato sauce. She'd mash it all up and use the result as a sort of sauce for rice or eggs.
Heads were just one of the many things that ended up on our table, which seemed to be always filled with food. It became a joke among the Filipino families we rolled with: Whenever anyone came to our place, whenever we visited Filipino friends, even if we'd just gotten back from dinner, someone's mom, aunt, or cousin would ask, "So, who's hungry?" Just in case we were, a table of food was usually waiting. More often than not, the spread was pork-heavy. Sausage, chops, stew, head. Sometimes the pork was served with more pork—Filipinos are fucked-up like that—such as crunchy pork rinds for sprinkling or Mang Tomas, a sort of gravy made with sugar, vinegar, bread crumbs, and pork liver.
Sometimes Mom would make dinuguan, a nasty-looking, deep-brown slop from the region of the Philippines my parents come from. The first few times she made it for us, she tried to get us kids to eat it by calling the stew by its nickname: chocolate meat. That was a well-worn trick used by Filipino parents to make dinuguan seem like something a kid might want to eat. A couple of disappointing bites and we were on to her. There was no chocolate in there. The color came from cooked blood. And this stuff was organ-ed out—there was liver, heart, and lung, not to mention ear and snout. Even though we eventually came to like the stuff, we developed a rule of thumb for dinuguan: Only eat it if you know the person who made it. Otherwise, you're taking your life in your hands.
And there was always rice. Always. Even when Mom occasionally gave in and made non-Filipino food for dinner. One time she made spaghetti for dinner and my dad absolutely killed his bowl, which I swear was like one of those family-style portions you'd get at Olive Garden. Then he asks Mom, "Where's the rice?" That's commitment right there. He ended up launching right into meal number two: a bowl of rice and canned sardines with chile-spiked vinegar on the side. There was always something on the side, no matter what we ate: tiny fried dried fish, shrimp paste mixed with vinegar, or bowls of fresh bird chiles as long as my thumbnail, which we'd eat whenever we craved pain.
For years, this all seemed normal to me—pig heads in the oven, fish heads in the pot, rice in bowls, and a shrimp-paste smell in the air.
Normal to my friends, too. When there are only a few Asian kids at school, they band together. There was an undeniable comfort in our sameness, and that was part of what brought and kept us close. None of them looked at me funny when they came over and saw the rice cooker on the counter. They all had one, too. When I visited my friend Robert, who's Korean, his house always smelled like kimchi. I didn't exactly know what kimchi was, but I did know that his house stunk just like mine did. I also had a couple of Indian friends. The experience at their houses was slightly different—I stared the first time I saw grown-ups using their hands to shovel food into their mouths—but they ate rice with every meal and bit into tiny chiles, just like we did.
"I grew up infatuated with burgers and pizza and fried chicken and tacos because they had the thrill of the forbidden."
My white friends were the ones with the strangest eating habits. One guy, Sean, scored ten dollars from his mom every night for dinner at The Works, the dope gyro shop in our neighborhood. I was shocked: "You get to eat that every day?" I'd ask, extremely jealous. "Your mom cooks?" he'd ask, looking at me as if I'd just told him that she could fly.
I rarely, if ever, got to eat crap at home. Which I think is why I had so much love for fast food. My mom thought it was going to kill Dad, who had high cholesterol, and was afraid it'd take me, my brother, and my sister out with him. Practically anything that came in patty form, had melted cheese, or didn't include rice was banned. No matter that roasted pig's head isn't exactly low-fat, low-cal. Dad didn't care about cholesterol, but he cared about Mom, so for a long time he kept his lunch trips under wraps. One day, though, he decided to let me in on his secret.
My dad fixed industrial boilers so big that he had to go inside them to do repairs. The work was no joke, so when lunchtime came, he and his work buddies treated themselves right. He'd hit up places frequented by union guys and other laborers. The first place he took me to was a tiny burger joint near Evanston. We walked in to a chorus of "What's up, Sal?" and Dad (real name Salvador) introduced me to the crowd. The place served buns piled with as many thin burger patties as you wanted. The minimum anyone got was a double. Most guys ordered four with cheese, fries, and the largest Coke on offer. I still remember exactly what those burgers taste like.
