Photography by Nicole Fara Silver
Top Chef and Taste Talks alum Dale Talde is known for many things, but sugar coating his opinions isn’t one of them. When I mention I’ve been seeing a bunch of recent press coverage predicting Filipino food will be the next hot thing, he responds emphatically. “To me that’s bullshit,” he retorts, “I don’t give a shit if Filipino is the next thing. I’m not flying the flag. Our culture’s not a cliché culture. We’re here, we’ve always been here. So for me, at this point now, I don’t give a fuck if people wanna eat it or not, I’m just gonna make my food and hopefully they wanna eat it.”
I can understand his indignation—nobody wants to be tokenized or reduced to a passing fad that mainstream culture will embrace as an exotic curiosity until the next hot thing comes around. The thing is, people do want to eat his food, regardless of trends. This becomes crystal clear as I sit in a booth at Talde in Park Slope and watch the restaurant, which was fairly quiet when I arrived at 5:00 pm on a recent Friday, quickly fill up. By the time I leave a little after 6:00, it’s buzzing with the sounds of people talking and eating. Plates of kale salad and Brussels sprouts are flying out of the kitchen. Talde watches them with eagle eyes and doesn’t hesitate to call over the waiters to tell them the portion size is “way too fuckin’ small.” Like many successful chefs, Talde exhibits an incredible attention to detail.
At 38 years old, the Chicago-born chef has a lot on his plate (pun not intended), and he’s not slowing down. As we talk over a dish of smoked chili shrimp sambal—a killer new addition to the menu—he tells me he’s preparing to open multiple new locations inside the new Hotel 50 Bowery. These will include a restaurant called Green Lady in the cellar and Rice & Gold on the ground floor. He and his partners, David Massoni and John Bush of the Three Kings Restaurant Group, may have closed their Park Slope spots Pork Slope and Thistle Hill Tavern late last year, but they’re moving on. So far this year they’ve opened Massoni, Talde’s “Italian-ish” restaurant in the Arlo Hotel NoMad; Atlantic Social, a sports bar serving all-American comfort food near the Barclay’s Center; and the Crown in Hotel 50 Bowery, where they are in charge of all food and beverage, including room service. Up next he’ll be working on a food hall in West Palm Beach, Florida, and he will participate in Northside’s own upcoming Taste Talks, and a host of other events.
You know what the secret to this is? It’s butter.
Though critics didn’t always embrace Talde wholeheartedly, he’s earned his place in New York’s restaurant scene. When Talde opened in 2012, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gave it a mixed review, suggesting that Dale neglected Talde when he opened Pork Slope, but acknowledged, “Mr. Talde has a well-polished knack for translating Asian dishes for popular tastes.” And though the New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield wrote that the team went a little overboard on the decor, she moreover praised his pretzel pork-and-chive dumplings (a staple of the menu since the restaurant opened), declaring they “taste like the love child of a Hong Kong hawker stall and a New York hot-dog cart.” In his “Where to Eat 2013” feature, New York Magazine’s restaurant critic Adam Platt wrote, “Food-obsessed Brooklynites used to have to take the L train into Manhattan to get their fix of the latest Asian-fusion or tapas craze. But these days, it’s jaded Manhattanites who are making the long slog out to Talde, in Park Slope, to sample ingenious fusion comfort-food creations.” Food & Wine named Talde New York’s Best New Chef in 2013 and has featured him and his recipes in numerous articles since.
Talde rose to stardom for his idiosyncratic brand of Asian-American cuisine—combining his personal identity with the technical prowess he’d picked up at the Culinary Institute of America—and his years of cooking at Morimoto and Buddakan. He moved to New York in 2005 to work with Chef Masaharu Morimoto and restaurateur Stephen Starr. He then became Chef de Cuisine at Buddakan and was promoted to Director of Asian Concepts for STARR Restaurants before striking out on his own. “I’m not Filipino, nor am I American. I don’t fit in anywhere,” he tells me. “The reality is I have a foot in both words, so I embrace that, and I embrace fusion. That’s literally where the food stems from.”
His pretzel pork-and-chive dumplings may be the most obvious example, but you’ll see this approach in everything from crispy oyster and bacon pad thai—a far more extravagant version of the dish than you’d ever see at your average Thai joint—to newer items, like the smoked chili shrimp sambal. “You know what the secret to this is? It’s butter,” he tells me after I take a bite. “‘Cause Malaysian people won’t cook it in butter. They’ll cook it in some cheap-ass oil they have lying around—it might be coconut oil, but it’ll never be anything super dope. You drop the butter first and you add the sambal to the butter—it’s a totally different dish.”
I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on it, but he’s right. The flavor is even richer and more intense than the sambal I made during a cooking class on a recent trip to Bali, where I mashed the chilies, garlic, herbs, and spices in a mortar and pestle and toasted the paste in a pan with oil. “It helps carry the flavors along, but it helps tame the heat, ‘cause this is fuckin’ spicy,” he continues. “For some people that’s too spicy; not for me. That’s my attitude toward this food. If it’s supposed to be spicy, don’t fuck around. Don’t half-ass it.”
After tasting this smoked chili shrimp sambal, I definitely wouldn’t accuse him of half-assing it. Talde’s M.O. seems to be to find something that sparks his imagination and go all in. His inspiration might come from childhood memories of his mom’s home cooking—or from his travels around the world. A recent vacation in Barcelona and San Sebastian inspired a dish he’s developing combining Spanish fideos with a smoked paprika dashi and chorizo Iberico broth. Trips to Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have influenced his cooking too. When I ask how he wraps all these influences together, he waxes philosophical. “For me, what’s Asia? You know? It’s funny when people put these names and start categorizing things. Like, the Middle East is Asia. So now I’m like, why am I sticking to what people think Asia is when I can expand people’s idea of what Asia is?” He continues, “So like playing with halal, Persian-style chicken and rice, but turning it into fried rice, so not traditional but tasty. You know, tasty is the only boundary that we have limiting ourselves personally. Does it taste good? If it tastes good, cool, run with it. If it’s whack then we don’t put it on the menu.” It’s an approach he’s taken to Massoni, where he’s making biryani arancini and other Asian-Italian mashups in a lively space plastered with vintage Italian ads and travel posters.
That’s my attitude toward this food. If it’s supposed to be spicy, don’t fuck around.
At this point, five years after opening his namesake restaurant, Talde has proven that he can make not only awesome Asian-American cuisine, but also Italian-Asian cuisine, and straight-up American comfort food. Each new project is a challenge to expand the boundaries of his culinary expertise and prove that he can’t be reduced to a stereotype.
Aside from his professional pursuits, this has also been a year of personal growth. Talde is settling into a new house he bought with his wife in Fort Lee, New Jersey, last year. After five years living in Downtown Brooklyn, he’s now ready to start a family. And though it may not fit with his image, he seems to be enjoying some newfound domestic pursuits. “This is super cheeseball shit, but I let the dog out in the morning. He takes a shit in the yard. And I sit there and look at the plants and see how they’re doing,” he confesses. But even if he’s moved away, he still loves the borough where he got his start, he assures me, adding that he hopes to open another restaurant here. “Brooklyn’s been good to us. We came up in Brooklyn and it started us off, but just because we left doesn’t mean we don’t love it as much as we used to.”