They were doing pretty well on their own, but when restaurateurs John Bush (left), Dale Talde (center), and David Massoni (right) got together to open Talde in Brooklyn, New York earlier this year, their careers shifted into overdrive.
It’s a simple matter of complementary talents. Massoni, a gregarious Maryland native quick with a smile and adept at solving problems, works the front of the house, seating tables and keeping guests happy as waits stretch past the hour mark. Bush, who hails from Santa Cruz, California, is in charge of the bar, having honed his mixology skills at Park Slope’s Thistle Hill Tavern, a beloved neighborhood gastropub he opened with Massoni in 2010. And Talde, the Chicago-born former Top Chef All-Stars contestant whose name is on the door, is the executive chef, turning out inspired Asian-American dishes like barbecue smoked pork shoulder, Korean fried chicken, and crispy oyster and bacon pad thai to a packed house every night.
As busy as they are, their success has ignited a desire to grow further, so the trio is opening a roadhouse-style bar down the street called Pork Slope in August, with more than two dozen draft beers, a wall of whiskeys, and a menu of comfort food classics. We caught up with the three to find out more. A lot more.
Let’s start with you, David. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
David Massoni: I was born in Annapolis, Maryland and grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland—a little town called Chestertown.
Did you eat a lot of crab and seafood growing up?
DM: You know it. Summer isn’t summer until I go home and have some serious seafood.
Did you have an interest in food and cooking from an early age?
DM: Yeah, my mom and dad bought a small hotel and restaurant on the eastern shore of Maryland when I was about 14 and my brother, my sister, and I worked there all through high school and into college. I loved every aspect of it. I started as a dishwasher working in the kitchen, then I worked as a busboy, I worked behind the front desk, I worked as a waiter, and I learned to bartend. That experience definitely paved the way for what I do now.
DM: After about ten years of not making a ton of money, they decided to sell it and that is when I moved to New York. But in high school I played sports, played lacrosse, and I always did plays and drama productions. I was my class president and always into the various aspects of school, but I didn’t go to college. I had a full scholarship to go to Loyola in Baltimore and at the last minute decided that I had no clue what I was going for and realized that there was no point in wasting my parent’s money. And when I was around 20 or 21 I moved to New York.
What did you do when you moved to New York?
DM: I thought I was following an acting career, but never went out on a single audition because I loved working in the restaurant industry so much. I started working for a chef named Henry Meer, who at the time owned the Cub Room where the Dutch is now, down in Soho. This was 1996. I worked for him as a waiter, assistant wine guy, and eventually assistant manager. And then he took me to his new restaurant that he was opening, City Hall in Tribeca, and I was the opening service director of that. I worked for Henry for about three and a half years before opening Lotus, the nightclub, in the Meatpacking District. There was a restaurant in Lotus that had a very talented chef, a guy named Richard Farnabe. The owners of Lotus really worked the whole restaurant side of it, for the first year and a half anyways, very seriously. We were doing fine dining until it turned into a nightclub, and I ran that side of it.
Sounds like a fun gig.
DM: It was, but you know, there are times to move on, and I moved on. I decided to take a class at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. But just before I left, 9/11 happened. I still went and did the class, but the whole time I was out there I was hearing all these horror stories that restaurants were closing left and right and that the city would never be the same. I had always known Joe Bastianich and decided to reach out to him and find out if he had any jobs anywhere in the company that I might be able to fit in, and he had a maitre d’ position available at Esca. So I came back and started an almost five-year working career with Joe and Mario (Batali), where I was at Esca for a while, then I opened up Otto, the pizzeria. I was the service director there. After that, they moved me to Babbo, and I was the service director at Babbo for a while. And then I went and moved to Italy and lived there for almost a year.
What did you do in Italy?
DM: I worked in different restaurants, working in wineries, working in the fields, learning the language, and just having a great experience. That was right around the time that I was turning 30, so it was an important time to go do something special and unique.
What did you do when you came back to New York?