Another time Dad asked if I wanted tacos. Of course I did. So he took me to a narrow grocery store in Wicker Park that reeked of cumin and cilantro. I followed him past the Jesus Cristo candles for sale, past shelves of herbs and cornhusks and long, pale sticks of cinnamon. All the way in the back, invisible to anyone passing by or just stopping in to grab a soda, there was a counter with 12 stools and a line of 20 people waiting for one to open up. Dad got the same reception here, except in Spanish: "Hola, Sal. Cómo estás?" I ordered what Dad ordered, because I knew he knew what was good.
I grew up infatuated with burgers and pizza and fried chicken and tacos because they had the thrill of the forbidden. Because they felt special. Because Dad loved them. Oh, and because they were bangin'. I reveled in the processed-food bliss of sugary white bread, the way American cheese melted like no other cheese can, the way a natural-casing hot dog snaped when you bit into it. Still do.
When I was a teenager, I found these pleasures even in chain fast food. I know it's bad for me. I know what it represents. Still, to this day, I'll crush a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. I'll hit up Popeyes for legs, thighs, and biscuits. I'll even do Pizza Hut for those thick pan pizzas hot from the oven, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, like some expertly made focaccia.
My Filipino friends and I lived two lives. There was the Filipino one: the cotillions, where Filipino families celebrated a girl's 18th birthday and my boys and I awkwardly hollered at her friends decked out in fly dresses. The PBA (Philippine Basketball Association), where you weren't allowed to play unless you were a grade-A Filipino. Seriously. When my boy showed up with two 6-foot-5 "cousins," the rest of us asked to see their birth certificates. We never saw those cousins again. Ain't no real Filipinos that tall.
Yet even though I was rolling with all Filipino kids, after those basketball games and dances we never said, "Let's get some sinigang for dinner." Never. We wanted burgers. We wanted Buffalo wings. We wanted shrimp toast and lo mein. Anything but Filipino food. In part, it was straight-up rebellion: Our moms made us eat fish heads and chocolate meat. Now that it was up to us, we chose our second life: the American one.
It's not that we didn't want to be Filipino. We just badly wanted to be American, or at least to find a way to fit in. In my family and many Filipino families, the U.S. looms large, whether you live here or not. America saved us during World War II. Ten hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they hit the Philippines. Like many of her neighbors, my grandma fled her house and hid in the wooded hills to escape the Japanese occupation. In the Philippines, there are statues of General MacArthur and highways named for him.
"Our moms made us eat fish heads and chocolate meat. Now that it was up to us, we chose our second life: the American one."
Of course, when I was in high school I didn't know shit about MacArthur. But I did know about De La Soul. American culture was my thing, specifically the world of hip-hop, of rappers and B-boys. I definitely wasn't the first Asian kid who looked to hip-hop and black culture for role models. When you're 14 years old and no one on TV, in magazines, or in any position of authority looks like you, you search for someone else to identify with. I chose other outsiders who celebrated their outsider status. First it was A Tribe Called Quest and De La, and my friends and I sported Starter jerseys, baggy shorts, and Jordans. Then it was Wu-Tang, and we rocked bubble goose vests and fitted caps, butterscotch Tims and enormous jeans with one leg rolled up. By high school, we were going to house parties that bumped booty-shaking music so loud it drowned out the cha-cha music blaring at those cotillions.
I embraced my American identity, though my Filipino life kept intruding. When my grandfather in the Philippines got sick, my parents took us on the endless flight "home." Whenever Mom said "home," I knew right away that she didn't mean our place in Chicago. She meant the Philippines, where she grew up but where I had spent only a few years when I was a toddler. We got off the plane and my impression was that this place was weird, hot, and loud. I decided that the country's main features were machine guns and malls. When we arrived at the airport in Iloilo Province, where my mom's family comes from, I saw that, instead of the relatively polite TSA agents who had ferried us through security at O'Hare, there were military-looking guys with AKs at the ready. On the streets, I saw the same thing. Everyone seemed to have very obvious private security, as if intimidation was the best way not to get your ass kidnapped. Maybe I should've been worried that the guy who took me and my cousins to the mall only brought three pistols. We spent most of our time in the Philippines at that mall, playing video games in the AC and eating Quarter Pounders at McDonald's.
