In the chef de cuisine role, Joshua Walbolt worked closely with chef Ann Ahmed to give the Golden Valley Asian eatery Lat14 a big opening last year. Over his career, Walbolt has honed classic French techniques while perfecting dishes inspired by his Cambodian and Thai roots, and learned sushi preparation from the great Masaharu Morimoto in New York. Locally, Walbolt has shared kitchens with Alex Roberts, Gavin Kaysen, Tom Kavanaugh, and previously with Ahmed at Lemon Grass in Brooklyn Park. Along with Hyacinth’s Rikki Giambruno (interview here) and the Bird’s Shannel Winkel (interview here), Walbolt has received a Rising Star award nomination (chefs must be under 30 to be eligible) at this year’s Twin Cities Charlie Awards, coming up January 27. (See all nominees here.)
Update: He won!
In this conversation with Minnesota Monthly, Walbolt admits that working in a remodeled Perkins building comes with some nostalgia attached, and reveals details of a pop-up side project he shares with his wife.
How old are you, and how many restaurants have you worked in?
I’m 25. I’ve worked in six restaurants, and opened five. I’ve worked in New York, Florida, Atlanta, and now I’m back in the Twin Cities.
What have your travels brought to your cooking?
It’s all about being really open-minded to how differently people think about food all over the country. Being a kid from the Midwest, all the fresh seafood from the ocean inspired me a lot. I got into sushi for a while, and learned the simplicity of Japanese cuisine working with Morimoto. Being open to learning different techniques and working with different ingredients.
What have you created at Lat14 that you’re particularly proud of?
There’s a couple items: One being the Bánh Mì Tartine, a take on the classic Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich. We break down an entire duck, take out the livers, and I make a liver mousse with them, with a little bit of dried curacao to add orange to the core flavor. Then we layer the liver mousse on an open-faced French baguette, and add some picked carrots, daikon, cilantro, and jalapeños. We roast the duck bones and make a duck broth. That comes from my French training, and cooking southeast Asian cuisine. That’s one of my favorite dishes. Another one is the Bacon Pineapple Fried Rice, because there’s a lot of detail that goes into it. I roast pineapples down with tomatoes and jalapeños to a thick paste for a really concentrated pineapple flavor. The bacon gets cured in-house for seven days and then smoked with applewood. People say, “Why do you use canned pineapple?” I’m like, “Oh, we don’t.” We roast it to make it concentrated. It looks like a simple bowl of fried rice, but the preparation is not simple at all.
How did you build a bond with Lat14 owner Ann Ahmed?
Ann and I met when I first moved back to Minneapolis. I wanted to do a pop-up at her restaurant. I did them a little bit in Florida. We met and chatted, and she recommended a couple places. She didn’t know anything about me, so she kinda turned me down the first time. Then I went to work at Alma and Spoon and Stable. When one of the sushi chefs left at Lemon Grass, Ann reached out to me. She knew I had a sushi background, and invited me to come out one day a week. That’s when we connected and started talking about ideas, specials on the menu, and fueling my creativity. She had me come over and cook for her birthday party and friends’ birthday parties. And we bonded as a team. Then she started talking about opening a new restaurant. It sparked my interest a little bit. We kept in touch when I went to help open Bellecour, and now I’m here. It’s a good collaboration. We work well seeing two different sides of the restaurant business. The fun side, and the more technical, detailed stuff.
Does working in an old Perkins spark any nostalgia for you?
Oh man. Well, Perkins is open 24-7, and I’m kinda here 24-7. [laughs] When I lived in Minnesota, I lived in Plymouth right across the street. I actually came to this Perkins every night with my friends, because we used to dance in the gym nearby. Afterwards, at 2 a.m. we’d be hungry and we’d get the Perkins appetizer sampler platter. Once in a while when special guests come into Lat14, we’ll send them out with a “Perkins sampler platter,” like a sample of all our appetizers. It’s really nostalgic coming back here and seeing what it was. Sitting at certain booths and looking around. Now, what we’ve transformed it to be, it’s really incredible.
Sorry we have been MIA on events ever since our lovely Chefs got married ðŸ˜˜ But heres a little recap on things they can do in the meantime! Got a birthday, wedding, baby shower coming up?! Let UniTea help you out on your catering needs ðŸ˜‰ Here’s a lovely 25th Birthday Cake our Pastry Chef put together: • Thai Tea Triple Chocolate Chip Brownie • Coconut Condense Milk Buttercream • Cinnamon Roll White Chocolate covered Oreos, Cinnamon KitKats, Coconut Rochers, desiccated coconut, thai tea meringues and graham cracker “bricks” • Dried amaranth, marigolds, forget-me-nots, and strawflowers. • Tis the season to be filled with warm colors and flavors that go so well with the Cinnamon, Star Anise, and Vanilla notes of #thaitea ðŸ˜ • **DM FOR ORDERS!** • #numbercakes #floraldesigns #25thbirthday #catering #uniteamn #cake #birthdaycake #mn #mncatering #mpls #mplsfoodie #birthdays #babyshowers #engagements #asianflavors #frenchtechnique #foodtrend #foodporn #foodie #mplsfoodie #food #dessert #asiandessert #culture #foodfad #minneapolis #saintpaulmn
What is Unitea all about?
My wife is a pastry chef. We met in school at Culinary Institute of America. We got together and moved to Florida and did pop-ups. When we moved to Minneapolis, it became Unitea. What we do is bring people and cultures together through food. We’re not just cooking Filipino food or Cambodian food. We do a mix. Whatever we really like eating, and combine the flavors. It’s a little thing we do on the side. We do catering, pop-ups, street markets. She’s a pastry genius. Coming down the road, we’ll see what we can do. We don’t have a location yet, but we’re looking to expand that.
What are you hoping to do in the future?
Unitea is a big one for me. I want that to be the bank for the fine dining restaurant I want to open with progressive Asian cuisine. I’m also really active in the mentorship program here for ProStart, a program funded by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and the Hospitality of Minnesota Education Foundation. High school kids do cooking competitions and learn all about pricing, food costs, inventory lists, and menus. That was a big thing for me. I had chef mentors like Alex Roberts [Restaurant Alma, Brasa] coming out to my school and showing me how to make mayonnaise and how to cook with arugula. Those are things that stick with me.
You were vocal online after Anthony Bourdain died. How did that affect you?
We’ve lost a lot of great chefs lately, a lot of our people. These people that we think are happy, they struggle with things that we don’t see. People are talking about mental health awareness, and that caused me to ask, “What am I doing to be mentally healthy and what am I doing to make the people around me mentally healthy?” That comes down to the environment I control in the kitchen. It’s a super intense area. It’s hot and you get stressed out. Things are breaking. People are yelling. That shouldn’t be an added stress factor to people’s life, you know? Especially if people are just coming to work and express their passion.
What does it mean to get this Rising Star recognition?
It’s huge. It caused me to be super humble and think about where I can be better. There’s been a huge growth. People are watching, so I have to be careful. But I must be doing something right. It’s a huge reassurance. They really push me to try harder for the next one. James Beard next, maybe?
The 2019 Charlie Awards are Sunday, January 27, at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. Tickets and more info here.