Fanatic For Fish Balls; Chef Nico Sy
By Karena Apollonya Ebora Higgins
A new generation of Filipino chefs run some of LA’s trendiest restaurants. We got a chance to pick the brain one of the best, Chef Nico Sy. We chatted about wack furniture, why his refrigerator is empty and yummy Filipino fish sticks.
Name: Nico Sy
Position: Executive Sous Chef, Little Dom’s
Hometown: Los Angeles
Born: Manila, Philippines
Where’d you learn to cook?
I watched my mom cook big batches of stews and do it twice a week. She’d spend 6-8 hours in the kitchen and let me help. I’m the youngest of 4 brothers.
What’s your mom’s bomb-ass dish?
It’s a variation of a Chinese dish, this pork shank stew with brown sugar, vinegar and a little soy sauce. She also cooks traditional Bicol Express, made with coconut milk. She does it an interesting way, different from her sisters. She sears the pork cubes with herbs and spices, sets it aside, then puts the meat back in and braises it. Braising opens up the pork pieces and soaks in the juices.
How’d you become a food professional?
Food actually chose me. I was a math and music major in school. I went to school for a couple of years before I ran out of money. My friend Ben was a sous chef at Little Dom’s and hired me as a dishwasher. It was hard work. It was 2008, during the recession, so I was just happy to have a job. I saw that the pantry station was making more money, so I moved up and did that.I lived on people’s couches and slowly moved my way up. I put math and music on hold.
Do you want to open your own restaurant?
I’d rather be the hired guy. I’d rather run someone else’s restaurant, so I can stay creative. The business end of it sucks, but if I did, I’d open a noodle house, like the BBQ noodle places in Hong Kong.
Little Dom’s is Italian food, do you ever cook Filipino food?
Sometimes I’ll do a rendition of a Filipino dish. I made a crispy pork with a fresh vinaigrette with red wine. I’d like to do a variation of crispy pata, but use pork belly instead. It’s so delicious. I’d braise it first, then let it sit in the fridge, then crisp it up in the oven at 180 degrees.
Your thoughts on Filipino food and it’s current buzz?
Filipino restaurants have to present traditional dishes and incorporate stuff like the actual local produce, vegetables and beans from the Philippines. They need to introduce those types of ingredients, because only featuring Adobo gets really old. If people eat sweet breads now, why can’t they eat shrimp paste? Filipino food has such a rich base of Spanish and Chinese. Chefs need to introduce ingredients unique to each native province, like the way the provinces in Italy are distinguished. The flavors of Milan are rich and warm, versus the flavors from Sicily are warm and bright. They’re also lacking an “environment”. Most of the restaurants do it right with the food, but they lack the environment. You eat with your eyes and presentation is important. I’m assuming families who the restaurants are old school. They look like some of the restaurants in the Philippines, with the aluminum chairs with padding. They’re heavy as fuck and uncomfortable.
Whats your favorite Filipino meal?
I love Filipino street food! I love fried fish balls. They’re pockets of air with sweet dipping sauce and vinegars. Green mango with bagoong (shrimp paste) and sago juice served in a plastic bag with a straw. That’s my meal!
I have tons of condiments because I fucking love condiments! Other than that, I don’t have stuff in my fridge. It’s pointless because of work. I eat mostly at work.
1. Hoisin Sauce
2. Oyster Sauce
4. Crystal Hot Sauce
You’re a young chef, where do you see yourself in a few years?
I really love the teaching aspect of being a chef, teaching other cooks who are really excited to learn. I’ll be doing that for a few years, but who’s to say what will happen?