Round two with Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle
This is part two of my interview with Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Like most cooks, I enjoy the creativity of coming up with new dishes, but the most satisfying and challenging part is improving. Before we opened Uncle, I had a pretty good understanding of ramen, but ever since we really started focusing on ramen, I've learned so much to make it better, yet the process has become simpler. I'm definitely not an expert, but committing yourself to one dish and constantly trying to make it better and having our customers notice the difference is very satisfying.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? I don't own a copy, but I know Modernist Cuisine has changed how food professionals look at food. It's very interesting to learn the science behind it all and how it What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The freedom to travel. I grew up alongside some great food cultures by traveling to Asia, Europe and other parts of the United States. For me, eating great food is almost more important than learning how to cook it.
Fantasy splurge: I'd love to have a Yamato noodle machine. I looked into it, however, and they cost as much as a nice car.
Favorite cooking show: I grew up without cable, so I watched a lot of PBS and Jacques Pépin when I was younger. I remember trying to make French rolled omelets the way he did when I was eight or nine. I really enjoyed Mario Batali's original Molto Mario series, too, because he did a great job of explaining the cultural details that created micro-regional Italian cuisine. I'm currently watching the Mind of a Chef series on PBS, and it's really awesome, because it shows the creative process that goes into a dish. And, of course, I watch No Reservations, because Anthony Bourdain has every food-obsessed person's dream job.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty is the most detailed and authentic Sichuan cookbook I've found. Other than ramen, I'm pretty much obsessed with Sichuan food. It's not really that well understood, but it's gutsy and delicate at the same time. We're doing a Japanese eggplant dish right now that has a Sichuan-inspired, fish-fragrant sauce.
Favorite dish on your menu: The chashu ramen. It's the dish I've worked the hardest to improve upon since we've opened because it's our closest take on something traditional or authentic. We're probably on the sixth version of it right now, and while it's not the most exciting dish, it's deceptively simple yet complex to create. From the custom-made noodles to the broth to the layering of flavor, it has a lot of nuance and depth that I don't think most people will notice. But I get great satisfaction from making it and eating it. In fact, I crave it on my day off.
Biggest menu bomb: We opened with a raw, sliced Colorado striped bass dish with a buttermilk dressing, cornbread crumbs, lemon, jalapeño and chives. I thought it was a really tasty dish incorporating a local fish that most people don't know tastes good raw. In the end, though, it didn't sell, and I'd like to think people just weren't ready for that type of dish from a noodle bar. Maybe I'll bring it back.