“I don’t think I would have been able to be where I am today unless I’d gotten to watch myself being a total dick on national TV.” – Dale Talde
Chef Dale Talde, after going deep in two seasons of Bravo’s hit series Top Chef, could probably have done whatever he wanted. So some raised an eyebrow when word leaked last year that he’d partnered up with David Massoni and John Bush of Thistle Hill Tavern to open his own restaurant on 7th Avenue in the South Slope, rather than going big in the glitzier environs of say, Tribeca, the Meat Packing District or Midtown.
Turns out, Talde is exactly where he wants to be, making his food, his way, in Brooklyn (and watching like a hawk as people eat it). We met up with Dale to talk about the appeal of going small, the craft – not art! – of cooking, the Top Chef experience, and watching dreams come to fruition…Oh, and about how the partnership that led to the birth of Talde (the restaurant), began in a sex shop on the Lower East Side.
So Dale, someone with your name recognition could probably have done whatever they wanted – opened a big place in Midtown or Tribeca or anywhere. Why did you choose Brooklyn, and Park Slope?
I’ve always just wanted to have a neighborhood restaurant. And the reason is pretty simple: You start to see the same faces a lot. You start to know everybody in your neighborhood, which is a pretty awesome thing.
I worked at Buddakan in Manhattan, and we would serve 1,100 covers on a Saturday. And they were all completely faceless. We had a lot of tourists, a lot of people coming into the city to eat at a ‘hot spot.’ And to me there was very rarely any connection to the people eating your food in a place like that.
You don’t get to know what people like and don’t like. You don’t have that experience of knowing one of your customers loves Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace, that they order that every time they come in, and of being able to offer that to them when they come in, because you know them.
Look, I love it when I go into a place and they say, “Hey, how’s it going? Good to see you.” Because they know me, because I go there all the time. I’m a creature of habit, man. I love the burgers at 282 Burger. When I go in there the owner recognizes me. He shakes my hand and says, “Good to see you.” I like that. Everyone likes that.
I never wanted an enormous restaurant. I never wanted to do a high profile restaurant. I always wanted a neighborhood joint. My brother and I always talked about opening a sandwich shop. I was really happy with the idea of just doing a sandwich shop for the rest of my life. This opportunity came along, and seemed perfect. This is exactly what I want to be doing.
Tell us about the food. I know a lot of chefs chafe at labels. Yours has been called Asian-American. That’s a label you don’t see in Zagat’s or on Yelp…
We called the restaurant Talde. I’m an Asian-American – a first generation Filipino-American. We decided that if the restaurant name is my name, and a kind of homage to my family, and the food here is really who I am, on a plate, then the food is Asian-American, because that’s what I am.
We just want to try to hit authentic Asian dishes and flavors with a Brooklyn point of view. We just do our food here, and at its heart our food is Asian-American.
What are some of your favorite dishes? Any that you think really capture what your food is all about?
I think the Perilla Leaf starter really embodies what we do here. It’s a shiso or perilla leaf, with a bacon tamarind caramel, a piece of toasted dried shrimp, a piece of lime that has the rind on it, a piece of chili, toasted coconut and toasted peanut. You wrap it up and pop it in your mouth. It’s like a one-bite salad.
It’s got that idea of balancing salty, sweet, sour, umami and herbaceous flavors all in one bite. That’s kind of how we think about our food here – looking for ways to balance lots of flavor, lots of elements, in one dish. It’s very flavor forward – it’s not subtle. The dried shrimp is really funky – it’s heady but has that really deep umami flavor. The bacon tamarind caramel is sweet, but the tamarind is sour and the bacon is smoky. The lime wedge is sour, the peanut has that nuttiness and crunch, and the sliced piece of firey red chili gives it that kick of heat. So you get all that in one bite.
Most Asian food really has that approach of something soft with something crunchy, something sweet with something sour…a bunch of bright flavors that all come together in balance. My food is unapologetically flavor-forward. If something is spicy, it’s going to be really spicy. If something is sweet and sour, it’s going to be very sweet and sour. I’m not pulling punches here with my food.
Another one of my favorite dishes is the Pad Thai with Crispy Oysters. We start off with a Pad Thai sauce made with fish sauce, sugar, and tamarind paste. We scramble some eggs, throw in some bacon, some dried Thai chilies, some preserved radish. We stir-fry them with some Pad Thai noodles that have been soaked in water, and to me, it’s a perfect brunch dish. The idea behind pad Thai was always that it was the ultimate hangover dish – you’ve got starch, fat, eggs, and pasta that will all sit in your stomach and soak up all the poison.
