F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Sugarcane (Miami) Duck & Waffle (London)
Experience: Domo Japones (Miami), SushiSamba (New York), La Broche (Miami), Azul (Miami), Chef Allen’s (Miami)
Education: Johnson and Wales Culinary School, Miami, FL
South Florida star Timon Balloo is updating fusion cuisine at Miami’s Sugarcane, skillfully drawing from the flavors of Latin America, Western Europe, the US and Asia. The San Francisco native grew up in a food-obsessed household; his mom had her own catering company, and instead of cartoons, Balloo would watch Yan Can Cook. “I was mesmerized by the way Martin Yan would chop with a Chinese cleaver,” he says. “That was one of the first knives I bought.” He took a few small restaurant jobs before finally enrolling at Johnson & Wales’ culinary school in 1998; Balloo worked around Europe and the US before settling down at Sugarcane in Miami, in 2010. The restaurant was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2011; the same year, Balloo scored a Food & Wine nomination for People’s Best New Chef.
On the heels of opening Sugarcane’s sister restaurant, Duck & Waffle, in London, Balloo sat down to talk shop with Food & Wine.
What recipe are you most famous for?
My duck and waffle dish is an ode to my upbringing. I grew up in an urban environment and I have French culinary training. It’s a play on chicken and waffles but we use a French confited duck leg, a beautiful fried duck egg and an herb-and-mustard seed maple sauce. That’s all on top of a buttermilk waffle. It’s a whimsical dish—crispy, salty and sweet. I’m a fat boy at heart, and this is fat boy food.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
We do a whole section of crudos at Sugarcane, which is an expression of my love for that Japanese technique of using really pristine ingredients and serving them simply. The preparation of our local snapper crudo also takes me back to my childhood, when I’d eat Chinese-style steamed fish: We just use soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and scallions.
The second would be my roasted marrowbones, which really demonstrate my goal to use every part of an animal: All the organs and cuts, from cheeks to sweetbreads and liver to kidneys. You get two beautiful marrowbones topped with a decadent, oozing beef cheek marmalade that’s sticky and sappy. You have to dig through the marmalade to get to the marrow and I like how messy that is. It’s satisfying to work for your food a little bit.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
I’m gonna give it up to Culinary Artistry, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. That was one of my first cookbooks. It talks about flavor profiles, pairings and the seasonal use of ingredients. It very much impacted my process as a young chef, and I still reference it to this day.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
The hardest thing for a home cook is developing a proper sear. It’s so hard to get your pan hot enough without smoking out your entire apartment. You need a good cast-iron pan or a really good, high-quality, nonstick like All-Clad or Calphalon. You should always pat down your meat to dry it and make sure you have a well-oiled pan. It goes a long way in building flavor.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Right now it’s a white soy sauce—shiro shoyu. It’s unfiltered, unaged, very pristine and light on the palate. It’s just a great way to add salt to a dish without overpowering it. I like to whip it into room-temperature butter and add it to steamed vegetables.
If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
I’d love to do an indoor-outdoor Asian barbecue, with a design that’s influenced by Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. I love Korean barbecue and Japanese robata, but I’d love to bring some of that American rock-and-roll culture to those foods.
What is your go-to cocktail? How about beer?
I love a good whiskey. I just tasted Death’s Door White Whiskey the other day and now I’m addicted to it. I’ll drink that straight. As for beer, I like anything from the Florida producer Cigar City.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
We’re a cheese house. My daughter is getting older now, so now we have nicer cheese around, like Camembert, Brie and goat, not just those Kraft singles. I love semisoft cheeses like Saint-Nectaire or a Saint-André. I’ll just open the fridge and smear it on some carrot sticks or apple. But I’m a fat boy, so I’ll be honest with you. I’ll also smear it on Cheez-Its—the big ones, because they have enough surface area for a nice scoop of cheese.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.