On August 10th, the Citi Taste of Tennis kicked off its first Food Truck Tour at Freehold in Union Square Park here in NYC. The tour is a celebration of the return of tennis and will be three weeks long, with parts of the tour freely accessible to New Yorkers. Kids from Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning in the Bronx joined the event as it was also a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of New York Junior Tennis and Learning (NYJTL) . The chefs that are participating in the tour are Jassi Bindra, (Punjab Grill), John Mooney (Bell, Book & Candle, Bidwell), Alessandro Fortini (Tarallucci e Vino), Wenford P. Simpson (The Simpson), Fany Gerson (La Newyorkina), Suchanan “Chef Bao Bao” Aksornnan (Baoburg), and John Doherty (Black Barn Restaurant).
Check out our interview below for a little taste-tester of Chefs Simpson, Gerson, Bao Bao, and Doherty, along with pictures of their wonderful food!
The Knockturnal: What inspired each of you to be a chef?
Wenford P. Simpson: My inspiration for being a chef is actually coming out of poverty, from a single-parent home; there was never food in the house. I was always in the cupboard trying to see what I could find, to create something for me and my sister. Over time with me making mistakes and messing stuff up, then trying to figure out how to correct it, I just gravitated to saying, ‘you know what? This is what I want to do’. One day I was making a dish and I actually messed it up; I was making steamed cabbage and accidentally spilled curry into it, so my sister started laughing at me and I started crying, then I decided ‘you know what, I’m going to show you that I can cook’. I decided to stay in the culinary field and little by little it just grew and grew.
Fany Gerson: When I was growing up thinking about what I wanted to do career-wise it wasn’t even on the radar for me because it didn’t exist for me, and I didn’t know any female chefs. There was no Food Network, and I didn’t think it was even a possibility because I wanted to go into arts. I always wanted to be creative, and I loved cooking, but also not just for the act of cooking but how much joy it brought to people. Then once I realized, ‘wait, you can actually do this as a career?’ I started pursuing it but my parents were not excited about it – I studied in Mexico for two years but they thought I was just going to kind of get it out of my system or grow out of it and it was the opposite. It’s an art; it’s the only art that uses your five senses and you just get to bring joy.
Suchanan “Chef Bao Bao” Aksornnan: It sounds almost too much, but cooking is already in my DNA. My grandma and my mom also own the restaurant, and they’re the chef and owner, so that inspired me a lot. I’m a third-generation chef.
John Doherty: I wanted to go to a concert and my mom said, ‘go get a job’. So, I got on my bicycle, I remember on a Sunday, and I went to every gas station to get a job, and pumped gas all through the winter. And in the 70s, there was a gas shortage where they were rationing gas, and the lines for gas were a mile long. I was outside in the cold pumping gas for hours and hours. My friend said ‘hey, I work in a restaurant, and they need busboy, and it’s warm’. And I’m like, ‘I’m there!’ I was never a busboy and I started washing dishes for a few weeks and then they started throwing me on food prep. And the owner said, ‘Hey you’re pretty good at this – want to help us out front’. Out front was a husband-and-wife team in an open kitchen, one of the first, I think. I’m 14-15 years old, and I just loved it. I remember like it was yesterday. All of a sudden, there was that moment, where I saw the love that they put into the food and the customers coming in and was taken by that; it was amazing. I just kept cooking got another job in high school, went to a culinary institute, then I graduated. In between the first and second year you had to go out and work, and I got my first job at the Waldorf at 19. Then I went back to school to finish, graduated on a Friday, came back to work on a Monday, and I was there for 30 years.
The Knockturnal: Why these dishes specifically – were they family recipes or just ones you enjoyed making?
Wenford P. Simpson: With me being Jamaican, jerk chicken is one of the traditional dishes. Walkerswood is also a part of the Citi Taste of Tennis, and whenever we do it we try to incorporate Jamaica with the jerk chicken and I think that’ll be a great combination. We just stick to it because we know it’s going to bring the flavor, that little bit of the island and a little bit of something that’s memorable.
Fany Gerson: I first started making paletitas. Now, especially with COVID, it was sort of like starting over in many ways for us and I wanted to share that. It’s also summer; it’s like the perfect treat for tennis because its hot outside and its going to refresh you and make you happy. We didn’t know what other food was, so we chose something that was going to go with anything.
Suchanan “Chef Bao Bao” Aksornnan: I tried to come up with a dish that is easy to make, especially in a food truck because with the space isn’t enough to make large, fancy things. Yakisoba is also tasty but very simple; why I’m making this is because of my stepfather, who is Japanese, and I love yakisoba. I make a cold version of it because the summer is too hot, and I want something refreshing for people to try.
John Doherty: We do mushroom toast at the restaurant – which we can’t make enough of them – and when they said we needed to make a gluten-free and vegetarian appetizer, I thought of the mushroom toast but little bit different. I had just finished talking to my wife about some kind of an almond dough she had made, and I thought not bad, not bad, but I can make it better! So we did a gluten-free base and instead of the other cheeses and bechamel, we used goat cheese. then the mushrooms, watercress on top and it just works.
The Knockturnal: How were you and your business impacted by the pandemic, and what were you able to do to overcome it?
Wenford P. Simpson: When Covid happened last year in 2020 March and we shut down, I guess we all were shocked. A couple of times I looked out of my window and wondered if we were ever going to get back to a sense of normalcy. What I did was number one pray and just hope that we’ll get through this. I decided instead of going back to my old job, I opened up my own restaurant because I knew coming out of the pandemic people are going to be so eager with pent up energy and want to get out of the house. I think it was a great time for me to go ahead and open my restaurant in November 2020. It was right in the middle of the pandemic, and now my restaurant is super busy with a line at the door. We seat up to 300, so I made a great choice and then I’m providing employment for up to 50 people.
Fany Gerson: So, we actually had to do a 180, or even a 360, because we actually do sweets. We started by doing savory meals and then started making meals for hospital workers and people on the front lines. Then we teamed up with a couple of initiatives – Feed the Frontlines was one of them, plus as many others as we could get into – just to have a sense of purpose. But we had to let everybody go in the beginning and make our focus became let’s just try to keep the lights on. We just started doing savory meals Mexican style to bring to people’s homes because we felt like there might not be a summer, and there wasn’t. All the restaurants we were selling to were closed and all of our seasonal locations were closed, so having a seasonal business was already difficult, on top of not having a season. We had a storefront in the West Village that we unfortunately closed due to COVID and in order to try to keep our business alive, and luckily, we did!
Suchanan “Chef Bao Bao” Aksornnan: So, of course, Covid made it hard for everyone, and for us, too – we lost many of our staff. But we never closed a day in the restaurant, so we continued running. We came up with a campaign of a survival mean last year, $5 for every dish, for people to be able to afford it and for our employees to have job.
John Doherty: We didn’t pull through. We closed – we only had 32 seats outside and the restaurant is 1,400 sq ft. we would need 60-70 seats to be able to break even. We tried what we could, but we were losing money every day. It just didn’t make sense, so we shut down. We negotiated with the landlord and then we just sat dormant for almost a year. We were able to re-negotiate for reopening and get some help, and we made it. We just got to be careful, and we just don’t know; the future’s still a little uncertain.
Below are the images of the other amazing food at the event:
For more information on Citi Taste of Tennis and their event dates, please visit https://www.tasteoftennis.com/