‘Best new chef’ Bryant Ng comes to Aspen Food & Wine Classic

by Aspen Times, June 16, 2012

Bryant Ng, owner of the Spice Table in Los Angeles and a Food & Wine “best new chef” of 2012, will serve beef rendang in the Grand Tasting Tent on Sunday.

ASPEN — When Bryant Ng was young, his parents owned a Los Angeles restaurant called Wok Way. Bali Hai, a Santa Monica spot his maternal grandparents owned in the ‘60s, served a different kind of cuisine — a mix of Cantonese and Polynesian — but was similar in many respects to Wok Way. Both were run with business savvy; both followed popular food trends. Bali Hai drew on the Polynesian fads of the time; Wok Way, Ng said, was “your typical fried egg rolls, sweet-and-sour pork, chow mein place, Chinese-American.”

Ng, too, owns a Los Angeles eatery that is a hybrid of Asian cuisines. But to say that Ng is following in the family footsteps misses the essence of what Ng does, and of what his ancestors did.

“Those were businesses, restaurants run as businesses,” the 35-year-old said of his parents’ and grandparents’ places. “They weren’t particularly original or different. They were modeled after something else.”

Ng, who was born in the Northridge neighborhood of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, has pursued a different model. The Spice Table, a 60-seat spot that he opened in March 2011 in the Little Tokyo neighborhood, emphasizes the cuisine over the business plan.

“I’m focused a lot on food,” Ng said by phone. “I’ve trained in restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, so my upbringing is more food-focused than their restaurants. I try to go away from anything I see as a trend,and be truthful to what I’m doing here. I don’t think my grandparents thought like that. They didn’t think about food. With my parents, it wasn’t their main passion or main career.”

A big payoff for Ng came in April, when he was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “best new chefs.” Ng is in Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic and will join the other nine best new chefs for appearances in the Grand Tasting Tent, a first at the Classic. Ng will serve short-rib and beef tongue rendang, peanut sambal, fried anchovies and coconut rice during the Grand Tasting at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Like the previous generations of his family, Ng’s talents were not limited to the kitchen or restaurant business. Ng’s father was a cosmetics chemist, his mother a microbiologist. His grandfather owned a detergent factory. For them, owning a restaurant truly was a business — they hired cooks to run the kitchen.

Ng spent large chunks of his childhood at Wok Way, peeling shrimp and washing dishes. At UCLA he studied molecular-cell and developmental biology, then worked as a consultant for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. He enjoyed the work, appreciated that he was able to develop his business skills.

“But I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he said. “I began to explore other opportunities.”

Ng decided on the food business. In 2002, impatient to get on with his career, he chose the shortest chef course there was — at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, which offered a three-month program.

“I really wanted to get back to the U.S. and start working,” he said. “Education is a lot of theory, and it’s very different than the real world. I wanted to get into the real world.”

Ng returned to San Francisco, where he had been living, and took a job at La Folie, a French restaurant.

“I wanted a kitchen that had really good systems. In the U.S., it’s the French kitchens that are most codified,” he said.

At Campanile, in Los Angeles, he met Nancy Silverton, who would become a key colleague. He switched coasts for a job at Daniel, in New York, then returned to L.A. to help Silverton open Pizza Mozza, a partnership with Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich, where Ng was chef de cuisine.

Ng opened the Spice Table last year with his wife, Kim, an attorney who managed to run the front of house in the early months. (Kim’s shifts are down to hostessing on Friday and Saturday nights.) Though he had cooked French, Italian and California cuisines, his restaurant is pure Asian, influences primarily by Singapore, where his ancestors came from, and Vietnam, a nod to his wife’s heritage. For lunch, the menu is filled primarily with sandwiches inspired by the Vietnamese bánh mi. At night, the menu switches over to dishes like beef rendang, a dried-beef curry dish that uses short ribs and tongue, and laksa, a traditional noodle dish.

The food is inspired by all of Ng’s experiences: his training in Paris, the kitchens he’s worked in, his childhood in L.A. — even McDonald’s. But the decision to focus on Asian cuisine was an easy one — even if the Spice Table has little philosophical resemblance to the restaurants of his parents and grandparents.

“It was very natural,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to cook the food of my heritage. I knew this was the guiding force. It was something I knew I’d be able to do comfortably. Because it was a part of me. I always felt like an impostor doing French and Italian food. The cuisine I do now speaks to me.”