Kitchen Spy: Going Behind the Scenes in Chef Tiffani Faison’s Jamaica Plain Home
In The Kitchen Spy, we visit local restaurant insiders’ home kitchens and force them to open up their fridge, drawers, and cabinets.
After years of renting a two-floor apartment in the South End, Sweet Cheeks chef-owner–and Top Chef: Duels contestant–Tiffani Faison and wife Kelly Walsh, the general manager of Shake Shack in Chestnut Hill, decided it was time to expand. What should come as no surprise is that the kitchen became the make-or-break feature in their Jamaica Plain house-hunting trips. “Almost nothing else mattered,” Faison says. Finding a kitchen that was ready to go, versus one that would need significant rehabbing, was essential. “Kelly had us looking at fixer-uppers, and I said, ‘I can’t build houses and restaurants at the same time,” Faison remembers. “I said, ‘Pick one: restaurants or a house?’ I wanted something for our first house that wasn’t a huge burden on us.”
The winner? A loft-style, open-layout room with plenty of shelving for Faison’s cookbooks, a six-burner range that’s often employed for Hungarian goulash, and ample floor space for the couple’s Golden Doodle puppy and orange cat to roam free.
Faison and Walsh’s cat, Arthur, has been with them for years. The Golden Doodle puppy, Edie, is a newer addition, and was a Christmas gift for Walsh. “They are best frenemies,” Faison says of the two.
Bonus Edie shot, because look at her!
Clockwise, from top left: 1. Many of Faison’s pots and pans, like this Le Creuset crock and the cast-iron skillet below, are relics of the chef’s Vegas days. “When I was living in Las Vegas, I was working at Williams-Sonoma in the morning, and waiting tables at Tao at night,” Faison says. “The store went out of business. It was eighty percent off, and I had an employee discount. I raided the store.” 2. Cutting boards, which Faison and Walsh use to serve cheese. 3. The copper pepper grinder is from Walsh’s family; Faison uses the black Peugot grinder for coarse-ground pepper. 4. Faison and Walsh often use the cast iron skillet to make “steakhouse-style” steaks that are heavily seared and basted.
“I think that is about a quarter of our spice collection,” Faison says. “Kelly made a project of putting them in jelly jars and then put magnets on them….I get a lot [of spices] from Penzey’s, and when we travel I get a lot of spices.”
To prep for her battle with chef Dale Talde on her episode of Top Chef: Duels, Faison needed to brush up on her dumpling game. Essential for at-home dumpling crafting: a bamboo steamer basket, glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, Chinese black vinegar, and Shaoxing rice wine. Faison often combines the black vinegar with soy sauce and sugar to create a simple dumpling dipping sauce, and says that the rice wine is incredibly versatile. “I use it when I am making a sauce or stock, [or] if I sear something really hard–it’s like a sherry, for de-glazing,” Faison says. “It has a lot of depth, and I use it with a lot of garlic and sometimes ginger. It’s a ton cheaper than sherry. You have to cook the crappy alcohol out of it, but it has a beautiful, round malty flavor.”
While Faison’s restaurant, Sweet Cheeks, is devoted to all things barbecue, the chef also has a serious ramen obsession. These four portraits of Japan’s broth-and-noodle demigods are by an artist named Mike Houston, and were originally created for the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach.
Faison says she purchases new cookbooks once or twice a month, and organizes them on her shelves by cuisine and chef. Two of the her most cherished volumes are both classics: The Original Boston Cook-School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer and La Technique by Jaques Pepin. The former was a gift from Heather Ivey of Manchester Farms Quail. “We all fell in love with each other at the [Kentucky] Derby one year. She sent us this cookbook with the sweetest note in it,” Faison says. “I have read the recipes–they are redundant. We have taken ideas from it, but not a literal recipe.” Faison has gotten a lot more use out of La Technique. “I worked my way through this book when I was a young line cook,” she says of her copy, which is the first paperback printing. “It literally walks you through everything with the steps. The newer one is a little bit better, but this is what I had at the time.”
Top: When setting the table for a dinner party, Faison likes to use tealight candles suspended in Ball jars as a centerpiece. “I like to take things that are really simple, and make beautiful, interesting things out of them,” she says. Bottom right: A selection of chopsticks, which have more uses than you’d think. “I use them for everything–it makes Kelly crazy,” Faison says. “Digging peanut butter out of something, or stirring my coffee. They are always around the house.”
Above, Kelly Walsh’s designer chocolate stash. “There is rarely a night that she doesn’t go to bed without a nibble,” Faison says. “The Taza is her favorite.”
Time to raid the fridge. Top: In the freezer, there’s chicken stock (“we always make chicken stock”), dog treats, and edamame. “There is always a chicken carcass,” Faison says. “There is not always a whole foie gras. To be honest, I think it’s from the closing of Rocca.” Bottom left: In the fridge, you’ll find Russ & Daughters smoked salmon, Formaggio Kitchen cheeses and sausages, dumpling dough (wrapped in the cloth napkin), Champagne, and tubs of sprouted grains. “I do a sprouted grain tabbouleh–instead of bulgur, I use sprouted grains,” Faison says. Bottom right: Faison’s favorite condiments: Kewpie mayo, Greek yogurt, Sambal chili paste, red Tobasco, anchovies, and fish sauce. “This is gross, but I’ll nuke hot dogs at night, and mix Kewpie mayo with Sambal and make a hot dog dip. It’s so good,” Faison says. While she loves her Kewpie mayo, she also uses Vegenaise. “Kelly went vegan for 30 days. I made it two weeks and died,” Faison says “There were takeaways–we got Vegenaise, and I thought it was delicious.”
Booze-wise, Faison has two great loves: Negronis, and whiskey. “The double-oaked Woodford Reserve I really love,” Faison says. “In the summer it’s too much, but in the winter it’s malty and really beautiful.” The bottles of Colonel E.H. Taylor and Michter’s were gifts, and Faison scoffs at the idea of saving them for just the right moment to drink. “I don’t really believe in special occasions for that stuff,” she says. “You never know when the bus is going to hit you.”