The chef and owner of New Orleans’ Otra Vez and New York’s Alta Calidad tackles our speed round of questions.
After a shift, what is your favorite guilty pleasure to eat?“Anything from a Chinatown in any city. I always go for dishes like jellyfish salad, chicken and mushroom, 1,000-year-old egg fried rice, congee with tripe—all great stuff!”
Is there one dish you won’t cook? “Sea cucumbers, tiger penis, shark fin.”
All-time favorite spice. “Cardamom. For me, growing up with cardamom was always interesting because it was used in both sweet and savory cooking—you could find it in rice dishes and traditional stews but also in things like kheer, a rice pudding made with reduced milk and saffron.”
What is your favorite music to listen to while you cook? “Always Rush. Primus is close behind.”
Did you grow up cooking as a child? “Yes, from a young age with my Mom. We started out with things like rolling bread; pooris, the big, puffy bread, were always my favorite. Then things like toasting spices and learning what they were and how they were used. My Mom is a great cook and always impresses me with her understanding of flavors.”
What cookbook is your go-to resource for inspiration? “Joël Robuchon’sCooking Through the Seasons. I love the simplicity of the cooking in that book. Of course, anything chef Robuchon did was far from simple, but the ability to present it in a rustic way was always compelling to me; things like salt-baked fish and cherry gratin.”
After all these years working in restaurants, do you still enjoy going out to eat? “I love it, although there’s not enough time to do so anymore. That said, I recently went to Roister and thought it was terrific. It had a very smart way about the food and flavor combinations, you wouldn’t anticipate them working well together but they were totally harmonious on the plate.”
Is there one chef you’d like to cook with? “Fernand Point. I appreciate his thinking about cooking. He understood the true job of a chef; we do it because we wish to take care of others in our own way—‘generosity and hugeness of heart.’”
Name the all-time best cooking show. “The original Iron Chef when it was only on the Asian channels. I lived in San Francisco back then.”
Akhtar Nawab is the chef and owner of New Orleans’ Otra Vez and New York’s Alta Calidad. His first cookbook, Good For You, will be published next year.
Interview has been condensed and edited.