Superstar Miami Chef Dreams up Oxtail Bao and Jerk Pork Shumai at New Restaurant
Timon Balloo is opening his most personal concept to date, drawing from his Indian, Chinese, Black, Trinidadian, and Arawak roots.
“This is 100 percent me,” he says of the eponymous restaurant he plans to open in mid-November.
The restaurant known as Balloo, which has a neon-blue sign, a multihued dining room that might squeeze in 20 seats, and a small patio, is less than 1,000 square feet. By contrast, Sugarcane, the Miami restaurant where he received a Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef nomination, is about five times that size. (The Brooklyn outpost of Sugarcane is even larger.) But he says what he’s about to debut in downtown Miami is his “dream restaurant” and his “midlife-crisis restaurant” and the most personal thing he’s created in his career.
It starts with his roots. Timon Balloo is Indian, Chinese, Black, Trinidadian, and Arawak. He plans to showcase flavors from Asia and the Caribbean, among other places, at his new restaurant. “I’ll have roti, naan, oxtail, most likely rice and peas,” he says. “There will probably be a callaloo.”
His closest childhood friend was Filipino, so he plans to serve fried rice inspired by Filipino breakfast. He might put his own version of Spam, something he’s made before at Sugarcane, in the fried rice. He might offer other rice dishes like pilau.
He loves to eat dim sum every week, so he’s also thinking about a jerk-chicken dumpling or maybe a jerk-pork shumai. He’s purchased a cheung fun machine, but he might serve the rice-noodle rolls like pasta he tops with gravy instead of stuffing them with meat. He wants to riff on char siu bao, and the plan for now is to pan-fry the baos and possibly fill them with oxtail instead of barbecue pork.
“Even to get to that thought process, it had to take all the experience I had to say, ‘I’m OK with doing this,’” he says. “Because it made sense in my house.”
Despite all his success, Balloo, who just turned 42, says it’s taken more than two decades as a chef to find his voice. “At the end of the day, I’m a third-world-country chef,” he says. “I did a 23andMe to find out who the fuck I am.”
Genetics is one thing. Identity is another. Balloo was born in New York and grew up eating his mom’s Chinese and Caribbean food in San Francisco after his parents divorced. One of his biggest regrets is how he rejected his heritage as a young child. His mom spoke Mandarin at home, and he wanted to be American so badly that he told her she should speak English. Later on, he learned to appreciate being Asian. But he was a kid with dark skin and curls, so he felt a bit out of place around other Asians.
“People thought I was Polynesian because they see my skin color and hair and they don’t know who I am,” he says. “So I wasn’t Asian enough to be Asian.”
He thinks about how The New York Times named him one of the “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” and how talking to the newspaper about his life made him want to cry. “I realized how much overall anger and pain I had throughout adolescence, not really knowing who I was,” he says.
After his mother got remarried to a Jamaican man, Balloo moved to Florida as a teenager. He loved eating Caribbean food, but he later realized he was erasing his own history as he became a chef. He worked in a Miami hotel and learned the brigade system. He was classically trained at culinary school and went to work for respected Miami chef Allen Susser and “tried to find out what fine dining was.” He staged in Belgium and learned about Michelin stars.
“As ethnic chefs, the first part of us cutting our teeth is about validity within the industry," Balloo says. "We had to go to Europe. We had to go get the fundamental training. So that means you neglect your real heritage. You’re trying to cook at Jean-Georges, Daniel, and Per Se, and you’re not cooking your own food at those places. That road of finding yourself and your identity, it takes a while because you’re chiseling the totem pole of getting experience.”
But working for the free-spirited Michelle Bernstein at Azul inside Miami’s Mandarin Oriental hotel helped him understand that self-expression also matters a lot in the kitchen. “It was life-changing for me,” he says.
Even now, Balloo understands that he’s not finished exploring his own identity. The last time he went to Trinidad was when he was ten and visiting a father who had been “in and out of his life.” Balloo’s father died this year, and the chef has been reconciling a lot of complicated feelings.
“For what it is, I’m a stronger man because I didn’t have a father figure,” he says. “It’s built the character of the person I am. But I want to go back to Trinidad and connect with my Trinidadian side. It’s all about finding my flavor.”
He’s planning to serve his own version of doubles, a popular Trinidadian street food. But instead of putting chickpeas inside fried dough, he might make his doubles with smoked bone marrow and a dry-rubbed short rib that he smokes and fries.
Adding even more flavors to the mix is Balloo’s wife, Marissa. She was the girlfriend who encouraged him to apply for a job at a South Florida bar-and-grill after she saw how miserable he was as an intern in the finance industry. Marissa is Colombian and Thai, and last year the couple traveled around Asia.
The dishes at Balloo’s restaurant might be considered mash-ups to some people, but they’re really just the story of a chef’s life, a life where he’s enjoyed meals at home that involve dipping bao into brown-stew chicken. “This is my food on my terms, and that’s why it’s so meaningful,” he says.
He’s partnered with Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta, the Broken Shaker operators who are also working to open the Margot natural-wine bar in the Ingraham Building next year. Balloo was cooking at SushiSamba in New York when he met Zvi, who was tending bar at the restaurant, in 2003. Zvi and Orta consulted on the opening of Sugarcane in 2010, and they’ve been talking to Balloo for years about having their own venture together.
“Sugarcane’s a big machine,” Balloo says. “Personally, I felt like I lost my intimacy. It’s still a great compliment and accolade to be able to run an operation like that. I’m still a partner. But I just want to do legit-as-fuck shit all the time in my own restaurant now, because I paved the way for this.”
When I ask Balloo to run me through some dishes at his forthcoming restaurant, he tells me to slow my roll.
“Nah, man, you have to hear the whole story,” he says.
So we talk for a while, and I realize that the first four decades of his life might just be chapter one. Here he is downtown, near iconic structures like the DuPont Building, the Olympia Theater, and Bayside Marketplace. Here he is, surrounded by history, in a neighborhood that’s getting a modern makeover. Here he is, ready to create a new path.
When Balloo walks into his restaurant on his birthday, designer/artist Nazly Villamizar is there, working on the relaxed and tropical setting that includes little hand-painted murals of papayas and tablecloths with bright floral patterns. There are plates and furniture from thrift stores, and every color on the walls “is a food vibe,” Balloo says.
He points to “mustard yellow” and “tomato red,” and then Villamizar shows me a wall that’s “parsley green.” On that wall are images of David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider, Joe Montana, Mr. T, Run-DMC, Alyssa Milano, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, and Martin Yan.
Like everything else in the restaurant, these pictures are pure Timon Balloo. He was a child of the ‘80s in the United States, and these were his heroes and his crush and his early culinary inspiration. He is Indian, Chinese, Black, Trinidadian, and Arawak, but he’s also very much an American.