October 23rd, 2007

Small bites, big nights: 15 minutes with Govind

Govind ArmstrongGovind Armstrong, the Los Angeles chef who one year ago brought his Table 8 to South Beach, is a busy man. He’s off to New York today having just arrived in Miami yesterday to make some menu changes at Table 8, then going to LA, then back here. Mind you he just got back from the Bahamas and Nevis. His life has been a little more of a whirlwind since the launch in April of his first cookbook Small Bites, Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate Occasions and Lavish Parties, which will be showcased at the Miami Book Fair next month. But it could be worse, he says, and in spite of his hectic schedule, he took some time to chat with me over the phone yesterday while in Miami.

I must confess I was a little intimidated talking to a chef who began his culinary career at the tender age of 13 at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago and then made his way into some very famous kitchens including Campanile, City Restaurant, Patina and Arzak in Spain to name a few but on the other side of the phone was a laid back, down-to-earth person who gave me a really hard time for not having been to Table 8 yet. Fair enough. Now I have a promise to keep. I’ll be there in November, Govind.

Your book focuses on small plates and entertaining. Why?

It’s one of those concepts that I’ve always loved and always been inspired to share with people. At restaurants I love to give people options and have a few small bites, a glass of wine and make a night of it. Or if they come and blow out water and want to spend money and have a formal dinner, they can do that too.

The whole small plate thing is how I appreciate eating. I like to go out and stuff my face with a lot of tastes, textures. It’s a lot more casual way to dine and more communal, it gets people together. And that’s what I do [when I entertain]. I don’t do the formal sit down dinners anymore. It’s not that I’m lazy; it’s a way to bring people together. It’s a lot easier and there’s a number of creative ways that you can piece it all together without spending all day in the kitchen.

Some home cooks are intimidated by recipes with too many steps and too many ingredients. In your book, you break down your recipes by easy, medium and challenging. What would you say to them to encourage them to give the challenging ones a try?

It’s really important that you know what you’re getting into. It’s giving people a little bit of a heads up. If you don’t want to spend all day cooking or if you’re in a bind, I give people shortcuts. If you don’t want to soak beans overnight and then cook them for an hour and a half, you can use canned beans and add your seasoning. There are shortcuts you can take and you can still put your own stamp on them.

Some of my favorite recipes are the easiest, but there are some recipes in there that you spend a couple hours making but you can make a ton of them and freeze them up. When your guests come by, you have an arsenal of stuff.

What was the hardest part about writing a book?

That was a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. All the edits were just so painful. I pride myself on being detail-oriented to set myself apart but it’s just so meticulous. Having things like perfectly standardized was aggravating and annoying. It was brutal.

So you won’t be doing another one any time soon?

Every single week I get a call to start another one but I just can’t right now.

It was a learning process, everyday I learned so much about what to do. I tried to cut corners by not hiring a food stylist and styling the food myself and working with a photographer … It wasn’t easy but it was great and we had a great time. Testing recipes was a pain in the ass but we got through that too. Family and friends loved it because I was having dinner parties all the time. I can write recipes everyday for cooks but for home cooks you can’t say ‘season to taste.’ It has to be standardized; it has to be really by the book. But I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat – I’m kidding.

You emphasize using fresh, local ingredients. What are some good places to shop for fresh ingredients in Miami?

The best place for me has been Homestead and Paradise Grove. They’re growing a lot of really cool stuff there and their season is about to peak. It’s not as easy as I thought when I came here. For this market, I’ve relied more on seafood. My focus is to bring whatever the market has. With the climate it’s not as easy pulling as much fresh produce as I would like. In LA I can go to my local market everyday and they have great local produce. I’ve been working with those farmers for 15 years and they just drop stuff off at my back door. Here, I’m working with a lot of the farmers to get to that point. I just stick with what’s in season and pull in as much local stuff as I can possibly can.

Is there an ingredient you like to work with that you find in Miami but not in LA?

It’s really the fish. I’ve never really worked with Pompano that much. That I fell in love with. It’s super elegant. I love the texture, it’s really mild. Obviously, the stone crabs. Season’s just starting out so that’s always exciting, but I don’t buy so much into the hype. People go nuts over those things. It’s like ‘calm down.’

