Getting a personal call and job offer by Emeril Lagasse himself is no small feat. Well, that's what Executive Chef of City Hall the Restaurant, Tom Azar, got soon after graduating culinary school. Emeril asked Azar to work the kitchen of his New Orleans restaurant, Nola. After falling in love with the culture and cuisine there, he moved to Orlando to eventually become the Executive Sous Chef at Emeril's restaurant. After some time as a culinary consultant, he was asked to take up City Hall the Restaurant, which opened in June 2011. He talks to NBC Miami about his new restaurant and life as a chef.
I'm sure all the dishes on each of your menus are like your children, but if you had to choose only one dish from the menu, which ones are you most proud of?
I am truly proud of the timpano. It’s basically a pasta dome, which I had never made before, but we wanted to feature it on the menu at City Hall. I gave it a try, and its become a house favorite.
Most popular item on the menu?
The house blend meatloaf is a must-try at City Hall.
How would you describe Miami's dining scene?
Sophisticated, always looking to find the wow factor, and at the same time, it’s extremely diverse.
The secret to cooking perfect pasta?
Make sure the water is at a rolling boil before you put the pasta in, add salt and oil to the water and be careful not to overcook it, just al dente.
At what point did you realize you were destined to be a chef?
When I was in my early teens I used to work at a bakery cleaning after the bakers when they were done with their shift for the day. Then, during the summer months they let me do some of the baking. One thing led to another and I fell in love with food and cooking.
The five ingredients every kitchen should have?
Salt, pepper, onions, carrots, and celery.
The five utensils every kitchen should have?
Knives, kitchen spoons, sauté pans, stockpots, and saucepans.
First dish you learned to make?
Spaghetti. Simple, yet it always gets the job done.
Favorite dish to make at home?
Slow-roasted pork loin with mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and braised Brussels sprouts.
What's your favorite food to eat? In other words, what could you live off of for the rest of your life if you had to?
I’m Lebanese so I could eat Lebanese cuisine for the rest of my life.
Tell us a little more about your restaurant.
City Hall - The Restaurant is an American bistro featuring American comfort food with a twist. We offer generous portions at a reasonable price. We have everything from great burgers including a turkey burger, steaks, fresh seafood, and of course the classics such as the house-blend meat loaf, fried chicken and BBQ ribs.
If there’s one tip or piece of advice you could give to all aspiring chefs, what would it be?
Take the time to learn the craft don’t be in such a hurry to become a chef. You have to be a great cook before you can become a great chef. Eat at a lot of different restaurants and read a lot of cookbooks and magazines.
How do you cook your Thanksgiving turkey?
I take a compound of butter with herbs, garlic and shallots. I butter it up underneath the skin. First, I oil the bird and then season with salt, pepper, granulated garlic, and granulated onion. Afterwards, I stuff the turkey with a mirepoix (a mixture of celery, onions and carrots), fresh thime, and black peppercorn. I truss it, tie it up, and then place it in a roast pan with some chicken stock. I add a little bit of cayene pepper and paprika. I then cover it and roast it in the oven.
What is your favorite holiday side dish and how do you prepare it?
The side dish is definitely Southern-cooked collared greens. I use lustards, collards, cayle (kayle?), onions, bacon, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, molasses and beer. I cook down the bacon and onions until the bacon begins to become crispy, then season with salt and pepper. I add ther collared greens slowly, then add the brown sugar, wine, vinegar, molasses and beer and I let it cook until it is soft and tender.