Talking hip Asian comfort food with Chef Dennis Chan of Blue Bamboo
1. Tell us about Blue Bamboo.
Blue Bamboo is a fun, casual eatery with modern twists on Southern comfort food and Asian favorites.
2.What do you mean by modern twists?
My training is in classic European cooking. At Blue Bamboo, we take those cooking techniques, in terms of presentation and flavors, and apply them to Southern and Asian cooking.
3. Do you cover a lot of Asian styles or are you focused on a particular region?
What we do at Blue Bamboo is based on the travels that I, or the staff, have done, more than a specific area. This applies to our travels anywhere in the world. For example, we'll occasionally bring Puerto Rican, Italian, or South American food into our menu because it's where we've travelled, and enjoyed our eating time there. Our food often evokes a food memory for someone who may have been somewhere or creates an interest for someone who may want to experience someplace in the future.
4. How do you create the recipes out of your travels?
When we travel, we eat, eat, and eat. Our experiences inspire us to create recipes based on those travels and ingredients. We take the training we have and put our own style to it. Our portions are hearty because we like to eat. We often take a recipe and see how its best presented, and make sure that it has lots of flavor. Some call what we do, "fusion." That word is probably one of the most misused words around. If two cultures are combined on a plate, there had better be some cultural significance behind it.
5. You sometimes describe your food as "hip Asian comfort food." What makes the food "hip?"
It's the food many of us grew up on, presented in a new and exciting way. There are so many items on our menu that bring back memories of life experiences. Our hip Asian comfort food is simply the food that makes people feel good, taken to a new level of presentation and flavor.
6. What kind of food did you grow up with?
My family has had 12 restaurants here in Jacksonville over the last 6 decades. My mom would call after school and ask what I wanted her to bring home for dinner when she did not want to make dinner at home. Some of the classic Chinese dishes I grew up with end up on our menu with a modern twist. We have a fried shrimp appetizer on our menu that we did decades ago in my family's restaurants. That's a classic dish that we now combine with some Thai chili flavors coated with Japanese bread crumbs, giving the dish a whole new texture. I like to incorporate techniques and things I've learned that make the recipes better - more modern, and hip.
7. Can you recommend something for a first time visitor who wants to get a sense of what Blue Bamboo cooking is all about?
We have a dish that started off as a special on our menu and it quickly became the definitive dish of our restaurant and what we do. Here in Jacksonville we're really close to an area called the Gullah region. The people in the Gullah region speak a different language and eat very specific foods. Many classic dishes throughout the American South can be traced back to that region. Their main dish, which is their claim to fame, is shrimp and grits. Around here, we eat grits the Southern way, which is savory, not sweet. I took this classic dish and made it with a Thai style red curry, and coated the grits in a crispy breadcrumb. It's rich in texture and flavor. You just can't get any more Southern and Asian than that.
8. How exactly did you put your own stamp on shrimp and grits?
We start off with cheesy stone-ground grits, which we make into patties. We bread the patties with panko, and fry them just until they're golden. Then we make a red curry stir fry which contains red spices - chilies, paprika, and other spices mixed together with some coconut milk. We stir fry the curry with shrimp, peppers and onions - which is classically Gullah - and serve it on top of the grit cakes. It's rich in texture because the panko breading adds a whole new dimension to what would normally be just mushy grits. The red curry and the veggies add layers of flavors and textures to the dish.
9. Did you know that would become your definitive dish when you first added it to your menu as a special?
Our red curry shrimp and grits has evolved from when we first offered it. Our first brunch version of shrimp and grits was made in the classic way, which is just a bowl of grits with shrimp and veggies and onions on top. Over the years we've learned ways to improve the dish to make it better, which is very much how Blue Bamboo operates on the whole. We're in our 8th year now and we keep doing things a little different. When people suggest things to us we listen and we just keep trying to get better and better.
10. What attracted you to shrimp and grits?
It's the regional aspect of the dish. When we started Blue Bamboo I wanted to be one of the few places in Jacksonville that people felt they had to bring their guests to when they were visiting from outside the region. We wanted dishes that were unique to Jacksonville and that also represented my background and my family's background.
11. Can you recommend a few other dishes that will give people a sense of what Blue Bamboo is all about?
There's another dish that is my favorite dish on the menu - we call it the Peachy Chicken and Waffles. It's a knife and fork version of chicken and waffles. Back when we first put this on the menu I thought it was such a cool combination of savory and sweet. Originally, people weren't as open to it as they are now. Today many restaurants in town serve the combination with their own twists. It's been on our menu for almost 5 years but I almost didn't have the nerve to put it on our menu. I took a trip to LA, to a restaurant known for its chicken and waffles. It was only after I experienced their classic version that I had the confidence to put it on our menu with our own twist. We use a whole boneless chicken breast with Japanese bread crumbs, add our own peach compote, and put it all on top of a buttermilk waffle. To finish off the dish, we take some crispy, thin-cut egg roll wrappers and coat them with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar to give the dish just the perfect balance of savory-sweet, with wonderful varying textures.