Some people decide they want to cook for a living on their first trip to Paris or Spain. Me, I was in a grocery store. I was a broke-ass high-schooler working the checkout line at Butera, a small family-run chain. I liked my job. I liked memorizing and entering the numbers that corresponded to each fruit and vegetable. I liked being surprised by what people bought.
Because this was Chicago, the customers came in various colors. Mexican families handed me bags of fresh green chiles and what looked like green tomatoes covered in papery husks. Tomatillos, I soon learned. Indian families bought coriander, cardamom, and huge tubs of cottage cheese, which I'd later learn they'd press to make paneer. Why, I wondered, did they never buy meat? Polish families certainly did, leaving with pounds of sausage and bacon as well as a shitload of potatoes and sacks of sauerkraut. After a while, I started piecing together different food cultures from the contents of transparent bags. Classic combinations took shape in my head—tomatillo, chiles, and garlic always seemed to go together; so did cumin, coriander, and cardamom. Butera was my first culinary class, Ethnic American Food 101.
When I graduated from high school, all I really knew was that I didn't want a desk job and I liked food. So I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, with the full support of my parents. I took culinary school about as seriously as an 18-year-old can. Early on, I remember hearing a speech from the dean, a pudgy German guy. He told my class that we were going to learn how to cook many different things in the course of our time there, but that one of the greatest things we'd ever cook was a simple roast chicken. This sentiment seems profound to me now. Back then, I was rolling my eyes: My parents are paying for the best cooking school in the world and this guy's talking up roast chicken? I also found myself missing rice. The first time I had steak au poivre, all I could think of was how badly it needed a bowl of those warm, steamy grains alongside.
While I was a mediocre student from kindergarten through high school, I did better in culinary school. I finally got to learn by watching and doing, which I was good at, rather than by reading and writing, which I was not good at. Sure, if I could go back, I'd probably choose to focus more and not show up to class hungover or stoned—if you ask me, culinary schools should have an NBA-style age restriction to prevent dumbasses like me from going before they're mature enough. Still, the techniques I learned stuck. I swear that even though I haven't made a classic fish quenelle in the 15 years since my first big culinary school exam, I could still knock one out right now, tarragon beurre blanc and all—no problem. More important than that, though, culinary school taught me that I was actually good at something.
When I started working in kitchens, I was always the one Asian guy among Mexicans. There was Flaco, Gordo, Feo, and me, Chino. My first gig, by the way, was at an Outback Steakhouse, where my $60K education qualified me to make grilled shrimp pastas on the sauté station. When I took jobs in "serious" kitchens, I was the one Asian among Mexicans and a few well-off white boys. Like me, the white boys weren't there to feed their families; we aspired to make velouté and veal stock in fancy kitchen after fancy kitchen until one day we would be the guys who got to tell people to make the velouté and veal stock.
After our shifts, my cook friends and I would pound beers and fantasize about being named one of the ten best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine. I even had my photo spread planned out: All nine other winners would be in the typical group shot. Flip the page and you'd find my photo—styled by Hype Williams, the man behind what seemed like every hip-hop music video of the 1990s. I'd be rocking a chinchilla-fur chef's coat, a gorgeous woman under each arm, and a gold chain blazing, "F&W 1999."
"I swear, molecular gastronomy was like weed in high school—all my friends were doing it, so I did too."
My friends were kind. They never broke it to me that that wasn't going to happen. I was a mediocre cook. And a lazy one, too. Before my shifts at Vong, the Chicago outpost of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's trailblazing Southeast Asian–influenced restaurant, I'd get stoned outside. I kept my job solely because I showed up and didn't give a fuck what I was getting paid. I kept this up for a while, living out "my college years," which I'd missed out on in the almost military environment of culinary school.