The white water clams are always good; the groupers. We don’t get the pink grouper that you guys get down here. I don’t get into the tropical fruits. I’m not part of the Mango Gang; I don’t get into the papaya salsa and mango coulis. I leave that to the professionals, you know what I mean?

I’m a first-time diner at Table 8. What would you recommend?

I would recommend you show up on time for your reservation.

Okay…

I would recommend off the menu right now, anything. Definitely the burrata because it’s something that you don’t get out here. It’s so simple. I feel bad taking the credit for something like that. We make the croutons but not the tomatoes, not the burrata. It’s a good combination of ingredients. Nothing’s getting lost. My favorite is that and … the sweetbreads I love. The snapper, talking entrees, is really great. It’s local snapper that we get from the Keys served with a cream corn kinda thing, a sweet pea puree, local marinated tomatoes and a parmesan aioli.

Aside from at Table 8, where do you dine when you come to Miami?

I ate at Michael’s. That was really good. I’ve been there a few times. You know what I really love? Macaluso’s. That was like a happy meal . I can really relate to that food. Local fresh ingredients, no one’s trying to show off. Dewey’s North One Ten was good. Ate there a couple months ago. I love Puerto Sagua. That’s always delicious. They have these fried chicken chunks that I just crave. But when I’m here I don’t have a lot of time, I have to spend time at my restaurant.

Are there any new fun projects coming up for you?

Everything I want to do is in the scope of work. I was in Barbados for Food&Wine doing a dinner and I was in Nevis yesterday at a dinner that I actually was invited to, not doing. That was brilliant. Other stuff, working on a place in New York that’s gonna be opening in about a year. That’s really exciting. Other than that, I fly back and forth; I spend time with the people I work with who are really great people. I’m a lucky guy.

Yes, you are.

Govind Armstrong will be at the Miami Book Fair, Saturday, Nov. 10 at 10 a.m., Batten Room, to talk about his book Small Bites, Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate Occasions and Lavish Parties, Clarkson Potter ($30). For a full schedule of the Miami Book Fair, go here.

[tags] Miami book fair, Govind Armstrong [/tags]

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8 Responses to “Small bites, big nights: 15 minutes with Govind”

  1. How you were able to nab Govind down at all is a feat in itself. Glad to see he’s found his purveyors and doesn’t seem as whiny as he did in the Herald article. One comment that struck me was the one thing he suggested when going to his restaurant was to show up on time. Are you kidding me? Last few times I was there, and others I know have had the same experience, there was a 30+ minute wait after we had checked in ON TIME for our reservation. I think Mr. Armstrong needs to check himself when telling us to be at his place on time. If anything he should realize he’s operating in Miami and we’re not as robotic about time as people in L.A.

  2. I’m pretty sure he was joking around about showing up on time. Well, I laughed.
    Great interview Paula. He sounded interested and happy-good signs for a chef. And I too love the Chicharron de Pollo at Puero Sagua.

  3. Great interview. I really got a sense for what he wanted the book to be about and where he is in his cooking life right now.

  4. I think he might have been joking a little about the reservations. Who knows? There was a big silence after he said that.

    MD – He does sound like a happy guy who definitely loves what he does. That’s always good. Talk about resolve, asking Wolfgang Puck if he can cook for him at 13!!!

  5. Love it! I can appreciate a chef that uses seasonal products and supports local farmers. Now know that when I go to Table 8 I am not only having a delicious fresh meal but also I am supporting our local economy.
    Thanks Poris!

  6. Metromix published an interview with Govind today. Great picture of the buratta in their photo gallery. Check it out.
    http://southflorida.metromix.com/restaurants/article/q-and-a-with/238860/content

  7. […] a.m. Table 8 Chef Govind Armstrong reads from his first cookbook, Small Bites, Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate […]

  8. […] to go with the dishes recommended by chef Govind Armstrong when I interviewed him a few weeks ago: the burrata with heirloom tomatoes, arugula and croutons, and the local snapper […]

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