When you walk into the Spice Table, the Little Tokyo restaurant chef Bryant Ng and his wife, Kim Luu-Ng, opened just over a year ago, you are presented with a composition of place so complete that you might not even notice it. The wood-burning open fire behind the bar like a cabin hearth. The birdcages hanging from the dining room ceiling. The universe of exposed brick, as if you've stumbled into a country church. Oh, and the food, which seems like the world on a plate — or one heavily doused with sambal.
It is a lovely place, an evolved place, the sort of place that seems to have been extant for considerably longer than a year. You could say the same thing about Ng's cooking, which is the street food of his family's native Singapore, with a little of his wife's family's Vietnamese food, plus a layer of Nancy Silverton's Los Angeles kitchens and an echo of Daniel Boulud's New York City palaces thrown in for good measure. It does not seem “new” any more than Ng seems a New Chef, which is what Food & Wine named him (properly “Best New Chef”) last week.
But “new” is a happily relative term. Ng is here to stay, whatever adjective you hand to him. He really is, regardless of the vicissitudes of city planners: Yes, the MTA has had some changing plans for the space, but there's nothing firm yet — Ng has known about the issue since before he signed his lease — and at the rate the city is going, Ng may even outgrow his current location before anybody makes a decision. Who you gonna bet on, anyway? We'll take the chef over the city planners any day. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: Well, first off — congratulations!
Bryant Ng: Thank you.
SI: So do you get to fly to Aspen?
BN: I believe in July, and I get to bring a few people. I've never been — I hear it's pretty insane.
SI: Watch out for bears. Lots of black bears in the summer in Aspen.
BN: I have to watch out for bears? Are you serious? Are you supposed to play dead?
SI: Just walk slowly away. Don't chase them offering food. I've seen people do that there; I don't recommend it.
BN: There's going to be a lot of food. I guess I'm not going to do anything with honey.
SI: Not sure about bears and sambal.
BN: Maybe it'll scare them away. [Pause. We consider bears.] But it'll be really fun — I'm really excited. And I believe it's going to be the 30th anniversary — I don't know if they're doing anything special or not, so it's kind of cool.
SI: What do you do? Do you get some kind of mystery box?
BN: I don't know yet. I have no idea.
SI: How did you find out about the award, anyway? Do you get some secret Nobel Prize phone call or something?
BN: You do. Kind of. So the way it happened with me was that it was a busy Friday, I think, and I was working the grill over here and I get this phone call. I look at it and it's from New York. And the days prior to that, I'd been getting calls from New York and they were from Food & Wine just asking me questions about my background, that sort of thing.
SI: They were fact-checking you.
BN: Absolutely. So I was looking at it and thinking — New York again — well, I gotta cook a burger. Then there was another call like a half-hour later and so I get on the phone and she's like, “This is Dana [Cowin, Food & Wine editor], Hi, how are you?” And she told me but she said I had to keep it a secret. So I walked into the walk-in and closed it — and people were trying to get in — and I was just going, like … I was just trying to hold the excitement in. In my mind it was a little trippy, a little surreal; I didn't really know what to think about it at first. And then I thought — how am I going to keep it a secret?
SI: How long did you have to keep it secret?
BN: About a month.
SI: A month! You told your wife, right?
BN: I told my wife. I did tell other people here eventually, because they were going to wonder why I was going to New York. But I told Kim, my wife, right away; she went into this room and started yelling.
SI: Did you know any of the other chefs who were named?
BN: I know them now. I didn't know any of them before a week ago, although I knew of them. Then we flew out for a party and we spent a whole day doing photo shoots together, and so you sit around a lot and you get to know each other. For me, as a chef, I'm using to moving around a lot, and that was a lot of hurry up and wait.
SI: You guys would make terrible actors. You'd hate sitting in trailers all day.
BN: Yeah. I can't even fly in a plane, I get so antsy.
SI: You can't at all? Like Charles Grodin in Midnight Run?
BN: Oh, I can. I just don't enjoy it.
SI: And in addition to the Food & Wine thing — happy anniversary! You guys pretty recently celebrated your one-year mark.
BN: Thank you. It's a year and a month maybe. So it's still happy birthday.
SI: Right. You've hit critical mass.
BN: And to hit that year point is very exciting for us. You know, the restaurant business is very difficult, and to be able to do that is great — and we just hope we'll keep going and going and going.
SI: New chefs are new chefs — the award stipulates five years — but you've just hit one. They don't count what went before, which in your case was Mozza.
BN: Yes, I opened Mozza. I was the chef de cuisine over there.