DM: When I came back, I did something very different again, which was to go open as a partner a small Mexican restaurant in the West Village with some friends of mine called Diablo Royale. We built it with our own hands. Every bit of construction my partner Jason and I did. It was a blast. But after about a year and a half doing that, I really felt like I needed to get back to serious Italian food and wine. Then I went to help some other friends at a place called Abboccato, in midtown. And then, with another job somewhere in the middle there, I ended up back with my old friends Jason and Joe Denton, who were business partners of Mario and Joe in Lupa and Otto, but had their own set of restaurants called ‘inoteca. They hired me on to ‘inoteca to be the general manager, and I ran ‘inoteca for almost four years before John Bush and I decided to open Thistle Hill Tavern. Thistle Hill Tavern led to Talde, which is now leading into Pork Slope.
Thistle Hill really has a nice feeling to it. A comfortable neighborhood place, but at the same time, it’s elevated. There is definitely a Manhattan standard for the food and the drinks.
DM: Well, we find a lot of people use it for whatever reason they need. It’s perfect if the in-laws are coming into town and you want to take them somewhere special. But for most people it’s the once or twice a week burger and a beer or a pot of mussels and a glass of white wine place. We tried to really listen to the community. We just made a big change in the bar because week after week people were coming in saying that they wished the bar was bigger. So just before St. Patrick’s Day, John and I came in and we increased the bar from four seats to twelve.
What was the idea behind Thistle Hill?
DM: We just wanted to build a neighborhood joint. The neighborhood was furiously missing that and John and I both have Irish roots as well as Italian roots in our heritage and have always been lovers of great pubs, great taverns, and great bars. We liked the theme of a gastropub and it fit both of our backgrounds really well. He had a strong bar background and I had a strong restaurant background and these came together in the form of a great gastropub—a pub/tavern that takes its food really seriously.
How did you come up with that location?
DM: I’ve lived in Park Slope the entire time that I have lived in New York City. Fifteen years of living in Park Slope, other than nine months when my wife and I got together and she had the cheaper apartment in Astoria. We carry as many Brooklyn products as we can, like both kinds of Brooklyn gin. If we are looking for a locksmith, we look for a local guy. If we are looking for a new sheet of glass for a window, we look for a local guy. Keep those dollars in the neighborhood.
So skipping forward then to Talde, how did the idea come up? How did you hook up with Dale and how did that proceed?
DM: Dale and I became friends when I worked at ‘inoteca. He worked around the corner and would come in a lot. He and John coincidentally had a ton of mutual friends. When John and I were in construction at Thistle Hill, Dale came out to see how things were going. It was his first trip to Brooklyn and, being a kid from Chicago, it reminded him of home. I guess the wheels started spinning in his brain. He then came out to the opening night of Thistle Hill and visited again a couple weeks later and a few times after that. And then one night at the bar, he just said “you know I really like it out here and I’m not supposed to tell anybody, but I have been asked to do Top Chef All-stars, and when it’s all over and done, regardless of how I do, I am finally going to do my own thing. So many people who have done Top Chef have just catapulted their careers, whereas I have just been diligently working at what I do. It’s time for me now and I really like what you guys do and I love Brooklyn. Would you guys consider opening a restaurant with me?” And John and I were just hitting each other under the bar and were like “Damn right we would open a restaurant with you!” And that was almost two years ago.
How long did Talde take to come together?
DM: The planning stage of Talde took a long time, getting Dale familiar with the neighborhood, trying to decide where would be the right spot for the restaurant, what kind of restaurant it would be. Was it going to be conceptually-driven or chef-driven? The more and more we thought of how Dale came off on the show and the fan appeal and just how talented he was, we decided it had to be a chef-driven restaurant and it really had to be about Dale and about his cuisine and his journey as a chef. He is not one of these chefs who fell back on cooking on a career. He graduated from high school and wanted to be a chef. He went to culinary school. It is what he has always studied and he has always cooked Asian cuisine and has tried to master all the different Asian cuisines out there. We said, “You are an Asian American, you have a unique point of view as a chief, why not make the cuisine about who you are as a person too?” We built the restaurant around that idea.
When did Thistle Hill and Talde open?
DM: Thistle opened May 7, 2010 and Talde opened January 15, 2012.
How is Talde doing so far?
DM: Oh man, every night we are trying to keep our heads above water here. I can’t tell you how many nights we have where we start the night thinking that it is going to be our first slow night because it will start a little bit quiet and then it changes. It’s been great.
There was a lot of demand for a place like Talde in that neighborhood.
