September 16, 2014 -
Q+A with Chef Joshua Woo, Our New Director of Culinary Operations
For Chef Joshua Woo, cooking is more than just a job; it’s a way of life. Growing up around southern and traditional Asian cuisines, this particular chef (affectionately known as “Woo!” among the staff) brings a unique perspective to the culinary team at Spice.
In this interview, we talk to the Cleveland boomeranger about his background, his opinions on the thriving Cleveland food scene, and his innovative ideas for Spice’s fall menu.
This is your second time living in Cleveland: What brought you here initially?
About seven or eight years ago, I came up to work after I had graduated from culinary school. Ben [Bebenroth] and I had worked together down in Charleston and we had a good rapport with each other. He was talking about starting his catering company and he needed some help so I decided to come up and help him. I actually lived in his attic and worked in his basement!
That was the beginning: in culinary school. We both entered into the advanced program at Johnson & Wales and we met a bunch of people that loved to cook and we all hung out. I think it was the opportunity to go to a bigger city and try something new that drew me to Cleveland.
What brought you back the second time?
Even after I moved away, Ben and I still kept in touch and talked about our different businesses and bounced stuff off each other and looked to each other for ideas. After I got married, we started talking about Cleveland again and I really liked his vision for the company and the focused progress he had made since I left.
Spice was doing exactly what I was trying to do in Wilmington, but I didn’t have a big enough market. I was really intrigued by the whole idea of letting the farmers speak for themselves and supporting the local economy. I came up to Cleveland for a couple days this Spring to check out the restaurants and I worked in the Spice kitchen for a day. The passion that everybody brought was incredible. That was something I’d been looking for for awhile.
What are some of your favorite things to do around town in your free time?
I’ve only been here a few months and I’ve been working so much, I haven’t really been able to do anything yet! My wife just arrived this week here from Wilmington. Usually on days off, I’ll just check out the neighborhoods and try to see a restaurant. I haven’t gone to any games, but I want to and also want to check out the casino. I’ve only been here two months so I’ve just been getting the house organized. We have two dogs and three cats so I spend a lot of time with them. Nothing exciting yet!
When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in the culinary arts?
I grew up around chefs. My dad was a chef before I was born and then he became a firefighter, but he would always cook at the firehouse. My mom also did a lot of cooking at home. My grandfather ran a Chinese restaurant and my dad worked there. Because my dad grew up southern, I had a lot of southern and Asian culinary influences growing up.
When I started, it was just a job, and then I started working at Port Land Grille in Wilmington and the chef took me under his wing and showed me a lot of cool stuff and I got really interested in it there. After that, I went to culinary school and worked there. Working at the Port Land Grille piqued my interest and was where it switched from being a job to being a career that I could do for the rest of my life.
If you weren’t working as a chef, what would you be doing?
I’d be a rocket scientist! They’re kind of similar, but a different pay grade.
What about Spice was appealing to you initially?
I’d been following Spice’s path from the start, from catering to when they bought and opened a restaurant. It was interesting to me to see where they were going. It was really a model of how I was trying to incorporate local farms and foods into the restaurant I was at.
Seeing their response up here and having the client base to support it was what interested me. I started talking with Ben and I knew that it’d be a good place based on what I knew about him. I knew he wanted to be on the forefront and push ahead and that he had a lot of goals. I was definitely interested in jumping on and helping him achieve his goals.
What’s your favorite aspect of working at Spice now?
I love doing the farmers’ market runs, but I also really love the staff here and their influence and dedication. Everyone cares about the food and the drinks and the experience. It’s a really cool place to work and everyone is really upbeat and motivated. I like the camaraderie of the kitchen and how everyone is into it. There’s not really any ego. The food comes first. Everyone makes sure that the food is good and guest is happy.
How would you describe your culinary style?
My dad always cooked Asian so that was kind of what I saw growing up. I’m interested in all different styles, but Asian would be my strong suit. I also really like the ingredient-driven farm-to-table type of cooking. I like to know and see what’s exactly in my dish. I like to know where it came from. I like to let the ingredients stand on their own and do what you know to heighten the flavor of those few components.
What are your favorite dishes to make?
Old fashioned comfort food. I also really like making dumplings and dim sun. That’s some of my favorite stuff to eat: Down-home stuff.
Why do you think so many customers are flocking to restaurants that feature local ingredients?
I think it’s just an opportunity to contribute to your local farmers and businesses. At Spice, we even try to get fish and meats locally, if we can. People say that supporting the sustainable practices is a trend, but it’s a good trend. Some people do it because it’s trendy and others because it’s what they believe in. All the chefs and employees at Spice believe in it and we carry those beliefs home with us. I think a lot of our customers love that and love that we support it. We put all our efforts into a greater good.
What is it about Cleveland that makes it so appealing for chefs?
I’m not really sure. I’ve only been back for a couple months. It’s actually a lot more food-centered than I expected, right off the bat. The farms around here are amazing with the amount of foods they offer. You can find all different kinds of cuisines and all different types of food. It’s also in a good location, being between Chicago and New York. It’s close to a lot of big food cities. Coming from Wilmington on the coast, there’s a lot of seafood but the farm scene wasn’t nearly as big. The stuff you can get up here year-round is amazing.
Can you give us a teaser as to some of your ideas for the fall menu at Spice?
We have a couple different things we’re doing for the brunch menu: A couple are traditional, but we’ve also got different items that you wouldn’t normally see. You can expect to see a play on our traditional benedict with braised pork belly, fried eggs and house-made hollandaise over a biscuit. We’re calling it the Dixie Benedict.