At a corner table in the darkened, slate-colored interior of his restaurant, Joshua Walker sat down across from me with the easy, bored grace of a long distance runner or a musician who’s survived a lot of crowd surfing. Walker is the co-owner and executive chef of the popular pan-Asian eatery Xiao Bao Biscuit, located at the corner of Rutledge and Spring. We were also joined by Alex Yellan, the chef de cuisine and owner of a grin like a straight-razor.
Before I go on, let me confess: I was a skeptic. I love food, but I tend not to overthink it. Tasting menus and wine pairings don’t thrill me. I have yet to get a kick out of anything “foraged” and when I encounter something “deconstructed,” my first instinct is usually to reconstruct it. Likewise, the world of professional chefs holds little fascination for me. Despite significant progress, the industry remains very much a boys club and I resent the way men have professionalized and glorified something women have done, with no credit, for millenia – putting food on the table.
Prior to this interview, I did not believe that chefs are artists – Walker and Yellan proved me wrong.
They approach each dish and business practice with the creativity, adaptability and authenticity of a fine artist. In a city brimming with Food Network hotspots and Top Chef wannabes, an experience of food as art is both warm and refreshing. Here is my case for why we should pay more attention – and respect – to Xiao Bao’s restaurateurs as artists.
They don’t settle for inspiration from a single source.
Walker and Yellan’s food draws on a diverse array of source material, without ever feeling too derivative. Their dishes “riff” on everything from local ingredients, to the dish that defined an overseas trip, to nostalgic foods from childhood, said Walker. “[Our food is] definitely a combination of things that are new and exciting, mixed with things that we find comforting and just delicious,” said Yellan.
They are more preoccupied with results than labels.
Xiao Bao’s menu has one section for seasonally inspired dishes and one section for classics. Classics encompass everything from Sichuanese Map Dou Fu to Thai Som Tum Salad. There is no urgency to fit cleanly into one genre or another. “We’ve always called the food here Asian comfort food,” said Walker. “All the dishes are listed with their country of origin. In that sense, it’s really pan-Asian. It’s not Asian fusion, it’s not mixing different Asian cultures.” Walker prides himself on the kitchen’s ability to stay true to cultural form without being shackled to one recipe. “That might mean using ingredients that they don’t have in Asia, but we have in Charleston. That might mean we’re taking inspiration and making some kind of twist,” he said.
Walker and Yellan are currently working towards the opening of a second restaurant, Tu. While planning dishes for this new endeavor, they haven’t been shy to move away from more definitive cultural references. “We have a dish that was inspired by a kid’s pasta, which is just butter and pasta. We’ve done a number of things to make that more interesting, more diverse, and more unique. A lot of the food, it didn’t necessarily have such a clear inspiration or such a clear reference point,” said Walker.
Yellan explained that this open process can be time-intensive, but very worth it. “It takes time because it’s so open-framed and it’s not under the bookends of ‘this is an Asian dish,’” he said. Moving towards taste rather than labels yields some incredibly creative results for the pair. One dessert in the works for Tu is a taro root pie with a saltine cracker crust – local, inventive and just familiar enough.
They are enthusiastically collaborative.
As executive chef, Walker envisions the restaurant as a whole: Is the menu working? Is the staff running well? What kind of music is playing? How is the lighting? “You can walk in any restaurant and tell whether it’s chef owned,” said Walker. A sense of love and personal investment permeates the entire experience, not just the food on the plate. “Obviously restaurants are a business and they need to succeed, but we try to be a bit more punk-rock about the whole thing and have our own style, our own attitude, from the look and the music you play to the vibe and feel of the space,” he said. As chef de cuisine, Yellan focuses more on the kitchen and making sure everything is running perfectly – but it’s not as distinct as that. “As far as generating ideas, things tend to be very collaboratively based,” said Yellan. The restaurant thrives on a team-mentality with open meetings. “We have intelligent conversations about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and everyone can bring their idea to the board,” said Walker. “There’s no black and white. There’s a lot of blurred lines.”
Uniqueness is vital, but quality is the ultimate measure of success.
Walker and Yellan are committed to the authenticity and unique flavors of their food, but they never seek novelty for the sake of novelty. “We’re not trying to put people out and make them uncomfortable,” said Yellan. Unique food isn’t always good food, and Walker is careful not to lose sight of that. “That’s the hard part, it’s a balance like everything in life,” said Walker. “You want to be unique but you don’t want to alienate people. We want the dining experience here to be fun.” Both men acknowledged that although the quality of food in Charleston restaurants is very high, the same Southern flavors have been copied time and time again. The balance Xiao Bao aims for is new and creative, but straightforwardly delicious. “A lot of chefs get caught up in intellectualizing food and overthinking food. For me, it’s easier to see the balance that needs to be in place. It’s ingredients, it’s technique, but above everything it’s deliciousness.”
It could be the sharpness of ginger, or an unexpected note of heat – the flavors at Xiao Bao have the power to transport Charlestonians to China or Thailand, and a place that resides in Walker and Yellan’s characters. Just as cooking can move you to new experiences, writing provides a boundless excuse to go up and talk to interesting people who otherwise wouldn’t give you the time of day. This pleasure is even keener when, like me, you have entered the situation with a misconception. Walker and Yellan’s work is a testament to the artistry of the restaurant world, and the ability of good food to change stubborn minds.