DM: Well, we spent a year in Thistle, and John and I would ask people constantly, “What do you think the neighborhood is missing?” And one of the things they kept saying over and over again was modern Asian and barbecue. And as you can see, a lot of people have recently jumped on the barbecue bandwagon, but modern Asian was something that no one was really doing.
The food is a lot of fun and I love the drinks program. The atmosphere is just what you are looking for. For us, well, you know how Park Slope is, with all the families. I have two kids of my own, and sometimes even I get sick of all the kids in the neighborhood.
DM: I couldn’t agree with you more. I have two kids, too. My wife and I often look for places that aren’t so welcoming to children so we can get away from not only our own but everybody else’s kids too.
Let’s talk about Pork Slope, your upcoming bar on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, which is scheduled to open in August. What was the genesis of that idea? It’s not a chef-driven restaurant like Talde?
DM: No, not at all. Dale will be the first one to tell you that we are not reinventing anything at Pork Slope. We are doing a straightforward hard-drinking bar that has great food too. Dale is not going to do a twisted molecular gastronomy version of Buffalo wings. It’s just going to be really good chicken from a company called FreeBird, all free-range chicken. And the burgers are going to be a Pat LeFrieda mix. There are going to be a lot of pork-driven items, a lot of American cured hams. There is going to be a little bit of a Southern bent to it. We are definitely doing some barbecue, some brisket, some ribs, some Carolina pulled pork, all smoked in-house. John and I really want the bar to be one of those places that we remember going to in our younger years where you could still get fucked up for twenty dollars. You could go in and get a good shot and a really cheap beer for under ten bucks. That’s disappearing a little bit in New York, but Brooklyn definitely speaks to that idea of “I want to be able to go out and still have a good time for cheap.”
You’ll have three Brooklyn spots all within a stone’s throw of each other, or at least within a few minutes’ walk.
DM: And I don’t think we will ever do anything in Manhattan to be quite honest. People have asked us and it’s not our scene anymore. It’s not where we hang out anymore. Manhattan feels way too much like a shopping mall these days. And we don’t have the money for it either. The rents are ridiculous and our concepts are more about giving people a good value.
The chemistry between the three of you guys seems to work out pretty well.
DM: Correct, John and I have been friends for fifteen years.
Well, friends don’t always work well together, though. Sometimes friends become enemies. You are the front of the house guy. John is the bar guy, and Dale is obviously the food guy. Is that how it breaks down?
DM: Yup, and the nice thing about it is that the chemistry works because we trust each other to run each person’s own department. I don’t mess with what John does behind the bar. He doesn’t mess with what I do on the floor, and neither of us mess with what Dale does in the kitchen, but we all turn to each other for everybody’s opinion. We want it, but we know that we need to respect each other. John and I have been walking around all day today in antique shops in New Jersey looking for some decorations for Pork Slope. I’ll pick up a piece and if he shakes his head, then I know we aren’t moving forward with it. But he also knows that if I’m like “No, I love this,” he will be like “Fine, then let’s get it.”
What kind of pieces are you picking up today? Do you have one example of something that is going in Pork Slope?
DM: Well I can tell you one thing we both saw and agreed upon a hundred percent. We found a stuffed boar’s head and we were so convinced that it was going to be out of our price range, but it fit right into the price range we were looking for.
Finally, how do you make it all work?
DM: We work our tails off. I am doing everything I can to spend as much time with my wife and children as possible. The only way that’s at all possible is that we are doing this all in Brooklyn within walking distance of home. At the end of the day, the only way it works is because the three of us just work our tails off. We are working as hard as we can now so, if we get things running right, hopefully we can manage it a little bit more from afar. But for now, it’s 6-7 days a week and 14 hours a day. Anybody who sets out to do this and thinks that they can do it for any fewer hours, I would like to know their secret. We don’t have one. Ours is just work, work, work. Be present. Be present not just to our customers but also to our staff, to our managers, to each other.
When you have time off, what do you like to do to relax?
DM: I play with my son in Prospect Park.
That’s what I like to do with my kids. How old are yours?
DM: Three and a half and two months. The three and a half year old is a boy and the two month old is a girl.
I have two boys, 1 and 5.
DM: At first we were really hoping for two boys, just so they could share a room as long as possible and share clothes, but we are really happy to have a little girl.
