Al di La, West Ashley's favorite neighborhood trattoria, has a new chef, so we sat down with Joaquin Bustos to see what he's bringing to the table. Co-owner Gillian Kohn joined the conversation, too.
Bustos' heritage combines Mexican and Italian influences. On how these come together in his philosophy towards cooking, Bustos says, "I've always had an influence from both sides with the idea that food is a social, comforting thing. Both cultures have a familial taste to experiencing life."
The new head chef attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, a place considered to be where the Slow Food and Farm-to-Table movement took root in the United States. We asked whether this context influenced the development of his own culinary skills.
“Absolutely, when I was going to school there, that movement was just starting to take off in other parts of the country. Back in '97 and '98 [those in the movement in California] were way ahead of the curve. They didn't see it as a movement — it was just what was, around. In that way, it's similar to the South now. This is a rich agricultural area and chefs are using the produce found around us."
With experience in nationally-recognized restaurants in cities across the U.S. like Lidia's Italy in Kansas City and Eau Bistro in St. Louis, Bustos has experimented with a range of regional cuisines. We were curious of his impression of where the Charleston food movement stands.
"The Charleston food movement is amazing for its size. Charleston has a unique style of food that draws from the agriculture and history of the area, which helps it progress."
That said, Bustos has no plans of getting crazy with wild flavors, keeping true the Northern Italian trattoria tradition Al di La has exemplified with a menu well-established over the last 10 years. He's been quoted as saying that he loves food that is approachable and satisfying, modern but not trendy. So what, exactly, does he mean by that?
"To me, that's minimal processing of the food. The technique of creation doesn’t overshadow what the food actually is. Food that’s over-garnished and over-built with too many elements can be beautiful art pieces and you can get satisfaction looking at them. But you might not sticking your fork in them, which is what Italian food is all about."
This fits well with Al di La's forward-thinking yet respecting tradition approach to Italian food.
Gillian Kohn: "Mark and I both think Italian food should be simple. When there are so many ingredients you lose the heart to the dish, ingredients lose their merit. A great dish has three to five ingredients in my opinion. Traditionally, trattorias in Italy don’t even have menus and specials are one of grandma's recipes. We try to keep it rustic and delicious, too."
Be on the look out for new, seasonal dishes like tuna crudo with citrus olive oil, mixed greens, pine nuts, and coriander. Chef Bustos is most excited about the braised beef short ribs with horseradish gremolata and the seared duck breast with fig balsamic jus, butternut squash, arugula, and toasted hazelnuts.