Chef Michael Schlow on His New Restaurant, Peruvian Fusion + Why Boston Is So Beyond Clam Chowder

The savory, crispy chip made from hazelnuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano that chef Michael Schlow was toiling to get just right for this month’s opening of his third outpost of Alta Strada in Washington, D.C., may be his very latest culinary triumph. But, in a larger sense, Schlow, a James Beard Award winner for Best Chef in the Northeast, has helped change the dining profile of what are considered two of the seaboard’s stodgiest cities. With a recent ninth feather in his toque that also includes Latin cuisine at Tico restaurants in D.C. and his adopted hometown of Boston, his newly opened Greek restaurant, Doretta, and a cutting-edge late-night fusion menu, he’s come a long way from cracking eggs as a kid.

michael schlow headshot

What’s your earliest cooking memory?
My mother allowing me to cook omelets for my brother and sister. She would be at work, and I would “experiment” on them with my cooking, making horrible concoctions and then forcing them to eat the omelets, no matter how gross.

You’re from Brooklyn — and New York is one of the world’s culinary epicenters — why stay based in Boston?
Boston has been home for more than 20 years, and I love living here; we have great friends, a terrific food community, and the city has so many amazing attributes that I can’t really imagine living anywhere else.

You obviously witnessed a local culinary evolution of sorts; do you think Bostonians are more adventurous these days?
Bostonians are definitely into their food and their chefs — the days of cod, baked beans, and chowder defining Boston cuisine are over for sure! We have so many diverse and interesting restaurants to choose from now that it’s a world-class food destination with some of the best chefs in the country.

Speaking of diversity, how do you transition to different types of cuisine given the fact that you have Italian, Latin, Greek restaurants … do you have a favorite?
I don’t have a favorite, but if you were to come to our house, I’d probably serve simple Italian food.

alta strada spaghetti and clams

Can you give us a sneak peek of something you may be up to — Peruvian, perhaps?
We are working on a few really fun things right now. I’m excited about the Nikkei late-night menu that’s a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese at Tico Boston. It’s really interesting food and totally cures any late-night cravings. [Served 10PM-1AM Thursday-Saturday, recent offerings include crispy short rib gyoza with panca, toasted onion, and sesame.]

We also just opened Conosci, a crudo bar inside Alta Strada in D.C. It’s a super-small, intimate space featuring [my wife] Adrienne’s artwork, and we’re exploring foods and combinations that are new to us. It’s a very exciting time!

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Cool! Is there a dish you’re dying to serve but may not be ready for prime time?
We’re always balancing the line of what’s approachable and what’s creative. In our kitchens, we often say that we like to take a really approachable dish or list of ingredients and then present them in a creative way but we never experiment on our guests, only ourselves. We just played with a crispy savory “chip” made from hazelnuts and Parmigiano.

Is there a common thread that runs through all of your restaurants? For instance, your recent menus featured buffalo cauliflower at Pine, roasted cauliflower with chipotle at Tico, and cauliflower with jalapeño at Doretta. Was this a conscious decision, circumstance, or simply a matter of seasonality?
The common thread has nothing to do with food, but it’s the most important component to our success. Hopefully, the thing you find at each of our restaurants is a staff with a pre-disposition to serve and a real understanding that great hospitality is what will make the difference.

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How has the industry—and your life—evolved with the rise of the so-called celebrity chef?
The food industry continues to evolve; I never imagined I would get to do incredibly exciting things like be on The Tonight Show or be a guest judge on Top Chef or write a cookbook (It’s About Time: Great Recipes for Everyday Life). When I started cooking, the most-known chefs were Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet … [but] the term celebrity chef should be reserved for those you’d recognize walking by on the street: Mario Batali, Emeril LaGasse, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Tom Colicchio ….

At home you’re “just Dad” to two grade-schoolers — are your girls picky or easy eaters?
We all eat pretty much anything; the only criteria is that it has to be raised or grown in a humane, sustainable, or organic way, and, of course, it has to be delicious! My daughters eat sashimi and raw veggies, and they insist that their pasta be al dente. I’m lucky.

Summer is coming. Are you planning on hitting the road or firing up the grill for some Schlow Burgers? [The award-winner and customer favorite features cheddar, horseradish, and crispy onions.]
We love to go to Rhode Island; it’s an easy road trip. You’ve got great golf, beaches, and jazz in Newport, but we always stop in Providence on the way for a lobster roll at Hemenway’s … it’s so simple but so perfect. There’s an art to that.

If you weren’t a chef, what else would you be doing?
I’d be a photographer or something in the music business.

Three words integral to the success of any restaurant:
Hospitable, consistent, flexible.

Beyond Massachusetts and D.C., OpenTable diners may also enjoy Schlow’s dishes at Pine Restaurant-Hanover Inn in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Cavatina at Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles. Make a reservation at one of his restaurants and share your dining experiences here or over on FacebookG+InstagramPinterest, or Twitter.

Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at carleythornell@gmail.com.