Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Interview with TSAI co-creators

In a city not known for catering to vegetarians (and sometimes seeming downright hostile to the notion), the new vegetarian “pop-up” TSAI has been working and playing hard to give vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike an exciting and fresh option for delicious dining.

TSAI co-creators Aron Chang and Karen Wang both were born in Taiwan but grew up in the United States- Aron in California and Karen in Connecticut. They both come down to New Orleans in pursuit of architecture careers. They met each other through the Salvation Army’s EnviRenew, an affordable and sustainable New Orleans housing initiative where, along with several other interns and fellows, they started getting together to cook and share meals together for weekly dinner parties at Karen’s house. It was then, fueled by the frustrations that a food-centric city like New Orleans had such a dearth of vegetarian options, that they bonded over their love of food and cooking to start dreaming about what their vegetarian restaurant might look like.

The result was TSAI, a Chinese word that means “vegetables” and also “dishes” or “cuisine.” According to Karen, “I thought about something that reflected our past, our love for the food culture in Taiwan, and the way we grew up eating. Growing up in our house, meat had a presence, but the majority of dishes were always vegetarian. And that’s reflective of how we use the Chinese language to describe this way of eating...a meal is made up of a few tsai.” 

Aron and Karen were kind enough to answer a few questions about themselves and their blossoming restaurant concept. Since their soft opening on July 16, they’ve cooked and served in the Dragon’s Den on Frenchmen Street, the Bridge Lounge in the Lower Garden District, burritos on the streets of Southern Decadence, and Bring Your Own Bowl rice bowl event in a friend’s Uptown home. Below, a few questions to shed some light what make these creative culinary entrepreneurs tick.

Noodle bowl with buckwheat soba, black bean-mushroom sauce,
bok choi, salted radish, oyster mushrooms, carrots, and Thai basil
(with a tea egg on top)
What inspires your cooking and passion for food?

Aron: I worked on a vegetable farm in New England well before I became a passionate cook, and learned to really love vegetables and to value quality produce there. I also come from a family where we take the time to dine together every day (when I was growing up, and whenever my sisters and I are at home now), and so cooking and wanting to cook for others as a means of being together comes directly from that.

Karen: Growing up in Taiwan, every Saturday my grandmother would cook a lunch with 20 or more dishes. At the time, Saturday was a half work day, so after our half day, all my aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends would come by and eat together. I would wake up Saturday morning, and my grandmother would ask me what I wanted to eat for lunch. Then she would walk me to school, and go to the market. I would come home after school and watch her finish cooking my favorite dishes. It was my favorite part of the week as a child, and my most precious memory of my grandmother and of my family in Taiwan.

What is your favorite restaurant (beside TSAI)?

A: I used to work a couple blocks from The Joint, in the Bywater, and would go there for lunch twice a week. Yes, it's a barbeque place, but I love the sides and the pies there. Coquette at Magazine and Washington is fantastic, as are the Milk BarStein's, and the Cake Cafe.

K: Oh, where to begin. I will begin with Elizabeth’s in the Bywater. I love the dinner there almost as much as I love the brunch. I love Lil’s Dizzy’s on Esplanade, with amazing fried chicken. Adolfo’s, hidden above the Apple Barrel bar on Frenchmen is also really fantastic, with Creole Italian fare. Lillette and Coquette are my favorite fine dining establishments. And, Pho Hoa for noodles and of course, Nine Roses for the other classic Vietnamese dishes.

What 3 things can always be found in your fridge/pantry?

A: Rice, garlic, mushrooms, onions, more mushrooms, broccoli, leafy greens, dried legumes of all sorts, yogurt, peanut butter, strawberry preserves, and eggs.

K: Noodles, eggs, tomatoes...Garlic, onions, lemons, and seasonal produce. So right now it’s summer squash and zucchini.

Inspiration in ingredients and the New Orleans culinary culture leads to Aron’s menu planning: “We start by looking at what's in my pantry, but also at what's available at the farmer's market. Then I work with Karen to build a menu with flavors that are complementary, and even taking into consideration how the different dishes will look next to each other on a plate or in a bowl. We've created a brand new menu every single week, which is a bit crazy, but we want to continue to experiment and bring new dishes to each event while offering some of the more popular dishes again so that there's some continuity to what people can expect from TSAI.”

According to Aron, “It's been exciting and challenging to try to figure out what it takes to draw people to a brand new business in a scene crowded with other pop-ups and restaurants, but we think it is possible, that we can provide something that's truly different, and that the positive feedback from people like you makes us want to do an even better job.” Karen adds, “it’s also been very telling about how, when, and what people like to eat. How they like to order food, if they like dessert, which locations attract which customers are all things we’ve learned in the past few weeks.”

With two months of experimentation in a variety of locations under their belts, the big question is what’s next for TSAI? In the long term, they’d love to open up in a permanent space of their own, but in the meantime they are planning on continuing to create occasions for people to come together and share food, music, and conversation.

People gathering to enjoy TSAI's food, music, and each other's conversation

“We recognize that the people here have a multitude of culinary options to pick from every single day of the week, and so we're trying to identify what it is that we do well, what we provide that is different, and how we might provide a fantastic experience and value for our customers with the resources that we have available to us. After Decadence in the Quarter, we're going to shift our operation to focus more on hosting events that happen less frequently -- perhaps once or twice a month instead of every weekend -- but which allows us to put together a more engaging experience with music and other entertainment, as well as a carefully composed menu that is still creative and built on seasonal and local produce.”

Aron’s favorite dish he’s cooked is the fried tofu dish that was served for their August 6 dinner (sadly, right before Tom and I discovered them.) He would love for everyone to try it, because “the combinations of flavors, colors, and textures in that dish is something I'd like to shoot for with every TSAI menu.” Karen is partial to the Seared Cabbage with Goji Berries and Shiitake Mushrooms, from the same night’s dinner menu. When asked if there was anything they loved to eat that they’d never serve on Tsai’s menu, Aron recalled a pig's blood/intestines/sour cabbage soup that he loved back when he ate meat and Karen thought that stinky tofu would not be a crowd-pleaser either.

It’s when I ask them to describe their perfect meals that their passion for what they are trying to do with TSAI really shines. Aron loves the “unexpected ones that are humble yet completely confident in their simplicity and in their ingredients. I could tell you about the first time I had freshly picked sugar snap peas cooked in butter with a sprinkling of kosher salt, but it just makes me sad that I can't make the same for you right now.” Karen goes on to say, “a perfect meal should be satisfying in many ways, not just for your taste buds. It is made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. It should stimulate multiple senses, be with good company, and filling while leaving you wanting just a little bit more.”

As one of TSAI’s customers, I would say that they succeed in every way.

Join TSAI at one of their upcoming events. They will be hosting food + music events on the first Saturday of every month, starting in October, and will have smaller gatherings in between at diverse locations around the city. More details forthcoming, but here’s what’s happening:

  • 10/1 Saturday Evening: Food + Music at an Uptown Location 
  • 10/16 Sunday Brunch on the Bayou: Taiwanese-inspired menu, on the Cabrini Bridge (max. 30 spots) 
  • 11/5 Saturday Evening: Food + Music at an Esplanade Ridge Location 

You can “like” their Facebook page or keep an eye on their blog for more details.

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