Rob Wong, 29, is chef de cuisine at Hojoko, as well as at sister restaurants Ms. Clucks Deluxe Chicken & Dumplings and Gogo Ya at Time Out Market. They’re all from Tim and Nancy Cushman, also the team behind O Ya.
These are high-profile positions for a guy who almost became an engineer. Wong’s dad owned a restaurant and cautioned his son about the travails of restaurant life — long hours, low pay — Wong dutifully went to college to study engineering. But by junior year, he longed for the kitchen, much to his dad’s dismay.
“He didn’t take it too well at the time, but he’s come around,” Wong says.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston? This is a weird one for me. I grew up in Quincy, 15 minutes outside Boston. My earliest memory is probably dim sum with family at China Pearl. We’d get shumai, har gau. I loved it because it’s simple, not complicated. Going to dim sum is as much a social thing. You see family and friends, catch up. It’s how I approach food now: nothing overly complicated, just fun and social.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I think one thing I’d like to fix is the quality of life for back-of-house [employees] in most restaurants. I think we pay competitive wages. Here, we try to make sure people have two days off. But back-of-house sometimes works two full-time jobs to support themselves. It’s insane — 80 hours a week to afford to live in Boston.
What other restaurants do you visit? I visit Eastern Standard pretty regularly. It’s right down the street. I’m a night owl. My girlfriend and I go for the late-night menu and a nightcap. I get beef tartare and whatever they draw on the mirror wall.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? Growing up, my dad had a Chinese takeout restaurant. It was a family business. We helped out in the kitchen. I really liked working with my hands, cooking. It got me at a really young age. This was out in Brockton. I did everything from being a cashier to taking orders to prepping crab rangoons.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I won’t name names, but I had a piece of raw chicken at a high-end Japanese restaurant. The server seemed incredulous. They didn’t believe me. I would think I’d be somewhat versed in how to cook chicken! They didn’t take it off the bill.
How could the Boston food scene improve? This is a tough one. Fewer chains, more mom-and-pop shops. Every time I walk through the city, I see a brand-new fast-casual. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them, but we don’t need five of them in every neighborhood. Boston is an old city with a lot of character. A lot of these restaurants that have been around for years are closing because their leases are up, and they can’t afford to renew.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston? I think it’s grown immensely. Maybe I’m more cognizant of that. It’s grown a lot. Growing up, you would go to the North End for Italian, Chinatown for Chinese, certain neighborhoods for certain types of food. Nowadays, there’s good food anywhere. You don’t have to leave your neighborhood for a particular cuisine. Good restaurants are everywhere.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Proud. Boston is a very proud city, and we take pride in everything we do. You see diners embrace local produce, local seafood. And maturing, in what Boston diners have come to expect in terms of restaurants. They’re more interested in trying new, different things.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Not sure if it’s quite a trend, but quote-unquote fake health food. There’s always casual, healthy options for dining, but if you load up a salad with cheese and a boatload of dressing, it’s not really healthy. I appreciate vegetables for what they are. I don’t understand the allure of fake cheeseburgers and fake meat products. If you want a cheeseburger, eat a cheeseburger. If you want a vegetable, eat a vegetable. They’re delicious.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? More focus on regional, ethnic cuisine specialties. It’s not that they don’t exist in Boston, but especially when it comes to Asian cuisine, at Chinese restaurants, most have the generic Cantonese menu with a handful of Sichuan dishes. At a Thai restaurant, you see the same thing everywhere. Traveling through Asia, you see regionally that it’s so different: north versus south. Same here, New England cuisine is nothing like Southern or Californian cuisine.
What are you reading? I cringe a little bit at this question. I’m ashamed to say I don’t have time to read. If I do find time, it’s mostly cookbooks. The last cookbook I read cover to cover was “Chicken and Charcoal: Yakitori, Yardbird, Hong Kong.” It’s super interesting, if you’re into Japanese cuisine.
How’s your commute? It’s actually great. I live right by Symphony and walk to work every day. It’s a 20-minute walk, or 15 if I’m going to Hojoko.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I’d be OK with never tasting durian ever again. I have PTSD from my childhood. My parents grew up with it and love it. It’s smelly. It’s slimy. It’s not pleasant, but to each their own. If something is covered with spikes and smells like that, you shouldn’t eat it.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? It’s kind of funny. It’s from my childhood, but the Hilltop [Steakhouse] on Route 1. I have memories going as a kid. You know, you drive down Route 1, see the massive cactus and big fake cows, go in and have dinner and get steaks bigger than your head.
Who was your most memorable customer? This is a tossup between Emeril Lagasse and Daniel Boulud. I’ll go with Boulud. It was amazing. He came into Hojoko for dinner one night. I was in awe. He’s a cooking God. I have the utmost respect for him. They were doing sake bombs, tequila bombs, wasabi roulette. It was amazing. The very next day, he sent thank-you cards and a giant charcuterie board with cured meats from Bar Boulud.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I think I would do a late-night meal at Peach Farm, after a night of drinking and debauchery. I’d get pan-fried noodles with beef. I’d get started at Eastern Standard and see where the night took us.