12. Did you start with the idea of creating your own chicken and waffles recipe?
At the time, I was intrigued by the flavor combination. In true Blue Bamboo fashion, it evolved. To make it our own we added a peach compote and the cinnamon crisps.
13. Why is it your favorite dish on the menu?
I really like the combination of salty and sweet. I haven't ever had anyone order that dish who hasn't had fun with their food or fun with life.
14. Are there any dishes you have that you think are really good but people have been hesitant or slower to try out?
When we first opened many people were afraid of lamb and duck because those two meats seemed pretty foreign. Things have evolved now to the point that these are two of our most popular menu items. We use the best in quality - Maple Leaf farmed duck from Indiana and New Zealand lamb. Some people have had bad experiences with those meats elsewhere but the quality of what we start with really shows through to the end product. Those are two very delicious dishes on our menu. We see people who keep coming back and they get hooked on those dishes.
15. What is it that gets them hooked?
It's pretty much the story of everything that we do. If you start with good quality ingredients the end result is that much better. Our lamb racks are New Zealand lamb that we grill with just salt and pepper and a little bit of specially blended powdered curry mix for seasoning. We then glaze the lamb with a mixture of honey and soy just as it's finishing cooking, to give it a little sweetness. That sweet, along with the curry, brings out and complements the natural flavor of lamb really well.
16. Have you seen many big changes in attitudes or approaches to food since you've been open?
I tell you, the Food Network has been a blessing to restaurateurs like us who really want to do something different and contemporary. People who watch the Food Network and these cooking shows - it's their way of getting educated about what we do. It has created a whole new generation of people who are food savvy. Travel also plays a big part in exposing people to different cuisines. I had someone come in last week who asked us if we made hand pulled noodles. I have had those before but because of the economics of it we're not able to do that here. Just the fact that I was able to connect with this guest because I could talk about the best hand pulled noodle experience I've had and he shared with me his best experience - that's one of the big reasons I love what I do - because I'm able to share and talk with people about their experiences, and connect with them that way.
17. What are the most popular items at Blue Bamboo?
The shrimp and grits for sure. We have another dish that's a green curry and coconut shrimp dish served with grilled salmon. That is our heartiest dish on the menu.
18. Can you tell us about your culinary background?
I grew up working in my family's restaurants. If I wanted to spend time with Granddad, I went to his restaurant. I'd stand there, right by the stove where he cooked. Some of my earliest memories are of standing on a little stool next to my Granddad as he was cooking. That's what ingrained in me that I had to continue this family legacy. After college I went to work for Disney because they were the best that I knew of in casual customer service. I knew that I could learn a few things from them. I ended up staying for 5 years and had a really good time working there with the mouse. I wasn't cooking, but working in guest relations. I was a VIP tour guide. Anytime someone came into the parks and needed special assistance it would be my responsibility to show them around. Some recognizable celebrities were my clients when I worked there.
19. What did you study at college?
My first college degree was in East Asian languages and literature from the University of Florida. I also have a degree in business from there. I went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) afterwards.
20. Why did you work at Disney before going to the CIA?
In the back of my mind I always knew that I wanted to open my own restaurant. I wanted to see how the biggest and best companies did customer service. Disney was a natural choice for that. While I was at Disney I realized that if I wanted to open a restaurant I'd need some back of the house experience that was classic. All my family's restaurants were Chinese restaurants and I could make a badass egg foo young or sweet and sour chicken - all those things a Chinese restaurant serves. But I didn't know what a roux or mirepoix was.
21. Why did you decide to go to the CIA to learn classic cooking?
All of the people I looked up to in the restaurant business had a common thread - they all went to the CIA. I never even went to look at the campus. Based on reputation alone I packed my bags and went up to school there. I spent two years there and learned a whole lot about how to eat.
22. Why did you decide to be a chef?
My family really didn't want me to be a chef or even to be in the restaurant business. They understand that it's a lot of long hours - it consumes your whole life. But I had a legacy to continue. Now, of course they're proud of what I've accomplished. I teach at the community college and have to interview students all the time. I tell them the restaurant business has to be something you absolutely love, because if you do then you won't mind the hours, the feedback, or any of the other things that come with the job. You'll do it because you love it, and that's what I do.
23. What do you love the most about being a chef?
No other career will give you the instant feedback that you get from being a chef. If you're good at what you do then most of the feedback will be positive. When you have people in your dining room they'll tell you right away if they like it or if they don't like it. Even when someone tells you they don't like something, it's your chance to build a life long relationship with them - or at least a good relationship with them. Luckily, people usually feel good about us and our restaurant and that keeps us going.
24. Why did you choose to teach at the college? Aren't the hours long enough at the restaurant?
A restaurant keeps anyone busy enough! It is important for me to be able to offer something to the next generation of chefs. I feel that the great chefs who came before me had an influence on what I did and what I like to do and teaching at the school allows me to share just a little of my knowledge and my passion for what I do with a whole new generation of people who have an interest in this. I don't do it for the pay - I do it because I see it as a way I can give back to the profession I love.
