AUGUST | New York
Tony Liu found his calling at an early age. As a teenager
in Honolulu, he took a job working as a dishwasher so that he could
spend his days surfing. Gradually spending more time in the kitchen
than on the beach, Liu’s interest turned serious, and he earned
a culinary arts and patisserie degree from Kapiolani Community College.
While in school, he worked in some of Hawaii’s top kitchens,
including Roy Yamaguchi’s Roy’s, The Lodge at Koele
and 3660 On the Rise. Looking to strengthen his skills
and broaden his experience, Liu moved to New York to attend the
Culinary Institute of America.
Liu interned at Lespinasse under Gray Kunz
before joining the opening team at Daniel, which earned
four stars from The New York Times. It was there that Liu
came to appreciate well-executed, classic French cooking. He went
on to work in Floyd Cardoz’s kitchen at Tabla, where
he learned the nuances of modern Indian cuisine. In 2001, Liu left
New York for Spain’s three-Michelin-starred Restaurante
Martin Berasategui. For six months, he immersed himself in
Spanish cooking, from experimental techniques to traditional Iberian
dishes. Upon returning to the US, Liu took up the position of Sous
Chef at Babbo under Mario Batali.
Liu became the Executive Chef of August in early 2004.
When planning the menu for this intimate spot in Greenwich Village,
he looked to incorporate traditional influences from the various
cuisines he has worked with over the years. He poured over old cookbooks
he has collected, some dating as far back as the 17th century. As
Liu explains, “August is focused on making traditional
dishes in their authentic style with the freshest and most seasonal
ingredients. We are not reinventing any of the European classics,
rather, we are paying homage to them.”
You went to the CIA – how was it? Do you think culinary school
is essential for aspiring chefs today? And do your parents object
to your chosen profession?
TL: I started at CIA
when I was 21, after finishing a culinary program in Hawaii. It
was a great experience that provided a strong foundation. The chef
instructors were very inspiring and really made me push myself to
absorb as much as I could. You don’t have to go to culinary
school--some of the top chefs like Thomas Keller, didn’t.
I don’t necessarily look for culinary school background when
I’m hiring. If you have experience and are motivated to learn,
I’ll just as likely to hire you as someone who went to culinary
school. My parents were always very supportive of my decision to
become a chef.
worked alongside some amazing chefs – Roy Yamaguchi, Gray
Kunz, Daniel, Mario, and you spent time in Spain with Martin Berasategui.
Who would you say is your primary mentor?
TL: One of the people not mentioned
is Floyd Cardoz, who I worked for at Tabla – I consider him
a mentor, as well as Alex Lee (former Daniel executive
chef) and Mario Batali of Babbo. I’ve taken a lot
away from each experience with all of the chefs I’ve worked
for. I spent the most time in the kitchen at Daniel, my first job
in New York. It was phenomenal working in the kitchen with Daniel,
Alex, and the rest of the talented staff. I tried to soak up as
much as I could, be there all the time, and work as much as I could.
AT: do you think it’s
important for young chefs to get experience cooking overseas? Why?
TL: Yes. My experience working
in Spain with Martin Berasategui broadened my horizons. I also think
travel is important. It opens you to different techniques and styles
that you need to grow. For example, there’s one dish on our
menu in the summer with green peppers. When I was in Spain, I tried
pimentos de Padron, these little green peppers that never make it
out of Spain. But I remembered that taste sensation, and in Hawaii,
we have little Japanese delis where they sell shishito peppers that
are very similar in flavor and texture. I saw the shishitos at the
greenmarket in Union Square and prepared them in the style of the
Padron peppers – it’s now one of our biggest sellers.
AT: What’s your philosophy
on food and dining?
TL: I worked at lot of higher
end places and I really appreciate what those restaurants are doing.
What I like about working at August is bringing the standards
of a fine dining restaurant to a more casual neighborhood restaurant—a
place that more people have access to and can eat at more often.
AT: Who do you consider your
peers in the industry? What chefs do you most respect?
TL: I like what Wylie Dufrene
is doing, he is really pushing the envelope. Not a chef, but I respect
Danny Meyer and his team on how they run their businesses.
