<i>Top Chef</i> alum Dale Talde has shrugged off fancy food and ditched molecular gastronomy, deciding instead to choose his battles more wisely in the kitchen.
When I first met Dale Talde—you might remember him from his three seasons on Top Chef, where he played the role of Angry Chef—I wanted to know about the incredible hot sauce in the squeeze bottles on every table at his restaurants Talde and Pork Slope, in Brooklyn. The sauce has the vinegary brightness, lively heat, and slightly sweet, mysterious complexity that characterize the best I've tried. I got out my notebook, prepared to scribble down the name of the obscure chiles that he sources from a farmer on top of a mountain somewhere. Dale just smiled. "Dude, it's just Frank's RedHot mixed with Sriracha," he said. And with that, I was in love.
For the past several years, I've collaborated with chefs on their cookbooks, and one thing I've learned is that chefs expect a lot—from themselves, from the cooks in their kitchens, and from you. I've had chefs insist that home cooks invest in a large granite mortar, measure ingredients not in tablespoons but in grams, and not even consider attempting a dish unless you have a proper wok (I'm looking at you, Mr. Andy Ricker). I've had chefs claim that turning artichokes—picking off the tough leaves and then peeling the fiddly vegetable, a process that takes me, like, four days—is "quite fun" (is it really, chef April Bloomfield?). Part of my job is to ask, over and over again, "Do you really have to?" and I've gotten used to receiving a stern look and to the feeling of shame that washes over me when I admit that I don't want to make my own bacon or sauerkraut.
But you know what? I'm grateful to these chefs. Their doggedness is not intended to piss you off. They've spent decades mastering their craft and genuinely want to show you how to make great food. This, in part, is what cookbooks are about—inspiring you to get off your ass and cook something incredible.
Dale is different. As his hot sauce recipe suggests, he has come a long way from his French culinary training at the CIA and his work in the kitchens of Jean-Georges, Morimoto, and Carrie Nahabedian, at Chicago's four-star Naha. He has shrugged off fancy food and ditched liquid nitrogen, lecithin, and sodium alginate. "Molecular gastronomy was like weed in high school," he told me. "All my friends were doing it, so I did too." OK, he does occasionally use liquid nitrogen at his restaurant to flash-freeze ingredients before buzzing them into a powder, but this isn't for effect—it's because this takes less time than blending the ingredients in their normal state. "I'm a lazy motherfucker," he said. Yeah, you are.
Embedded in the pages of his first cookbook, Asian-American, is a lazy man's manifesto. Not all the recipes are Rachael Ray-easy—what's the fun in that?—but they offer the kinds of shortcuts that few chefs allow. In part, this is because of his identity—a Filipino guy who grew up in Chicago, who ate his mom's sour fish-head soup for dinner one night and then hot dogs, deep-dish pizza, or tacos the next. The Asian in him, he told me, is what inspired the ethos behind his hot sauce and many other sauces in the book. "Chinese cooks don't brew their own oyster sauce and soy sauce," he said. "They just combine a bunch of jarred stuff in the right way and boom, it tastes good." The Asian-American in him keeps him chilled out about tradition, letting him provide hacks that sacrifice authenticity for deliciousness. His main message: Choose your battles.
To that end, Dale suggests becoming an urban forager—no, not the type of guy who picks mulberries off Brooklyn trees, but the type who uses all of a city's conveniences to make cooking dinner a little easier. Want to make fried rice? Don't steam the grains yourself—buy some for $1.50 at Hunan Panda Delight. Don't want to trek to a far-off Japanese market for fresh shiso leaves? Ask your corner takeout sushi spot to sell you some. If you're planning to serve simple steamed lobsters with some clarified butter for dinner, then, sure, wrestle a few live lobsters into a pot of boiling water. But if you're shelling and saucing them like many cookbooks ask you to do, do yourself a favor and buy them already cooked from a good fish place.
Menus everywhere nowadays tout homemade everything—pickles, cured meats, bread. Which is great if you're good at making pickles, cured meats, and bread. At home, though, don't go nuts, unless you enjoy the process. Do what Dale does and delegate to the experts: Buy bao at a Chinese bakery. Doctor up Hellman's instead of making your own flavored mayo. And don't deep-fry unless you're making a centerpiece to a big meal: Instead, buy packaged fried shallots at an Asian market (or as Dale does, get French's French fried onions from the bodega) and skip homemade potato chips for Cool Ranch Doritos to use for dipping. Not just because they make your life easy, but because come on, they're really good.
Dale Talde's first cookbook, Asian-American, is available today from Grand Central Life & Style.