Dale Talde has quickly proven to New Yorkers that he’s more than just a TV chef. In the span of just a few years, the Vong and Buddakan veteran has opened two, very popular restaurants of his own — his eponymous Asian fusion eatery, Talde, and the relaxed, Brooklyn roadhouse, Pork Slope. He even became a chef and co-owner of his business partners’ already established spot, Thistle Hill Tavern, revitalizing their menu of basic bistro classics with his own playful sensibility. Case in point: The Buffalo Cauliflower, which swaps out chicken wings for Cauliflower, and gets slathered with hot sauce and blue cheese. His unique brand of fusion seems to be what’s taken him so far so fast.
That’s why it’s so hard to believe that Talde was told to pack his knives and go, twice, on Bravo’s reality cooking show, Top Chef. But for fans and customers that have come to know and love him for his outgoing personality, down-to-earth restaurants, and unique plates like Pretzel Pork and Chive Dumplings and Crispy Oyster and Bacon Pad Thai, a TV show title doesn’t mean much. As he tells us, “You get recognition from the show and you have to admit it’s gotten you somewhere. But Top Chef is a show where the people that succeed are the people that do work. Not the people that go on the show just to make good TV.”
In a relationship.
When and how did you realize that you wanted to be a chef?
I was around eight or nine. I grew up watching cooking shows on PBS like Yan Can Cook and liked how they were working with their hands. My father was a laborer, and worked with his hands for a living, too.
Are there any other paths you can imagine your life having taken?
I like the arts as a whole. I like dance… it’s almost military how they train. It’s like a tough kitchen where a chef breaks his cooks into line and makes them all believe in the system. I always liked order.
What job single handedly shaped the rest of your career?
Being a checkout boy at a grocery store gave me an advantage going into culinary school. I knew all the fruits and vegetables. I knew a skirt steak from a ribeye. I saw what people from different cultures put in their baskets and how those ingredients worked together, like chorizo and adobo and sofrito and rice.
Who do you consider to be your culinary mentors? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from them?
Geoff Felsenthal at Vong was one. When I was young, I thought he hated me, but he was just laying the groundwork for being a great cook. “Dale, this towel always goes here. If you have nothing else to do, you will wipe your station clean.” I was like, “Chill, dude.” But being a chef isn’t just about managing people. You’re teaching them to be you.
You’re known for taking the often negative connotations out of Asian fusion. Can you explain how you’ve successfully married all of your cultural influences in your cooking?
There definitely isn’t a formula. It just comes from taking inspiration everywhere you can find it. When you’re Asian, there’s a pot of rice in the house all the time. There’s always a pork chop and a fried egg on the table. I live in downtown Brooklyn, above Bed Stuy Fish Fry, next to a Bangladeshi bodega, and across from Brooklyn Fare. Those flavors are me, and that’s fusion.
What other restaurants do you think have been successful in fusing multiple ethnic influences?
Jean-Georges’ restaurants are like a kaleidoscope of where he’s from. When we opened Vong, the flavors popped so hard, chili and vinegar and tamarind and garlic, all tied in with Maine crab. It was way ahead of its time. And the Torrisi guys are doing it so well.
Although you are currently the executive chef and part owner of three restaurants, which is closest to your heart, and why?
Talde is always going to be. It’s my namesake. This restaurant belongs to my family. And I have to work especially hard for them. I have real typical Asian parents that never really show how proud they are, but I think they’re proud.
Your first restaurant, Talde, was a runaway hit. Your follow up projects have been similarly well received. How much of this do you attribute to being a “known commodity” because of Top Chef?
It definitely helps. You get recognition from the show and you have to admit it’s gotten you somewhere. But Top Chef is a show where the people that succeed are the people that do work. Not the people that go on the show just to make good TV.
Do you think your career trajectory would have been altered had you actually won Top Chef?
Listen, I play to win. Second place is just last loser. I would have loved to have won. But my career path would have been the same. I love working in restaurants and making connections to my customers, not hawking Dale’s Sweet and Sour Sauce on QVC.
What do you wish you had done differently on the two challenges that eventually sent you home?
There are always certain things you would have done differently, but on the Restaurant Wars challenge with Spike and Lisa, I had no outs. I made a bad dish, but when you’re put in a cage with people you’re not getting along with and have to fight your way out, it’s not easy. The second time, with Angelo, I got dealt a bad card and I didn’t recover from it well. He had just been sent home, and had checked out. I don’t blame him, I probably would have checked out, too.
How has having a public persona affected your current relationship?
It takes a person as strong and confident as she is to shrug off some of the things that happen; pretty girls taking pictures with you and posting them on social media. You just have to be secure in who you are, and to her credit, she is.
What is your absolute favorite dish among your three restaurants (and yes, you have to choose!)
I have to tell you, my favorite thing on all of my menus is my cheeseburger. That’s my jam. It’s the food I crave when I’m not slinging Pad Thai and Laksa in Coconut Milk.
If you could only work with five ingredients for the rest of your life, what would they be?
Rice, fish sauce, eggs, pork, and chicken skin.
Where do you imagine yourself in five years? What about in ten?
Hopefully in five years we’ve paid our investors back, are smoothly operating successful restaurants, and are opening a few more. In ten years, maybe we’re expanding to some places besides Brooklyn. Hopefully someplace warm where I can split my time. I just love opening restaurants, seeing your vision come to life in a place and space… I just love it.