AT: What is your favorite
“secret” ingredient? Why?
TL: It’s not so secret,
but I really like sweet and savory combinations, so some of my favorite
ingredients are things like currants and pine nuts.
AT: What is your most indispensable
kitchen tool? Why?
TL: The paddle for our wood
burning oven – its not the most exciting thing but we cook
a lot in our wood burn oven so we need to shuffle things in and
out. It’s a pretty standard peel: wooden to enter, metal to
retrieve. The wood burning oven itself is pretty indispensable—at
least 50 % of the menu comes out of it. We use our Staub casseroles
for serving and cooking. For example,we use our cast iron receptacles
for eggs, pancakes, Brandade de Morue, and raclette.
AT: Is there a culinary technique
that you have either created or use in an unusual way? Please describe.
TL: For poultry, we use the
Chinese technique of pre-cooking them: place the bird in cold, seasoned
stock and bring it to a boil with the lid on. Turn off the heat,
and the lid forms a vacuum seal. Let it cool down in the pot, surrounded
with water and ice. It’s almost like sous-vide without the
machine. You get moist meat with minimal shrinkage. The meat can
then be crisped up in a pan. It only works with poultry though.
I learned it from my aunt, who is a great cook.
AT: What is your favorite question
to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
TL: What do you like to eat?
I’m looking to see what kind of passion they have for food.
If they have the passion, they’ll be willing to put in the
long hours and put up with a hot kitchen, cramped work space, and
so on—and be happy doing it. It takes a lot of passion to
be a cook. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to
get very far.
AT: What advice would you give
to aspiring young chefs?
TL: I’d say, don’t
be taken in too much by the Food Network and other media—be
careful of the glamorization of the food industry. Those chefs paid
their dues before they got their book deals and tv shows. Before
you do all the TV and cookbook stuff, you really have to pay your
dues and you really have to want it. You have to love the food.
AT: What are your favorite
cities for culinary travel? Why?
TL: San Francisco--I love places
like Zuni Café because the food is so straightforward
and so flavorful. I also recently traveled around Italy—It
was great eating in Rome because the recipes are so classical and
are so much a part of the foundation for a lot of what we eat today.
I also always love to return to my hometown, Honolulu, because of
the many types of really good ethnic foods available.
AT: Where are your favorite
restaurants to go in the city?
TL: I have so many favorites,
it’s hard to choose a few. Some of my current favorites are
Tia Pol, Fuleen Seafood in Chinatown, and Christie’s
(a Jamaican beef patty place in Brooklyn), En Japanese Brasserie.
AT: Tell me about the biggest
challenges you faced in opening up your own restaurant.
TL: We opened early in 2004
and I found one of the biggest challenges was learning to work with
the wood burning oven. It’s a really good oven, but it has
its challenges. Also, the physical space of the restaurant itself
was a challenge. We’ve got three separate kitchens—two
that are separated by the major thruway that goes through the restaurant,
and another downstairs for prep and desserts. Upstairs we’ve
got four burners, a flat top, and the oven. Because the kitchen
is so spread out, it requires more staff than most restaurants this
AT: Are you involved in any
TL: We do Days of Taste, which
is a partnership with local elementary schools. The students learn
about food and making better choices. They come over to August
and make pizzas and salads. We get to influence and shape how kids
are eating—and expose them to leafy, green vegetables that
AT: What trends do you see
emerging in the culinary industry?
TL: Molecular Gastronomy is
coming more into play, with techniques and equipment that cut down
on labor costs and create more consistent products. People may not
use all of it, but they’ll take certain elements and incorporate
them into their own style. At August, we use a lot of old recipes,
but innovation and technology is good, too. If you don’t use
any of it, you’re going to stagnate and die. But you need
to know where to draw the line.
AT: Where do you see yourself
in five to10 years?
TL: Still cooking, probably
in New York. Beyond that, I don’t know. Ownership would be
great. I’m open to different styles of cuisine, too. Someday
I’d like to incorporate more Asian influences into my cooking.
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