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Q & A with Tuome’s Thomas Chen

Toume - New York, NYChinese food is definitely having a moment right now, and we’re not talking about Lo Mein, General Tso’s and Fried Rice.  Young chefs like Thomas Chen — an Eleven Madison Park vet who just opened his first restaurant, Tuome, in the East Village — are putting a fresh, contemporary face on the cuisine, using top-notch ingredients and refined techniques in order to finally take Chinese fare to the next level.  “It’s kind of had a bad rap to overcome, with people equating all Chinese food with greasy takeout,” Chen admits.  “But with more Chinese chefs coming up, looking to add modern elements to the authentic cuisine they grew up with, you’ll see Chinese food continue to gain momentum.”

So don’t expect to find Beef and Broccoli at Tuome (at least, not in any recognizable form).  Instead, the 45-seat, urban-rustic eatery has become known for dishes, like deep-fried Deviled Eggs with chili, Oxtail Spring Rolls with bone marrow and cumin, Hamachi with cucumber, apple and crispy dill, and Scallop with carrot, maitake mushrooms and foie gras sauce.

We chatted with Chen about the various ways he’s elevating Chinese food at Tuome, the culinary trends he really gets behind (and which he wishes would just die already), and, when not at his restaurant, his favorite go-to spots in the city for a great Chinese meal.

What was your “aha” moment, when you first realized that you wanted to become a chef?
I think it’s in my blood.  My parents used to own a restaurant when I was growing up, so I would help them.  Even when I worked as an accountant for four years, I was always drawn to the culinary world.  That being said, my parents are probably still upset, to this day, that I decided to work in restaurants.  All they wanted was for me to go to college and get an education.

What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I’d say Eleven Madison Park.  I learned a lot there in terms of different skills and techniques, and developed real discipline.

How does your time at places like Eleven Madison Park reflect itself in this restaurant?
I think understanding all the techniques and the importance of precision really helped me to get to where I am right now.  It’s allowed me to explore my Chinese background and the food I grew up with, while still adding refinement to dishes with bold, interesting flavors.

Can you describe your concept for the restaurant?
It’s ingredient-driven, refined food in a casual setting.  Achieving a balance of textures and flavors is super important to us.

Can you give a few examples of dishes on this menu with really traditional Chinese roots, and then explain how you’ve elevated or modernized them?
I think the Octopus with Pork XO, Brown Butter, and Fingerling Potato Espuma has a lot of Chinese inspiration.  XO sauce is a traditional, dried scallop-based Chinese condiment used for stir-frying.  The version I make uses caramelized pork, Chinese sausage, garlic and ginger, which are really identifiably Chinese flavors.  The Rice with Kale, Lap Cheong and Duck Fat is inspired by a classic dim sum dish; chicken and Chinese sausage wrapped in a lotus leaf.  In my version, I char the sausage and cook it in duck fat.  The Pig Out is based on the barbecued meats you see hanging in the windows of restaurants in Chinatown.  I wanted to make a version using pork that’s been cooked for 15 hours with crispy skin on top, and traditional garnishes like ginger and scallions, as well as my own sambal-lime sauce.

If you were to dine here as a guest, what would you order and why?
I’d probably start off with the Beets with Quinoa, Five Spice Yogurt and Pumpkin Seeds, then go into the Deviled Egg, which has garnered a lot of customer interest.  Then, if you’re really hungry (I’m usually hungry), get the Octopus, and then the Pig Out to share and a side of the Rice.

Besides your own, what are some of your favorite places for Chinese food in the city?
I live in Flushing, so I tend to eat out a lot there.  I love going to White Bear, which is a dumpling spot.  There’s also a place called Foo Kee that I love, which serves traditional Chinese banquet-style food.  You have to go with many people, because there are a lot of courses to share.

What current culinary trends do you really embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
I like the use of grains.  There are many different textures to explore.  For example, we use both crispy and steamed quinoa with our beets.  And obviously we use a lot of rice, which I grew up eating.  We experiment with many different varieties, like sweet rice and sushi rice.

I’m not into bread service.  I think when eating a meal, I’d rather enjoy the food then be stuffed with bread right at the beginning.  It doesn’t add much flavor or excitement to your meal; you’re better starting with an amuse or something pickled or something that’s going to get you excited for the meal to come.

What do you consider to be some of the most overrated and underrated ingredients?
I’d say overrated would be truffle oil.  Underrated would be chicken.  I love it.  If you cook it properly, it’s amazing.

Obviously, owning their own restaurant is a chefs big dream.  But what’s your ultimate career goal?
I think first and foremost, I want Tuome to be successful, and to please everyone who comes in.  In the long term, I want to open up more restaurants in a different vein.  At the end of the day, though, I’m just about making people happy, which is what this industry is about.  Great hospitality, great food and great service.

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