Chef Tiffani Faison earned fans as a sharp, sassy force on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and while cooking at the South End’s now-closed Rocca. Then she opened Fenway’s lauded Sweet Cheeks barbecue parlor. This month, she turns her attention to Southeast Asia with Tiger Mama, a hotly awaited 135-seat Fenway restaurant alongside her wife, Kelly Walsh, and chef de cuisine Mike Stark (formerly Toro and Coppa). It’s slated to open Dec. 10.
Much of culinary Boston has been in Asia’s thrall lately: In recent months, Banyan Bar + Refuge, an Asian gastropub, opened in the South End; Hojoko, a Japanese izakaya, opened near Tiger Mama at the Verb Hotel; and Little Big Diner, an Asian “soul food diner,” will open soon in Newton. Why the sudden jolt of spice? Faison speculates that many chefs simply got bold at the same time. As she recounts her trips East that inspired Tiger Mama, it’s easy to understand the allure.
Q. You’re now known for barbecue. Why take on a whole new cuisine like Southeast Asian?
A. When we first visited [Southeast Asia] in 2008, Kelly and I had been dating for four months. We went to a little stand, what we thought was just a chicken-and-rice restaurant. It was just amazing. We put in three orders: Is this as good as we think it is? I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since.
Q. For the uninitiated: What’s the food like?
A. The smells are unbelievable. You walk by a station and you smell this extraordinary spice and this umami waft coming from it. That’s a consistent theme. One person does one dish really well their whole lives. They’re so extraordinarily adept. It’s their complete focus. You have dishes that are so savory and so umami-laden. One place does the most gorgeous clams. Then you go two stalls down and find a papaya salad as sharp and spicy as you can handle. It pushes that limit. In Malaysia, there’s a huge Chinese, Thai, and South Indian influence. There are these restaurants where they put a banana leaf in front of you and just serve beautiful cold salads and different curries. When you’ve had enough, you just fold that leaf.
Q. What kinds of dishes can people expect at Tiger Mama?
A. I want to allow people to feel like they can find their place here, a door into these flavors. So we’d be idiots if we didn’t do pad Thai, but we’ll do an elevated version. I’ve eaten a lot of pad Thai that tastes sweet. Then things we haven’t seen, like a classic dish out of Hanoi, cha ca la vong, snakefish marinated in turmeric and curry powder, fried, big chunks of it, sizzling from the pan to the table. The flavor is incredible: dill, scallions, nuoc cham, peanuts, rice noodles. We’ll do it with halibut. We want to be close in but far out at the same time.
Q. What about drinks?
A. We’ll have a nice balance of being amenable to what guests want. If they want a tiki drink, it’s available. If they want to come in and have a beer, we won’t get in their way.
Q. When you open a restaurant, what’s the most challenging thing?
A. From the culinary side, it’s learning an entirely different language. Everything in European-based cooking that you learn, none of that applies anymore. You know your next move from muscle memory. All that stops. That’s been interesting. I’m stopping and thinking and making [food] and tasting and making it again. What about this? What about that? There has been a lot of self-teaching. I’m relying on our memories and on our palates.
Q. Beyond the fact that it’s not barbecue, how is Tiger Mama’s atmosphere different from Sweet Cheeks?
A. I let my hair down with Sweet Cheeks and threw a party. Here, I’m aiming up a little bit more. It’s more formal, a little more grown-up.
Q. How do you want people to feel when they leave?
A. Our job is to make people feel good so they come back. That’s our job: We talk about that ad nauseum. Some people will remember, ‘I had that dish and this dish.’ Some people can remember [dishes] to the level of the biggest food geek in the world. I think Maya Angelou said something like, “You very rarely remember what people say, but you remember how they made you feel.” I want people to feel like they were on vacation.