Tinker, Tailor

Chef Sam Mason faces the critics

As the former pastry chef at Manhattan’s wd-50, Sam Mason made a name for himself creating unlikely dishes such as cocoa caviar and miso ice cream. When he decided to open his own restaurant, the tattooed 33-year-old did so in unusually brash fashion, detailing the stops and starts of the process (Construction delay! Liquor license application red tape!) in New York magazine’s blog Grub Street. By the time it opened in SoHo in September 2007, Tailor was one of the most hyped restaurants to hit New York this year. Its savory and sweet dishes like chocolate-miso-glazed cod, sesame ice cream paired with ancho chile caramel and peanut “soil,” and Bazooka bubblegum–flavored cocktails sparked polarizing reactions. Food sites like Eater and Mouthfuls attracted comments ranging from “Sam Mason is my fucking hero” to “What is this Fear Factor?” CHOW caught up with Mason to find out how the rock star pastry chef, as he’s sometimes referred to, was faring on his first solo venture. Ya-Roo Yang

Why the name Tailor?

A tailor makes something fit someone specifically. We cater to a certain person that is excited about food, about eating, and [is] interested in what we do. We don’t cook for the masses. Our food is tailored for a certain type of person.

There was much talk on the blogs about your construction delays, and everyone has heard of your liquor license issues. What’s up with that?

Things always happen when you are opening a restaurant. You’re always running into unforeseen situations, which is exactly what happened. You’re never quite prepared for it.

In retrospect, is there anything you would like to have done differently to avoid the six-month delay?

If I open another restaurant tomorrow, things wouldn’t be any easier. I asked a lot of people who opened five or six restaurants and they said, “You know what? Get used to it!”

Considering all the specialty equipment and gadgets it takes to produce your food, did you get everything you wanted in the kitchen?

There’s plenty of gadgets I wish I had. I wish I had a Rotavapor so I could make my own essential oil. I would love to have a centrifuge or a lyophilizer, which is a freeze drier.

Would they make your life easier?

No, just more interesting. If anything, they would probably make my life more complicated.

Your life is complicated enough as is. If the postings on Eater are anything to go by, you’ve been called everything from the “Jesus of food” to “bullshit.” How do you feel about the controversy?

As long as they’re talking about me, I’m fine. Everyone can say what they want. They are entitled to their opinions. It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s funny that people actually take the time to write anything. I don’t have a single minute of the day to write anything. I don’t feel the urge to defend myself. My girlfriend probably hates it, though.

Many bloggers and posters on food forums have complained that your portion sizes are too small and that they have to go out for a second meal after eating at Tailor. What do you think about that?

I’m not so worried about that either. It’s America; people like to eat a lot of food. I can’t keep everybody happy. At wd-50, we got the same kind of criticism. After a while, those people that complained will stop showing up, and the people who like our food, hopefully, will keep coming back.

How would you describe your food to somebody who has never eaten it before?

I get stumped every time someone asks me what kind of food I make. It’s food for thought: food you have to think about, not necessarily talk over. We are not trying to sustain life here as much as create an intellectual experience.

But once one has had the “experience,” isn’t the thrill gone? Why have it twice?

Our food is the kind of food you have to try to decide if you like. The people that like it, or had a good experience, usually come back.

What’s the least accurate thing ever written about you in a review?

Probably the “Jesus of food.” Honestly, that would be it. That’s embarrassing.

Does it make you think of crucifixion?

I don’t know. It does set me up for a fall.

People tend to lump you together with chefs like Will Goldfarb and Paul Liebrandt, as all of you to some extent are influenced by the El Bulli style of cooking. Do you consider yourself part of the same movement?

Not even. This is a new realm to me, so I am just trying to get by every day. We do a lot of the same things and we are inspired by some of the same things, but I don’t think we are the same. There are a lot of similarities, but there are also a lot of differences. So why waste your time trying to compare me to them?

Maybe it’s because you are known for using unlikely ingredients such as soy sauce in desserts or red peppers in cocktails. How do you come up with the combinations of ingredients and flavors in your food?

Sometimes I see something on TV, or sometimes things just click. I keep a legal-size pad of all the ideas I have. I don’t try everything on there, but they are never wasted. Sometimes an idea may not be practical—I may look at it and say it doesn’t make any sense—but it may inspire another idea.

Are there any ingredients that you’d like to use or try but cannot obtain, either for legal reasons or availability?

We are talking about trying to get mangosteens. The ones that are being shipped over here are pretty crappy.

Everyone thinks of you as the rock star of the pastry chef world. Do you work the sex appeal thing to your advantage, or do you wish you could be judged solely on your food?

I don’t know if that’s an accurate statement. How do you answer a question like that? I guess some people are into that concept of being “rock star” chefs. I think that’s a little contrived.

Come on, how could you say you’re not a rock star when you’re the guy who has an Internet show (Dinner with the Band) that features indie rockers cooking with you, and who was quoted everywhere for saying that pastry chefs are badasses?

That was a joke. It just goes to show you can’t say anything without it being taken out of context. Someone on the shoot was making a comment about pastry chefs and I said, “That’s because we are all badasses,” and the next thing you know it’s printed everywhere.

What’s next for Sam Mason?

I’m thinking about a book.

Ambitious. Where are you going to find the time?

Well, I’ve got that problem.

Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe

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