Changing Stripes: Tiffani Faison Unveils New Concept with Tiger Mama
Experience the perfect fusion of Northeast American and Southeast Asia right here in The Fenway. Tiffani Faison, finalist on the first season of Top Chef, is no rookie to The Fenway—she opened Sweet Cheeks Q back in 2011. Inspired by her adventures in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, combined with New England’s freshest ingredients, Tiger Mama offers a menu as bright and creative as its decor. The ambience at 1363 Boylston Street is genuine and bold. The two bars in the back offer two different menus—Tiki and Contemporary. There is truly something for everybody.
Tiffani Faison began her culinary career in 2001 in Boston, spending time in Nantucket, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans before returning to bring us Sweet Cheeks and now Tiger Mama.
Between a constant urge to discover new places and the opening of her second restaurant in 4 years, Tiffani has a lot on her plate. She’s excited to bring The Fenway a flavor profile from a little further away, delivered in a beautiful, authentic package.
How did your life change after Top Chef?
For me, it was really personal. It was Season 1 the first time I was on Top Chef, and no one had any idea what it was. I remember opening People magazine and my face was on this gigantic advertisement for a television show. Even if you do know it’s coming, you can’t prepare yourself for that. I was working front of the house in Las Vegas at the time and I got to the point where I couldn’t turn my tables because people wanted to talk to me about Top Chef. Some people handled the attention really well, but at that point in my life I wasn’t ready for it. So, I moved to Nantucket to hide out and cook fish for 6 months. Being on the show didn’t necessarily make me the person or the chef that I was quite ready to be yet.
After those few months, you moved around again. How did you land back in Boston?
My wife is from Boston and I grew up cooking here, so it felt like a really natural setting.
What’s your favorite cuisine, now that you’ve worked with so many?
I’m inspired by so many cultures and obviously Southeast Asian [cuisine] holds a really special part in my life. For me it’s about understanding the food that I’m cooking from the perspective of the person who is cooking the food every day. Not an American version, but how, for example, authentic Malaysian food is prepared and cooked in Malaysia in people’s daily lives.
How did you maintain the traditional culture of Southeast Asia in your menu at Tiger Mama?
It’s always art versus commerce. You have to make decisions that will make your guests feel comfortable. I can’t put together a menu that is so far out that people don’t want to extend themselves. You have to meet people halfway. This menu is about following a specific flavor profile while at the same time allowing things on the menu like Pad Thai—everyone knows what Pad Thai is, we just wanted to make sure to do a great version of it. If you’re familiar with this type of food you might see things that maybe you haven’t seen around town, but if you’re less familiar with it there are things that feel approachable. Maintaining that balance is important.
You and (your wife and business partner) Kelly always say that you want to ‘build the city you want to live in.’ When you came back to Boston, where did you see room for improvement? It’s not like everything’s wrong and we’re here to make it right, that’s not the impression I want to give. All of my family lives in San Francisco and I choose to live here. I do think that there are parts of the Boston culinary movement that were slow to make progress. Boston was slow to become a city that has a certain identity beyond traditional seafood and meat and potato steakhouses. I think we’re finally getting there. We think a lot about how we want to build restaurants, how we want you to feel when you walk in, how we want the food to taste, how we want it to be an entire experience. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about building the city you want to live in.
The Cha Ca La Vong features New England halibut while maintaining a Southeast Asian twist. What other ways do you use New England ingredients through the lens of Southeast Asian cooking?
The lobster curry is a great example. It’s all these really bright, intense flavors of Southeast Asia. Saffir lime, tons of cilantro, lots of chili. It’s earthy and bright, but it’s really an interpretation of a clambake. There are little things that I tend to do that are playful, a little bit of a wink and a nod to where we’re at and it also allows me to use the incredible local ingredients.
What’s your favorite part about The Fenway?
It’s interesting because it’s changing so quickly, I feel like I could have a new favorite every day. There’s a lot of young energy that has a hand in building what is legitimately a neighborhood smack dab in the middle of Boston. Most of the time this happens in outer boroughs. There are so many brilliant minds and artists here who are just on it, able to contribute in amazing and creative ways. To be able to be a part of that is really thrilling.
Do you expect a different clientele frequenting Tiger Mama versus Sweet Cheeks?
What we hoped for when we built Tiger Mama is a trust among the Sweet Cheeks fans that will bring them over to Tiger Mama, as well as creating a new fanbase. Conceptually, they are so different, from the ambience to the menu, because we didn’t want to end up taking clientele away from Sweet Cheeks. We hope for a good balance.
How did Charles Coykendall come on board as Bar Director?
We begged him. I loved his work at the Baldwin Bar. He is so talented that he makes me want to up my game in the kitchen—his handle on flavor pairings and ingredients is incredible.
What’s your favorite cocktail on the menu?
Any one that is being made for me after a shift. I love all of them.
When you have time to visit your neighbors, where is your after-work spot in The Fenway?
Home. My kids love Citizen, so I let them do the neighborhood partying.
What’s going to be Tiger Mama’s claim to fame?
You can’t ever see it coming. If you mean like how Sweet Cheeks has “the biscuit”—I don’t know what Tiger Mama will have. But you don’t want something that overshadows the rest of the stuff you’re doing. I hope what we’re known for is the experience. I want our guests to feel like they’ve been transported.
Where do you plan on traveling next?
Wherever we can find the light at the end of whatever tunnel Kelly and I are currently in. We are always actively daydreaming about it.