A Tale of Two Toms.
Haute Szechuan Gets its Moment in Hell’s Kitchen
Have you heard the story about Dr. Tom, Chef Tom, and the Cucumber Salad? No? Oh, it’s a good one. A bit long, but what else do you have going on? Come on, get a coffee or a tea, find a comfy spot. Here we go.
Tom Lo, 44, was born in Queens, where his Chinese parents settled after immigrating; his dad from Shandong Province in the north, and his mom from Fujian Province in the south. Both parents were wonderful home cooks. His father’s roasted eggplant with garlicky pork was a childhood favorite, while his mother’s dumplings were legendary. Feasts were served nightly.
His father was a pharmacist out in Richmond Hill. When his pharmacy was held up for the second time at gunpoint, his dad moved the family to Buffalo where Tom and his brother grew up.
Tom always thought he would become a doctor, but he had a sweet tooth which developed quickly into a love of (and obsession with) baking and cooking that he could not shake. In high school, rather than take an internship at the hospital after school, he worked at a local bakery where he learned to make pies, cakes, lemon bars, and pecan diamonds.
He was at Yale as an undergrad, studying molecular biology, when he bought his first KitchenAid stand mixer. Once he mastered a three layer yellow cake with cream and strawberries, he began baking birthday cakes for his friends. He catered the sweets for the A Cappella groups, carrying trays of eclairs, cream puffs, and decorated cookies and cakes over the Quad to their parties. Over spring break, instead of going to the islands with his friends, he went to a week-long artisanal bread baking workshop at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park.
Tom graduated from Yale, and was about to go to medical school, when he decided to take a small detour. He deferred his acceptance and moved to New York City, taking up residence on his grandmother’s couch in Forest Hills while going to the French Culinary Institute.
But Tom was impatient to get out of the classroom and into the kitchen, so he walked around to his favorite restaurants asking to work for free. (He learned there was a term for this: to stage.) He began to stage at Veritas and Lupa. He read Kitchen Confidential. Late one night in the kitchen at Lupa, after butchering cases of chickens (and nearly dismembering his finger), Mark Ladner said, “You can go home now kid, it’s 11pm.” Tom pleaded: “Why? I want to stay. Please?” Ladner handed him some more chickens.
Eventually, it became clear that he was learning more in the kitchen with Mark at Lupa than at FCI, so he left culinary school. Mark advised him to go work with a chef who had been with Jean-Georges. Tom began cooking with Didier Virot and Jehangir Mehta at Virot. For the next five years, he cooked in the city’s best kitchens.
But the industry is a beast, and five years in, despite a love for cooking, Lo felt he was ready to do something else. “It was incredible to cook, but it’s a tough life, and a tough industry,” he said, reflecting on his career change. “I was burned out, and I had to step back.” He didn't cook for six months. He took a job in finance and narrowly escaped the South Tower on 9/11, his 23rd birthday. After that, he went to medical school and became a doctor. An anesthesiologist.
Which roughly brings us to that cucumber salad and the other Tom.
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