Moving on to you, John, where were you born and where did you grow up?
John Bush: I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, but I got out of there as fast as I could. It was the greatest town in the world to grow up in, but it got really small, really fast. I never had plans to move to New York, but I joined a punk band and started touring all over the country and kind of just ended up in New York one day. The band was driving back to California and my girlfriend broke up with me and I was going to go back and sleep on a buddy’s couch, but I had another buddy who said I could sleep on his couch in New York. That was 1995 and I did and here I am.
What kind of stuff were you into as a kid?
JB: I was a punk rock kid. I was more interested in girls and drinking beer than anything else for a long period of my life. When I was about 35, I went on tour one more time and saw all these 40-year-old road dogs and was like, “Oh my god, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be one of these guys who is on his third divorce and has a kid he doesn’t see.” So I started taking bartending a little more seriously, trying to get different jobs. Working the industry a little more; paying a little more attention to it. I’d known David for about fifteen years, and we would meet each other after work and complain about our bosses and how things were run. We would always joke, “When we open our place…” And I started saving some money and doing my kind of thing and Dave found the Thistle Hill property and was like “Come look at this with me,” and I was kind of like “Brooklyn? I don’t know if I want to work with Brooklyn.” But I went and looked at the space and fell in love with the neighborhood. And I was like, “this is it.”
David gave me the background, but I would still like to hear a little bit from you on how things gelled between you and David and Dale and how the idea of opening up Talde came along.
JB: I remember Dale coming out and just trying to pick our brains as we were opening Thistle Hill. I remember him coming in and saying “I fucking love this place. I would love to open up a restaurant with you guys someday.” That next week we drove around and talked to a couple realtors and it just kind of happened. All the ways we work are in tune. My big joke is that Dale is the talent, David is the brain, and I am the mouth. And it works really well. Dale is a perfectionist in the kitchen and he wants to constantly create new amazing dishes. He is one of those chefs who likes all food and thinks that way about everything. David is very businesslike. “This is how you’ve got to do this, that is how you have to do that.” He keeps the employees together. And then I’m the guy who goes “Sit down, let me pour you a shot of booze and tell you a story about the time I climbed Mt. Everest.” We are a good team that way. And the few times that we butt heads, we don’t yell at each other. We have been very good about talking it out.
Sometimes when there is friction it is actually the good kind that helps resolve problems and move on.
JB: Or creates ideas. Half of our sit-downs start with something that needs to be talked about, like brainstorming names, which led to the name Pork Slope. The whole concept came from bullshitting about something over a beer.
Which is exactly what the place is designed for in the first place.
JB: Exactly. We all have this idea of the bars that we grew up around. For me it’s an Irish bar. For David it’s some hick bar in Maryland, and for Dale it’s a crazy old bar in Chicago. The best analogy is that I spent fifteen years in Manhattan, hanging out in the East Village and loving it. Max Fish used to be my hangout. For a solid 10 years I went to Max Fish every night of the week and I loved it. Now I go to Max Fish at the age of 40 and I feel like an old creepy guy looking at little girls. Everyone is pushing into me and it’s too crowded. It’s too loud. I’m 40 but I still like to go out and take a shot. I still like to get drunk sometimes, hang out with my friends and play darts, but I have outgrown Manhattan. Manhattan to me just seems like a European playground or a giant NYU dorm. And then there’s Brooklyn. I laugh about Park Slope, but I like the age group a lot better. I like to stare at a good looking woman rather than staring at a hot 21-year-old and feeling creepy. To me, I want to make a grownup Max Fish. I want to personally bring back the pitcher of beer. You can come in for twenty dollars, get a buzz, and still tip the bartender. I think all these expensive wine bars seem ridiculous sometimes. I like to drink a couple beers, take a couple shots, have a Jameson on the rocks and catch a couple innings of the baseball game. Then I go home and I feel like I got out of the house and had a good time. I didn’t go drop a hundred dollars at some club.
How many draft beers will Pork Slope have?
JB: Twenty-five I believe.
It must be a pretty big space.