Just to gild the lily, I decided to put crispy oysters on top of it. Because oysters and bacon are pretty much my favorite combination. They’re both somewhat salty, one has that perfect ocean flavor and one has that perfect earthy flavor. For me it’s the ultimate surf and turf. It’s better than lobster and steak to me.
The food you’re doing is pretty unique. It’s yours. Was there an a-ha moment when you realized, “This is it. This is the kind of food I want to make.”
Not really. Every day I still doubt everything I do. I wake up every day wondering, “Is it good enough?” And I taste my food every day and I say, “It’s good, but is it good enough? Could it be better?” And it’s never good enough. You can always do better for your customers.
So I’ve still never had that a-ha moment, but I did learn a lot through cooking for and working for Stephen Starr, the guy behind Buddakan. Stephen is probably one of the best people in the industry to work for. He really taught me how to take criticism and how to approach the food I’m making. He’s got something like thirty restaurants, and he’s at every one of them, eating the foods his chefs are making.
He’s got a process for tasting the food. He’s very critical, but he teaches you a lot. When he tells you to make something, you make it, and you sit down in the dining room with a full plate of it, and you eat it together.
I think a lot of chefs conceptualize how a dish is going to look, what its components will be, and they taste parts of it as they put it together, but they don’t sit down in their own dining room as a customer would to eat it – to experience the dish. Standing in the kitchen tasting components of a dish is very different than having the whole dish served to you in the dining room.
What Stephen really taught me is that you have to get out of your own head. You have to be able to look at your food from a completely objective standpoint. That’s not always easy to do.
So he has you sit down with him to taste your dishes, and then blows your shit up in front of everybody. Another thing he’d do was he’d always ask the person you’d least expect for their opinion on the dish. He’d ask the hostess, or the PR guys to taste things. He wouldn’t tell them what it was or who made it. He’d ask them to taste it because he knew their opinion mattered a lot more than someone who cooks for a living or who wants to sit there and dissect the food and be very analytical about it. He’d just ask them, “Does this taste good to you?”
It was so clear what he was trying to do, and so right. It made me realize, “You know what? I’m gonna drop all these bullshit fancy swipes on a fancy plate.” You’re cooking to make food that tastes good. And if you’re not tasting your food and eating an entire plate of it while sitting in your dining room, from the vantage point of a guest, then what the fuck are you doing?
We have an open kitchen here, and I love that because I like to watch people eat my food. I watch every person eat everything. Is it hard to eat the food? Are they really enjoying it? Are they having trouble sharing? How can I make it easier? Better? You have to watch to understand how people are reacting to it.
My line chef asked me last night, “Is it tough for you to watch people eat your food?”
And I said, “Yeah it is sometimes.” Because you look at someone’s face when they’re eating your food and you wonder what they’re thinking. You wonder whether they like it as much as you want them to. But as a chef, you have to watch. You have to see that.
So when you were coming up as a chef, was there a time when you started to feel like you were figuring out your voice? Is there a point where it jumped from being a craft to being an art?
To some degree, but I will always refer to what I do as a craft. People always say, “Hey, what you’re doing is art.” And I’ll say, “If that’s what you want to call it, that’s fine. I’m still a tradesman and I always will be.”
Cooking is like carpentry. Before you learn how to sculpt and mold a beautiful chair, you have to learn how to measure and cut wood. Before you even have an idea of what something is supposed to look like, before you even think about getting creative, you have to learn the basics. This is a trade. It’s a craft. It’s like being a woodworker or a welder or a mechanic. What I do is like fixing cars. There’s very little difference between what we do and what somebody who builds things does.
You have to follow the rules and master the basics. You have to learn how to execute what is being asked of you before you can really start to get creative.
I tell my sous chef, “You’re going to find your voice through this process, through food. You’re going to find out what turns you on and what doesn’t. For right now, doing this work will help you with that process. But it might take a while.” It took me ten years in the biz, and being exposed to tons of kitchens and chefs and ingredients before I said, “OK, this is what I’m doing. This is my voice.”
Do you have a creative process for coming up with your dishes? Do you intentionally try to infuse American elements into Asian dishes? How does it work?
No. It just happens. You have a bunch of recipes that you’ve done in the past and ideas about how to make it new and you just go from there.
