An Interview with Chef Bob Tam of Bitter and Twisted
Chef Bob Tam’s background guides his global bar menu at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour in downtown Phoenix. He was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and moved with his family of eight to San Francisco in the 1970s. His culinary career includes sous chef at Betelnut and 7 years working in research and development at P.F. Chang's, and he has a daily goal of exploring authentic local ethnic spots. Take his addictive Angry Panda bar snack. Rooted in Indonesian sambal teri kacang (fried anchovies and peanuts spiked with chile), inspired by Betelnut’s embellished version and adding chef friend Erik Hopfinger’s suggestion of lettuce cups, and gilded with pineapple and mint, this 12-years-in-the-making nibble is a signature at Bitter and Twisted. Chef Bob's Yum Yum Noodles are another example, and a personal favorite of mine, especially with the optional pork belly. Their intense flavor and perfect texture are a result of a best friend’s tip to air dry the noodles before stir-frying, Bob's quest to impart a non-MSG umami using natural/secret ingredients (inspired by Crustacean’s famous garlic noodles), letting the egg noodles soak up a buttery ginger, kecap manis, garlic and sesame sauce, and showering with cucumber and crispy shallots. One bite, and you’ll understand why Bob says he has been researching this dish since the 1990s.
Bitter and Twisted isn't the place to find a run-of-the-mill burger. Options with Chef Bob's creative spins could include a Dumpling Burger with jalapeño mayonnaise, Sichuan pickles, and an Asian chili sauce for dunking, a Pretzel Croissant Burger topped with an oozy fried egg, or the juicy Ramen Momo Burger with its pan-fried ramen bun, a Thrillist "Best Burger in Phoenix" winner.
Another crowd favorite? The Betelnut-inspired Pork Belly - tender chunks of savory braised pork belly draped in a sweet and tangy glaze made with a distinctive red vinegar from Hong Kong,
Explore the worldly menu, and you may find creamy Green Chili Mac studded with jalapeño and bacon, crunchy nuggets of Seoul Fried Chicken balanced on thin slices of watermelon kimchi, or hearty Smashed Chips enhanced with horseradish crema, salsa verde, avocado, and smoky red pepper sauce.
What made you decide to be a chef? My parents suggested it. We all take food seriously. Any time we have family gatherings, it revolves around food. That’s the communal part, you know, it’s always the kitchen or dining room. I remember watching my dad. He would take a nail file just to break open an egg, let it out, and then he would steam stuff in the shell. So we just did things like that. For us, that was experimental. I was kind of rebellious and not doing well in school. I had the ability, but not the motivation. My parents said well, apparently you like to eat, so why don’t you try cooking. I had never thought of it as something that could be a career. My mom gave me money and said go buy some stuff. I was in grade school.
So you must have been young. I was 13 or 14. I remember one of my best friends gave me 10 years of Gourmet so I started reading through and trying recipes. I didn’t really know anything and back then you couldn’t just Google. So I did all this weird stuff, experimenting but not even understanding what I was doing. Once in culinary school, I’d think back to some of the meals I made. Why would I wrap something in aluminum foil and stick it in a stockpot? What is that!? But my family was very supportive. They would say ‘that looks weird, but if the magazine says to do it...' They were very encouraging and urged me to go to culinary school. I was afraid to go, but finally took the leap. I stood in line for 16 hours the day before to get financial aid for the first semester.
Was it what you thought it would be? No, it was an epiphany in a way that I never would have expected. You know the first day of school, how freaked out you are, how nervous? It was intimidating at first, but once I started talking to everybody, I felt at home. You realize you’re just a bunch of misfits, like Tony Bourdain wrote. The way I grew up in San Francisco, we came from every different ethnic background. My best friends were a Filipino guy, Mexican, Italian, African American, and I was the Chinese guy so it was a diverse group. And then when I went to culinary school, it was similar, we were from all walks of life. One of my friends was a banker who decided he hated numbers and loved food. Some didn’t really have a passion for it, while others did. In my graduating class, there were a couple of guys that made Food & Wine's Best New Chefs.
How did you end up at Betelnut? In the last semester, they set you up with an internship. At the time I was about as unmotivated as you could be. My girlfriend of 2-1/2 years had just broken up with me, so when the counselor asked me what I wanted to do, I said I’ll work in a hotel, I don’t care, I heard there’s good money there. She was surprised. She said, are you sure you want to do repetition? And I answered no. She gave me the Betelnut menu and I saw a little Japanese, a little Korean, the way I like to eat. For the most part in culinary school they were old guard and taught mise en place, saute pans, French techniques, and nothing about Asian techniques. I even had an instructor who said ‘Asian is just soy sauce in everything.’ But I would always search out ethnic restaurants, Singaporean, Korean. As I do today; I go out and find super-ethnic, fun new things. I said to the counselor, are you kidding me? Wait a minute, I pay my own money to go to restaurants to research this type of food, and you’re telling me I can go and learn this at a restaurant that is James Beard-nominated? Really? Yes! After the first month, they started paying me. I was making about $6 an hour, basically just a little over minimum wage, but I was getting experience. I was challenged every day because I wanted to learn more about everything.
What was the most important thing you learned there? The wok was the big mesmerizing thing. For years, I would eat at Chinese restaurants and wonder why the food tasted different from home cooking. I mean, it’s not like you get a tour of Chinese restaurants. But at one point I found out that the burners are so much hotter. So I took an ice pick to my home burner. I thought wow, this works so much better and it really does make a difference. My mom freaked out. We didn’t even have vents so the ceiling would be black. After the second time they replaced it, they were like, just stop it. Are you going to clean that? No? I didn’t think so. So when I saw the wok at Betelnut, every day I would come in early and make myself something to eat because I had the facilities and the ingredients.
How long before you were promoted to sous chef? The big thing was turnover in San Francisco. Cooks wanted stepping stones and to build a resume. At my jobs, I stick around. I’m loyal, I’ve always been like that. I wanted to master the wok, I wanted to master the grill, I wanted to master expediting. I wanted to learn all the stations. If you show enough drive they have to give you an opportunity, and they made me sous chef in about a year and a half. I was 22, and was at Betelnut for 4-1/2 years.
Tell me about Bitter and Twisted. I’ve known the owner of this building so had been looking at this space. I had been in negotiations with other partners but none were a good fit. I had originally thought about a restaurant, but when I heard about the prohibition history of this building, I realized I didn’t want to be the focus. It needed to be a bar-focused project. A potential partner introduced me to his designer, and his designer introduced me to Ross. I realized I had met him before, at Gertrude’s when I was consulting and he was working for Southern and consulting on cocktails. We had a meeting, he showed me his business plan, and it took me all of one minute to look it over and say, ok, let’s go. I’ve seen enough business plans and enough training material to know when somebody is ready or not. It was so obvious. I was just like let’s get this done. He said, let’s do global-inspired bar food. Great! That’s what I want to do. I made a tasting schedule and we just knocked it out. Less than a year later, we opened.
What do you like most about being a partner at Bitter and Twisted? I love feeling part of a family, and I really love spending time with our staff. We have a lot of fun, we spend time together outside of work, I go to their kids’ birthday parties. We all have each other’s backs.
What do you see for the future? I’m really enjoying what we’re doing. I’m assuming eventually we’ll do more. I feel that if we make really, really good food, great cocktails, and we make people happy, success will follow success.