What were your early influences as a chef? I grew up in Florida, in a community with large Vietnamese and Thai populations. My parents had a friend from Laos who taught them to make lettuce wraps with Thai sticky rice and steamed chicken. I was used to Sriracha, fish sauce, plum sauce, cilantro and all those flavors when I was a child. My mom was a huge influence. She is just a really good cook.
Your first job was washing dishes? I was 16. My father had a friend with a seafood restaurant in Terra Verde. I worked for a few months until my grades suffered, then I quit. The next summer I got a job in the deli of a natural foods store. There was barbecued tofu; I learned to make soups and sandwiches, and got introduced to sushi, vegetable juices, stuff like that.
So many chefs start as dishwashers. Most dishwashing areas I’ve seen in restaurants are disgusting; I’d think that would turn you off permanently. I have always said you don’t really choose this industry, it chooses you. I love good food; I love to eat. I love the camaraderie and teamwork of the kitchen, working really hard and seeing the results immediately. I like to cook for friends.
Your predecessor, Opie Crooks, moved on to Woodberry. Would you like to branch off and work in an independent restaurant? Roy’s is a great balance—it’s a well run business that feeds a lot of people. For any chef who works here, it’s interesting to learn about food, about business. But at the same time it comes from a grassroots chef. It’s actually chef-driven. That’s not just a phrase. A lot of great chefs have come from the company. The chefs here have creative outlets in the food, and also in the way we relate to the community.
Do you like living in Baltimore? I call it home now. I was brought up in a sleepy beach town. I like the pace of the city. My neighbors are great. Baltimore was never a part of the plan for me. But the position opened up and I jumped. The results have been awesome. I’ve been mobile all my life.
How would you characterize Hawaiian food? It’s a lot of what we’re talking about. Huge Asian influences. Plus uniquely American stuff like Spam, which is widely used in Hawaii. 9 —martha thomas