JB: It is pretty big. I want to have as many canned beers as I can find that are drinkable. I want to bring back Black Label. I want you to be able to have a shot of Old Crow and a can of Black label for five dollars. I am on a big mission for bourbons. I want to try to find a lot of bourbons you can’t get in New York, and find a lot of rye and a lot of scotch. Just wait until you see this place, it’s beautiful. I am going to have a back bar full of brown booze lit up really well that it is going to glow. It is going to be really warm.
So many people have tried and failed to make restaurants work. What is the secret?
JB: The only secret I know is to just work your ass off. There is definitely no trick to it because all I do is wake up a whole lot earlier than I ever have and I stay up a lot later. I have very little sleep time with my wife. I suspect that it gets easier, but right now it is a lot of work.
When you are not working what do you do to relax?
JB: Baseball is my meditation. I am a baseball fanatic. I bought a twenty-game Yankee package and my days off are the days I go to baseball games.
So there will definitely be at least one TV in the bar?
JB: There will definitely be one TV. It will be like Thistle Hill. There will be a TV but it is not intrusive. It is literally almost there just so I can see it. I call it score checkers. We are not a sports bar. If you want to come watch an inning or two and catch the score every five minutes, it’s perfect.
Okay Dale, your turn. Where were you born, where did you grow up, and how did you get into cooking?
Dale Talde: I was born and raised in Chicago. I have been cooking professionally since I was 19, when I went to culinary school. I graduated when I was 20. In my younger days I didn’t really do anything except play ball and smoke a lot of dope. I just found my way into cooking from watching one show in particular, Great Chefs of the World.
Were there any chefs in particular who you admired?
DT: It was primarily about European chefs. I was fascinated by the way they went about their business. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, very regimented. But there was no chef in particular. A lot of my interest in the beginning came from my family, and my parents in particular. I come from a very large family. My dad has nine brothers and sisters and my mom has eight sisters and three brothers. When we would get together it was always a potluck. They would talk about what dish they were bringing and would bring the dish they made best. My aunt would always bring oxtails, my mom would make a ham. You kind of expect these things at these events, and that’s what got me into cooking. This was their specialty, and I looked forward to it every year.
What restaurants did you work at in Chicago before you came out to New York?
DT: I opened Vong, Jean George’s Vong. It was short lived. I opened a restaurant called Spring, I worked at a restaurant called Naha, which was a restaurant owned by Carrie Nahabedian. Very Mediterranean and California cuisine. She is one of my mentors.
I know you do a lot of Asian food but you have cooked all different kinds.
DT: I have always stayed in the Asian realm, but every time I was with Carrie—I was with Carrie for numerous stints—the food was Mediterranean. She called it California cuisine. It was very local. She was doing the sustainable and local thing ten or fifteen years ago. I remember one time when she was waiting for her lettuce to come in. It didn’t come in until 7:00 pm because the guy who was harvesting it cut his finger off. In my mind I was like “why can’t we just order it for 8:00 am like everyone else.” When we got these greens they were in garbage bags because that’s how they harvested them at the local farm in Wisconsin. That’s where my understanding of being local came from. In Asian cultures there are two seasons: rainy and hot. You can basically get anything year round because it is always warm enough. But being with Carrie I started to understand the food of each season.
So how did you get hooked up with John and David?
DT: I was on Top Chef for the first time four years ago, and when I got off the show I moved to the Lower East Side with my girlfriend. I was living on Allen and Delancey and it happened to be a gorgeous Friday afternoon and for some reason I had it off. It got to be like 8:00 pm and we thought we’d grab dinner. And knowing it would be a nightmare without a reservation, I said, “Let’s try to stop into ‘inoteca and grab a bottle of prosecco and some paninis or something.” I dropped in and it was a ridiculous wait, like two hours or something. We put our names down and went over to Babeland, the sex toy shop. I was waiting with a cock ring and one hand and a vibrating dildo in the other, and Dave walks in and asks if I wanted a table. I finished my purchases over there [kidding] and went to ‘inoteca and sat outside. And that’s how I met David, and I kept a rapport with him. When I heard that he was opening his own place, Thistle Hill, I was like “Hey, let me check out what you are doing because I am interested in opening my own place and I want to see how it goes for you, maybe get some tips.” So then I went on Top Chef a second time, and I said to him, “Come hell or high water, after this show I am going to open my own restaurant and if you guys are interested, I would love to be your partner.” And that is how it all started.
