Feeding the Culture: Q&A With 6 US Chefs

Chef at work

Where words fail us, there’s always food. For the longest time, our cuisines have been a delicious conduit of cultural exchange. Our voices are expressed with cooking; our emotions are communicated in spices. For these six chefs, tapping into their cultural background to bring new and exciting flavors to the table is second nature.

Michael Beltran — Ariete, Miami

Chef Michael Beltran, Ariete

Michael Beltran, executive chef and owner of one-Michelin-star Ariete, is no stranger to Cuban food – in fact, he grew up with it. His culinary career started at Casa Juancho in Little Havana, Miami, and while he has worked in different kitchens, including Tuyo and Cypress Room, over the years, his unwavering love for the Magic City remains steadfast. He is one of the many talented young chefs that are redefining the next era of Miami dining.

1. What/Who inspired you to become a chef?

It was my grandparents who inspired me to become a chef. I was raised in a traditional Cuban household surrounded by a family that took great pride in their heritage. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve time spent around the dinner table, where the family gathered every night for a home-cooked meal. I remember fondly, how my grandparents would cook for 20-30 people during the holidays.

2. What’s your go-to quick mid-week dinner at home?

Depends on the day, but if I get home late, I usually go for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, because it’s simple, easy and delicious, but also gives me time to unwind at home.

3. If you have to boil down your culture into one type of food / ingredient, what would it be? What does it mean to you?

It would definitely have to be ripe plantains; it is a staple of our Cuban cuisine and it has such a deep connection to my roots and childhood that every time I eat them it takes me back.

4. What would you say is the ultimate foodie destination and why?

Without a doubt, I would have to say San Sebastián, Spain. The history and the culture around food in this city is incredibly rich and inspiring to both people within and outside the industry.

5. What do you think will be the next big culinary movement?

The Miami food scene. We definitely have been – and will continue to be – a big contributor to this and hope that more chefs and people in the industry alike will join us to keep proving that our city is capable of offering world-class dining experiences.

6. What does your ideal day off look like?

Cruising in my old Cadillac and going to Miami staple places: Tropical Chinese Restaurant, Mary’s Coin Laundry & Deli, Luis Galindo Latin American Restaurant, and The Corner. If I am not at any of those places then you will find me drinking a Negroni and hanging out at Galiano Cigar Room.

Anya El-Wattar — Birch & Rye, San Francisco

Chef Anya El-Wattar, Birch & Rye

Chef-owner of Birch & Rye Anya El-Wattar is a Russian-born émigré and a decades-long San Francisco resident who believes there is no better way to connect with the community than through lively conversation and creatively imagined food. Her motto? Love everyone, feed everyone.

1. What/Who inspired you to become a chef?

My mom inspired me to become a chef. Cooking at home was a necessity when I grew up, but she did it with passion. She is a natural born nurturer with a creative streak. I still have a lot of fun memories of cooking together with my mother at our summer house (dacha) using all the produce we grew in our garden.

2. What’s your go-to quick mid-week dinner at home?

From my days at the Ayurvedic Institute, I love to cook a good kitchari, which is a split mung bean soup. I make it with mixed vegetables, curry, and coconut milk with a side of basmati rice. My family loves this light, flavorful, nourishing soup which is quick and easy to make. It’s also easy on digestion!

3. If you have to boil down your culture into one type of food/ingredient, what would it be? What does it mean to you?

Rye bread. It is such an important part of the Russian food culture. For Russians, rye bread is the equivalent of nourishment and love. It’s enjoyed with almost every dish. To me, hardy rye bread means complexity and substance. I love to enjoy it with smetana cultured butter and a bit of pink salt.

4. What would you say is the ultimate foodie destination and why?

I’m so happy I opened Birch & Rye in San Francisco. For me, San Francisco is the ultimate foodie destination, since one can find wonderful restaurants representing many different cultures. I love Northern California’s fresh and vibrant produce which finds its way into every plate.

5. What do you think will be the next big culinary movement?

Given the number of ecological issues directly related to food production, the next movement would have to do with sustainability and a respectful attitude towards the earth. We work with several forager purveyors offering wild mushrooms, edible flowers, and herbs. We also only source sustainable caviar, fish, and meat. We are always on the lookout for organic and biodynamic produce, and dry farmed wines. All these choices contribute towards improving the quality of our soil and our food system.

