BUSHWICK — A queer-owned Southeast Asian restaurant, Sweet Chili, is opening tonight in Bushwick, at 1045 Flushing Avenue. The chef behind the venue is a Top Chef Alum and experienced cook with decades of kitchen labor behind her back.
Falling just short of winning season four of Top Chef, Lisa Fernandes has always been in the kitchen since a child. As a kid, the chef played pretend restaurant with her older sister where the menu consisted of two items: eggs and toast. Her father, Fred, lovingly recalls of her willingness to be in the industry, “we were at an Italian restaurant, and Lisa was six years old, she asked the owner if she could see the kitchen.”
Fey, Lisa’s mother, has an amazing palette and is a natural when bringing together flavors and dishes without professional training. Home cooking was globally inspired in their family, with Fred born in Holland and Fey in Lithuania. Ma’s pork and eggplant with jasmine rice, is on the menu, a call back to Fey’s cooking that stuck with Lisa. The family’s love of Asian food came from living in Toronto, Canada, where there’s an influx of Asian immigrants that run local restaurants.
“There’s a lot of Asian culture in Toronto, we’d go out for Korean, Mongolian, and Chinese all the time,” the chef tells Bklyner. “I grew up eating dim sum, probably when I didn’t have teeth yet, I would Imagine I was shoving dumplings down my mouth.”
The chef persisted on being in the kitchen from a young age: from setting the table at their grandparent’s house they moved on to their first bussing job at 12 years old at a Deli. These early experiences confirmed Lisa’s love for working in the culinary industry and led to culinary school and becoming a sous chef by the age of 19.
During her training and early work, Chef Lisa struggled with toxic masculinity in the kitchen, as many women and queer people do in the industry. The chef shares that women have to work twice as hard and constantly prove themselves to receive respect from their male counterparts, recalling how she once caught male cooks checking out a porn magazine at work, while she was multitasking and working for two.
After working for a while as an executive chef in a corporate environment, Lisa craved room for more creativity and left to open a food truck in 2013, where she explored all the avenues of Southeast Asian flavors.
“I never claim to do authentic Thai or authentic Vietnamese,” the chef explains the inspiration behind her cuisine. “I’ll take all the flavors and the things I’ve learned from Vietnamese food and I’ll create something out of it. I like to have fun with food like that.”
The truck was let go two years ago to start work on a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Chef Lisa has lived in Bushwick for the last few years and wanted to bring an Asian-inspired eatery to the area. Then King Noodle, founded by two former Roberta’s chefs, known as a tiki bar with handmade noodles, closed in 2018. Sweet Chili had found its home.
“I wanted something more stable, I wanted to be more creative, and have the freedom of a larger staff and bigger kitchen,” the chef says about the transition. “We want to feed more people. We want a line out the door all day and every day.”
The menu boasts of warm global flavors with Asian influences, with many involving peanut butter, ginger, chili, and lemongrass. Their spicy bacon & peanut caramel bites ($7) is a Chinese spoon filled with a sauce-y savory bite, nicknamed as the “Porkgasm.” Sweet & spicy chicken wings ($11) are very spicy for the adventurous, and a crispy watercress salad ($12) with shrimp and cashew are for those looking for a fresh, bright bite. Their whole crispy fish is a play on British fish and chips, served with a sweet chili sauce ($32). They had just received their liquor license, with a cocktail menu to come shortly. Expect well drinks on opening week.
The design at Sweet Chili compliments their concept of being an affordable, yet not-so-casual restaurant. The industrial, minimal look, with an exposed brick wall is juxtaposed by a mural of a bright and playful landscape of Brooklyn with the original food truck and some Thai imagery, painted by a local Bushwick artist.
“We want you to leave with your stomach full and with your wallet still full,” said the chef. “I just want to feed people, that’s all I want to do.”
1045 Flushing Avenue
Opens Friday, November 15 at 5 p.m.
Sun & Mon 11am-10pm (Closed Tuesday)
Wed & Thurs 11am-11pm
Fri & Sat 11am–12am