In the Kitchen with Thomas Chen at Tuome
Opened just three short months ago, the quick ascension of Tuome to gastronomic fame has taken many by surprise, but not Thomas Chen, Tuome’s proprietor and chef whose calm exterior gives way to complexity in the kitchen. Two weeks ago, Tuome received two stars from Pete Wells, who wrote, “a striking number of dishes at Tuome are memorable for the right reasons.”
Born to Chinese immigrants who viewed restaurant ownership as nothing more than a means to survive, Thomas faced a number of obstacles, including the four years that he worked as an accountant. But since he had always enjoyed cooking, even as a kid, it was easy for him to accept the difficult career transition, because “I didn’t want to live a life of regret,” he said.
When studying at the Institute of Culinary Education, Thomas knew that he wanted to open his own restaurant. “I went in thinking I didn’t want to use Asian ingredients,” he said, “but once I started to cook, to understand different techniques, I knew I wanted to use Asian ingredients, to understand French techniques. I use a lot of French techniques and Chinese techniques here. The two together help me create something flavorful and balanced.”
After ICE, Thomas worked the hot-line at Eleven Madison Park, where he also worked as a saucier and in private dining. “I wanted to work at Eleven Madison to understand precision, discipline and refinement of food,” he said. “At Commerce,” where he worked as a sous chef, “I wanted to know how to operate a restaurant.”
Working with Daniel Humm, chef/co-owner at Eleven Madison Park, Thomas said, “He was an inspiration. I learned a lot about understanding my palate, different flavors and cooking techniques.” But, he added, “A lot of it is self-taught. Some one can teach you only so much, but if you don’t push yourself…You have to fail constantly to be successful.”
Spending two to three weeks to create each dish on the menu, Thomas practices and tests each item, whether it’s recipe based or created on the fly, which is how he worked in the kitchen when he was a kid, by playing around with different ingredients. “With some items on the menu I use a recipe. I have a team in the kitchen, so without a recipe it can create inconsistency,” he said. “But not using a recipe helps cooks understand their palates. When a recipe is done, it’s correct. But it’s good to understand flavors, the balance of texture, and having acidity, saltiness and sweetness…” A symphonious orchestration, the Deviled Eggs are fried crisp with panko, served warm and creamy, and topped with sweet and spicy bits of garlic and chili, a sensory experience that becomes even more transformative when paired with R3 Riesling from Corvers-Kauter.
“When opening a new restaurant, you don’t know what to expect. All I can control is the food I’m providing and to make it consistent and to make sure my team is happy so they’ll do everything I ask of them. At the end of the day,” he added, “having good PR is important, but it’s what the restaurant can do itself.” And if the wait by the door that evening was any indication, Tuome is just getting started.