6. What does your ideal day off look like?

Swimming along the shoreline at Crissy Field or walking with a friend at Lands End.

Jassimran Singh — Crown Shy, and SAGA, New York

Jassimran Singh, Crown Shy and SAGA

Jassimran Singh, culinary director of New York-based restaurant duo – Crown Shy, and SAGA – is a New Delhi native. After eight years in Australia studying culinary art and working in top kitchens, he moved to New York to work with James Kent at The NoMad. The partnership continued as Kent opened his first solo project Crown Shy, which received one Michelin star shortly after its opening.

1. What/Who inspired you to become a chef?

My mom is the one I always go to for recipes and cooking tips. She cooked all the meals in the house when I grew up in and she has a food science background, which is really cool. My mom is the best cook I know.

My wife is the one who challenges me the most – she’s my best critic. If she approves of something I’ve cooked, I know it’s good, and no other opinion really matters. She’s super honest with me, and it drives me to always do better.

2. What’s your go-to quick mid-week dinner at home?

Chicken biryani is my forever dish. It’s got a lot of layering of flavors, and it’s easy for me to make since I make it all the time. If I have a lot on my mind or I’m stuck on something I’m making at work, it’s the dish that reminds me that I know how to cook. It’s my ultimate comfort food.

3. If you have to boil down your culture into one type of food/ingredient, what would it be? What does it mean to you?

I cook a variety of cuisines, but black pepper (which is native to India) would be it because it’s a universal seasoning. Black pepper brings a lot of flavors to any dish. The one I use is from South India – it’s a little deeper and fruitier in its flavor profile.

4. What would you say is the ultimate foodie destination and why?

I don’t think it could be one place! But of course, India – because there’s so much diversity in the food and each state has its own cuisine. I would also add NYC to my list because there’s such a wide variety of cuisines. I love all the great Korean restaurants, but really, you can have any kind of food here. And London has so many great restaurants! I had the best souffle at Bibendum, hands down. I never take pictures of food, and I got out my camera for that souffle.

5. What do you think will be the next big culinary movement?

Many of the Asian cuisines will be on the rise – Indian, Korean, and Malaysian food, for example. I’ve worked with a lot of chefs from these regions – so many of us were trained in formal French kitchens – so it’s exciting to see restaurants like Thai Diner and Attaboy making a mark.

And classic diner food – I love eating pancakes and burgers, and I think we’ll see this kind of food made modern.

6. What does your ideal day off look like?

First, a good workout in the morning. I love to cook at home, so one of those days I’ll be making biryani or chow mein (since China and India share a border, it’s a common street food in India) to keep my wife happy. She’s also Indian, and these are the things we miss the most and can’t really find in NYC. I love to cook goat, which is best slow-cooked – the perfect food to take time in preparing.

I also try to dine out and try small places versus the well-known restaurants. And of course, I like to catch up on TV – UFC Fighting and Mindhunter (can we talk to someone about getting another season?!) are my favorites.

Carla Henriques — Hawksmoor, New York

Carla Henriques, Hawksmoor

Originally from Lisbon, executive pastry chef Carla Henriques is the culprit behind Hawksmoor Group’s decadent treats. Having spent over a decade overseeing the desserts at the group’s London restaurants, she develops a fondness for sticky toffee pudding, which, as you would expect, can be sampled at Hawksmoor’s New York outpost.

1. What/Who inspired you to be a chef?

My mum is my biggest inspiration in becoming a chef. She used to be a pastry chef and ran a bakery in Lisbon, Portugal. From a young age I was introduced to the magical world of baking and would try to play with and learn about any ingredients I could get my hands on. As soon as I could start studying pastry, I did – at the age of 15, I was formally on my way.

2. What’s your go-to quick mid-week dinner at home?

I always have seafood and rice stew in my house. It’s a staple and, regardless of the weather, is a hearty and comforting meal that brings me a lot of joy.

3. If you have to boil down your culture into one type of food/ ingredient, what would it be? and what does it mean to you?

Being Portuguese, there are many foods and ingredients that are central to our cooking. If I had to choose, I’d say grilled seafood and sea salt, which spell happiness for me. It brings back memories of being surrounded by friends and family on the beach, where we ate fresh fish cooked simply with a bit of sea salt.

