Chef Tony Kang - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
The art of what a chef does is transforming ingredients into something beautiful. We learn how to take one ingredient and turn it into 500 different dishes, and then there’s plating, which really is art. The plate is our canvas, the frying pan is our paintbrush, the sauce is our paint. For me, the art of being a chef is perfecting the craft and that’s something you have to work at. There's a lot of thought behind a good plate of food. The magic of it is making something from nothing and in so doing, creating something beautiful.
How do you feel the magic?
For me, inspiration is magic, and every day my inspiration is my mood. People who have consistently tasted my food over the years can tell what mood I'm in by the spices I use and how aggressive I am with seasoning or with the plating. If I'm in a good mood the dishes become lighter, almost friendlier. I’m also inspired by the weather and the market and people I interact with. If my Uber driver is from Afghanistan or from Africa I try to research their food and use their spices and techniques and experiment. That’s magic.
If you're in a bad mood are things spicier?
When I'm angry or in a bad mood the food is bolder, spicier. I’ll use a lot of chiles, which bring smokiness. That smokiness is like a metaphor for the steam coming out of my head.
Is your approach to food intellectual or more organic?
My approach is more off-the-cuff, and the way I look at ingredients is always about transformation. I try to keep everything as natural as possible. If I serve you a strawberry dish I want you to know it's a strawberry dish.
How do you cater to so many different palates and make everybody happy?
The same way people learn to trust doctors, lawyers, accountants, people have to learn to trust the chef. We want the guest to trust the way we season our food. I think once people know how a chef approaches food, the expectations are there. They’ll understand that the food will be aggressive or light or fresh or spicy. Cooking is the chef’s way of expressing themselves. A lot of chefs have issues in life and the only way they know how to communicate is through food. Every dish tells a story of how that person got to where they are. For me, I grew up being bullied at school and in a household where my parents wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer - anything else was unacceptable. A lot of my dishes tell that story.
How does your food tell the story of you being bullied?
When I do a tasting menu which is a multi-course meal, the story progresses. I'll start by creating a dish based on my childhood, perhaps of memories of immigrating to this country, of being new to this country and trying American food for the first time. The first time I had meatloaf and mashed potatoes I was four years old. I couldn’t believe how good it was. My tasting menu would include something like that, and progress through my turbulent years. I'd tell that part of the story with a little more aggression, a little more spice, something a little heavier. Back then that's how I felt - emotionally heavy, very burdened. Then the meal would progress back into lightness to where I found my voice. As a young chef, I was trying to emulate other chefs. One day I realized I just want to be me. I'm not Jean-Georges or Thomas Keller. There's only one Tony Kang and that's the way I've got to cook. That's how my food story progresses.
How old were you when you knew you had to cook?
I was about 12. My sister was really young and my parents were working full time. I was in middle school and I had to learn to cook for myself and my sister because my parents were always working. My first cookbook was a Betty Crocker cookbook given to me by my dad who got it from a flea market. It was about 50 pages long and had real simple recipes like braised chicken, spaghetti and meatballs. I cooked each recipe almost every week. That was the beginning, and unfortunately, my little sister was my guinea pig. My love of cooking evolved as I watched my parents work really odd jobs just to put food on the table. My mom worked in a sweatshop and also as a waitress. My dad worked selling toys on the streets in Times Square. There were days when my parents went without eating just so my brother, sister and I could eat. I thought if I learned how to cook and work in a business where food is abundant then the people I love will never go hungry.
Do you still cook for your family?
Yes, every time I see them.
Who cooks for you?
My dad cooks for me when I go home, but most people are afraid. They think I’m going to critique them and that I’m going to be like Gordon Ramsey. My girlfriend says I’m too picky - but I appreciate the act of someone doing something for me - especially cooking. A home -cooked meal is very special. Most of the time I'm eating takeout or a box of cereal when I get home. So please, someone cook for me.
It's intimidating to cook for a chef.
That's what I hear.
Do you feel intimidated cooking for other chefs?
There are times when I do get intimidated. Once I cooked for Geoffrey Zakarian. He came to the restaurant where I worked and I got a VIP ticket in the kitchen. I found out who the VIP was and I actually kicked all my cooks off the line so I could be the one to make his meal. I was too shy to go to his table and say hello, so I tweeted "Hi Chef, thanks for coming to the restaurant." He tweeted back "Why didn't you come say hi!” He was really complimentary. I was shy — he was with his family and I didn't want to to be a fanboy. Later he emailed me and asked me to come work for him as a sous chef.
