Tucked in between Avenues A and B on a very quiet stretch of East 5th Street lies a restaurant almost 10 years in the making: Tuome, a New American restaurant with a heavy Chinese influence, that paved the way for a style of dining that’s become extremely popular in the wake of the pandemic.
Take nearly any hot restaurant in New York today. The style of dining: intuitive, relaxed, not fussy. The menu: technically driven and precise in its execution, but also very approachable, playful, and deeply personal in scope. The reason: The executive chef. Perhaps they spent the building blocks of their career in the kitchens of fine-dining establishments across the city. But when they finally open up a place of their own (aforementioned hot restaurant), one thing’s for sure: they pivot.
Whether it be LittleMad, the extremely fun, fine dining-ish concept from chef Sol Han (previously of Le Coucou); or Golden Diner from Torrisi and Momofuku Ko vet Samuel Yoo; to the duo at Nudibranch, who previously worked at JUA, Jungsik, and Eleven Madison Park, it seems to be the winning formula for a host of hot restaurants in New York these past few years.
And while Tuome, led by chef-owner Thomas Chen (previously of Eleven Madison Park and Commerce), certainly didn’t invent the formula, it’s hard not to see the threads connecting this new generation of chefs and the East Village stalwart. Chen channeled the lessons of the fine-dining world into a much more relaxed, but just as eye-poppingly delicious experience when he opened Tuome in 2014. And it’s time we pay proper homage to this nine-year-old Michelin-starred tastemaker that wowed New Yorkers and critics alike when it first opened, and continues to do so.
We recently spoke with Chen about it all, from his career move that launched the beginnings of Tuome, to the state of fine dining today. And because you’re bound to become a regular (if you’re not already), here’s a pro tip: It’s pronounced “tow-me.”
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Resy: You were an accountant first before becoming a chef. Was there a lightbulb moment or anything in particular that prompted your career change?
Thomas Chen: I think for me, it was back when I was about 15. I always enjoyed cooking, but I never really thought it was a career move. So, I went into accounting, thinking that’s the career I should be doing. About four years into it, I realized that I was just not happy. That’s when I decided to just take the leap [and] pursue opening a restaurant. I started culinary school and started working. It took years of dedicated planning and hard work — I wanted to ensure that every aspect of the restaurant, from fine-tuning the menu to the ambience, was thoughtfully crafted to deliver a memorable d xperience. That’s how Tuome happened.
Was bringing the flavors from your Chinese heritage something that you were always intent on doing?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Bringing flavors from my Asian heritage has been a passion of mine since the very beginning of my culinary journey.
Your parents owned Chinese restaurants while you were growing up, right?
Yes, when I was younger. Growing up with Asian ingredients and flavors has deeply influenced my palate and cooking style. So, it was only natural for me to incorporate them into my own dishes.
What was your ambition with Tuome when you first conceptualized and opened the restaurant?
I wanted Tuome to offer the flavors and culinary creativity typically found in fine-dining restaurants, but without having to dress up and be formal. My goal was to create an atmosphere where guests can truly enjoy that fine-dining experience in a more relaxed and casual setting. The restaurants where I’ve worked inspired me to do something of my own.
How did you decide on the location?
I chose to open in the East Village because it was a vibrant neighborhood that perfectly captured a melting pot of cultures and ideas. It had this laid-back vibe that really resonated with me; just the perfect fit for an innovative Asian-influenced restaurant. And also, people were open to trying new flavors and embracing unique dining experiences. It just felt like the most natural and right choice.
I was reading some of the reviews that the restaurant received when it’d just opened, and it just feels so confident from the get-go. Some of the signature dishes that were mentioned in articles back in 2014 are still on the menu today, like the famous “Pig Out for Two.” How did you come up with that dish?
That dish was inspired by Chinese barbecued meats. I grew up eating that in my household, and I really wanted to kind of transform it. We do a different technique: we confit the pork for several hours [before] it gets pressed back on the skin. And then we crisp it up in the pan. It’s just recreating my childhood memory.
With a little twist.
How did you decide to keep some dishes while evolving the menu all these years?
We constantly challenge ourselves to push the boundaries and bring new dishes and create flavors that exceed expectations. So, even dishes that stay on for a long period of time — and they’re popular dishes — we still change because we feel the need to continually evolve our menu, [which] we evolve every season.
Do you think the restaurant today has differed or stayed true to its original concept?
The restaurant has stayed true to its original concept. We definitely maintain our commitment to providing a relaxed, inviting atmosphere, while offering refined and thoughtfully prepped out dishes. We’re staying true to what we do, [while] also just knowing that we constantly have to change and improve and get better.
And what’s your hope for Tuome’s future? Another 10 years in the East Village?
[Laughs.] Yeah, hopefully. I think it’s just continuing to grow and to evolve, and to provide a memorable experience for our guests. That’s my biggest hope.
Given your culinary background, how do you think fine dining has evolved over the years since you started cooking and opened Tuome?
For the most part, I think it’s changed to becoming a little bit more casual than what it used to be. People want to come to a restaurant and feel at home. Less of [it] being stuffy and having to really be dressed up to go dine.
Something you essentially predicted when you opened Tuome in 2014.
Yeah, it was something that I kind of hated doing [when it came to] fine dining. I hated that I had to plan to go, rather than just going, having a good time, and enjoying the food.
What do you think of this new generation of chefs who are essentially following the Tuome formula? Chefs with similar fine-dining backgrounds, who are opening more casual places with a similar fine-dining approach to the food?
I think it’s great. Like I said, the East Village is a melting pot of ideas, but I think New York in general is a melting pot of different ideas and cultures and foods. You see a lot of New American restaurants doing food that is innovative pop up and become more and more popular. That’s what we need: to constantly evolve from what it was back then to what it is now. We have to constantly get better. And I think that it’s great that there are more chefs out there doing that.
Final question: Do you feel like an influencer? And not in a Tik Tok sense, but do you think Tuome influenced the New York dining scene when it opened almost 10 years ago?
I mean, no one really has told me that. But I feel like I do.
Tuome is open Tuesday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 9:30 p.m.