Personality, the Secret Ingredient

The adage is, a good personality is contagious. If that’s true, Baba Sushi’s Wilson Wang should be classified as a full-scale epidemic.

Chef Wilson Wang of Baba Sushi
Chef Wilson Wang of Baba Sushi

Weidong ‘Wilson’ Wang’s infectious laughter in the dining room and consummate schmoozing expertise among sushi connoisseurs should get him upgraded to a pandemic. “My personality is a little happy,” he explained. “Most of the Chinese sushi chefs are so serious, so reserved. Not me, I like people more than I like preparing sushi for people. Sushi is my excuse to make people happy.”

And happy they are. In 2007, Wilson proved he really knows how to put it on the plate when he took top honors at Worcester’s Best Chef culinary competition, earning the Judges’ Choice Award. At that time, he was just getting underway at Baba and decided to make a splash with sushi in a market that had once belonged to Italian-American chefs and experts in Mediterranean fusion. Judged by a panel of seven culinary experts and award-winning chefs, Wilson’s entry received high marks. “I just knew I would win. I had a new restaurant, a very unique concept, and my sushi is so delicious and looks so good!”

An award-winning sushi restaurant was a far cry from Wilson’s computer science expertise. Living in his home province of Shandong in Northeast China until the mid-90s, Wilson was tempted by thoughts of moving to the U.S. Despite his desire to expand on his computer science background, Wilson recognized his expertise in crafting sushi would be welcomed by many health-conscious American restaurant-goers. And so, he turned to the restaurant business to “add life” to his career choice.

The Western World got the better of Wilson’s curiosity and he landed on U.S. soil in 1994, leaving his family behind to have a go at the American Dream. From his first stop San Francisco to Las Vegas, Memphis and Cambridge, Wilson’s tour of the States led him to become one of the most sought-after sushi masters. Even Harvard University offered Wilson a position teaching a sushi course as well as the opportunity to open a sushi bar on campus. A flattered Wilson admits that “[Harvard] always hires extraordinary people,” and while he was forced to refuse the Ivies due to extensive travel demands, he was pleased to have been thought of to satiate the sushi cravings at one of the nation’s most elite academic institutions.

Another nation’s elite also shares in Wilson’s cutting-edge cuisine: the Chinese Royal Family. Dong Chogn Xia Cao, an incredibly intense herb that grows on the foothills of the Himalayas, was once exclusively used in food preparation for Chinese royalty at the Imperial Palace. Now this very rare herb is used—quite sparingly—to enhance tea and soups at Baba. “This was only for the Chinese Royal Family,” Wilson insists. “Now, I brought it back for my customers in Worcester.”

Such gracious hospitality is another part of his beaming personality, a part that continuously appears not only in the man, but on the man’s menu in the form of tea service. Wilson has been treating patrons to a truly sensational offering, Pu Tuo Tea, or as he calls it, Kung Fu Tea. This delightful brew comes from red tea leaves traditionally allocated for Chinese aristocracy at the Imperial Palace. It boasts a smoky, almost woody aroma and, as a result Wilson advises it “must be sipped slowly in our tiny Chinese cups.” These tiny cups are incredibly delicate, hand-painted beauties that have aeration slots that magnify the already-intense flavor. Wilson pays $300 for a mere 2-ounce bag of this marvelous brew, but doles it out to his patrons as if they were in attendance at his daughter’s wedding.

Wilson’s charisma wasn’t always front and center. Touring the U.S. for years did help him gain useful experience with respect to sushi, but he didn’t get to add his secret ingredient, his larger-than-life, stellar personality. That came when he ventured to Boston and connected with an old friend who had just graduated from Harvard School of Business. His friend had designs on opening a Japanese restaurant in Cambridge’s Harvard Square, so Wilson joined him as the sushi chef.

The venture, as is turns out, was too expensive for the location. So, as if Horace Greeley whispered to Wilson himself, “Go West, young sushi master,” Wilson followed his instinct and headed for Chestnut Hill in Newton.

There, in 1997, he opened Oiishi, the first of two premium-dining establishments. The second, Oiishi Two, came on the scene only a year later in Sudbury. More than ten years later, both restaurants are still striving, each filled not only with customers but warm memories. “I remember meeting Ming Tsai at Oiishi,” Wilson says as reminisces about the famous international restaurateur and chef. “He would come in with his newborn son and we would talk about sushi and [his restaurant] Blue Ginger.”

With a resume bursting with more qualifications (Master Sushi Chef at Zipango in Worcester, owner of Tapanyaki in Franklin) and a keen desire to open even more venues, Wilson reflected on Worcester as a would-be destination for sushi. And in 2006, his business sense led him to led him to open Baba, a boutique-style establishment resembling a quaint, New England cottage on the outside with a modern yet romantic sushi bar on the inside.

Baba on Park Ave Worcester, MA
Baba on Park Ave Worcester, MA

Wilson’s eye for design is yet another talent to add to his ever expanding resume, a talent that is entirely evident at Baba. The dinning room boasts natural green-leaf tones, bamboo (bamboo what? Reeds? Fixtures?) and a new partially covered patio that accommodates guests year-round. “I wanted to increase the space, but I also like to give my friends a change of atmosphere.”