You have to start with what’s available. Soft shell crabs are just coming into season, so we wanted to put it on the menu. We had to come up with a dish.
So it’s like, “It’s soft shell crab season. What do I want to do with crab? I love Singapore crab sauce…hmm” So we’re doing Singapore style chili crabs on a banh mi. That’s kind of how it works.
It starts with what’s available. We do a market ramen with seasonal vegetables that are available at the farmers market. The creative process starts with what’s at the market, always.
Speaking of ingredients, there’s a lot of interest in good ingredients – things that are local, seasonal and fresh. I think there’s a perception that Asian restaurants and places doing ethnic cuisine haven’t embraced that as much…
It’s harder. No one’s making artisanal fish sauce or artisanal oyster sauce. It’s not happening. It would be cool if somebody did it, but it’s not being done. So what do you do? I always try to stay as seasonal and local as I can, but I’m not a slave to it. It’s harder to do with this kind of food.
It’s hard business-wise too. I think the Chicago chef Graham Elliot Bowles said it well. He said that when you’re a chef, and farmers are trying to sell you locally grown product, you have to think about it. Just because they’re local doesn’t mean the product is the best.
You can’t be bowled over by people saying, “I’m local, I’m around the corner, you should buy my stuff.” Because you know what, you might be, but if your product is shit, your product is shit. You could grow your stuff in my backyard, but if you deliver your greens to me and they’re shit, I’m not going to buy them. What’s the fucking point?
You have to go where the quality is. And you have to be financially responsible too. You have to juggle a lot of things when sourcing ingredients while maintaining total integrity in what you do.
The whole Top Chef thing. What good came out of it? Anything not so good?
I had the most amazing experience with Top Chef. I would never change anything that happened throughout the process. Not a lot of people have the opportunity to sit there and stare at themselves on TV. It’s weird and it’s a very unique perspective to have on yourself. I watched myself on Top Chef and I said, “I don’t like that. There’s something wrong with who I am as a person. I’m not nice. I need to fix this.” So I went to therapy. I said, “This is who I am, this is what I don’t like about who I am, and this is what I want to change.”
I thank the show for that. I don’t think I would have been able to be where I am today unless I’d gotten to watch myself being a total dick on national TV. There’s no other way to see yourself from outside of yourself like that and to see other people talk openly about you the way they do on the show. They’d ask other participants on the show, “What do you think of Dale?” And they’ll immediately give you a reaction – “He’s a dick. I hate him.” And what’s crazy is that it’s not just the people on the show, it’s hundreds of thousands of other people watching the show, saying the same thing. So for me, that was one of the great things about it – getting to see myself from that perspective.
I think for some people who get on the show there’s a sense of…”I got on Top Chef. I have it made.” When I see that I say, “Your fifteen minutes start now, little brother. You better hit the grind and start hustling real hard.”
If you want to be the next Curtis Stone or the next TV personality in food, God bless you. That’s all you. My parents didn’t spend $60,000 on my education to have me stop cooking and be on TV. I’m cooking in my kitchen. I was grinding octopus heads before you walked in here. I just braised fifty pounds of octopus right now. That’s what I do. I love that. I love working in restaurants. I love being a chef.
I love the atmosphere, the rush. The nurturing of cooks. This is the first time where I’ve got kids relying on me to teach them how to cook.
It seems like there might be a little trend emerging in Brooklyn with people taking a explicitly fun approach to their food. Look at what they’re doing at Do or Dine, No. 7 Sub, Paulie Gee’s, Pete Zaaz, Isa…more people seem to be getting wild and crazy and creative with food in a way that’s just not that serious – it’s fun. You seem to have a little bit of that going on.
You can take more risks in Brooklyn. The rents here are a little bit cheaper. If a dish flops you just switch it out. And dining should be fun. I can’t do the five hour fancy meals at fancy uptight restaurants where they tell you how to eat each course – “Take a bite of this and shoot it with that.” Or telling me that these carrots were hand picked in Vermont by a guy who has a two acre farm and only grows carrots for us. I’m like, “Dude, get the fuck out of here.” I don’t give a fuck. Put the salad in front of my face and let me eat it. I don’t have time for that.
But you know what, other people do have time for that, and like that, and what some cooks who like that are doing here is amazing. It’s just not me. You can do anything in Brooklyn. People are open to stuff. You get to have fun. Brooklyn goes hard.
