Highland Grill's Joan Ida: Chef Chat, part 2
Executive Chef Joan Ida in one of Highland Grill's festively colored booths
Whether eating barking "duck" in China or putting sweetbreads on the menu of a neighborhood restaurant, chef Joan Ida doesn't shy from adventure. Neither does she mind classic or comfort food, as her dessert program at the Highland Grill highlights. Recent offerings range from French-inspired to American homeyness. When she cooks, Ida's food philosophy is simple: "I just want to make people happy," she says. (If you missed the story of how Ida got into the business of converting hunger to happiness, here's part 1 of our interview.)
Today Ida tells us what she's most excited about on her menu, some of the hard lessons she's learned as a chef, and her culinary encounter with frog sperm.
What are some ingredients you are excited about now? Tamarind. Really good chocolate... I would love to see if I could sell sweetbreads here. That would be a good challenge, I think.
And I'm working on a fresh fish program, bringing more fresh fish than what we've been used to here. I think people want to have a healthier alternative to the sandwiches and burgers that we do. That would be more options than just one option on the menu, salmon.
What dishes on the current menu are you excited about? I think putting in the desserts right now is a new thing, [displayed on] this little cart at the end of the bar with the kitschy little tablecloth. Usually we showcase the daily desserts there. I just pulled apple berry Dutch pies out of the oven. Over the weekend we had a flourless chocolate cake with chocolate mousse. Right now we've got peanut butter swirl brownies. So again, there's no rule as to what I have to do. It's, "What do I have to work with today?" and "Hey, let's come up with something and see how it goes." I think that's what keeps me excited. I can just wake up and say, "Let's do this today."
What is the hardest lesson you've learned? Wow. Many, many lessons. The hardest thing I've had to learn is delegating and having other people do things to take responsibility. I've always been the one to toss myself in there and do it myself. I don't know why that is, but I think now I can go home and have that day off and not worry. It's taken quite a while to get to it, but I feel good about it.
I could be one of those chefs where everything is about the art, but if it tastes good and you like it, I'm happy. If you come back, I'm really happy. And if you think it's one of your favorite things on your top 10, then it makes me really, really happy. I don't look at food and where I want to be as Mecca. I just want to make people happy.
What has been your proudest moment as a chef? Cooking at the James Beard House is on the list. Working in Hong Kong.
What was your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen? Falling down the stairs here and breaking my ankle in four places. I started here April 2, I think, and I took my dive the 21st. I was here just a couple of weeks, and then I wasn't. That was humiliating. I was so embarrassed being carried out into an ambulance. I don't know what would be worse. I mastered the whole event very well in orchestrating it. Being physically carried out was really not a good moment. At that point I didn't know how bad it was. I didn't walk for 5 months afterward. I'm finally back here now and able to do the job that I was hired to do, and it feels really good. I had all of these ideas and things I wanted to do, and I just had to put a big stop on everything until I could come back.
What is the weirdest thing you've ever eaten? That's easy: frog sperm in Hong Kong. I was out to dinner with a Chinese friend, and I wanted to have the formal Cantonese meal. We had the most amazing dinner. It was a room full of Chinese businessmen smoking cigars with the lazy susans in the middle of the table. There were these beautiful imperial dishes presented. My friend said, "Let's have dessert." She says, "How about if I order it and tell you what it is after?" I said, "Okay."
This soup came. It smelled of almond. It had wolfberries and jujubes, classic things you'd see floating in Chinese soup. It looked like it had egg drop in it, so it was snotty. She picked up her bowl and drank from it, and I drank from mine. She said, "How was it?" I said, "It was almondy." She said, "I'm glad you liked it. You'll live a long time." Then I knew it was bad. And I said, "What was that?" She said, "Frog fat." Because of her Cantonese dialect, I was dying, because I knew I was eating something... I went home and looked it up on the Internet: I'll live a long time because I ate frog sperm. Nice.
The only thing I won't eat is eyeballs. I mean, living in Asia, you don't throw food away. If something is given to you, you graciously take it and eat it.
I was in Guangzhou [China] with a friend who wanted to eat duck. He was Australian. This meat came. It didn't taste like duck. It didn't look like duck. We asked the server, "What is this?" She said, "Duck." We said, "Duck--'quack quack'?" [She said,] "No, duck--'bow wow.'"
Our chat with Joan Ida concludes tomorrow.
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