Chef, restaurateur, culinary consultant and TV personality Tiffani Faison, 38, is the owner of Sweet Cheeks Q and Tiger Mama. Born in Germany and raised around the world, she earned her stripes working with chefs such as Todd English, Alain Ducasse and Tony Maws. She became instantly recognizable after finishing in second on the inaugural season of the hit show Top Chef. She lives with her wife, Kelly Walsh, in Jamaica Plain, and she’ll speak at the ICA as part of the museum’s Talking Taste series on June 10.
Tiffani Faison [Laughs.] You’d have to ask my mother. I don’t know. It’s totally not fair because I never got barrettes with my name spelled correctly. I’ve never identified with my name, quite frankly.
When you were a kid, did you have an Easy-Bake Oven? I did not. I never cooked growing up. My mom was a pretty good cook, and we traveled a lot and ate a lot all over the world. But I never cooked growing up.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef? I’m still not sure I do. [Laughs.] I moved to Boston because my brother was here for grad school. My first job was slinging drinks at Lucky’s, and then I was hired as a bar manager at the Ritz-Carlton. I was really, deeply terrible at it. I ended up becoming a busser at Bonfire. I kept watching the kitchen, and I was like a moth to a flame. I just fell in love with it.
Worst job you ever had? I was a bike messenger in San Francisco for a company called Lickety Split. I’m not good on a bike. I lasted like four days. I got “doored” twice by people getting out of their cars. I think I did it to meet cute girls, and it was a bad situation. Neither the job nor the girls worked out.
Pet peeve with customers in your restaurants? The longer I do this, the less I have any. Open rudeness or being disrespectful to my staff is not OK, but if people want things modified, it’s not the end of the world. I don’t do things so perfectly that they can’t be changed. All those things that used to annoy me when I was an arrogant punk don’t anymore.
Single favorite thing to cook? Fish. Any good piece of fish. There’s incredible romance. It involves technique. A nice piece of halibut brings me back to the core of why I do what I do.
A cuisine you’d like to master that you haven’t? All of them. I don’t think I’m a master of any of them. There’s so much to learn around even the regionalities within specific cuisines. But if I was going to have a go at something I’ve never really tried, it would probably be Indian.
If you could eat only one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be? Thai. Real Thai.
How often do you cook at home? Less than I should. Not much, and when I do, it’s a treat. Kelly and I are never at home. She happens to be a very good cook. She went to culinary school. Most people don’t know that.
Three things I’ll always find in your refrigerator? Fish sauce, hot sauce and Champagne.
If I showed up unexpectedly, what would you feed me? Ooh…you might starve. It’s pretty slim pickin’s. But I always have an emergency can of tomatoes and some pasta tucked away, and that’s one of those things where a couple of really simple ingredients and great seasoning can become brilliant.
What’s your favorite cooking show? I don’t watch them. They feel like work to me. They stress me the fuck out.
How real are the competitions? The actual competition part, like once the clock starts to tick, is totally real. The stuff around it is varying degrees of real and not real.
Person, living or dead, whom you’d most like to cook for? Kelly’s dad. He passed away 10 years ago, and he’s such a huge part of her life, and I never met him. I’d love to be able to cook for him.
Food trend you’re sick of? I do think there’s a sense of unkindness in communities attempting to talk about food when they’ve never done it professionally. I’m not just talking about Yelp or whatever. I understand that I’ve participated in building that culture by doing things like Top Chef, but I don’t love people coming into the restaurant and sitting there like they’re sitting at a judges’ table instead of coming in to have a lovely evening.
Grossest thing you ever ate? There have been a lot, but I’m not the person who’s going to eat a fermented hatched duck egg. People are like, “Hey, you want balut?” I’m like, “No fucking way.” I don’t need to chew on a baby duck’s head to know it’s going to gross me out. So the grossest thing I ever ate was probably something that just wasn’t prepared well.
Is there a silver bullet in the kitchen when something goes wrong? Yes. Humility. Having a conversation with the guests, apologizing to them and asking for their patience.
Favorite spice? That’s something that’s subject to whatever I’m geeking out on at the time. Right now, it’s probably Szechuan peppercorns.
Favorite cookbook? I have a few. Jacques Pépin’s La Technique is a must for any chef. It shows every technique—trussing a chicken, how to break down a côte de boeuf—literally picture by picture. For sentimental reasons, The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s the first cookbook I ever read cover to cover.
Do you have a lot of cookbooks? I’m a cookbook fanatic. I love reading them. The intros are often so missed by people who go straight to the recipes or pictures. The intro is the chef telling people how they see the world.
Three tips for throwing a dinner party? Make a three-day-out list. Do the things like cleaning your house or washing the dog in advance so they don’t spark your anxiety while you’re cooking. Keep it simple. Don’t try and do something you’ve never done. And create a menu that allows you to spend time with your guests, and allow your guests to contribute to that menu.
Are friends intimidated to cook for you? Yes, and it’s so annoying. I’ll eat anything. The act of cooking for someone is so generous and kind. It’s a fundamental part of the human shared experience, and I really appreciate it, no matter what form it takes.
So do redheads do it better? Totally! Redheads are crazy, and it’s your choice whether you get crazy good or crazy bad, but there’s definitely something about us that’s different from the rest of the population.