Bright lights, big city, hot sauce: Paul Carmichael

How did Bajan hot sauce end up on one of New York City’s trendiest restaurant menus? Jonathan Ali meets chef Paul Carmichael

Chef Paul Carmichael. Photograph by Gabriele Stabile, courtesy Má PêcheTrendy Má Pêche in Midtown Manhattan. Photograph by Gabriele Stabile, courtesy Má Pêche

It’s early evening in New York City, and you’re in a buzzing restaurant with friends for an informal dinner. As you sip your ginga ninja — a sublime, warming cocktail of Japanese whisky, ginger, and lime — you scan the menu for the choices on offer. In between dishes like creamy calamari chowder and duck sausage, your eyes alight on this: “Pan-fried whole boneless porgy — my dad’s hot sauce, fennel, lime.”

Questions, of course, are immediately forthcoming. Chief among them concerns the identity of the creator of the menu, and in particular this pronoun-personalised sea-bream dish. Who has taken their father’s fiery capsicum concoction and placed it on the menu of a chic midtown Manhattan eatery? And is it really their dad’s?

The answer to the first question is easy. That person is Paul Carmichael, and he’s the thirty-five-year-old Barbadian executive chef at Má Pêche, one of the jewels in the crown that is Momofuku, the famed group of restaurants founded by chef and restaurateur David Chang.

Momofuku began as the Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York’s East Village in 2004. That restaurant — and in particular its signature dish, to-die-for pork buns — put Chang on the Big Apple’s culinary map, and its success led him to unfurl several other establishments in the city under the Momofuku name, with Má Pêche opening its doors in 2010. Momofuku is Japanese for Lucky Peach; it’s also a tribute to Momofuku Ando, inventor of the ramen noodle — and, perhaps, it’s also meant to echo an English word you wouldn’t say in polite company. Several Michelin-guide and New York Times stars later, the brand has gone international, and counts among its outposts several in Toronto and one Down Under, in Sydney.

The food at all of Momofuku’s restaurants can be said to have its roots in “Asian cuisine,” that well-worn, catch-all term lacking in nuance (and political correctness). “Eclectic” is another handy (and hackneyed) word of some use in describing the Momofuku style, but it’s the dim sum–inspired communal dining experience found at all its establishments, with passed plates and à la carte dishes meant for sharing, that best typifies the Momofuku experience.

Ultimately, of course, each place is its own gastronomical beast, including Má Pêche. When it opened, the official nod was to French-influenced Vietnamese cooking — Má Pêche translates from Vietnamese-French creole as Mother Peach. Yet, since taking over from original executive chef Tien Ho in 2011, Carmichael has steered the restaurant in an altogether different direction — which, naturally, includes some Caribbean detours. Such dishes have included classic Barbadian fare like barbecued pigtails (paired with scrambled eggs) and souse (pickled pig’s parts) — the latter given an ingredient makeover, with lobster, green bananas, and cucumbers getting the pickling treatment, and scotch bonnet peppers tossed in to liven things up.

Pigtails and souse were among the dishes of Carmichael’s childhood, which he spent in a food-oriented family split between the Barbados parishes of St Peter and St James. “I spent a ton of time growing up with my great-grandmother and my grandmother, and they were both very, very good cooks,” the amiable and forthcoming chef says from his busy restaurant. “They would sell food — [blood] pudding and souse. Sweetbread on Saturdays. People would come from all over to buy.”

The cooking bug bit him early. “My mom recently sent me a picture — I was on a stool making bacon and eggs at age three. I always wanted to cook. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really, really enjoyed doing. I was always cooking for my parents, for my siblings, friends. I even got some jobs as a kid in school making pizza.”

School wasn’t where he wanted to be, though, and at fifteen he tried to convince his parents to let him go to Puerto Rico to cook at a restaurant there. Unsurprisingly, they said no (“Parents gotta do what parents gotta do”), but Carmichael’s father, a bartender at the renowned Sandy Lane Hotel, offered to get his son an after-school job in the resort, thinking the rigours of a top-flight restaurant environment would see Carmichael pack it in after a week.

