Industry Insiders: Lulzim Rexhepi, Craftsmanship at Kittichai

Lulzim Rexhepi spent time in some of the world’s top kitchens before taking over for Executive Chef Ian Chalmerkittichai at 60 Thompson’s Kittichai . From the Mandarin Oriental in Switzerland and the Blue Water Grill to the Four Seasons Hotel and Icon at the W Hotel and Xing, Chef “Lou” has endured every type of culinary experience to help him keep Kittichai’s flavor booming.

Typical day: I come in, I check my email, I go over manager’s log, and go through Grub Street to see what’s happening in the restaurant world. I walk through the kitchen. First I stop by the butcher station to make sure everything came in properly. I’ll walk through where the cooks are cooking and make sure everyone is using the right product at the right time, make sure everything is fresh. Then I get ready for service.

Favorite kitchen: Working at Icon with Chef Paul Sale. I was on the cusp of being a sous-chef and he really showed me how to take it to the next level. He taught me so many important lessons about cooking. The people I worked with before that were really mean, non-stop-yelling chefs, and he was very laid back, very cool, and we still got the same amount of production. He just taught me a whole different style in the kitchen. It doesn’t need to be that old-school mentality. It can still be an amazing kitchen.

On getting along with the old boss: Chef Ian and I have a great relationship. We still email. He’s mostly in Thailand. He pretty much lets me do the menu the way I want. The only difference is that I have to take a step back and tweak my own mistakes. Whereas before I had him to ask, “What do you think of this?” That’s really the only difference. Of the ten ideas I get in a day, maybe three of them are like “wow” if I’m lucky. So I definitely need the back and forth with him.

Go-to menu items: My favorite drink is the Muddled Grape with coconut water and grapes. It’s really refreshing, really nice. I absolutely love the Whole Fish. We dust it in rice flour, lightly fry it and we serve it with a lesser-ginger curry. It has an earthy flavor and a nice spice. It takes curry to a slightly higher level. I also just put a lobster dish on the menu that I love. It’s cooked three different ways and we serve it just like that with a little suki-yaki sauce, which is a Thai fondue sauce.

On being in a Thai kitchen: Kittichai is the first Thai restaurant I ever worked in. When the Tsunami thing happened, I went to Thailand with Ian to do a fundraiser at the Four Seasons, and I wound up staying for a long time, trying street food and exploring. I get along well with my peers, though. I come from a modest background. When they come in the room I’m no longer the chef, I look at them eye to eye, call them “chef.” My parents did a really good job of teaching me, and I’ll be a culinary student until the day I die.

On getting a tough table: Give a hundred bucks to the manager. I’m joking. Because I’m never sure when I’m going to be off, I hardly ever make reservations and I don’t go to places and say, “Oh I’m the chef at Kittichai, give me a table.” I’m very polite, and if I have to wait a half hour at a place I want to eat, I do it. When a host has 80 people waiting for tables, if you walk in and you’re demanding, you’re not getting a table. It never hurts to compliment what the host is wearing.

Go-to joints: I like Macao. I like the bar chef there as far as drinks go. I go up to Thom Bar and have a cocktail with my buddies. I just had a great dinner at The Breslin and I think April Bloomfield is doing some cool stuff.

Guilty pleasure: I sneak behind pastry counter and eat these mekong whiskey chocolate truffles that we make. I can’t get enough. They’re ridiculous. I’ve got a lot of bad habits—I get worked up easy. When I’m in the kitchen, I’ll explode for a second, and then I’ll take a deep breath and get better.

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