Paul Jalaf is a chef and restaurateur who has been in and out of Rhode Island for years. He first arrived from Connecticut to attend Johnson & Wales in the early ‘90s – “before the Renaissance and the hip restaurant scene you see today.” He eventually left Providence to work in Boston and New York City, before returning to open two restaurants, Mezza and Encore. He now runs the kitchen at Vanity, a vintage-themed supper club and nightlife spot, where he describes the menu as “blending contemporary American cuisine with timeless global classics.” The well-traveled chef was born in Lebanon, and still cites his mother’s kitchen as “the only place to give me total satisfaction and nostalgia,” adding, “Now, she is one of my favorite chefs.” By his own admission, if you were to look in his refrigerator right now you would probably find only water, hot sauce, mayo and tequila.
You’ve just closed up shop. Dinner service was a wreck and the kitchen was in the weeds all night. You need a drink. Where are you going and what are you drinking?
Wow... You must have come in for dinner a few weeks ago. (laughs) Since I live on the Hill I usually start off at Blush; they make a great drink and Chris, the owner, has probably one of the best wine selections by the glass. Then I head over to The Grande to sip a little French bubbly with my good friend Chef Tino. I usually end the night back at Vanity where the party is always wild and fun and Justin, my bar manager, makes me something super strong using Hendricks Gin and whatever fresh squeezed mixer he has concocted.
How about some food trends you’d like to see more of here?
I’d like to see more food allergy-conscious menu items, sustainable seafood, whole grain items in kids’ meals, cuts of meat like offal, farm-branded items, food trucks, artisan spirits, house-made ice cream, nutrition as a culinary theme, non-traditional fish, fruit and vegetable side items for kids, children’s mini-meals (i.e. smaller versions of adult menu items) and culinary cocktails.
What’s one that you would like to see just go away?
We have so many great restaurants in Rhode Island, but can we please stop opening more red sauce joints? And I am a strong believer in banning national chain restaurants who are buying up key locations and serving crap to the masses for $9.99.
Name a dish or recipe from a restaurant other than your own that makes you say, Damn, I wish I thought of that.
I was in San Francisco at Michael Mina’s place and had dayboat halibut poached in ocean water and served in an aromatic sake broth. The fish is cooked sous vide in a mix of ocean water and butter. Interestingly, the ocean water not only imparts the fish with a subtle saltiness, but it also keeps it fresh for up to two days (and unlike other brines, it won’t cure the meat). Now that’s a dish that made me say, Damn.
What do you think of the Providence dining scene’s development over the last decade?
I think we have a good dining scene, but it is still somewhat stagnant with some of the old school style places that serve massive portions of sloppy food. But within the last 5-10 years, many new types of chef-driven restaurants have popped up that are starting to make a dent in how real food should be cooked and served. We need to keep educating our consumers and getting them to try new things. Are we on the same level of trendy and ethnic concepts as Boston, NYC, Chicago or San Francisco? Not yet, but perfection takes time and we have some real talented chefs, restaurateurs and farmers that are putting us on the map. I think in the next five-plus years Providence will be one of the country’s top food and restaurant destinations.