25. What's the next generation of chefs like?
A lot of the new students come with a knowledge of food from watching the Food Network. They can tell me technically how something is done but they don't get to practice it until we do it in class. It's really rewarding to watch someone practice something they've read about or watched on TV and then see them make it happen.
26. Can you tell us about your book?
Hip Asian Comfort Food is a book that is written about the food and philosophy behind Blue Bamboo. It's full of recipes that are flavorful and simple to follow. We want people to be able to eat Blue Bamboo food even if they're not here in the restaurant because these are flavors that are easy to recreate and to impress their guests with. We've had good feedback from it so far.
27. Does your book illustrate things that you teach in your cooking class?
It started out that way. We do a different theme every month with our cooking class. After 8 years we've never repeated a theme and we try not to repeat recipes too much. Occasionally we'll bring in a few recipes from the Hip Asian Comfort Food book, and bring the pages to life.
28. What sort of themes are featured in your cooking class?
One year we did a different country every month. We did countries like France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan and China. Another year we did themes like Chino-Latino or some of the modern combinations that are popular in big cities, like Chinese-Peruvian food. We showed how to do two culturally different dishes and then how to combine them. We've done easy classes, intermediate classes, sushi classes, stir-fry classes - all kinds of different classes. We want people who come to a class to feel like they're gaining something in technique or knowledge.
29. Who's the audience for your cooking classes?
They're meant for all. It's not meant to be a strictly technical class. We don't test people afterwards. They're informative and entertaining. Guests can get hands on, if they like. There's no pressure. We start every class with a cocktail - that'show we set the tone. It's meant to be 2 hours of fun, learning and eating.
30. How do people sign up?
We have anywhere from 15 people up to 60 people. Most classes are about 20 people. People do need to sign up in advance. They can do so through our website or by calling us at Blue Bamboo. Classes are held once a month on a Saturday morning from 10am to noon.
31. You have something called a Pajama Brunch Sunday. Do people actually come in their pajamas?
That is our newest event here at Blue Bamboo. We'll have them monthly. We don't want to pressure our servers to get up early on Sunday to come to work so we allow them to come in their pajamas. Many or our guests join us in their pajamas too. My cousin ran Coffee Cup Cafe for 14 years before deciding to retire. I told her that she can't retire - she needs to help me with this, so we do traditional brunch items from Coffee Cup Cafe along with some Blue Bamboo favorites.
32. Do you need reservations?
We don't take reservations for Pajama Brunch Sunday because we like to keep it casual.
33. You also have Dim Sum Sundays. For those who may not be familiar with Dim Sum, can you explain what it is?
Simply put, it's Asian tapas - appetizer portions of various dumplings, tarts, cakes, and buns that one keeps ordering until they are full. Over the years, people have asked me where they can go for Dim Sum here in Jacksonville. Everything is served on tapas plates so that you can order as much or as little as you like. The response to our Dim Sum event has been so good that we now serve Dim Sum every month. We always keep the Dim Sum schedule updated on our website.
34. You also write a BLOG. Can you tell us about that?
We wanted our Blue Bamboo community to stay updated about our goings on, which is why we created the Blue Bamboo BLOG. We are always trying new things to keep ourselves on the cutting edge of the Jacksonville culinary scene. The articles often tell about the ingredients and techniques we use here in the restaurant. It is a way for us to share with those who want to learn a little more about what we do.
35. Do you offer catering?
Yes, we cater for some of our favorite guests. It came about because some of our most frequent guests were asking us to cater in their homes for special events. We're happy to do it. It's neat to get out there to make these events happen for people we've grown close to over the years. We've built our restaurant on personal relationships - that's how we run our business.
36. What attracted you to your Tinseltown location?
My grandfather had a restaurant in the neighborhood 40 years ago. The neighborhood has grown up a little bit since then. Up the street from where we are there used to be sand dunes. I went to high school not too far from here. A lot of my teachers are good customers and a lot of the people I grew up with are still in the neighborhood and keep in touch through the restaurant. Our location works really well for us.
37. Does your family still have any of its restaurants open?
My family has all retired.
38. Where do you like to eat when you're not eating at Blue Bamboo?
Our city and our state has so many mom and pop restaurants that I love to culture and nurture relationships with. I love taking day trips around our area, both in-state and into Georgia. There are a few places I love to visit often. Most of those have some historical significance to Blue Bamboo or to me. There are some classics that don't get the credit they're due.
39. What's next for Blue Bamboo?
Many years ago, when we first started, there was an Asian market attached to us. It sure made it convenient for us when we wanted to find an ingredient to play with in the kitchen. Now that business is gone and there's been this empty space next to us for a few years. We've recently remodeled it into a banquet space that we can use for wedding parties, birthday parties and to offer dining space for private groups. That is the next big project for Blue Bamboo. Because we do everything custom, we now have a space we can make look the way people imagine their space looking. It's a blank canvas for every event. It's a whole new business for me. It's something we enjoy doing. We're just in the infancy stage of using the space. It's been very rewarding in terms of giving us another chance to connect with our client base.