As someone who’s been eating in Queens for more than 15 years I can safely say that I’ve never encountered a restaurant quite like Casa del Chef, an Ecuadorean-owned farm to table bistro around the corner from Filipino fast-food purveyor Jollibee. The chef in question is Alfonso Zhicay, who made his bones at places like Bouley and Union Pacific, and worked with Dan Barber for many years. I’m so very honored Chef Zhicay will be cooking alongside two other Queens culinary superstars Huge Dufour and Danny Brown at The Catskills Comes to Queens on August 1. Zhicay was kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to answer seven questions, including the accidental road to chefdom.
I’m so honored to have you participating in The Catskills Comes to Queens. Tell me about the dish you’ll be preparing August 1.
It’s a seasonal favorite with our customers that combines savory and sweet: braised short ribs -cooked for 10 hours with lots of tamarind, fruit chutneys, Madeira wine and bay leaves.
What inspired you to open Casa del Chef?
For many years I have been working with wonderful chefs in world-class restaurants. I have been looking for the right opportunity to open my own place where I can fully express my skills and passions in a cozy neighborhood setting.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
There are so many, but a few of my favorites are sherry wine vinegar, basil oil lemon dressing, and of course fresh vegetables.
How did you to become a chef and for how long have you been working as one?
My mom was avery popular cook in our town. Whenever there was a party people from all around would call her to make the food. I have been cooking since I was 14 or 15. Professionally I have been cooking for 21 years.
It’s sort of funny, I never actually decided to be a chef. One thing led to another and I realized I had spent most of my career working with food and kitchens, and that I was already, indeed a chef.
What are some of your favorite places to dine and shop in Queens?
Weekly, I get inspiration and shop at the Jackson Heights Farmer’s Market. The guys at C & G Prime Meat Market are great, they really care about what they are doing.
Do you have any favorite places to dine or shop in the Catskills?
Not yet, but I am really looking forward to exploring.
What’s in your refrigerator at home right now?
Peach flavored Ronnybrook yogurt, and on the counter are delicious cranberry scones from the Jackson Heights Market.
Chef Zhicay will be one of more than 20 chefs showcasing the bounty of the Catskills at The Catskills Comes to Queens. Tickets may be purchased here.