My conversion from slacker to hard worker was spurred on by a come-to-Jesus moment: I needed money. I had bills to pay. I had moved out of my parents' place to live on my own, so at 23 years old I started a job running the kitchen at a French-Vietnamese café, where I had no idea what I was doing. I did, however, get myself a ride (an Acura CL Type S), and like a good Asian kid, I tricked it out with some fat rims—even though I could barely afford my monthly car payments. It never quite became a rice burner, those completely pimped-out cars with giant mufflers, spoilers, and rims. But I did manage to spend about 50 Gs that I didn't have. Then I quit my job after a huge fight with the owner.
In debt, I took two jobs—an a.m. and a p.m. gig. From 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., I worked at a three-star spot that was unfortunately called Kevin. After a half-hour break, I went to my second gig at the three-star Naha, where I worked until close. I did this for a year and a half, taking only the occasional day off. Time seemed to both crawl and fly.
During that year and a half, my perception of cooking started to change. Early on, I'd aspired to open a tasting-menu-only restaurant that served Expressionist-art-looking plates of food that reflected my mood. This was the late 1990s, early 2000s, after all, when everyone was sweating Arzak and El Bulli. I swear, molecular gastronomy was like weed in high school—all my friends were doing it, so I did, too. I added soy lecithin to sauces and frothed them up. I smoked salmon tableside under a dome. I dreamed up dishes with 16 components. Instead of just letting people taste my food, I'd first hit them with a prologue filled with descriptions of all the complicated techniques I employed to make it. And as if the pretention wasn't bad enough, the food itself was really, really bad, too.
My outlook began to shift while working under Carrie Nahabedian at Naha. When I first started, she served this pan-seared fillet of striped bass with mashed potatoes and tomatoes cooked slowly in olive oil. At the time I remember thinking, "Seriously, Chef, can't we do better than this?" It seemed too simple. In retrospect, it was perfect. Beautifully seared fish, incredibly sweet tomatoes, top-notch olive oil, a sneaky bit of preserved lemon. The dish was exactly what it promised to be, but tasted so much better than I ever thought it could.
And I attribute some of my transformation to the fact that with two jobs I had no mental space for creativity or food-is-art bullshit and no time to fuck around. I got my shit together. It helped to work beside a lot of Mexican guys, who busted their asses all day every day. They didn't complain when they had to work lunch and dinner. Cooking wasn't a life's ambition. They did a good job, shared a few jokes, then went home to their families. So I came in, prepped my station, and made what the boss wanted me to make. I was learning a trade, like my dad had when he learned to fix boilers. Like my mom had when she learned to take blood pressure and read sonograms. I knew I wasn't particularly bright. But I could do well if I worked hard, and I got better as a cook. By the time I took my next job at a good restaurant, I was ready to fulfill my destiny—to become Mr. Asia.
The typecasting actually began at Naha. The chef came up to me, handed me a box of squash blossoms, and asked, "Do you know how to make tempura?" I'm not sure if she meant it this way, but I took her question as, You're Asian, you must know how to do it. And hey, I wasn't offended. So what if tempura is Japanese and I'm Filipino? I didn't know how to cook Filipino food either, so I wasn't about to jump on my high horse. Truth was I was trained to make béchamel, brandade, and blanquette de fucking veau. I didn't know any more about making tempura than I did about making falafel. Still, if I had to be Mr. Asia, I figured I might as well use it to my advantage. So I shouted my best "Yes, Chef!" I went back to my station, and I flipped over the cornstarch box. There, I saw a recipe for tempura. Fifteen minutes later I handed the chef some banging tempura squash blossoms. My reputation was born.
At my next job, I became the dumpling expert. So what if I'd never made dumplings in my life? The chef asked me to make him some, I said "Yes, Chef," and when I went home that night I Googled how to make dumplings. I came in the next day and made some. I'm not saying they were the best dumplings, but the chef was thrilled. I credit my small Asian hands. That's why we Asians have crazy dexterity. That's why we're so good at badminton and Ping-Pong. That's why we can school your ass on an abacus. (At least, that's one reason; we also invented that shit.) Everyone else in the kitchen had these clumsy sausage fingers. When they tried to form the little folds that distinguish good-looking dumplings, they could only make four of them. I was rocking eight-fold dumplings and looking like the man.