SI: And before Mozza?
BN: I was in New York, at Daniel. And before that I was at Campanile. That's where I met Nancy [Silverton, co-owner of Mozza and, then, Campanile]. Before that I was up north in San Francisco.
SI: We're going backwards now. Where did you grow up?
BN: Here in L.A. I'm L.A. born and raised. One of the few and proud.
SI: And you stayed here, you came back here — and you probably could have stayed in New York. Why didn't you?
BN: I could have. I stayed because my family's here. Because my wife's family's here. Also because it's a city I love. Obviously I grew up here — I understand it as much as I can, but I'm still learning. It feels comfortable to me. I don't mind the driving. I love the fact that you can go to the San Gabriel Valley and have some of the best Chinese food ever. Go to Westminster or Bolsa and have great Vietnamese food. Go to East L.A. Everywhere we have these awesome ethnic enclaves that you can't find anywhere else.
SI: Yeah, 10 miles from where you're sitting now. Standing, sorry.
BN: And those 10 miles? A lot of people don't want to drive those 10 miles, but for us, being in L.A., that's nothing. So that's why I'm here.
SI: Where do you see L.A. food now, compared to New York?
BN: You know what's great about L.A. food right now is I'm starting to see a lot of colleagues of mine, other chefs, who are opening restaurants that are a little bit more personal. Kind of like the Spice Table here, which is part of my heritage, right? You have guys like Josef [Centeno] over at Baco Mercat, the guys at Sotto, the guys at Animal, Ricardo [Zarate] over at Picca, Roy Choi — we're all doing things that are very much what we want to do, very personal. In places like New York and San Francisco, in the past, you'd see a lot of that, not these big-box places but smaller venues, smaller, more personal restaurants — and we're seeing a lot more of that now here in L.A. I'd say within the last year, there's so many great restaurants opening; the landscape is changing, and becoming a lot better, too. The ethnic enclaves and the mom-and-pop shops — that's great. L.A.'s always been great for that. But now we're getting more upscale-casual places that we hadn't had before.
SI: No, here there'd been a huge gap between, say, Melisse and the taqueria.
BN: There was nothing in between — but you're starting to see the in-between right now, and it's giving L.A. a lot of flavor.
SI: And especially now that these places are being opened by people with your kind of background: highly trained.
BN: You have chefs with more of a classical background, and then doing something that's maybe more personal. Not as fine-dining-white-tablecloth, which makes it a little more accessible for everybody. Fine dining is usually special occasion.
SI: Right. And these days the special occasions are fewer and fewer between. Also it used to be that you grew up and left behind what you were familiar with or what you loved — because you had to. Now you can have your origins and use your training, too.
BN: Yes, especially for me. I'm a hybrid of many cultures. I was born here, but my dad is from Singapore. And then my training — I worked at French restaurants, at Italian restaurants, at Mediterranean restaurants, right? That was my formal training. But then to integrate that with what I grew up eating, what I experienced as a kid in Singapore or Hong Kong, and be able to integrate that — that's a huge joy. And my wife, Kim's family is from Vietnam, and to integrate what they do and learn from them and re-create that.
SI: It's post-colonial food anyway.
BN: It is, absolutely. What's great about now, where we are at the restaurant, is that I can integrate all these different things. And although I'm grounded in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Vietnam, I can take a lot of those flavors and do other things with them. To do the traditional as well as things that are a little bit different and fun. Like the pig's tail.
SI: The pig's tail! So, what was the impetus for the pig's tail?
BN: The inspiration was nem nuong, a Vietnamese grilled sausage, and the idea was to take the flavor profile of that sausage and put it toward the pig's tail. The pig's tail is such a beautiful cut of meat: It's lean, it's fat, it's skin, it has the bone in there, so there's even more flavor. To take those flavors and then present it the way you'd traditionally do nem nuong, which is with the lettuces and the herbs and the fish sauce. So with the nem nuong, you take the meat and you wrap it in the lettuce and that's how it's traditionally eaten. So I wanted to present it traditionally but then do something that wasn't traditional, and still have those flavor components.
SI: Any plans on the horizon — other than not moving your restaurant?
BN: I think right now I want to focus on this, right here. To make sure that we're doing the best we can. Especially with this award now, it's not Best Old Chef, it's not Best Chef Who's Been Around For 30 Years And Is Kicking Up His Feet Right Now. It's Best New Chef, and for me it's kind of an opportunity to motivate myself, motivate my staff, to do even better. So right now I just want to create more food, and really do what we do and do it better. That's where I'm at.