The Pork Slope Chef Talks Eating, Cooking, and Dating Vegan

When you put a dish together like this, there has to be a theme.

Dale Talde is talking me through what he would make in a Top Chef vegan challenge. Though the two-time reality show alum managed to dodge the episode in which contestants had to cook for Nathalie Portman — the plant-based starlet of the moment — he is humoring my question, and you can see that even in hypothetical scenarios, he’s a chef that likes to win.

“It would probably be a hard pasta with something like butternut squash cream that has no cream in it — a purée to give you that silkiness. Then great mushrooms, charred Brussels sprouts, extra virgin olive oil, and a ton of herbs.” Somewhere in the middle of his description, I realize that I am hungry, which could be as much a product of the conversation as the fact that the whole room smells like tater tots.

Pork Slope, Talde’s second Brooklyn-based venture, is an ironic setting for waxing poetic about vegetables. The restaurant is a personal homage to the dive bars he grew up going to on the outskirts of Chicago, and even at 4pm with the fumes wafting in from the fryer, the air still smells vaguely like the bottom of a shot glass. The walls are covered in old roadhouse Americana and there’s a giant hog head looming over us that seems to be taking in our conversation while gaping, open-mouthed, at the rows and rows of whiskey that sit behind the bar directly across the room.

“The nice thing is when you have a restaurant like Pork Slope, it kind of alludes to what you’re in for,” he says, looking down at the plastic menu. “Our collard greens are vegan… but that’s about it.”

With three restaurants to his name in under a year, I assumed Dale Talde would be too busy running from kitchen to kitchen of his Park Slope mini-empire to spend time fixating on his customers’ dietary restrictions. Not to mention what a vegan would eat if they wandered past Pain Quotidien and into one of his restaurants. But I was curious nonetheless about how a chef who’s gained notoriety during the current Golden age of Asian hipster cuisine felt about food trends — especially those on the other side of the spectrum from Crispy Oyster and Bacon Pad Thai and Kung Pao Chicken Wings.

David Massoni and John Bush are not the kind of business partners that would tell Dale Talde to put a vegetarian entrée on the menu just to cover their bases. “We each do what we do really well. And we stay out of each other’s business,” Talde says as he flags down a server. “[John's] the bar guy. I’m going to let him do the bar the way he wants to.” He pauses to order me a Frozen Caddyshack — a bourbon-laced Arnold Palmer slushy — to illustrate his point.

“The Talde menu has always been in my head,” he says referring to his first and namesake restaurant, a sleek neighborhood Asian-American joint about half a mile down the street. “It’s what I want to eat.”

Talde’s fusiony signature dishes — like yuzu guacamole and pretzel pork dumplings — are just as reflective of his parents’ Filipino roots as they are of the time he’s spent in prestigious Asian-influenced restaurant kitchens like Morimoto, Vong, and Buddakan, where he rose to chef de cuisine before capitalizing on his Top Chef fame and going out on his own. Pork products aside, his menus are decidedly not the easiest to adapt to a plant-based diet, with perhaps the biggest challenge being the ability to achieve the balance of flavors intrinsic to Asian cuisine without the use of key ingredients like fish sauce and shrimp paste.

Perhaps it’s all the time he’s spent cooking on the fly in the Top Chef kitchen, but unlike many chefs, Talde doesn’t mind getting creative on a nightly basis to accommodate his customers’ needs. “People have dietary restrictions. They exist. I’m lactose intolerant. I don’t tell people that when I dine. I pay the consequences after dinner. But we’re in New York City, where people eat out every day — every meal. And they have to watch what they eat. If you’re a restaurateur and you have a problem with that, then that’s on you.”

Before I met with Dale, I decided to stop by Talde to see how this attitude of accommodation trickles down to his staff.

Our server happily walked me through the menu, explaining how they could do the Sweet Corn Robata without bacon powder, and the fried rice with vegetables and no egg. When he returned from the kitchen with more suggestions of vegan dishes they could make us, I thanked him, and ordered the Korean fried chicken.

Talde is known for playful fusion dishes that marry his Filipino roots with his Chicago upbringing. Talde’s Sweet Corn Robata is a play on the Mexican dish Elote.

When I relayed my experience to Dale, he stressed that the most important thing to remember in running a restaurant is that the business is called hospitality. “It’s your job to make something taste good. You try to make the most tasty dish that you can for your guest. If it’s something that you’re not proud to put on the plate, I’ll tell them ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that.’ But I’ll try my hardest to accommodate. We never don’t try.”

Though he takes in stride the idiosyncratic requests of his customers, the greater feeling of compromise is something that Dale still struggles with. “You show me a chef that doesn’t have to compromise and I’ll show you a chef that’s not working,” he says. This goes beyond dietary constrictions and into every aspect of restaurant life. “It can be vision or something as small as this is not your best dish but you know that table has been waiting a long time and they have to get it. You know your guests deserve better. It makes you not sleep at night.” On that note, he waves the server back over to make sure the kitchen is firing some fried chicken for Ed Levine, who’s sitting a few tables down.

While Talde is more sensitive to guests’ cravings than many chefs, his sympathies towards the plant-based crowd may have something to do with who he’s chosen to break bread with in the past.

“I dated a vegan for five and a half years,” he said and waited for me to shake the look of WTF from my face. It may not have affected his restaurant menus, but it did make him more conscious of what it takes to please someone without the use of his favorite ingredients. “You have to get creative to make something still taste good.” Besides the usual rice and beans, his favorite thing to eat together was Indian food. “Hindu culture has been eating vegetarian for thousands of years. You don’t skip a beat when you eat Indian food that’s amazing. It’s so full of robust flavors. Sour, salty, spicy.”

By this point, I was sure that if put to a non-hypothetical test, Dale Talde would win a Top Chef vegan challenge.

Talde’s outlook on vegetables has come a long way since his first job after culinary school, when he worked the grill station at Outback Steakhouse. One of the people who influenced him most was Carrie Nahabedian, the Chicago-based chef Talde worked under at New American Restaurant, Naha.

Though plant-based dishes are scarce on the menu, Talde shows his love of seasonal veg with this kale salad and hibiscus tofu.

“The funny thing is that Carrie is as blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes as it gets,” says Talde of his mentor. “But she did a lot of cooking in Beverly Hills, and her food is really reflective of that super fresh California cuisine. When we would get someone who wanted a veg platter, her veg platters were, like, oh my God. Wood-fired kale, lentils, cipollini onions that have been smoked and braised, roasted squash. They were these amazing samplings of what’s in season right now. And that came to me from her.”

One thing that is clear from talking to Talde is that even in the restaurant world, it’s important not to judge a book by its cover — or, rather, a chef by the ounces of cheese sauce he puts on his nachos or the size of his Mother Porker sandwich. “I enjoy vegetables. I think they’re great. Would I rather eat a piece of bacon or a big fat pork chop? Yes. But when you get an amazing tomato salad at the height of summer, what’s better than that?”