4. What would you say is the ultimate foodie destination and why?

I’d advise people to go to Portugal. There are so many kinds of food, and methods of preparation, that are unique to this place. The seafood of course, but we also have black pigs, Azores beef – one of the best in the world I’d say – paired with Maronesa (another type of beef), they make for a wonderful charcuterie. The pastries are delicious, especially the Portuguese custard tarts pastel de nata.

Over the last few years Lisbon has become the capital of food and drinks, as many younger generation chefs have come back home after spending a few years working in London, France or New York. This means we have super cool restaurants, many of which serves tapas style food alongside great cocktails that are reasonably priced.

5. What do you think will be the next big culinary movement?

Sustainability and the need to fight climate change is impacting our daily lives – not just in the sense of food. Restauranteurs and restaurants will start thinking about this more at the forefront of their operations.

6. What does your ideal day off look like?

I love to travel; I’m always on the lookout to gain knowledge from new cultures. There is nothing that makes me happier than being able to travel, meet people, enjoy food and sunshine.

Hari Nayak — SONA, New York

Chef Hari Nayak

A chef, restauranteur, author, and culinary consultant based in New York, Hari Nayak is a true food world multi-hyphenate. Known for his unique approach to Indian cuisine, Chef Nayak brings reimagined Indian fare to the table at SONA‘s elegant, old-world-inspired space in New York City.

1. What/Who inspired you to be a chef?

I still remember the first time I stepped into a professional kitchen when I was 20 years old, I felt an energy I never felt before. That is when I decided to train professionally and never looked back.

2. What’s your go-to quick mid-week dinner at home?

Usually it is a one pot meal of rice and lentils called “Khichdi” with a side of raw mango, pickle and crispy papadum.

3. If you have to boil down your culture into one type of food/ ingredient, what would it be? and what does it mean to you?

Turmeric! This ancient spice is considered auspicious and sacred in my culture. From kitchens to wedding rituals you will find its presence almost everywhere in India. It has been celebrated for centuries both as a spice and a medicine, and it is now having its moment in the western world. I grew up in a household where my mother would give warm milk flavored with a pinch of turmeric (present day Turmeric latte) when I felt a little under the weather for instant relief! It was used as an ingredient in almost all the dishes in our kitchen. Yes it could stain a bit so you have to watch out for your kitchen counters and table cloths but it’s great for gut health because it is anti inflammatory and is a strong antioxidant!

4. What would you say is the ultimate foodie destination and why?

Singapore – I love Singapore for its ethnic culinary diversity.  With Chinese, Malay and Indian populations the cuisine is very unique. From street food to fine dining, Singapore really has it all.

Nutcha Phanthoupheng — Baan Lao, Vancouver

Ten Private Membership - Feeding the Culture: Q&A With 6 US Chefs image

Voted Vancouver’s Best Chef for the past two years, Chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng continues to revolutionize the Vancouver food scene with her innovative culinary creations at Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine (which was also voted Vancouver’s Best Restaurant in 2022).

1. What/Who inspired you to be a chef?

I was born in the rural region of Isaan, Thailand, and was raised living the true ‘farm to table’ experience, growing rice, vegetables and fruit, and raising buffalo, pigs and chickens. We didn’t have running water or electricity. As a child, I would be responsible for finding food for our meals. I would go fishing, and foraging for mushrooms, wild honey, insects and lizards. Each night, meals were cooked together as a family, using the fresh, natural, organic ingredients that I collected. Cooking at my mother’s elbow is what initially fueled my interest in cooking but I didn’t pursue becoming a chef until later. 

Initially, I became a registered nurse. In that role, I quickly recognized the impact of contaminated food and improper food storage for those without access to refrigeration, and for others, the insidious health risks rising from the use of preservatives and pesticides. I wanted to learn more about the impact of food on our health, so I obtained my MBA and became a cancer researcher at Princess Chulaborn Hospital. This reinforced for me that food is medicine. So I decided to switch gears and apply what I had learned into a career as a chef! 

I returned to Thailand, taking private cooking courses with Chef Chumpol Jangprai, the Iron Chef of Thailand and the only two Michelin star Thai chef in the world, and also trained with Chef Vichit Mukura, who served the Thai Royal family, and now has his own restaurant that is celebrated with a coveted Michelin star. These two chefs (who continue to serve as my mentors), along with my mother, and my medical training are what inspired me to become a chef! 

