Interview: chef Bryant Ng (The Spice Table)

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Chef Los Angeles

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Do you still feel like it’s essential to work in San Francisco and New York if you’re a chef?

I think it is essential to work in multiple cities. Whatever cities those are, I don’t know. Whether it’s San Francisco, New York, Chicago, L.A., New Orleans, I don’t know. Maybe it’s overseas, but I do think it’s very important to work in other cities so that you can see how the culinary culture is different. You know. You eat out a lot and go to different cities and you can see that there’s a difference. The cultures within a restaurant itself though, isn’t necessarily region specific or city specific. You can go into a restaurant, say in New York, that has a reputation as being super hardcore, and you go there and it’s super relaxed. It depends on the kitchen. It depends on the chef. You can come to Los Angeles, which tends to have a more relaxed atmosphere, and then go to a kitchen that’s highly regimented, and you’ll get your ass kicked, in a good way.

What do you look for when you’re hiring here?

Attitude, and if they fit, more than skill. You can teach people how to dress a salad, make a salad dressing, to taste, what to taste for. You can teach them how to use the wok, you can teach them how to sauté, you can teach them how to grill. What you can’t teach is somebody who has the right attitude, who comes in and is passionate about what they do, really wants to learn, and is very committed. You can’t teach that. That’s inherent. That’s the number one thing.

Do you ask certain questions or have them trail for a day?

Not necessarily specific questions. I’ll pepper them throughout, talk about experience and try to get a sense of who they are. Then we’ll watch and see technically how they do. There’s one thing I’ve learned. You can have the best attitude in the world and be the best person in the world, but the kitchen may not be for you. You may not have those skills, and you may not be able to acquire them. I kind of learned that throughout the years. There are some people, you’re just rooting for them. “I like this guy, I love this girl, she’s great, and would be a great addition to this kitchen, but look at the way she moves. She’s really awkward and it doesn’t feel quite right.” As many times as you teach them how to do the knife work and everything like that, they just don’t get it. We had a guy over here, great guy, loved him. He would come in, great attitude, just want to learn, and he just over and over again, you tell him the same thing, and it becomes frustrating, because ultimately, maybe you’re throwing away a lot of product, because something’s messed up. Who knows what it is. I realized it’s not just attitude. They have to have the technical skill, or they have to be teachable. It is about attitude, whether or not they fit within the group, then if they can be trained.

Are you still on track to opening The Spice Table in another location?

We are looking at a few locations. Metro is going to be coming through here, for sure. As of right now, March of next year is what they’re saying, and that’s what they’ve said for awhile. We will have to be out of here. We are working on a few things right now.

Maybe a donut shop?

Maybe a donut shop. You planted that seed in the head.

Wherever you resurface, considering the lessons you’ve learned from The Spice Table, how does Spice Table 2.0 look?

We have learned a lot. We’ve grown. We have a great crew. They’re going to be coming with me wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing. I want to make sure we stay true to who we are, no matter where we are or what we do. Our #1 goal is that we are exposing people to the food of Singapore and Vietnam in unique ways. That’s the most important thing, to be able to have that reach and have people hopefully understand the food and have a glimpse of it. When we talk about Singaporean food, it’s way behind, say, Chinese, Japanese and Thai. They’ve made the greatest inroads in American culture. Singapore, we’re still 10, 15 years off, before you can order Singaporean food to go…For me, wherever we go, whatever we do, I’m going to make sure that we are introducing people to these flavors, and also, doing it in a very respectful and honest way that I would be very proud to do.

What was the last meal you cooked at home?

Kim’s going to kill me. Honestly, it was for myself and it was two days ago. Kraft macaroni and cheese. I just put some Tabasco sauce and ham in there and I was done. I ate the whole damn thing.

What steps do you take to achieve balance in your life, if that’s even possible?

It is. #1, we’re closed on Sundays so I can spend time with Kim and my family. Also, to step away from this when I can. Work-life balance is very important to me, and my family’s very important to me, so I always try and find that balance. We have a great staff here that’s allowed me to step away and not be here all the time, even though I want to be. It’s not that I have to be here all the time. I want to. I need to be here. For me, it’s understanding there are different parts of my life that I need to tend to as well…and to have that level of separation. Like going to Southeast Asia, this trip, there are business components of it, going to World Streetfood Congress and other things, but Vietnam is just going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to go out to Phu Quoc, the island over there where they make the fish sauce, and we’re going to talk to a few people and go to Danang, which is in the central region, near where Kim’s family is from.

Who else do you look to in the restaurant industry for inspiration, advice or guidance?

I look to Nancy [Silverton] a lot, because she’s here, she’s close, accessible, and has always been a huge supporter of mine. I always like to use her like a sounding board. She’s very generous in that way. She’s also very successful, and I very much admire what she does, so she’s somebody that I talk to.

What would you like people to think of when they hear the name Bryant Ng?

INTERVIEW CONTINUED ON THE NEXT PAGE

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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