CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with STEVEN HUBBELL
Salvador Dali. Those were the first words that popped into my mind when I saw Chef Steven Hubbell (I am sure he gets told this a lot) for the first time. But as I sat and chatted with him that artist image began to fade as the story of the love affair with Indian cuisine began to unfold. Steven shuttles between the New York and Dubai kitchens of Junoon overseeing and ensuring that the traditional side of Indian cuisine is maintained while improving on the depth and quality. An American in Dubai, heading a contemporary Indian restaurant housed in a Hong Kong based hotel chain is quite a combination, but like Indian food, this mix makes it all the more interesting and special.
Name: Steven Hubbell
Restaurant: Junoon, Shangri-La
From: New York, USA
Culinary School: School Craft, Detroit, USA
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @junoondubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes, very much so. I have always been vegetable forward to begin with.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a musician and I was a musician before becoming a Chef. Just couldn’t make a living out of it. I spent years touring playing music, I wanted more stability and this was my back up. I used to cook and I’ve always enjoyed it. Outside of music a restaurant job has a similar culture, so it was a natural transition for me. Kitchens are a completely different lifestyle than your average job, hours are completely different and our working conditions are completely different, it’s much more of a lifestyle than anything else. Just like a musician.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
1 Knickerbocker in New York serving modern American. By modern American I mean sourcing locally, focus on ingredients that are indigenous to our area and being very forward thinking with them and experimental. Like all our fish came from the coast of New York, all our animals that we used were from New York and Pennsylvania. We would buy from within a 200-300 mile radius of anything that we would use. What made it memorable was the team, the owners, the clientele, it was just a really beautiful experience.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I usually eat 30 things during the day. But I might have a snack at lunch time like Dal Makhani and salad and rice, there is always rice.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I haven’t eaten at one place a great deal, I eat at a lot of places. But one place that stands out is Simi’s, it’s a tiny cafeteria in Karama which serves North Indian food. It’s probably one of my most memorable meals in Dubai. It was just delicious. Probably the coolest thing I had was like a fermented soya bean kabab. I got to know of this place from one of my chefs, it’s one of those places you find through word of mouth.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
It’s like picking your favourite parent kind of thing. Right now, its mustard oil. It really underutilized, not too many people really know about it, it’s very singular to Indian cuisine but not utilized that much anymore. It’s very distinctive – it’s a little bitter, a little hot – it has an interesting blend of flavours making it distinct. I think it is very unique and it’s delicious.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Probably New York. I think it would be restaurant hopping. We have the best of everything in New York, so I would be hitting every American, French eatery. I would go to one place for sashimi, another place for pastry – go to the places for what they do best.
Most exotic vacation destination?
One of my more memorable holidays was in San Francisco, it was really lovely. I loved the food, the culture, going to museums and the parks, the architecture, the way the city is laid out. It’s a very different pace than New York. In terms of where I would like to go, it would be Japan. I like big metropolises. I love the food, I love the culture.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
New York. Everything goes back to New York – its home. We have everything – every ethnic denomination, every type of food, just about everything, anything you could want in the world we have access to. I miss it, very much so.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
Probably the first time I ran the kitchen by myself when Chef was on a small vacation. I was a sous chef at the time, very new and inexperienced. I was a little over ambitious with my nightly special, and it botched up the dinner service. The dish was fine, but the service was not that great. By this I mean, everything has to be served in a timely manner, and since my dish was over-complicated and it really slowed down service which affected the diners. I had an irate owner and an irate Chef, an irate floor manager, an irate sommelier. It was very embarrassing, very humbling, it was a pretty fantastic learning experience.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I don’t get to see my family much, so I would like to cook for my mum, Pam, when I see her. Celebrities I could care less about, sports persons I could care less about. I would cook whatever she wants.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
It’s tough as I eat everything every day. Probably the one I am pleased with the most right now is the Mango Salad. I like it for a couple of reasons. One, it’s one of those dishes where we break out of the traditional plating while still embodying what we do – what Junoon does as a modern Indian restaurant. In the Mango Salad we use different mangoes – badami mango is roasted in the tandoor, alhonso mango we do raw, we also make a puree out of the aphonso mangoes, and we do a badami mango frozen raita, with celery leaves, mint and red chilli. We have very traditional components, yet they are not packaged the way they normally are.
The Saloni Macchi (Fish) is also delicious. We use cape shark for that. We marinate it and tandoori roast it and serve it with a beet korma and we do a sea foam.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
My philosophy would be to maintain the history and integrity of the main cuisine. No matter what we do, or how we present it, it needs to taste exactly as you would remember it growing up. Flavour wise and ingredient wise we do not stray although our presentation might be more contemporary. I refuse to use any ingredients that are not in the Indian lexicon. Its all about celebrating the traditions of the cuisine.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Braised Chitlins (intestines) are the one thing that I had which was weird. It was in the States in Mississippi, it’s a Southern thing. I just don’t jive on it.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Probably, Alinea in Chicago. Served modern American cuisine. They are really at the forefront of modern cuisine, very forward thinking stuff, very experimental. Everything about it is impeccable. It was a 28 course menu. I have been there a couple of times, but the truffle explosion is way up there.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Foie gras donuts from Do or Dine restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. Stuff the donut with Foie gras mousse and grape jelly. Fresh and warm donut.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) or sriracha – those two things make everything delicious. No matter what, they make it good and they always work together well.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
One of my Chefs Hannah told me, “Make it nice, or make it twice.” I have been given great advice, but that’s the one that is in my mind right now.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Probably a Musician. Trying (to be a musician).
Most underrated ingredient? The everyday humble boring ingredients Celery, broccoli, carrots – things that are not sexy by themselves – that people overlook. We try to do a lot of cool stuff with very humble ingredients. It’s easy to buy foie gras and caviar. But to make a carrot really kind of centre of plate and getting people excited about it now, that is really challenging and that is something I really enjoy doing.
Best culinary tool? Kunz Spoon. It’s a spoon that was designed about 10 years ago by Chef Gray Kunz and its perfect for saucing, it’s perfect for shaping quenelles, tasting – just the way they are shaped and the way they are balanced. It’s something you always have in your hand.
A chef that inspires you? My team, my cooks. They are brilliant, they are fantastic. They are great people, they are very good at what they do, they push you to work harder and it’s my responsibility to push them to get better.
Favourite cuisine? What I eat the most, and cook the most when I am not at work is Japanese. It’s the opposite of everything that I do at my work. My background is modern American and Indian food and they are different to Japanese. The thing I love about Japanese is that it appears very simple on the surface, but it is extremely technically challenging food to do probably because of the appearance of simplicity of it.
One dish you can’t live without? There’s a couple. Yogurt and Granola and sweet breads. Yogurt and granola is what I have for breakfast and as a late night snack. Sweet breads usually have a beautiful creamy texture to them and they take flavours very well. They are flexible in what food preparations you can do with them.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Fusion. I am all about taking one cuisine and moving it forward as opposed to kind of taking greatest hits of other cuisines and just kind of mashing them up. The culture and heritage needs to be there.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. S’mores. Its roasted marshmallows and you put it between a sandwich of chocolate and graham crackers (sweetened crackers that has a hint of cinnamon and clove in it). It’s delicious. We used to have this when we used to have campfires – that is what we used to do – have s’mores.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? There is no junk food.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? I don’t remember, it’s been 7 months since I have been home. At the moment I live in a furnished flat with basic stuff. So I would say yogurt and granola, probably.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Seasonal, support local agriculture and its gotta be cool.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!