Here’s a (long-winded) Jeopardy question for all you Bushwegians: “A queer Toronto-born-and-raised chef living in Bushwick with multiple seasons of Top Chef under her belt whose 5-year-old Southeast Asian-centric food truck Sweet Chili morphed into a brick-and-mortar (likewise Bushwick-based) last November and then closed following the Cuomo’s decision to shutter restaurants against the COVID19 pandemic.”
The answer: “Who is Lisa Fernandes.”
But there’s an emotionally complicated coda to the above decade-plus summary of Fernandes’ life: Sweet Chili is throwing open its doors anew this Sunday, May 3, letting a fragrant blast of Vietnam and Thailand out into the neighborhood.
It’s emotionally complicated because, while good news for Bushwick, it’s also indicative of the federal government’s seeming inability to adequately respond to the needs of small business – restaurants, in particular. Many area restaurants and bar owners I’ve spoken to have had similarly negative experiences with coronavirus relief packages like the federal Payroll Protection Program, which has since its initiation been wreathed in a thick choking black cloud of bureaucratic dysfunction. As Fernandes explained by phone while driving back from a short spell of family R&R in Vermont, her business is hardly among the unaffected.
“With the promise of all these loans and grants,” Fernandes explained, “it was easier to say to myself, ‘The right thing to do is to close, because the government is going to do something for small business.’ Stupid me for thinking that was true.”
Therefore, when you oh-so-slowly slice into a tender piece of honey chili pork belly, or fork a steaming mass of maple miso tofu, rice and Japanese eggplant from a to-go container, thank shoddy government relief (where’s FDR when you need him) for your evening’s Sweet Chili repast.
The above-mentioned dishes, by the way, are just a few things available on the special wartime menu, streamlined with pricing and practicality in mind. Gone are big ticket items which studded the pre-COVID menu, like New York strip steak and dishes featuring duck or a whole fish. But dumpling freaks (a group I unashamedly raise my hand to be counted among) will rejoice in a crispy pork variety. And chicken wings, whose generally pedestrian image isn’t deserved, at least not when prepared by a good chef, come both sweet AND spicy.
Meanwhile, if you like all your food crowded into one concave receptacle, five Sweet Chili rice bowls creak under the weight of various godly ambrosias. Two examples are the “heavenly” beef with coriander marinade, Thai basil and sriracha, and the Sweet Chili Chicken with house sauce and scallions.
Noodles, in all their slippery, protean glory, command almost as great a place in the firmament of my own personal food sky as dumplings – and Sweet Chili provideth. I plan on being first in line for a dish that seems a nod to Muslim Uyghur cuisine: cumin beef noodles with celery, napa cabbage, chili oil and black vinegar.
Finally, the bottom quarter of the online menu is occupied by a beef burger with crispy shallots and sriracha aioli, a fried chicken sandwich decorated with scallions, pickled chilis and a honey chili glaze, and a brace of sides, including ginger bok choy, spicy grits and garlic watercress.
Sweet Chili also boasts a full bar, a fact reflected in a very compact list of cocktails. While there are twists on the Moscow Mule and the Margarita, pride of place must go to the “Liquid Pad Thai,” an improbable-sounding but intriguing melding of peanut butter whisky, tamarind, Thai basil, sriracha and orange bitters. These are available for pick up and delivery – as are the beers, which include Lion Lager from Sri Lanka, Florida’s Jai Alai IPA, and a sour beer by local brewery Transmitter.
During our interview, it became apparent that Top Chef Fernandes (you can see her in the current all-star season) has, with the reopening of Sweet Chili, more on her mind than just the particulars of her menu; food and drink, while obviously of paramount importance, are parts of a larger equation.
“We are gay as fuck,” she stated bluntly with a laugh. “I’ve been in New York for about 14 years. It used to be that there were designated gay restaurants. They weren’t very good, but you could go there and be yourself. Now, you can go pretty much wherever you want, especially in Bushwick. Whatever you identify as, you’re safe in our restaurant.”
“And you’re also gonna get amazing food, ridiculous food and not spend a lot of money. All those elements are equally important to us.”
Asked whether or not the attention she and the restaurant receive thanks to Top Chef is annoying, the conversation circled right back to sexual identity – after a quick nod to star-struck (and demanding) customers.
“I don’t see anything negative [about Top Chef notoriety],” said Fernandes. “People would come in and say, ‘I saw you make such-and-such a dish on TV. Can you make that’? And, yeah, I go back to the kitchen and make it! It’s like Elmo coming to life in front of your eyes!”
“When I was on the show the first time, I was very out, very gay; I had people randomly contact me through Facebook or Twitter saying, ‘I live in a very small town, not comfortable in my own skin, and after watching you I was able to come out to my family.’ So having a positive influence on somebody is exciting.”
Fernandes grew up in Toronto, a good deal bigger than a small town, a city with an international olio varied enough to compete with Queens, often said to be the most ethnically diverse place in the world. Sushi, Korean sundries, Mongolian bbq and much, much more were at her taste buds’ fingertips. Those flavors also made their way into her family kitchen, where her mother routinely used ingredients not likely to pop up in, say, rural Nebraska – or rural Ottawa, for that matter. In short, she doesn’t adhere to any one cuisine, and it’s easy to guess where that sensibility sprang from.
But while she clearly prefers to paint with a huge palate of colors, Sweet Chili in the era of Covid will most likely be a somewhat less far-ranging affair than the version that was briefly available to the public for a precious few months. And as far as future prospects, she’s a realist, like most chefs.
“It’s such a dark future,” said Fernandes, sounding subdued over the muffled sound of traffic. “I’m being positive, but the reality is I doubt I’ll fill our 20-seat capacity on a regular basis until 2021. A lot of restauranteurs are ready to give up.”
“But we’re in the first year of our lease. I’m not ready to give up.”
Before signing off, Fernandes emphasized the importance of ordering for pickup, as opposed to through a delivery app. Like Lucy’s Vietnamese Kitchen owner Johnny Huynh, featured in an article published last week, she has little love for the food delivery apps, in particular Grubhub, which cleaves a heavy 30 percent chunk off every order.
“We’re printing money [for the delivery services],” stated Fernandes. “So order DIRECT and pick up if you can. People need to realize how badly they gouge us.”
You can do that starting Sunday, May 3, by going to sweetchilinyc.com or calling them at (347) 669 – 7385. Hours are Saturday, Sunday, 12 pm – 10 pm; Monday, Thursday, Friday, 3 pm – 10 pm. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
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