Lon Symensma, exec chef of ChoLon, rips on bird's nests, extols the virtues of lop chong and admits that his favorite macaroni and cheese is made with Velveeta
Favorite ingredient: Tamarind. Sour is my favorite flavor, and tamarind represents acidity in a unique way that adds a lot of depth as an ingredient.
Most underrated ingredient: Items like corncobs and shrimp shells that you can extract a ton of flavor from to use in another preparation. I hate seeing a potential ingredient being thrown away.
Most overrated ingredient: Bird's nests are a very expensive delicacy in China. They're actual nests made from the saliva of swallows and traditionally believed to provide numerous health benefits. I tried them a few times when I was in Asia, and I can't quite appreciate it, especially given the price. I also think that filet mignon is extremely overrated for what it is. I prefer to use "lesser" cuts of beef, which showcase more flavor given the proper amount of cooking time. For me, it's worth the wait and well worth the price.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Aside from Il Mondo Vecchio's Chinese sausage, I love the white loaf we get from Grateful Bread. It's an airy, rustic white bread that toasts beautifully for our Kaya toast at the restaurant.
Favorite spice: Saigon cinnamon. It has an intense aromatic quality that you don't find in other types of cinnamon. I use it in my curries and braising liquids, and it's a must for a great pho.
Best recent food find: Il Mondo Vecchio's lop chong, or Chinese sausage. It was really exciting to find a local, artisanal sausage with an Asian flavor profile. I use it in the Chinese-sausage fried rice on the menu at ChoLon.
One food you detest: One of my first apartments in Iowa after leaving home was next to a Heinz factory, so I'd wake up to the smell of vinegar and tomatoes in the air every morning. I haven't been able to go anywhere near ketchup since.
One food you can't live without: Macaroni and cheese. It was my mom's specialty growing up. She used sharp cheddar, Velveeta, macaroni and a béchamel sauce and baked it in the oven. Love it.
Favorite music to cook by: A mentor of mine would always tell me to "cook with rage," and blasting some Tool in the kitchen gets me going for a busy Saturday-night service.