Abe Conlon Of Fat Rice, Chicago

Step inside the world of Fat Rice's Abe Conlon

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Join Tasting Table on Tuesday, October 2 for a special one-night event featuring a prix fixe tasting menu from chef Abe Conlon at Chefs Club New York. Get tickets here and enter the code "TASTING TABLE" in the special requests section after completing your reservation.

"I think it was our third finalist nomination and, like, the fourth or fifth semifinal," Abe Conlon recounts of his experience at the James Beard Awards this year. "So we thought [a win] was a possibility, but we weren't super-expecting it."

Conlon, who first started cooking professionally at the age of 15, ended up being the only Chicago-area chef to walk away with a medal that night. He's the chef-owner of Fat Rice, the city's perennially packed restaurant specializing in the food of Macau, but he's quick to point out the victory was far from a solo effort. "It was validation for the team and the hard work everybody has been doing over the past six years," he clarifies.

Those past six years include quite the list of accomplishments. Since opening Fat Rice in 2012, Conlon and his team wrote an eponymous cookbook, launched a cult-favorite bakery specializing in Asian-influenced sweets and opened an acclaimed cocktail den called The Ladies Room. There was also that aforementioned James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. And now, Conlon and his team are the latest to take up residency at Chefs Club in New York City.

"Fat Rice has almost become a national brand. Almost international, really," Conlon says excitedly. "We get people who say, 'Hey, I'm from Belgium and I'm here,' or 'I'm from Portugal and I'm here. The magazine told me to come here. The website told me to come here.' It makes you feel amazing."

Yet when asked about what exactly it is that draws people in from all over the world to try dishes like prawns stuffed with garlic, chiles and fermented black beans (get the recipe), or the restaurant's namesake dish, arroz gordo, Conlon admits he isn't exactly sure. Either that, or he's staying modest about his accumulating victories. One thing he can't hide, however, is the dedication and amount of work (or "blood, sweat and tears," as he puts it) that both he and his business partner, Adrienne Lo, have put in to tell the story of Macanese cooking.

Photo: Molly Ponce

While most chefs have the luxury of reaching for a cookbook to research the techniques of a specific region's food, there was no preexisting text when it came to Macau's cuisine—one that merges Chinese dishes with Portuguese influences and is passed down only between families through oral history—until The Adventures of Fat Rice was published. Many refer to it as the original fusion cuisine, when the term meant the cross-pollination of flavors and techniques across cultures instead of mash-ups like Korean tacos and Mexican sushi. With Conlon's Portuguese heritage and Lo's Chinese background, Macanese cooking was a closed door the duo felt was just begging to be opened and explored. 

"I just took this big trip around the world to retrace the path of Portuguese sailors and missionaries 500 years ago, to understand their impact on global food," Conlon casually mentions. One can't help but think he could easily segue into a career as a culinary archaeologist without missing a beat. That's what makes dinner at Fat Rice still so exciting and fresh after six years: Every time you dine, you're taking part in a cuisine few outside its landscape have experienced, just as Conlon and Lo themselves are continually learning through their travels and research.

"All the food has a story . . . and I think it's important for us to continue to convey those stories and continue to evolve," Conlon explains. He has a clear vision about his role in the kitchen—that of a storyteller versus just a chef. "I'm really just a conduit here in the scenario. We try to stay true to what these dishes have been, will be and are."

Photo: Jason Little

To be clear, one thing he stresses is that he isn't writing an entirely new novel—just telling one that most people haven't yet read. "We're not doing things nobody's seen before. We're doing things only few people have seen before," he says of what ends up on the menu. "There's definitely some chefedness, but really, it's about learning and storytelling."

That's why in order to move the story forward, he's not bringing Fat Rice classics like flaky egg tarts, arroz gordo and plates of dumplings joined together by a lacy crepe to his Chefs Club residency.

"We got screamed at," Conlon laughs, in regards to this decision. "But, listen, there's a whole lot more delicious food out there that we are ready to share. . . . This is an opportunity to bring new stuff from my trip." Those dishes include octopus braised in red wine, cinnamon and preserved peppers from the Azores—it's a dish that Conlon's grandfather often made, but Conlon himself never got to try until a few months ago during his travels. There'll also be marinated stuffed mackerel with sweet onions from Goa, the coastal region of India once ruled by the Portuguese.  

"This world I operate within is massive," the chef concludes. "There is so much out there that I don't know and so much out there other people don't know and so much deliciousness to share—and it's a shame not to." For Conlon, it's just another chapter he and his team get to write—and another meal we luckily get to eat.