In a small corner of a kitchen, a sensory overload is happening. A black well-loved wok wobbles over an open flame. As it slides back and forth, tiny droplets of oil fly high, catch fire and with one swift move, land back in the wok. Kernels of rice jump in the air, getting coated in the oil. The aroma of minced ginger and garlic float in the air while funky red bits of kimchi darken to a deep orange under the intense flame.
At the helm of all this organized chaos is Jose “Cheo” Avila. Seeming calm and collected, the chef of Kontiki has a stoic look. His dark hair is swept off his face and his casual outfit of a navy blue T-shirt, fitted jeans and Nike Air Force 1 sneakers fits his demeanor. Avila takes the spatula and quickly shuffles the rice around. This is a dish he knows well — kimchi fried rice. Three years ago, he brought it to the Greenport restaurant and it has stayed on the menu ever since.
“I remember tasting this dish in Boston when I was exploring food,” he said. “That flavor really stuck with me. I had kimchi for the first time. The funkiness of the fermented cabbage was something that really made an impression on me. So one day for a family meal I said, ‘I’m going to try to recreate what I tasted over there.’ ”
Avila is originally from Venezuela. After studying architecture there, he moved to the U.S. in 2010 to finish his studies. But when the credits wouldn’t transfer, he had to decide whether to start over or start fresh. He went with the latter, choosing a career in the kitchen, a place that has always brought him joy.
“I enjoyed going to restaurants very much as a kid. It gave me a lot of energy and happiness when I was there with my family, being very excited about trying food,” he said. “I would invite friends to my house and I would be the one doing the barbecues or the big soup.” From there, Avila’s determination and drive kicked in, studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami for three years and working his way through restaurants, diners, corporations and fast food places. “I thought ‘I’m gonna put my head down, I’m gonna learn everything’ — that’s the way I thought that I would be able to learn different techniques and flavors.”
Eventually, after working in Washington, D.C., Miami and New York, Avila spent a year-and-a-half at the Surf Lodge in Montauk when he heard about a chef needed in Greenport, a place he had never been before. “I had a strong connection right away,” he said. “I felt like it was home when I came here and realized the potential of this place.”
Avila also fell in love with the eclectic decor and vibe of the Gallery Hotel, where this new restaurant, called Kontiki, would be located. The bright colors and graphic patterns inspired him and he started working on a tropical Asian menu alongside the other chef at the time, Hisashi “Ami” Murakami. It was then that he created the kimchi fried rice, something that came from his “sensory library,” as he calls it.
“When I make a dish, I think through a sensory book — a smell book and taste book — and I will go back to memories of flavors and smells and borrow from all these different places I have tasted,” he said.
To keep the pages of this book familiar, Avila doesn’t believe in recording recipes. Instead, he recreates the dish from memory, tasting it along the way. “My philosophy is that you have to keep that recipe alive. By not having a recipe, you have to taste it,” he said. “In trying to remember what it’s supposed to taste like, and having the ingredients and making it again and again and again, it leaves room for improvisation and changes, letting it evolve into something else eventually better.”
But even with this free-spirited philosophy, everything in Avila’s kitchen is done with precision. Before a grain of rice touches the wok for the famed dish, he cracks one egg in a tiny pan over low heat — the egg that goes right on top of the final dish. This acts as his timer for the whole dish, giving him just enough minutes to bring the whole plate together before the egg overcooks. Once the garlic and ginger drop in the oil, Avila waits for them to get fragrant in the heat, without burning, before pouring in the red and green kimchi. He spreads the mixture out evenly around the sides of the wok.
“We leave it there for a little bit so it sears. We want it to dry out but we also want it to caramelize so it gives the maillard effect,” he says loudly over the ‘ssss’ sounds of the wok. “Whatever you have in the wok should be spread out so there’s more contact with the wok. That means more flavor.”
Avila then kneels down, opening a drawer of cooked rice (something I immediately wish I had in my own kitchen) and dumps a few handfuls in. He spreads it all out again and runs a line of sesame oil around the edges and listens to it hiss. “That noise you hear there? You wanna hear that,” he says. “That means that the rice is getting crispy and separated.”
“This is what I am talking about with the sensory — It’s not just about the flavor. When you hear that, you know. Once you get the right color and smell, you saute like this so the oil and the rice come together,” he continues, fluffing the rice around. He adds a squirt of soy sauce and tastes for adjustments. Another squirt, a touch of fresh ginger, some fresh scallions and it all gets dumped into a plate. At that point, the fried egg is perfectly cooked and he slides it on top. A rainbow of garnishes join it. Black and white sesame seeds, red kimchi juice, green scallion tops, pink pickled onion. Somehow it perfectly matches the decor of the hotel and the restaurant.
The taste did, too. Crunchy rice danced around the caramelized and acidic kimchi. The pickled onions offered a serious punch, mellowed out by the creamy egg yolk. It was bright and fun, just like Kontiki itself.