So why didn’t you go work for him?
I don't want to cook someone else's food. If I work for him I would have to cook Geoffrey Zakarian's food. It was that kind of struggle. I don't mean any disrespect, but that would be a big shadow to be under.
How as a chef do you get out from that shadow?
You’ve got to find your voice. You take the influences of your mentors and the chefs you’ve worked for and you utilize what you learned from each of them to create your own dishes. That’s what I’ve done. I’m making my own plates in my own voice telling my story. The first thing I learned was Italian cooking. Then I learned French cooking and then Mediterranean cooking. Eventually, I asked myself why I was trying to emulate styles that didn't reflect who I am. I am Korean American, I should be telling my story through my culture. So I took those early influences mixed with my culture and I create dishes that way. I also called my mentors and thanked them for everything they've done for me. They always encouraged me. That's what being a chef is all about. That's how you get out of it.
Do you feel culinary school is essential?
In culinary school they give you a textbook, show some demos in the basics and wish you good luck. They don't tell you about the 90 hour work week or missing birthdays, holidays and important events. Unfortunately many of my friends went to war and passed away and I couldn't attend their funerals because of work. I’ve had to miss my niece’s and nephew's birthdays because of work. You don’t learn about the hardships in school. Being a chef isn't about working 9-5. They don't tell you about the paperwork that's involved and dealing with the Board of Health and insurance and inventory. I think if you want to learn it's got to be the old school way - the hard knocks way. You go into a kitchen and say to the chef, ‘I'll work for you for free for a month. I want to learn from you.’ When someone does that, I appreciate them more than a culinary student who tells me about graduating at the top of their class and how they went to the best culinary school but then often they don’t know how to boil water. 99 percent of the time the person that’s passionate but didn’t go to school ends up being more successful than the graduate. They have the right expectations, especially now, when everyone wants to be Gordon Ramsey. People think being a chef is about being on TV and right after they graduate they think that they are a chef. But this is a title that you actually have to earn. A police officer graduates from the Academy and automatically they’re a police officer. But becoming a chef is like being in the military. There are levels that you have to go through. You have to move up through the ranks. You actually have to work your ass off and grind it out, put in time, get burned, get cut, get yelled at, get beaten up. The expectations from graduates are a lot different than people who come through the door and are willing to start at the bottom. That person wants to cook. They want to earn respect for the food they make.
You had 15 minutes of fame on Chopped. How did that come about?
When I lived on Long Island, Food Network called me. They had read some things that were written about me and asked me to come to the studio to do an interview. I didn't really put much thought into it and didn't expect much from it. I’m naturally shy so I wasn't excited about doing it at all. I did the interview and didn't think I'd get a callback. It turned out that they wanted me to do an episode, so I said ok. Lots of good opportunities came pouring in afterward, but it was also bad because people I hadn't spoken to in years suddenly came out of the woodwork wanting something. After being bullied most of my life suddenly having people wanting to take pictures with me and get my autograph was a weird shift. It became a situation where if I didn't take a picture with them or sign an autograph they thought I was a pretentious asshole. If I did sign autographs and take pictures they thought I was a pretentious asshole. So there was this push and pull battle all day.
If you could go back in time to when to the years you we're being bullied, what advice would you give yourself?
I would say: 'Just follow the path. Be a chef. You will have some regrets but don't live with those regrets. Make the mistakes now, that way you’ll learn from them. Just bear with it. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Even through all the bullshit and bullying, there is a way out.' For me, cooking was the way out.
Why do you think you were bullied?
I believe it was the cultural difference. We moved from Brooklyn to a town full of rich kids on Long Island where there were only four Asians in my graduating class. I was always the quiet one and was an easy target. I never spoke a word so trying to make friends was difficult. I kind of just did my own thing. That probably was more fuel for them; ‘This kid's a weirdo, he doesn't speak to anyone.’ Kids can be mean, but karma bit them in the ass because I've become a successful chef.
Do you feel as if you've walked into the light at the end of the tunnel?
I feel like I'm still walking towards that light. I think when I’ll have finally reached it is when I have my own restaurant and people enjoy what I create for them. I want to leave behind a positive legacy. I want to make my family proud and leave behind a positive impact.
Follow Tony on Instagram @asianbronson and on Facebook @cheftonykang