Chances are you’ll struggle to locate Macau, the small autonomous region on the south coast of China, on a map. Even once you find it a stone’s throw away from Hong Kong, its deep-rooted history as a former Portuguese territory that commanded western trade routes with China, Japan, and India will likely remain hidden to your naked eye. However, take one bite of a Macanese dish, and you’d be hard-pressed not to immediately pick up on the flavorful convergence of culture that defines the complex nation, from olive oil and bay leaves to toasted shrimp paste and soy sauce.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have this revelation over a meal at Fat Rice, chef Abe Conlon’s boisterous Chicago restaurant, or at his pop-up at Chefs Club in New York City that runs through October 13th. After savoring the full experience—from chili prawns in Vinho Verde butter sauce and arroz de tomate to a nightcap at the intimate cocktail bar The Ladies Room—we left feeling pleasantly full, but bursting with questions. Fortunately, Conlon was kind enough to break it all down for us: from his first trip to Macau to why big-share plates are better, here’s all the incentive you need to head over to Fat Rice.
The Standard: Let’s start off with what Macanese cuisine is, how did you first become interested in it?
Abe Conlon: The impetus for the cuisine that I do is the community that I grew up in. I was raised in a Portuguese family in Lowell, Massachusetts within a large international community: mainly Southeast Asian, but also Indian, African, Chinese, Brazilian and others.
In ‘99, I read an article in Saveur about people in Macau that were using food as a method of heritage preservation. So, when I was in Hong Kong on my “cook’s journey,” I decided to go to Macau to check it out. I saw that Macau had this form of cuisine that mixed all these elements from when the Portuguese traders and missionaries were there over 500 years ago. I was fascinated by how they were combining Portuguese techniques with Chinese ingredients.
So, Fat Rice—how was it inspired by your travels and what’s in the name?
Fat Rice started out as an exploration of the cuisine of Macau. As it developed, we started looking at other factors and places, such as Goa or Nagasaki, where traditional Portuguese dishes have evolved due to the implementation of new ingredients, techniques, or even a cook’s whim. Now, Fat Rice is a way for me to explore what I call global Portuguese cuisine and its position relative to other places around the world.
Fat Rice is the literal translation of arroz gordo, which is similar to a paella, and has lots of stuff on top like turmeric chicken, roasted pork, Portuguese sausage, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, olives and small pickles. It’s a large, home-style dish that was made for families for special gatherings—you’d never find it in a restaurant. Its significance has a direct correlation to what we do at Fat Rice: present unique dishes that combine elements from multiple cultures. It wasn’t created by a chef; it was made through mixed-blood families. Arroz gordo is the spirit animal of what all the dishes that we serve at Fat Rice are.
Chefs are expected to be mobile nowadays, but this extended residency at Chefs Club takes that notion to a whole different level. Why did you decide to take the leap?
When we released The Adventures of Fat Rice book a few years back, we did a special dinner to promote it at Chefs Club. I’ve always wanted to cook and live in NY— it’s exciting because we’re closer to the ocean, there's a lot of great produce, the proximity to Chinatown, the opportunity to further develop my cuisine and interest in Portuguese food. Travel has greatly influenced my food because I go to these places, find new dishes, and learn how to bring them back to a restaurant setting so the public can try them. This pop-up is an extension of that process.
How has the pop-up at Chefs Club been going so far?
It’s going great; the response has been amazing. As the years have developed, Fat Rice has become a recognizable brand that appeals to a lot of different types of people, some of whom have been to these countries that both recognize and have interest in these dishes.
Let’s shift gears to the Fat Rice experience, it’s hard to ignore the killer playlist. Is music a big part of the vibe?
It’s definitely part of the experience. I’ve always been a huge music fan, mainly of beat-driven, hip-hop music that really resonates with our rhythm. Music gives energy to the staff, the room, and to our guests. It’s amazing to see someone bobbing their head and enjoying the full experience.
It’s important to have comfort in a restaurant, to create an environment that kind of gives you a hug, especially in a busy, crowded restaurant. We want to direct guests’ attention to the people that they’re with because ultimately this kind of food is really based around a table—sharing a meal is one of the best ways to communicate with our friends and family, or strangers that become friends and family.
From the Portuguese wine list to the inventive cocktails, it’s clear that beverage is treated with the same careful consideration as the food is. Can you talk about how you approach the beverage program?
The drink menu is developed by myself and my beverage director, Annie Beebe-Tron. For me, it’s another way of cooking. We’re looking at ingredients that can’t be found on the plate and infusing them into spirits. Sometimes, we utilize products or waste from the kitchen. If we make roasted beets, we take the roasted beet skins with that beautiful earthy color, infuse them into a vodka and use that in a cocktail.
Is that how your speakeasy-style cocktail bar, The Ladies Room, came about?
In Chicago, since we got popular and didn’t take reservations, we had to have a place for people to wait. We created this clandestine space that served snacks and cocktails, nothing crazy. There are these 1920s-style cigarette posters with ladies all over that reflect the sin city aspect of Macau: the red light district, and opium dens with that dark, sexy vibe. When we took the space next door, it changed the direction that you enter that room so that it looked like you might be going to the bathroom. We decided to make a little joke out of it by calling it ‘The Ladies Room.’
How do you want people to feel when they leave your restaurants?
I want people to feel satisfied, happy, and full. Definitely full. It’s not called skinny rice [laughs]. We wanted to be the antithesis of fine dining and small plates, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we wanted to serve big dishes meant to be shared. You can eat at Fat Rice a couple times a week, month or year and always come back to try something new or have your favorite dishes again.
Final question: You’re throwing a dinner party and can invite anyone, dead or alive, who’s coming?
Oh, I don’t know. Do I have to pick? John Lennon, Jesus, Nina Simone, Anthony Bourdain because I never got to cook for him, and Kenny from Shopsins.