For me, I like to do those fancy fine dining things like once a year. You have to go to Jean Georges once in a while to see where the bar is set. Jean Georges is a mentor of mine – I worked with him at Vong. But I like to have fun. Stephen Starr’s restaurants are fun. The music’s pumping, it’s a sexy crowd, we’re doing shots after service – it’s just fun. I don’t like places that are too serious.
How did you hook up with Dave Massoni and John Bush, your partners here at Talde?
Dave Massoni was the general manager at Enoteca on the Lower East Side. My girlfriend and I had just moved to the neighborhood after my first season on Top Chef. For some reason I had this mack-daddy schedule because I had Thursdays and Fridays off, which in the restaurant world never happens. I couldn’t even enjoy it because I thought I was going to get fired at any moment. I figured that if I had Thursdays and Fridays off, they didn’t really need me.
My girlfriend is a teacher. One Friday when she got off work we walked over to Enoteca. It was a perfect night. Eighty degrees, beautiful breeze. Sitting outside at Enoteca at the right time is like magic. There’s that energy, that buzz of the Lower East Side. You feel like you’re in New Orleans.
So we walked in and I asked the hostess, “Sorry, how long is the wait?”
She said, “Probably about two hours.” It was prime time, like 8:30 or 9 o’clock.
I said, “How about outside?”
She was like, “I’m sorry but you’re not gonna get that tonight. See all those people lined up over there? They’re all waiting for outside.”
So I put my name down and my girlfriend and I walked over to Babes in Toyland, the sex shop next door. We were playing around, looking around. And everyone does that. There are all these people milling around in there waiting for their tables at Enoteca.
So we’re playing around and Dave walks in and says, “Hey, you’re Dale, right?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Whenever you’re ready we’re ready for you.”
I said, “This is a little embarrassing.” You know, we were in a sex shop.
He goes, “It happens all the time. Whenever you’re done here come next door.”
So we went back over with him, just walked past everyone waiting for tables, and Dave sat us at this corner table outside – the primo spot. Gorgeous summer night. Two glasses of Prosecco waiting for us. They really took care of us and we’ve been friends ever since.
It was right after I first got off Top Chef, so it was one of those perks of being recognized.
Dave and John were in the process of opening Thistle Hill Tavern just down the street from here. I’d come by and check the place out, check out the work going on. I’d ask Dave about what was going on, the ups and downs with the project. When they opened I’d come out and have a burger and hang out.
When I got on the show the second time, I was sitting around with Dave and John one night. I said, “Hey, you know, I’m not supposed to tell anybody, but I’m going on the show again. I’m doing Top Chef All Stars.”
They were like, “Oh shit, yeah?
I said, “Yeah, man. When I’m done with this I have to try to push to open my own place. I have to. It’s time.”
They were like, “What are you going to do?”
I said, “I don’t know. You guys want to partner up and try to find a place?”
And they were like, “Yeah, dude. For sure.”
So that’s how it started. And now, almost two years later, here we are.
Where do you like to eat in Brooklyn if you’re not here at Talde?
Franny’s is fucking awesome. Mile End is right around the corner from my house. Everything is so good there. Colonie, Henry Public, 828 Burger – we go to those places a lot because we live near there. We love those places. In Williamsburg Fatty Cue is it for me. I get inspired every time I go there.
And Chuko is the shit. Those are my boys from Morimoto. Jamison and David, who opened Chuko, and I were all sous chefs together at Morimoto. It was funny because we’d always go to Yakitori Taisho, this hole in the wall izakaya-type in the East Village after work. We worked at a Japanese restaurant and we’d always go to a Japanese restaurant after work for some reason. We’d sit around and get shitfaced and talk about what we wanted. And we’d always say, “I just want this. I want my own Taisho. I want something just like this.”
You know, at some point you reach the pinnacle of training, working at a place like Morimoto, seeing how fast his hands are, seeing the unbelievable quality of everything he does, and you’re totally enamored with it. And then one day you realize, “I’m not going to open a sushi restaurant with a nine million dollar budget. That’s not even what I want. I just want a restaurant where I do good food and people enjoy themselves.”
And now, three years later, it’s happened, for all of us. It’s good to see dreams come to fruition when you grind hard enough. I’m sure the Chuko guys are looking for the next space, and the next space after that. And we should all be doing that. Those guys don’t ever want Manhattan. I don’t ever want Manhattan. I like it here in Brooklyn, right where I am.
Talde is located at 369 7th Avenue (at 11th Street), in Park Slope.