From Down Under to the Big Apple, Chef Paul Donnelly is steaming up New York City’s food scene at Chinese Tuxedo. This hot spot brilliantly complements Asian cuisine with Donnelly’s culinary twists. North American Traveller chats with Donnellly on how the restaurant came to be, food nostalgia and what it takes to have a good team.
Chef Paul Donnelly: New-School Asian Cuisine
North American Traveller: Congratulations on the first year anniversary of the restaurant this October. How did you end up moving from Australia, and taking on the role of head chef at Chinese Tuxedo in NYC?
Chef Paul Donnelly: I was working as the head chef at a spot called Ms G’ s in Sydney, Australia. It’s very new-school Asian cuisine. You couldn’t pinpoint it to say this is a Thai restaurant, this is a Japanese restaurant; it was a little bit of whatever we wanted it to be. We just had to make it really cool and tasty, pushing the boundary on what your average Sydney punter would really want to eat. The restaurant is a fantastic spot and it is busier then ever.
Eddy Buckingham, the owner of Chinese Tuxedo in New York, has been a good friend of mine for about ten years. When I was a junior chef working for the Merivale Group, one of the managers was managing one of the venues very close to my venue. He would come past all the time, have a bite to eat, and we’ve remained close. About five years ago, Eddy and I opened a bar called The Liberty, which is still there. He wanted to bring me out then to be the head chef and manage it, but at that time of my career I wasn’t quite ready for it. Then he kind of just said, “Well, we will get you out to New York one day,” and here I am at Chinese Tuxedo. I was ready for it then.
NA Traveller: Asia is such a large continent with a variance of flavor, cuisine and even dialect. Where was your passion for Asian food derived from?
Chef Paul Donnelly: If you look across our menu you will see it is fused with different bits and pieces. There may be a dish on there that has a Thai influence and we have done our best to make it as Chinese as possible. We make sure that we utilize the best produce and the best ingredients that we have available to us.
A lot of nostalgia goes into the food, because everyone grew up with different Chinese food as children. For me, when I was a kid, I remember on Friday nights my parents would take me to this Chinese takeaway store. We could get whatever we wanted and bring it home. I always got sautéed beef stir-fry with peanuts and red and green bell peppers. I try to draw a lot of my inspiration from research as well, but nostalgia comes into it quite a bit.
I grew up eating a lot of Chinese food, not necessarily the best Chinese food in the world because Scotland does not have great Chinese food. It was what I thought Chinese food was, but then I was fortunate enough to go to Australia, which is such a diverse and multicultural country. Seeing different cultures cook gave me a lot of my own inspiration. My mentors over the years have been mainly Asians; I have picked up amazing techniques and skills from them using my own creativity and imagination to take it to a different level.
NA Traveller: Is there one dish that you tend to reinvent often?
Chef Paul Donnelly: At the moment I have a mussel dish on the menu and we use a very simple egg noodle recipe. What we do is blacken the noodles with squid ink, stir-fry the steamed mussels in some garlic chile, Asian basil, some parsley, soya sauce and sesame. We finish it off with a bit of butter to add creaminess to it. There are a few Asian elements in it – when you eat it you start tasting Asia. I am a big fan of noodles. You can always reinvent noodles, just like a salad or dumplings.
NA Traveller: You have worked and cooked all over is there one thing you have learned that you apply today?
Chef Paul Donnelly: I take a lot of pride in the way I manage my team – it is as important as what you are putting on a plate in terms of the kitchen. You want your staff to want to work for you, you don’t want them to be there everyday just because it pays your rent. You want them to want to be there; I am patient with my team. The world’s best doesn’t necessarily mean to me you are the best in the world, it means you are trying to be the best that you can be.