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Q & A with Imperial No 9's Sam Talbot

Sam Talbot.jpgIt’s nearly impossible not to notice Sam Talbot.  He first got our attention competing on Top Chef and has been making waves in New York ever since.  A bit of a beach bum, Talbot headed Montauk to open The Surf Lodge, where he gave us a preview of his ocean-to-table cooking.  But with Imperial No. 9, he proves he has staying power, and more importantly, a talent for cooking globally-inspired seafood.   As for his critics, Talbot says, “My mother thinks I’m a good cook. If she’s stoked, the rest can…”  (Enough said.)
If running two kitchens weren’t enough, Talbot also has a cookbook coming out this October with a focus on eco-responsibility and heart healthy cooking.  Would he ever consider doing television again?   “Hell, yes,” he answers.

I am happily engaged to two beauts: The Surf Lodge and Imperial No. Nine. The Surf Lodge is my first love, but after meeting Imperial No. Nine I’m really spun.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Either a marine biologist or a chef. 

What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
My first job was as a dishwasher. I learned how to wash dishes and scrape the plates properly. 

Considering you were raised in North Carolina, did you grow up on Southern classics?
Yes, chicken fried steak and shrimp and grits were big in my home.

Who are some of your biggest mentors and why?
Steve Peterson, a chef whom I work with on a day-to day-basis on all of my projects, has not just become a mentor of mine, but more importantly a close friend.

You’ve come pretty far, pretty fast: Most young chefs in your position spent years training under chefs like Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges, or David Bouley before opening one restaurant, never mind two.  Do you see your background as an advantage, perhaps having a fresh take, or do you feel like you’re constantly being compared to other chefs? 
Sure, there is a lot of scrutiny, but in my humble opinion when the haters hate, and you have a giant X on your back, it makes it that much more fun to succeed. I just keep my head down and get everything done no matter what is happening around me. That has always worked for me. I work best under the gun and with all of the intensity that I can possibly pack into a fast-paced kitchen. I don’t have a fine dining background like some of my peers who have worked for the finest chefs around, such as Jean Georges or Boulud, but what I do have is heart. It’s a definitive passion to always strive for success, not just professionally but spiritually, too. I try to look at the entire backdrop of cooking. I’m not just focused on making food taste good, but also in procuring my ingredients in an environmentally responsible way. I focus on using foods that are heart-healthy with a lower glycemic index that will in turn make you feel great after a meal. That’s my philosophy, my take. I did go to school at Johnson and Wales, but I didn’t graduate due to a broken foot from a Beastie Boys concert, and therefore I was considered a liability on crutches – thanks Mike D. Cooking always came naturally to me, it’s what I know. My background must have been an advantage, because at this point in my life, with two successful restaurants and a cookbook coming out in October, I truly couldn’t be happier. My cookbook is to help raise awareness for Diabetes and Overall wellness. That being said, I will take my background any day of the week. I started at 14 and haven’t stopped.

Why did you decide to open your first restaurant in Brooklyn, New York instead of somewhere closer to your hometown?                                                                                                                                                     You have to cook in New York if cooking is your passion. It is a must. I’ll go back when I have a farm and kids.

What was it like opening Williamsburgh Café?  What challenges did you encounter there?
Well, my biggest challenge was that I was 24 and I didn’t know my elbow from knee.  

How has your cooking style evolved from Williamsburgh Café to your newest restaurant, Imperial No 9?
My cooking still has the same love as in the beginning and a grass roots approach, but my technique has progressed tenfold.

Your cooking is unique and very seafood-focused.  How would you describe your style?  Where do you get inspiration?
My focus is Ocean to Table and procuring food as eco-responsibly as possible.  Some say I cook feminine, which to me means delicate. Seafood is delicate and it has light and refreshing flavors, which is how I love to cook. Seafood and I are a match made in heaven.

How do you plan on dividing your time between the Surf Lodge and Imperial No. Nine this season?  In an ideal world, would you rather be cooking in Montauk or Manhattan?
I would rather be living on a beach in Hawaii with a fish taco shack and dreadlocks to my feet.

What’s your ideal meal at Imperial No. Nine?
To start: Bone Marrow and Mussels; Tuna with Grapefruit Cells, Mustard Seed and Oil, and Pressed Stecca; and Raw Oysters. For my entrée: King Crab a La Plancha with Sweet and Sour Butter, and Crispy Garlic; Slow Cooked Octopus with Jalapeno Soffrito, Lime, and Soy; Iron Skillet Beets with Shaker Bleu Cheese and Almond Semi-Freddo; and Toasted Cous Cous with Charred Squash, Slow Poached Egg and Pecorino. For dessert: Frozen Lemonade with Meyer Lemon Curd and Yuzu; Root Beer Egg Cream with Cardamom Foam, Cocoa Nib Ice Cream, and Boylan’s Root Beer; and Today’s Cookies.

How does your diabetes affect the way you cook?  Do you taste and tweak the desserts on the menu yourself?  Are there ever times when you can’t taste certain things that you make because you have diabetes?
I TASTE EVERYTHING. The key to diabetes is almost the same metaphor for life: moderation is key. As long as I’m a bit more calculated and methodical, I can eat or taste anything. I’m always introducing new ways to achieve sweetness in desserts to my Pastry Chefs. Using Truvia, a natural sweetener made from Stevia, is one way. I’m all about using natural ingredients, so Stevia, Truvia, fresh juices and fruit purees are a constant in my kitchen; rather than using white over-processed sugars and refined flours.

You get a lot of attention as a Top Chef.  Do you ever get frustrated that this kind of press downplays your cooking skills?
It was a great launching pad for me, an organic way to put myself out there. Frustration on such a silly thing would be a giant waste of my time. My mother thinks I’m a good cook, if she’s stoked than the rest can…

Do you ever regret doing Top Chef?
Hell no.

Any plans to do more television?
Hell yes. 

We know you’re a surfer, so what are some of your favorite beach eats out east? (Other than Surf Lodge, of course.)
Can I say my food truck? I’m kidding. Duryea’s has the best view, oysters, and lobster roll in Montauk…the wild wild east.

Imperial No. 9
9 Crosby St., nr. Grand St.
(646)218-6455 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            (646)218-6455      end_of_the_skype_highlighting

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