What made you gravitate towards Brooklyn to open Talde? Did that have the vibe you were looking for?
DT: Brooklyn reminds me of Chicago a lot. It reminds me of home. But I had to be sold on it. At first, when Dave would pick me up, he would cruise over to the Lower East Side and pick me up in his minivan to go look at potential locations, and I’m like, “Where the fuck are we going, dude?” I had no idea about Park Slope. He starts telling me about it and taking me around. He started showing me why it made sense to open there. The East Village doesn’t need another restaurant. There is a restaurant opening every day in New York City, especially in the places that I would like. I started looking at all the young chefs saying, “That’s what I want to be.” And then I thought, “How can I compete with these guys? I’m not half the chef these guys are.” So why not go to a place where you don’t have to compete with anyone like that, and you can be the only one on the block? That’s what sold me on it. You look at all the families and all the people out here and they need a place to eat. They need some place to dine and eat something good, have a night out, and go back home. And that is what they sold me on.
I live on 12th street and we save an hour on babysitting because we don’t have to get on the subway and go all the way to the East Village for dinner.
DT: It is people like you, in this neighborhood, who are professionals, who have children, who have families, who have disposable incomes, who like to dine and need some place to go out to eat. Let’s face it: not a lot of us cook at home. They need that place to go and chill out and have a neighborhood joint where they can go and have an experience.
How is it doing so far? I know it is crowded, but how has it felt to you? I noticed one thing having been there several times is that you tweak the menu a lot. You’ve pulled some things off and you have added a few dishes. Do you think that it is starting to gel?
DT: I am at a place right now where I actually like almost everything on the menu. Sometimes I am tortured where I hate everything I do and I feel like nothing is good enough. But it never is and it shouldn’t be. It should never be good enough for you guys. I should always be saying that I can do better for you guys, my customers and my guests. I am never complacent and I think the minute that you are complacent you go out of business. I am always trying to push for something better. We just put soft shell crabs on the menu and we are trying to be local and seasonal. We are doing a Vietnamese-style rare beef salad. I get inspiration anytime I walk out these doors and walk around New York. We are constantly tinkering with the menu. Brunch is coming along. We are trying to do what I love to eat for brunch and what I think brunch should be. I am constantly second guessing myself, but I am at a place right now where I really enjoy the menu. It is never going to be good enough because it shouldn’t be. I should always be trying to do better for our guests and the people in this neighborhood.
So Pork Slope is coming up in August. It sounds like a laid back bar where people can hang out and have a pitcher of beer with some barbecue.
DT: That is exactly what we wanted. We really wanted to model this bar after everybody’s favorite hangout growing up. I had this place called Chasers back in Chicago. It was the kind of place where you would see the wrestling coach and the basketball coach after a game sharing a pizza. You would see everybody in the neighborhood. It was where everyone went to let off some steam. That is what I wanted. The beer was great there, cold and cheap, and the burger was awesome.
What can you tell me about the menu of Pork Slope?
DT: I’m thinking of having just eleven menu items. Barbecue, a Chicago- or New York-style dog, a great burger. Everybody goes to their family reunion and there is that enamel bowl with chili and cheese dip. We want to make that. That is how we want to present our chili to people, with a big pile of chips. There is something comforting in that. There is a memory in that. It’s what I had growing up.
I know you are busy. I walk past Talde on my way home from work every day and I see you on the line looking at tickets. But when you do have time off, what do you like to do?
DT: I was recently talking to my girlfriend and she looked at me and said, “You are never off, are you? You are never not thinking, are you?” When you own a business, you are just always thinking about it. But when I am off, I try to spend a lot of time with my girlfriend. We just got two bikes, so we ride around on our bikes. We try to move around. I play ball. I live in Downtown Brooklyn and there is a basketball court there. And I’m always eating. I am always eating out. When you are in New York, it is one of the things you have to do. It is a perk of being in New York City. You have the best restaurants at your fingertips.
What restaurants besides your own do you like in New York?
DT: There is a burger place, Two8Two Burger, on Atlantic and Smith that I like. They do a really good job with burgers there. I am a real comfort food kind of dude. I love the Dutch. I love what they do there. I think the food there is awesome. It is a great vibe. For me, it is quintessential New York.
What bars do you like?