Student Today, Chef Tomorrow: UConn student Tony Mao is practicing now to live his culinary dreams later 

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How long does it take to make pesto? Maybe only a few seconds when you put it in the blender, but when you have a passion for food and want to do it authentically like Tony Mao, it takes a bit longer.  

“In Italy how they do it is they use a mortar and pestle, so I literally spent two hours using a mortar and pestle making a garlic-basil pesto,” Mao said.  

This budding chef strolls around campus as a fifth-semester economics major but has other big goals that he wants to achieve in the kitchen. He may be young, but Mao already has the theory, practice and passion that will catapult him to culinary success. 

Oh, and the pesto? Even though he couldn’t feel his arms the next day, Mao had no regrets.    

“It’s probably like some of the best pesto I’ve ever had, so it was worth it,” he said.  

A Culinary Mind 

Mao has always been into cooking, he says. In addition to being good at it, it’s fun and relaxing.  

As he grew up, Mao developed his philosophy on cooking and authenticity in that act. 

“Here’s the thing, people think you have to cook certain kind of food or you have to specialize in certain kind of food, but that’s just not how I think,” Mao said.  

Mao’s thoughts about food evolved as he grew up in China, moved to Wisconsin for high school and then attended the University of Connecticut. In those different places, Mao experienced different kinds of food, including plain midwestern fare in Wisconsin and dining hall renditions of various dishes at college.  

“I’m constantly getting cultural shock and then adapting to new environment, and the food is always different, so I don’t think I should limit myself in certain cuisines or rules when it comes to cooking,” Mao said.  

In his own cooking, Mao likes to take an experimental approach. According to Mao, he creates some “weird stuff” that he doesn’t always know what to call because it doesn’t fit into a certain kind of recognizable cuisine.  

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect traditional recipes though. Mao believes that certain cuisines should be prepared authentically and kept true to their roots. He thinks there are some ingredients and recipes that shouldn’t be messed with. Just ask him about ground beef tacos.  

“It’s just such a terrible thing, such an insult on Mexican food and just tacos in general,” Mao said.  

So, how does a culinary wonder prepare this common meal? 

 In the Kitchen 

Mao strives for authenticity in his cooking, whether he’s making a traditional recipe or experimenting with flavors for a new dish.  

What bothers him so much about ground beef tacos is how Americanized the dish has become. When Mao makes tacos, he cooks a pork shoulder in a Dutch oven with traditional flavors and spices. He prepares his own salsa verde and pickled radishes and onions for toppings. 

Mao also says that homemade versions of certain foods are easier to prepare than people may think and taste much better than store-bought versions of the same. For example, Mao said, marinara sauce can be simply made from tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and onions, and a homemade version will cut out the unnecessary sugar and preservatives that are in jarred sauce. Similarly, a true alfredo sauce requires only pasta water, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and cracked black pepper. 

The chef sticks to what works for certain recipes and always sticks to what works when it comes to cooking equipment. He wasn’t always able to have the best cookware and cooking tools when he lived in on-campus housing, but now that Mao lives in his own apartment, he’s able to set up the kitchen exactly how he likes it and to have nicer culinary equipment.  

Mao’s favorite piece of cookware is a cast iron pan. He admires its versatility and performance.  

“If you can only have one pan in your kitchen … then I would choose cast iron over everything — over stainless steel or nonstick,” Mao said. 

Additionally, Mao owns several Wüsthof knives, the same German knives favored by Gordon Ramsey. Funnily enough, Mao says that when he now tries to cook in friends’ kitchens with Cuisinart or KitchenAid knives, he feels like they barely cut anything.  

More important than his cookware though is the dishes Mao makes with it — and these dishes are pretty snazzy, just check out his cooking Instagram. 

Writing the Recipe 

Mao started his cooking Instagram, @chef_lil_pony, in May to post some photos of the food he was making in his new apartment. In fact, Mao’s first post was the pesto that he made from scratch with the mortar and pestle.  

Other dishes that Mao has posted pictures of include roasted cauliflower, risotto, carbonara and filet mignon (which was made in his cast iron skillet, of course).  

Mao explained that a lot of these recipes simply start with him thinking about what kind of flavors he wants to eat. For instance, if Mao wants spicy food, he’ll start to think about all of the different ingredients that can bring spice to a dish — whether that’s Western ingredients like paprika or hot peppers or Eastern ingredients like Chinese fermented bean paste or Korean hot sauces. Next, Mao decides what kind of meat, vegetables and fruit will go into the dish. Finally, he’ll consider how he can vary textures in the dish. 

“You want to have a combination of textures to make it more interesting,” Mao said. “I try to plate with textures in a lot of things, especially like this [carbonara].” 

In Mao’s carbonara, he uses three different kinds of crunch to give the dish variety. There’s crispy pancetta in the pasta as well as Parmeggiano-Reggiano crisps and toasted breadcrumbs on top.  

Mao likes to combine different flavors and textures to give his recipes a new twist, and teaching himself the basics of the culinary arts has allowed Mao to create his own dishes that taste great.  

“I feel like when it comes to a recipe, making something, there’s really no rules because I feel like if you understand flavors, if you understand ingredients … there’s really no limit because you understand all the principles of cooking,” Mao said. “As long as you follow these, you can do whatever you want.” 

Mao has been teaching himself cooking skills for a while now. He’s pretty selective with what he watches for his training, but he finds MasterClass helpful. The app allows subscribers to watch videos of famous experts in various fields teach different skills, and two of Mao’s favorite chefs — Massimo Bottura and Thomas Keller — have lessons on the app. In addition to watching videos on technique, Mao also stays in touch with food culture by subscribing to Saveur, a gourmet food magazine.  

 

Food Culture Beyond the Kitchen 

While Mao is passionate about cooking, he’s also passionate about creating a better food culture in America. The chef believes that Americans rely heavily on fast food chains for meals and that this contributes to more people not knowing how to cook for themselves or how to make delicious healthy meals.  

“Most of the time they thinking working out is more important than eating well, but I think it’s the opposite,” Mao said.  

Additionally, Mao feels that many Americans don’t understand where their food comes from or why they should care. Mao himself is very selective with the produce, meats and cheeses he buys, purchasing organic and from trusted local sources whenever he can.  

Another issue that Mao sees in the food industry is food waste, and he hopes to help tackle this issue in the future.  

Right now though, Mao is spreading his love for cooking to the UConn campus. He is one of the organizers of the Connecticut Cooking Club on campus and also works with the app developers of Jubian (an app developed by UConn students that delivers ethnic groceries to users) to write product descriptions and recipes for the app.  

This past summer, Mao’s passion for cooking reached a turning point. As he began to think about life after college, Mao realized that he didn’t want an office job. He wanted to pursue his passion for cooking by learning more and developing his skills further.  

Mao wants to attend the Culinary Institute of America after UConn. He eventually wants to own his own restaurant and get into high-end food options, like tasting menus. Mao says that tasting menus are the highest level of cooking for a chef, since the chef is restricting diners’ options and instead serving what he wants them to experience. Tasting menus tell a story, inviting eaters to think about the memory or emotions associated with certain flavors.   

Perhaps one day Mao will tell his own story through his dishes. How he came to love cooking, how he trained himself and began to develop his own recipes and how he hopes to inspire a better food culture through his cooking.  

“If I want to do something, I want to do it authentic,” Mao said. “Or I want to be creative to a point where I’m taking different elements from different cuisine and then …  can’t really call it French or Italian, [I want to e] innovative things.”  


Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.santillo@uconn.edu.

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