That old adage--you can never go home again--just doesn't cut it in the world of restaurant kitchens, as chefs occasionally do get back to their roots. After years of running his own place on Bainbridge Island, chef Alvin Binuya is back in his old stomping grounds, in charge of the kitchen and crew at Ponti Seafood Grill. The reunion has been sweet, with the seasoned venue getting a refreshed menu and attracting some decent word of mouth.
SW: How did you end up back at Ponti after all these years?
Alvin: Ponti owner Richard Malia and I have maintained our friendship all of these past years. His decision to make a change at Ponti coincided with the timing of the closure of Madoka.
What have you changed about the menu at Ponti since you returned?
Recipes for our signature items like bouillabaisse, numerous dressings and sauces, had evolved, for whatever reason, into preparations far from what I had originally created. These needed to be restored.
We've started sourcing out higher quality product, such as weathervane scallops instead of East Coast "dry pack," wild white shrimp instead of tigers, direct buying whenever possible, Taylor for shellfish, Bruce Gore for superior frozen-at-sea king salmon in the off season. We are still working on a complete change, as it has been more difficult than expected to decide how or what to change. What we have today, however, is a menu we are quite proud of.
Do you remember the moment when you first realized you were going to be a cook?
It was more of a one-thing-led-to-another scenario, as opposed to a single moment. Being in a family that raised and/or grew much of what we ate formed my foundation and interest in great food. Professionally, my first step was the culinary program at South Seattle Community College in 1980. That led to a connection to my first cook position at Rosellini's Other Place under Bruce Naftaly and Robert Rosellini.
What are the most important lessons you learned in the beginning that have stayed with you for your entire career?
Know where your food came from and how it was grown/raised. While my parents lived this, I believe it was Robert Rosellini who led the charge here in this region on a fine-dining level. We toured his game farms, vegetable and berry growers, met his foragers and Jon Rowley, who was our liaison with fishermen, demanding greater care in handling the precious salmon, rockfish, and abalone. An amazing time for a young cook.
Does it irk you that young hot-shot chefs seem to get all the buzz? How do you keep things interesting?
Absolutely not. There was a day when I too was a hot young chef, and I certainly got my share of the limelight. For me, every day is a new day, and I look forward to working with great people, sharing ideas and ways to improve the way we do things.
Do you get out to eat much? Where are some of your favorite places?
Never as much as I would like. Lately my wife and I have enjoyed Crush, Monsoon, and Nishino. Family life often steers our dining choices in other directions. Our family favorites are any kaiten sushi restaurant like Blue C or Genki Sushi. The little ones love being able to see and pick things they would like to eat. We also like Tutta Bella.
Check back for part two of this week's Grillaxin Q&A for more with chef Alvin Binuya.