En route to transforming a pork belly into a work of art, Eric Meas, a master chef who survived the killing fields of Cambodia and the U.S. prison system, got “the sauce out of the way first.”
Meas was demonstrating a signature dish in the six-person kitchen he oversees as executive chef of the new Lucky Chao restaurant (and jazz nightclub) that replaced the former Kudeta beneath the parking garage at the corner of Temple and Crown streets.
At 40, Meas has tasted the highs of success, the lows of despair, and the hope of bouncing back from adversity. Meanwhile, his fans from New York City to San Francisco—including a leading New York Times critic who raved about his “extraordinarily light touch with seafood” and “gentle way with herbs” —have tasted the fruits of his talent for combining the flavors from his native land with other cuisines.
Among the Meas specialties New Haveners can now enjoy is a “simple pork belly” with sticky rice, sauteed kale and bacon. Like many of his dishes, it draws on traditional cooking he learned from his mom, with whom he fled Cambodia in 1975 at age 4 when the Khmer Rouge killed his father; and adds a touch of French cuisine. The French ran Cambodia until the middle of the 20th century; its culinary influence remained.
Whipping up an order the other day, Meas sliced carrots, celery, ginger and onion. He left some skin on the ginger (“The skin is more healthy”), added a sprig of thyme, threw it all in a pan with olive oil to simmer. The sauce was on its way.
He drew a small amount of a combined veal and chicken stock he’d prepared, added it to the sauteeing veggies along with a mixture of red and white wine. “I love that combination,” he said. In “the cooking world,” he said, “there is no boundary. ... Listen to your heart.”
On to the pork belly. Meas threw a chunk in a separate pan.
He turned up the flame—whoosh!— searing, and carmelizing, the pork belly. He added just a touch of soy sauce, a splash of fish sauce, plus honey.
After three minutes, he put the seared pork belly on a plate. He poured the rest of the stock into the pan with the veggies. He took a whiff, savoring the distinct aroma from the blend of wines and stocks. Smell, along with visual presentation, are central to Meas’ approach: “Your eye eats first. Then the aroma catches you. Some food, when you taste it, it’s lost. With my food, the aroma lingers. Every bite is still there; you’re still tasting it.”
Meas placed the seared pork belly into the pan.
Time, he said, to throw “this bad boy” in the oven. That’s what he kept calling the pork belly.
Meas himself was once deemed a “bad boy,” or at least a lost boy—as a teenaged member of an L.A. Cambodian gang. He went to jail for a year and a half. Upon his release, he came east, launched into the chef trade. He started at an IHOP; by age 25 he’d risen to the top slot at exclusive New York restaurants like the Palmetta Plantation House, at which he earned that glowing Times review. He moved back west to a San Francisco restaurant, Venture Frogs, geared to the venture capital set. (Meas named one of his dishes there “Netscape Pan-Fried Noodles.”) He was at the top of his career—until one day in 2004 police officers discovered that Meas was wanted for a parole violation related to his years-ago teen arrest; he went back to jail for another six months. It was another setback. (One lesson: “Don’t take your life for granted.”) He rebuilt his career again upon his release, returning to his “love and passion” in the kitchen. He eventually made his way back to New York City, landing new prominent gigs. At one point in New York he worked for restaurant owners Elaine Chao and Steve Garrett. This past month the pair opened Lucky Chao here in New Haven; they recruited Meas to run the kitchen.
As the marinated pork cooked in the oven (it takes 45 minutes on average), Meas moved on to the sticky rice. “Sticky rice has not been given the true identity” that it has in Cambodia. In Cambodia, he said, people eat sticky rice with their hands, often for dessert with a mix of mango or other fruit. Today, he had other plans for the sticky rice. He had already cooked the rice. Now, with the help of some Soba noodle sauce (which he said has more flavor than salt and pepper), he sauteed some toppings (pictured): kale with bacon, scallion, red pepper flakes, and mixed greens.
After flipping the kale a few times, Meas removed the baked pork belly from the oven. He forked out a sample to show how the string stayed intact. That, he said, is how pork should be cooked—soft and tender, not “melted.” “you don’t want it to be like a pork slider.”
Time for assembly. Meas strained the sauce, removing the vegetables. Adding a touch of butter, he put the sauce back on the burner to reduce it. He sprinkled in mixed herbs and scallion.
Meanwhile, he spread the sticky rice on a plate. He topped it with the sauteed kale, bacon and mixed greens. He put the pork belly on top of that.
Then he poured the sauce “on the bad boy.” Next he garnished the dish with pickled carrots and daikon.
Not quite done. Some “nice fresh micro-greens” topped the tower, along with some olive oil artistically drizzled around the plate to “make it more shiny.”: Voila. Simple pork belly with sticky rice, kale and bacon. A vegan reporter wouldn’t be able to sample it to vouch for the taste. (Carnivores will need to visit Lucky Chao themselves to see if they agree with Meas leagues of admirers.) Without question, it was a sight to behold.