Chef Chat, Part 2: Rishi Singh of Boheme Talks About Starting Out as a Dishwasher, and His Menu of Asian-Influenced American Comfort Food
Photos by Mai Pham Rishi Singh of Boheme inside his current kitchen
This is the second part of a two-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our first post, you can read Part 1 here.
Yesterday, we chatted with Rishi Singh, the executive chef at Boheme Cafe & Wine Bar, about how the food program at Boheme started inside of a tiny room that is now used as an office. Today we find out about how he became a chef, and he talks in depth about his creative process and his style of cooking.
EOW: Tell me about yourself.
RS: I'm Indian. Northern-type Indian, Punjabi Indian. I was born and raised in Maryland. My mother catered Indian food. I have two older brothers, and there's about a ten-year difference between myself and my middle brother, so when they were off to school, my mother would cater Indian food. She would sit me on the counter as a little kid while she was whipping up her dishes, and it was that time that I would really soak up the aromas and flavors. And the way that she cooked was without using recipes. It was about flavor profiles and adding this and adding that, and I was there on the counter tasting. I think that's a formative time for anyone.
EOW: How old were you?
RS: I was on the counter from when I was three or something.
EOW: Describe North Indian food.
RS: It's strong, spicy, very comforting sort of food, not a lot of heavy cream. Roasted, toasted, spices.
EOW: What are some typical dishes?
RS: Tandoori chicken, butter chicken, chicken tikka, those sort of items.
EOW: So you can make a mean Indian dish?
RS: I can.
EOW: Does that go onto your menu at all?
Coming to the Boheme menu soon: Korean fried chicken wings!
RS: Actually, last winter, I did a series of different curries. I did a lamb vindaloo, chicken tikka, that sort of thing. But again, what I like to do is infuse the cultures of Houston into the food. Instead of doing a butter chicken, which is using a heavy cream, I would use a coconut milk. So you'd have this heavy curry base, but then I'd draw on my Thai influences and add coconut milk instead of heavy cream.
EOW: How did that go?
RS: It actually went very well. We were kind of restricted with the kind of plating we could do because we have to use disposables, but the customer response was incredible. Again, I saw my curry sales go up, up, up. And I would be in here slaving from 10 a.m. to 12 at night, because I don't have the facility to use a 40-gallon stock pot to make curry, so I would be here making small batches. But it was a labor of love. I think the best feeling in the world for me is walking out on the patio and seeing tons of people eating food that came out of my brain, so it was well worth it. It doesn't matter how many hours I spent in the kitchen.
EOW: Fast-forward to now -- you were born in Maryland -- how did you become a chef and come to be in Houston?
RS: So every summer off in high school, I would work in a restaurant, 'cause I was always passionate about food. So my first job was actually as a dishwasher like many chefs.
EOW: In what kind of restaurant?
RS: It was a classic American restaurant, with crab cakes, soups, softshell crab sandwiches, that kind of stuff. And I expressed interest in cooking. I was 15 or 16, washing dishes, and I would look at these 20-something-year-old chefs like they were gods.
EOW: This was before the Food Network, right? How old are you now?
RS: I'm 35. So, you know, I got my chance on the line, and by 16, I was actually cooking Sunday brunch for like 300 people, which is a big honor. But I think anyone at 16 isn't emotionally there yet; one day the chef decided to take one of my plates and throw it against the wall because it wasn't good enough, and it fell in the trash can. I think that's the moment I decided I wanted to be a chef.
EOW: What was it about that moment? What was the dish?
RS: We were doing Sunday brunch omelettes, and I think a ticket had come up for eggs Benedict that said no hollandaise sauce. We had like 40 tickets up, and I was only 16, and I messed up the ticket. So he took the dish, and he threw it against the wall, and there was a trash can in the corner, and it actually fell into the trash. I'll never forget that moment -- it's like a flashbulb memory. Back then, it was an exciting kind of high. I got hooked at that point. And then, even through college, I would work at restaurants.
EOW: So you went to college?
RS: I did go to college. I have a degree in psychology.
EOW: So you got your degree. Did you go to culinary school?
RS: I did not go to culinary school. I'd say I had a lot of great mentors every summer when I worked in restaurants. I probably worked in about five to six restaurants in high school and throughout college, learning along the way. At 25, I decided I didn't want to use my college degree, and so I called my brother, who's in Houston, who suggested that I try to break into the food scene here. So I got here at 25 and got a job at Whole Foods. The thing with Whole Foods is they have an international spread of dishes, so I was able to learn about all these types of cuisines through their recipe handbook, so I was exposed to Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese -- and that's where I really developed all my flavor profiles.
EOW: And then did you go to any big restaurants in Houston?
RS: Then I transitioned to consulting -- I consulted for a sushi restaurant, and then I came here. It was a little bit of luck for me finding this place. But 80 percent of it is hard work. Every chef wants a place to call home. So now I finally have a place that I can call home, where I have full creative control over what I do. And not just through our sales, but through the customer response, I feel like people are really embracing my type of cooking.
Still in the R&D stages: Cornish game hen injected with Asian butter
EOW: What is your style of cooking?
RS: I would say, I like to take classical comfort food and add an Asian twist to it. Asian, Southeast Asian, Thai, Vietnamese -- definitely there's an Asian sway to everything.
EOW: For example...
RS: Our No. 1 dish on the whole menu is the Vietnamese french fries. Again, this is the perfect example of this Iron Chef thing that I've had to go through. We were presented with a food truck with a fryer. So I said everyone likes french fries, and I love Vietnamese sandwiches. So I said, why don't we use the condiments from a Vietnamese restaurant and put them on the fries? I used sriracha, hoisin, and I made a special garlic mayo for it. We drizzle the condiments on the fries and we roast peanuts and chop up some cilantro. We sell about 300 orders of just Vietnamese french fries every week.
EOW: So let's talk about the future. I hear there are some cool things coming up.
RS: Yes, we have fried Cornish hen coming up.
EOW: That's fancy! Is that bar food?
RS: It is bar food. I'll tell you why. So everyone's like fried chicken, fried chicken. So I was talking to my sous chef, and I said, "Let's not even worry about chicken; let's use Cornish game hen. Let's cut the Cornish hen in half and let's not do this thing where every chef brines the chicken overnight. Let's go in a different direction." And actually, in a collaboration with him, we decided to inject the Cornish hen with an Asian butter mixture. So actually, today I was sautéeing butter with Thai basil and Thai chile garlic. So we've infused this butter with Asian flavor, and put it in a syringe and inject it into the hen. So the flavor is actually inside the hen and when you bite into it, you get these ripples of buttery flavors. The other reason it's unique is it's not just flour in the breading. I use a little bit of lentil flour and a little bit of chickpea flour -- a little bit of Indian influence. So I think we're going to have some of the most unique fried chicken in the city -- it's injected with butter, it has a non-traditional flour and it's not brined.
EOW: And your pizzas are not traditional pizzas either.
RS: They're not. You know, what I've always found interesting is trying to pair cheese with Asian flavors -- it's very difficult. Not to tout my own horn, but I take pride in having been able to do that here. A great example of that is our Korean barbacoa pizza. We take Korean gochujang and make a barbecue sauce out of that. Drawing from other elements, I love barbacoa tacos. And so I take something you'd think of as Mexican, and I put it on the crust with the gochujang sauce, and we add cheese to that.