What’s next for Wilson? To answer that, one must pose the question “What’s next for sushi?” Taking sushi to the next level requires commitment. In fact, Wilson returns to China every year to keep up on the latest sushi techniques; he remains up-to-date on innovations by dropping in on his friends at Oya in Boston; and he meets with Iron Chef sensation Masaharu Morimoto at his New York City restaurant Morimoto. “I have so much respect for his abilities and I loved to watch him on Iron Chef America. He’s so entertaining,” admits Wilson.

Being true to his craft, Wilson likes to remain ahead of the sushi master pack, but even though he’s well aware of the best practices used in many sushi restaurants, he insists, “You don’t want to follow someone; you want someone to follow you.”

Ergo, organic. Elements of sushi are already organic, but customers want more and Wilson wants to give them more by taking sushi to the next level in Worcester. “Sushi patrons want organic,” he explains. “Tuna is wild and, therefore, organic. Salmon, on the other hand, is said to be farm-raised and so we can never know exactly what they feed it.” According Wilson, Baba is already sourcing organic rice.

Wilson’s inherent inertia continuously pushes him forward, however, his priorities remain the constant. Leaning over, a very serious expression on his face, Wilson reveals his top three priorities going forward in the restaurant business: “One, quality; two, quality; and three, quality.” His top three concerns? “One, clean; two, clean; and three, clean.

The open kitchen shows customers what sushi masters are doing and how clean Baba is. They trust our food because we are the only open-kitchen sushi bar in Worcester. We don’t want to hide anything. Our quality is top!”

Baba Sushi
Baba Sushi

Always determined to give his patrons the utmost happiness they seek in their sushi experience, Wilson’s philosophy is surprisingly simple: “high quality, clean sushi with a fun, comfortable atmosphere.”

Written by Domenic Mercurio

Chicken Parmigiano: The Italian Barometer

Some epicures regard chicken parmigiano as an overly simplistic dish, while others argue you can’t even find it on menus at restaurants in Italy. Ordering such a dish might appear as a cop-out, particularly when there are so many less than pedestrian plates. So, why waste time on such a seemingly basic entree?

The answer is simple; one bite can instantly reveal the quality and innovation of the chef.

Chef Eddie Esper
Chef Eddie Esper

Chicken parmigiano has an intrinsic nature that echoes that of all Italian cuisine: simplicity. Comprised of what most Italian food fans adore about the boot, it can instantly reveal the quality and innovation of the chef.

Depending on how well the elements of the dish work together, any guest can gauge the level of quality expected with more complex dishes. You just need to understand three basic elements: gravy, cheese and chicken.

Pass the Gravy

Gravy is Italian-American for sauce. In this case, it’s marinara and it’s meant to run red and thin.

The redder this simple tomato sauce is, the fresher it is. Darker marinara, almost brown in color, tends to indicate that it has passed its prime. A catchy rule of thumb: if it’s brown, leave town; if it’s red, pick up the bread.

At its thickest, marinara should have a consistency similar to that of a pure. However, the sauce becomes more acidic as it gets thicker, which leaves many Italian foodies suffering from acida (pronounced ah-chi-dah). Luckily, ingredient number two helps to prevent this burning feeling in the chest.

Say Formaggio

The dish may be called chicken parmigiano, but the cheese isn’t actually parmigiano. It’s mozzarella and it should be melted, soft and plentiful.

Remember, there’s no such thing as melting the cheese too much. You’ll find that once it hits the hot cutlet, it melts and sure enough, when the sauce trickles over the chicken, it melts even more .

Overly spicy sauces and spice-laden breading can easily trump the mozzarella with their intensity. One trick to thwart this: put cheese on the cutlet, add sauce and then top it off with a little more cheese. This achieves a dense texture and prevents the mozzarella from being overshadowed.

Chicken Reigns Supreme

The chicken cutlet, or cottaletta in Italian, is arguably the most important part of the dish. Differing from a fillet, a cutlet should be rather thin and very tender.

Chicken Parmigiano at Chioda's
Chicken Parmigiano at Chioda's

Tenderness is key. Overcooking or drying-out a cutlet can be very easy. It should be pounded somewhat thin, but not so much that you can read a newspaper through it. Personal preference may vary, but you’re looking for something about half the thickness of a New York sirloin.

Telltale signs a chicken might be overdone: crunchy breading, hard breading, and burnt edges. Slow cooking is one way to prevent dry chicken, a tried and true method used by Chioda’s Trattoria.

When these elements come together ”the freshest sauce spiced slightly with oregano, a little extra mozzarella and a perfectly pounded, tender, breaded cutlet lightly spiced and fried only in pure, extra virgin olive” the result is a mouth-watering gastronomic symphony known as chicken parmigiano.

If you think you’re ready to try testing this infamous dish, a great place to start is Chioda’s Trattoria in Worcester, MA. Executive Chef Eddie Esper has proved to be a genius when it comes to chicken parmigiano. With the help of Steve Chioda, Jr., they have perfected a simple yet delicious sauce that’s light on spice and full of fresh flavor and mastered slow cooking. Buon appetito!

Written by Domenic Mercurio

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