Are you seated comfortably? If not, we suggest a tall, cool drink to keep you company as our interview with chef Ryan Carson continues. Find out his connection to Disney, plus how lechon influenced his childhood. While we touch upon the topic of molecular gastronomy, know that it's just one segment of their Cal-Asian cuisine. To catch up on Part One, you can click here.
Food is subjective. No matter how much effort and time you put into a dish, it all depends on what the customer likes. As a chef, you have to be humble, confident with what you do and open to criticism.
What would your last meal on Earth be?
My father was a great chef. On Sundays, he would roast a whole pig in the front yard, being that he was from the Philippines and roasting whole pigs for all of suburbia to see was normal for him. I was very young, and I yearn to remember what it tasted and smelled like. To have a whole roasted pig cooked by my late father would be a last meal fit for a king–or, better yet, a nostalgic son.
Who's your hero, culinary or otherwise?
Truthfully, my heroes, culinary-wise, are the entire staff of AnQi, including the corporate chef, Helene An; owner Elizabeth An; and my sous chefs, Ron Lee and Matt Ranney. Without their hard work, dedication and relentless efforts in collaboration with mine, none of our success would be feasible. In my personal life, my sister, Denise Carson, is my hero. We lost our parents at a young age to cancer, and she filled in as the matriarch for our family. In a time of epic personal despair, she forced me, against my will, to go to the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco. Without her loving, forceful nature, I would not be the man or the chef I am today.
Tell us about your food-service-industry background.
Unlike most chefs, I started as a dishwasher at the young age of 15. I worked my way up the ranks until I became a line cook at Disney's PCH grill. That's where I met Andrew Sutton of Auberge Du Soleil. He was brought on to open the first fine-dining establishment in Disneyland, Napa Rose. He definitely had the most impact on me as a chef and as a man. Chef Andrew taught me a different way to look into the food and a different way to approach life. It was definitely a turning point in my career when I went to work for him. Sutton didn't necessarily have the skills as a manager, but he just loved food–and the philosophy of it–so much, I was just fascinated and wanted to pick his brain every second I could.
After two years of working with Sutton, I was given an opportunity to work with Adam Baird at Robert Mondavi's Golden Vine Winery, inside Disney's California Adventure, where I became the youngest sous chef in the Disneyland corporation. But my quest for knowledge came to a halt because I was teaching cooks what to do instead of learning. So my sister got me into the CCA in San Francisco, which is one of the best culinary schools in America. There, I immersed myself in all things culinary. I woke up at 5 a.m. to catch the Muni bus to school; then at 3 p.m., I went to any restaurant that would accept a stagier, including Gary Danko, Aqua, Farralon, Jardiniere. After my stagier, around 11 p.m., I would go to work as a bar back to make money to live off until 2 a.m. Weekends were reserved for studying and reading cookbooks. It was a hard experience, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Upon graduation, I returned to work for chef Sutton to hone my newly learned skills at Napa Rose. That is where I met Michael Rossi, who was a sous chef at that time. We bonded like brothers, and when the opportunity for him to take on the executive chef job at Ambrosia came, I was the first to jump on the sous chef position. After three years of cooking great food with Michael, he decided to explore other opportunities, so I became the restaurant's executive chef at age 27. My crew and I started to experiment with avant garde techniques, and we became widely recognized for it.
After a year or so of being chef of Ambrosia and experimenting with avante garde techniques, a new opportunity with the House of An surfaced. Elizabeth An asked me to design and create a multicourse menu for AnQi, and she was quite pleased with the results. AnQi just felt right because the family and the food are a dynamic collaboration of old and new. Similarly, I embrace culinary traditions and the latest techniques. So naturally, I took the head chef position, and I've been here for more than a year, and I couldn't be happier with my career.
Have you cooked in the Secret Kitchen? What can you tell us?
No, and no comment (smiley face).
Tell us about working with master chef Helene An in a family-owned restaurant.
It's fantastic; the amount of family tradition and love for food in the An family is amazing. The family took a risk bringing on such a young chef to run such a large restaurant, and I cannot thank them enough. They are truthful, honest and, above all, caring. Knowing that I don't have much family, they make it a point to invite me to An family gatherings to make me feel like I am part of their family. No other boss has ever done that for me. Their generosity and loving nature shows through every day, and I am proud to be a part of their family. Working with chef Helene An is always a learning experience for both of us. She has so much knowledge of Asian cuisine, and I try to pick her brain every second I can. When we collaborate on dishes, it is a true synergy of both of our loves for food.
You specialize now in molecular gastronomy. What made you want to do that?
I found it fascinating, the fact that these new young chefs were throwing the rule book out the window and saying, 'Screw the system.' It was very punk rock in its own right. It was independent, ambitious, underground, taboo and, most of all, something new in a world of old traditions. I feel it is necessary to question things and go against the grain a little every now and then.
Not to say that I am one of the forefathers of this media-coined term called “molecular gastronomy.” But I truly understand the chemistry and anatomy of food. Far too often, any chef throwing 1,000 grams of xantham gum into a purée until its mucous is all of a sudden part of this group. As to say anyone with a spherification kit can be a Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufrense, Alex Stupak or a Grant Achatz is quite ridiculous and quite appalling. Just the other day, a culinary student with no experience wanted to stage at AnQi for three months. The first question he asked me is can he learn to do the molecular-gastronomy tasting menu items? More and more, I see young cooks and young chefs that have no respect for the traditions because the schools are no longer teaching this anymore.
I believe in throwing out the rule book if you know what it contains. What happened to “Hey, chef, can I learn how to cook a chicken perfectly?” Now, it's “Can I learn how to make a foam?” I love the thoughtfulness, exploration and insight it takes to do modern cuisine, but I never forget where I've come from in the culinary world. There must be a synergy between old and new, and the challenge of finding that balance is why I wanted to make molecular gastronomy a technique in my repertoire. It can be done with moderation, respect for the old, and passion for the new.
What dish would you tell newcomers to AnQi to try first?
The foie gras nigiri, with avocado cloud, black sesame tuile and burnt-honey emulsion. It's a perfect balance between French and Asian culture. In our eyes, it is the epitome of fusion. The An family and I are very proud of this dish.
What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
Honestly, I don't think there is any other career that fits me as well as being a chef. But if I had to choose, it would probably be a . . . No. Sorry, a chef is what I am.
What advice do you have for those who might be thinking about a career in food?
Life in this business WILL be hard. Be willing to give up any hobby, dear friends, family relationships and the guy/girl you think you love. Because the rest of your life will be consumed with the life that has been set before you as a person that has chosen this career. You'll pay thousands of dollars in tuition to be a minimum-wage employee.
And if you're not in it for the food and only in it for the fame, then you should try to become an actor or actress, for the life we lead is far skewed from what the media likes to portray it as. My work life is fantastic, but my personal life is in shambles. That being said, don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do it. This is a passion career; you probably won't make that much money, and you will work ridiculous hours and holidays. But if you love what you do . . . then you'll never work a day in your life.
What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years?
I don't necessarily like to look to the future for answers. Living and performing in the moment is what makes a great chef. When my crew and I perform to the max level, great opportunities will open within the House of An.
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