2. What’s your go-to quick mid-week dinner at home?

My family and I eat healthy food made from organic ingredients at home, just as we serve at Baan Lao. In the summer and early fall, I steam the vegetables from our garden, including squash, kale, and peas, or I’ll stir fry vegetables and organic meat or fish from the docks of Steveston with organic coconut oil or sunflower oil and some local seaweed kelp. And riceberry and jasmine rice from my family rice farm in Thailand, of course!

3. If you have to boil down your culture into one type of food/ ingredient, what would it be? and what does it mean to you?

Rice is always a key ingredient in the Thai culture. In Thai, when we say it’s time to eat, or come for dinner, we say “Kin Khaao”, which means, literally, “eat rice.”  

I’m immensely proud to be able to serve our Baan Lao guests organic rice from my own rice fields in Thailand. The fields have been in my family for generations and it’s such an honour to be able to supply our restaurant. 

4. What would you say is the ultimate foodie destination and why?

I’ve dined internationally, but I think Vancouver is quickly earning its place as a foodie destination. I may be a bit biased, but I’m so incredibly proud of my home here! 

Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list for 2022 was recently released, and there were 22 restaurants from British Columbia on the list, with many of them being in Vancouver, including Baan Lao! 

The Michelin Guide recently announced they have expanded to Vancouver as well. That’s a sure sign that Vancouver is a foodie destination! And with Vancouver being a gateway to Asia, we have a robust representation of different Asian cuisines here.  

5. What do you think will be the next big culinary movement?

I believe it will be less about what’s trendy, and more about what’s healthy.  

As a former medical professional, I’m disturbed by the rise in digestive and gut health issues. Part of that is caused by increased use of antibiotics, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, genetically-modified food sources, and simply consuming too much processed food. I think people are beginning to understand the importance of their food, and are returning to whole foods and healthy food sources.  

Fermented foods, raw foods, tamarind, coconut, galangal, etc, are all good for the gut and will continue to gain in popularity and momentum.  

I’m committed to buying fresh, organic ingredients, direct from farmers. I spend my days off at local farmers’ markets, hand-selecting produce, and visiting area farms. I want all suppliers for Baan Lao to share my vision for natural, healthy, sustainable foods, and I’d love to see more people embracing the same shopping habits.

6. What does your ideal day off look like?

As a first-time chef and restauranteur (I’m co-owner of Baan Lao, alongside my husband), having a full day ‘off’ is rare! But I focus on carving out time to spend with our children and sharing activities with them. I take my daughters to the local farmers’ markets, we go berry picking at area farms, to the corn field when it’s in season, etc. And we love spending time as a family simply playing in our back yard where we have a trampoline, mini zip line, monkey bars and a slide. It’s great fun! And simply meandering in Steveston, enjoying ice cream is always a highlight. 

Looking to further satisfy your chef interview appetite? Read our profile on eminent chef Alain Ducasse.

From fine dining and cosy cuisine, to raising a glass in celebration of a new business deal, Ten Members enjoy the best recommendations and priority access to the top 10,000 restaurants around the globe. We have prime-time tables held exclusively for our members at more than 800 of the world’s finest dining spots and offer complimentary drinks and courses.

Subscribe to our Newsletter to keep getting inspired. Become a member and start enjoying all the lifestyle benefits and take advantage of the exclusive offers on well-loved brands. Monthly Membership available.

Share This Post

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

More To Explore

Helene Darroze at The Connaught Chef's Table
Bespoke Dining

In conversation with Hélène Darroze

Our members rank Hélène Darroze’s three-Michelin starred restaurant at The Connaught as one of the most memorable dining experiences in the capital. We caught up with the chef to discover the process, passion, and people behind the restaurant’s enduring success.

Read More

Are You In?

For a limited time only, you can become a fully fledged member and try our service for one month with no obligation.
No contracts, no commitment. Just better living.

Ten is an IATA accredited agent in the United Kingdom | IATA 91284255

VAT number GB115133068

This website is owned and operated by Ten Lifestyle Management Limited © 2021 All rights reserved.

Ten is owned by Ten Lifestyle Group Plc, a publicly listed company on the London Stock Exchange (‘‘TENG’’).