Carmichael père misjudged his son. “I stayed there a year and a half,” Carmichael says smiling. In addition to learning invaluable cooking techniques from some of Barbados’s best professional cooks, Paul learned in Sandy Lane’s hallowed kitchens — and at The Cliff, the restaurant he worked at subsequently — the core values that have guided him through his career thus far: “Give one hundred per cent. Don’t complain. Stay humble.”

 

After graduation, Carmichael further acceded to his parents’ wishes by taking a degree in computer programming from Barbados Community College. Once that was dispensed with, however, he headed promptly to the United States, and the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. In between classes, he would dip into the city, to check out the restaurant scene and possible places of employment.

This led him to an apprenticeship at Aquavit, the Swedish restaurant then helmed by twenty-six-year-old Ethiopia-born wunderkind Marcus Samuelsson, who was committing delicious culinary crimes by using Asian ingredients in his traditional Scandinavian dishes. Did Samuelsson’s ethnicity play any part in Paul’s decision?

“I didn’t even know Marcus was black until I walked into the kitchen,” Carmichael says. “It was never about colour for me, it was always about skill. I never held myself back because I was the only black person in a place. It was always, ‘Hey, am I good enough to be here, or am I not, skill-wise?’”

After graduation, Carmichael returned to Aquavit. It was the turn of the millennium, a time when the New York restaurant scene was starting to capture the public’s imagination, and chefs began to be fêted like rock stars — a period bottled by one-time celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in his vivid best-selling memoir Kitchen Confidential. Over the coming decade, Carmichael paid his dues at a number of restaurants in the city, ending up under executive chef Wylie Dufresne at WD-50, “the first restaurant I cooked in where I felt I had a voice.”

Ten years in the New York cauldron led Carmichael to seek a change. He headed back to the Caribbean and to Puerto Rico, where he’d originally intended to go as a teenager. He eventually became executive chef there at the Pearl restaurant — but then New York, in the personage of David Chang, came calling again.

Carmichael had first met Chang back in his Aquavit days, and from time to time the Momofuku man would ring him up in Puerto Rico to see if he was ready to return to the centre of the culinary universe. Finally, with Má Pêche set to open, Chang called one more time. This time Carmichael took the plunge.

 

On its opening, Má Pêche was anointed with two out of a possible four stars from The New York Times. Not long afterwards, the day came when Carmichael was offered the position of executive chef. “It was scary. It took a long time to make the decision,” he says. “But I’m glad I made it, glad I didn’t back out.” He remembers Chang telling him, “Pauly, it’s yours, do what you will.”

Carmichael took those words to heart. Finally, New Yorkers would get to taste his true hand. In addition to the Barbados-inspired dishes that have been served at Má Pêche, the cuisines of other islands have also graced the restaurant’s vaunted tables. These include Paul’s take on Jamaican jerk chicken wings (arguably the gateway food to Caribbean cooking), and, in a nod to his Puerto Rico days, a DIY mofongo, with a mortar and pestle for patrons to gleefully pound their plantains, garlic, and pork together.

Yet, as diverse as Carmichael’s dishes can be, it’s his finely honed culinary “voice” — which he speaks of much in the way a writer might speak of theirs — that ties together everything he does. “You’ve got to find a voice, and you’ve got to use that voice in a way that people can understand, otherwise you’re just yapping.”

That voice, of course, is grounded in the solid, unpretentious food of his childhood, the food he first loved and to which he always comes back. “I can never forget the first time I had a barbecued pigtail. Or black pudding and souse. Or the first time my mom made me fish cakes and bakes,” Carmichael says, with a Proustian air. “The beauty about being a cook is that you get to give that feeling to somebody else, a version of that thing that they perhaps never thought could be that good.”

And that hot sauce that comes with the porgy? “It’s my version of my dad’s hot sauce,” he confesses. “I like to call it New York hot. It’s not as spicy as my dad’s hot sauce. I have a bottle of that in my fridge at home.”