El Colmado Sous Chef Dina Fan Applies Japanese Lessons to Spanish Cooking
Dina Fan was a sophomore at NYU stuck in a boring archaeology course when her aunt gave her an ultimatum: "Why don't you go to culinary school since you like food so much? I'll pay for that." Encouraged, Fan saw that ICE had a spot open, and she took it.
As a student, she interned at EN Brasserie, worked as a line cook at Ma Peche, and then helped open Tertulia. While working there, she saved up money for a six-month stint interning overseas, hopscotching around Asia before returning to New York. Now she's the sous chef at El Colmado (600 Eleventh Avenue, 212-582-7948), the Seamus Mullen tapas and wine bar in Gotham West Market.
Here, Fan discusses being the only female intern, high stakes tryouts, and how she's able to keep her head above water with 80 oyster tickets during El Colmado's happy hour.
How'd you get started at El Colmado?
Seamus said "I'm doing this new project. I think you'd be a really great sous over there." As much as I loved being a line cook, I had to grow up sometime.
What's he like to work with?
He's a really cool boss. He knows we can handle it and that he doesn't have to be there all the time. It's nice to have that level of trust that things are going to be done the way he wants them.
You have a few line cooks under you. How do you like being an authority figure?
It's just good to know you have to be responsible. If you're a cook, you do your thing, clean up, and go home. If you're a sous, if one of your cooks fucks up, you get yelled at for that. So if your cook fucked up the skirt steak, you get balled out. You're responsible for everyone.
What do you like about Spanish cooking?
I love the culture. When I was little kid, we visited my aunt and her husband in Barcelona. They were so chill and so relaxed. They owned a Spanish Chinese restaurant by the beach. He wore a white suit with a pink shirt and a gingham tie on his fishing boat, and he was holding the tuna he just caught. Like, get the fuck out of here! Who wears a white suit on their boat? It's like, you guys have been in Spain too long. I'd want to save money and backpack through Spain.
Does getting slammed affect you emotionally?
Some of the cooks will start panicking when they see all the tickets and they're spinning in circles. I'll look at a board and consolidate it, so it's four this, two of these, and six of that. It's repetition.
What's going through your mind?
Do we have enough bread? It's a guessing game. You get that pride, that rush, when you're really busy. El Colmado's like, "Oh shit, there are 80 oysters on the board. I guess I better start shucking."
How is the kitchen at El Colmado different from the kitchen at Tertulia?
When food is ready, it'll come out. We don't work like Tertulia where everything gets coursed out -- we know the black rice is going to come out when it's black and that it takes 15 minutes.
What's your take on Pete Wells giving you a two-star rating for the group of restaurants at Gotham West Market?
I was surprised that he gave a star rating. I thought it was just going to be a write-up. It's great because it's a collaborative effort. Each vendor thing chips in on one component.
You took six months off to stage in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, and Taiwan. What was it like to get out of New York?
It opened my eyes to what's really out there, outside of New York. When you only cook in New York, you only think about New York restaurants and that we're at the center of the world, but it's a big eye opener there. You meet a lot of people from Australia, England, and Canada. It was like holy shit! There are a lot of really dope restaurants out there.
Come across any crazy perfectionist stuff in those foreign kitchens?
Each kitchen was different. In Singapore [at Andrha] it was the chef was Taiwanese but he'd spent 17 years in France so he had a very French mentality. He had 300 plates, and they had to be perfectly shiny. If he found one plate with a smudge, you'd pick up all of them and say they're probably all smudged and the whole staff had to polish everything again. It happened all the time.
What rituals did you embrace?
The kitchens were very clean. In Hong Kong before service, we had to disinfect everything. There were fifteen squeeze bottles dispersed throughout the kitchen. You used a cutting board? You want to use a bowl? Disinfect it. They were very paranoid.