The Skinny on Chef Abraham Conlon's Fat Rice
Fat Rice chef and co-owner Abraham Conlon is using this interview to take a little break, jokingly stretching his long legs across the bench in the newly expanded lounge next door to the restaurant like he’s ready for a therapy session.
And he deserves the minute away. Since opening his wildly popular Macanese restaurant with partner Adrienne Lo in 2012, the duo have been running fast and furious—managing the constantly swarming crowds at the Chicago restaurant, traveling back to Portugal and Macau to research new dishes, racking up accolades from magazines and the James Beard Foundation, and even publishing a comic book–inspired, colorful cookbook, The Adventures of Fat Rice: Recipes from the Chicago Restaurant Inspired by Macau, written with former sous chef and author Hugh Amano.
Once a small, one-room space with lines out the door, 2-hour wait times, and (he admits) somewhat of a make-shift bar next door, Fat Rice has made
some important operational improvements. It has transitioned to a reservation system to handle the influx of fans, and has entered into what the team likes to casually call “Fat Rice 2.0.”
In this evolution of the little restaurant-turned-national-hotspot, Conlon and Lo have expanded into the space next door with a Chinese-inspired bakery by day and a private-event space by night, remodeling their bar into an ambitious craft cocktail lounge dubbed The Ladies’ Room. They’ve also introduced new tasting menus to showcase classic dishes from Macau as well as reinvented ones showcasing the many influences from China, India, and Southeast Asia.
Though Chef Conlon says he was primarily self-taught, he learned culinary skills in a technical high school in Massachusetts and working in fine-dining restaurants across the East Coast. But he describes himself as a constant student, fascinated by the heritage dishes of the “Portuguese and Macau diaspora.”
“I was working with tweezers and immersion circulators 13 years ago, so for me, Fat Rice is a return to real cooking and a whole new world in food,” he says.
Macanese food is a very distinct cuisine, which comes with classic dishes from the region that are based on centuries-old traditions and others that see influences from China, Malaysia, and India.
Conlon and Lo’s travels have inspired the menu at Fat Rice, as has research for the cookbook. “We feel that no other book in the West explores this cuisine, and it took a lot of effort to find information,” says Conlon, who adds he was lucky to be invited into people’s homes to try dishes not typically served in restaurants. “We wanted to tell the Fat Rice story, but also explore traditional dishes created through mutli-cultured families.”
Unlike in many cultures, the Portuguese crown began encouraging intermarriages years ago, he explains, and this led to the development of the region’s rich cuisine. “In these families, the mom wanted something specific to eat and the dad wanted something else, but the kid just wanted to eat,” he says. “So, foods from China or Japan or Portugal would all end up on the plate, and the child just grew up thinking this was comfort food. It was a natural crossing of ingredients and cooking techniques. It wasn’t contrived.”
Several dishes define Macau on a macro level: egg tarts, pork chop buns, African chicken, Portuguese chicken, and, of course, arroz gordo, or fat rice, a paella-like conglomeration with various meats like chicken, pork, beef, and sausage, with vegetables, raisins, eggs, and olives. But, as Conlon explains, those are not necessarily “Macanese” dishes. “There are a whole slew of other dishes that come from just the families.”
This led to the introduction of dishes like minchi (minced beef and pork with egg, shallot, and soy sauce); diabo (stew of breaded meats, chili, mustard, shallot, ginger, and vinegar), and Macanese-Style feijoada with blood sausage and beans. “The Fat Rice cookbook represents the first two years of the restaurant where we only focused on Macau and Macanese food,” says Conlon, noting the book and restaurant also focus on recipes from Conlon’s Portuguese family and Lo’s Chinese roots.
The new tasting menus helped the team branch out into other ethnic influences and have become a way to incorporate seasonal, local ingredients he wouldn’t otherwise be able to showcase with traditional Macanese dishes. Naturally, he’s dubbed one of the tasting menus “Voyage,” to signify “where Fat Rice is going, like a boat or ship retracing the routes of Portuguese sailors 500 years ago,” he says.
Developing ingredients for these types of dishes, rather than simply sourcing them, is key to what he and Lo are trying to achieve, both with consistency as well as quality control. And, of course, it takes them into a new realm of culinary creativity.
For a salt cod dish from Portugal, rather than simply purchasing what Conlon describes as a box of pre-made, often “old and nasty,” salt cod, he makes his own, sourcing the fresh cod and then salting, soaking, and poaching it as they do in Macau. For an African-inspired piri piri sauce, he sources freshly harvested chilies, soaking them in brandy and puréeing them, rather than importing a pre-made version.
For the Chinese bakery, Conlon serves his wildly popular and succulent egg tarts, among other deliciously savory-sweet items like buns stuffed with guava and cheese, curried chicken, and suckling pig. For The Ladies’ Room cocktail lounge, he and Lo installed new, Chinese noir-inspired banquettes and plastered the walls with vintage Chinese pinup posters recalling the red-light districts of Macau in the mid 19th and 20th centuries, peppering the dimly lit space with Chinese antiques from Lo’s grandparents’ house and their travels abroad.
This is, indeed, a new chapter in the Fat Rice journey, and one that’s only just beginning, he says. Although there’s enough fodder for a second cookbook, he says, “We’re not writing a new book—but ‘we’re writing a new book,’” signaling the quotes with his hands.
Conlon plans to travel back to Malaysia during the Christmas season to talk with Portuguese descendants, and he hopes to plan a visit to Goa, India. For now, he and his diners get to revel in this old-meets-new Eurasian revolution.