After a while, I figured that since I liked Asian food and everyone kept asking me to make it, I might as well really learn how. I decided to do that in New York, forever a restaurant mecca and as good a place as any to double down on my new dumpling direction. I got a job at Morimoto, the Iron Chef's flagship Manhattan restaurant, where I learned how to make sushi rice, and that the chef had the temper of a yakuza boss.
"I was ready to fulfill my destiny—to become Mr. Asia."
Fortunately for me, Asian food was about to blow up. Or more accurately, blow up even more. I was in high school when Nobu Matsuhisa opened his eponymous restaurant in New York City. That dude was brilliant: He had people happily dropping triple digits on miso-glazed black cod and other re-issued Asian standards. I was also lucky to learn from another pioneer of Asian flavors, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Yet even at the peak of Nobu's reign, no one could've anticipated the success of Danny Bowien, a skinny Korean dude rocking tiny shorts, patent leather shoes, and long blond hair who has people lining up for his take on Sichuan-style double-cooked pork. No one thought a white guy from Vermont named Andy Ricker would win awards for re-creating the food of Northern Thailand.
At this point, I'd been cooking professionally for almost a decade and had achieved more than I ever thought I could. After my stint at Morimoto, I scored a sous chef position at Buddakan, the New York location of Philly restaurateur Stephen Starr's baller modern Chinese spot. I was happy, but restless. Like a kid with a matchbook, I had only one idea: I had to do something stupid. I had to start a fire. One day on the way to work, I passed by the location of the open-call audition for Top Chef's fourth season. I was a fan of the show and an even bigger fan of competition. As a kid, I was always finding a reason to talk shit. As a man, competing didn't mean skipping rocks and playing basketball. It meant flaunting my knife and wok skills. I mentioned the audition to my cooks and they suggested I try out: "TV people love assholes," one said. "And you're a real asshole." He was right on both counts. The casting agents had just finished packing up for the day when I walked into the audition spot. "Shit, I'm late, huh?" I said, ready to bounce and not look back. "We have time for one more," one agent said.
Being on Top Chef turned out to be one of the oddest and greatest experiences I've had as a cook. It's like being in jail minus the shanks and the communal showers. You arrive—in chef's whites, not orange jumpsuits—and immediately you size everyone up. Instead of "What are you in for?" you're asked "Where did you cook?" If you can say that you've cooked with Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, or another well-respected big-name chef, that's like saying you're in for a triple homicide. People are scared of you. If you say you're a caterer, God help you. That's like ending up in Riker's Island for snatching an old lady's purse. You're fucked.
Everyone developed a rep. He takes shortcuts, she's a slob, he's a shitty cook, she's the one to beat. Mine was as the punk Asian kid, which to be fair, I was. And I found myself playing into it, just like I did in kitchens. Chefs assumed I could make dumplings, so I made them. My fellow contestants thought I was a punk, so I got in people's faces and punched walls. Some of that attitude I borrowed from hip-hop: the alpha-male, I'm-the-best-here swagger. If you act and talk like you're the shit, people might just start thinking you're the shit. Some of it came from the stress of knowing that every single day you were on the show you could basically be promoted or fired. Some of it, though, came from legitimate anger issues, which I ultimately went to therapy to fix.
I learned a lot about myself on that show. I learned that I hate losing. I also learned that I had it out for people who I thought had it easy—apparently I thought that I didn't. My parents worked hard all my life to provide for me and my siblings. We weren't ever dirt poor, but we struggled. Seemingly small stuff had big stakes, so when I did something dumb, my dad's belt came out. Not just that; I'd have to go get the belt myself. When Dad asked me to close the windows—that way the white neighbors wouldn't judge Filipino-style parenting from my shrieks—I knew I was going to get it bad. I'm not an advocate of violence, but I do know that I grew up with a healthy respect for my father. And fear, too.
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2015
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Life & Style