How a Designer Learned to Cook Using Memory Alone

How a Designer Learned to Cook Using Memory Alone


In 2011, the designer Phillip Lim built his dream kitchen in his SoHo home: With the help of the architect Joe Nix, he installed a marble island, concrete pendant lighting from Aplomb and cabinets that open with just a tap of the elbow, ideal for when your hands are covered in sauce. But the room sat unused for almost five years; Lim, busy with the fashion brand he founded in 2005, didn’t cook.

But then, one day in 2015, something changed. For reasons of both health and nostalgia, Lim decided to learn his way around an oven. “I was missing home,” he recalls. “I grew up in a household where you always had homemade meals. And then coming to New York, it was takeout morning, noon and night for 11 years. Something was wrong.”

Lim was born in Thailand to Chinese parents and emigrated to the United States with them and his five older siblings as a young boy in 1974. At their home in Southern California, his mother cooked three meals a day, leaving her work as a seamstress at noon to prepare the family lunch. “It was amazing to watch her make these elaborate dishes, full of depth, with such scarce materials,” the designer says. “She would dry out her own peppers, ferment all our vegetables. That’s how she grew up, that’s how she learned it — there was no other way.” When Lim moved to New York in 2004, his mother started sending him curry paste and her signature hot sauces. She would even make a hot meal, wrap it up and FedEx it to him overnight — something he considered a true luxury at the time.

“And then one day, it was like, ‘I miss her. I miss this particular dish,’” Lim says of his mother’s stir-fried basil ginger chicken. “‘Let me just go to the market and try to find the ingredients to make it myself.’” So he went to his local grocery store for ingredients, and set about recreating it at home. “It was just the sheer olfactory memory,” he says. “The taste was so present in my head that day that I could actually break down what I thought the ingredients were — she never told me about them.” When he took a photograph of the finished product and sent it to his mother, her response was: “Who made that for you?”

Since then, Lim has continued his self-education, calling on his memories of other childhood dishes, talking to his mother and rifling through cookbooks. At first, he tended toward the elaborate (oxtail stew, for example); “I was super ambitious and wanting to try everything,” he says. Now, though, he’s getting back to the basics. Take his garlic fried shrimp: it’s a dish he came up with while entertaining at his house on the North Fork of Long Island. He was looking for something that was easy, festive and compatible with beer. The result is a shatteringly crisp plate of shrimp (leave those skins on!) tossed with garlic salt, cilantro and lime juice. It may not be summer, but this dish might transport you, just for a second, to a breezy patio somewhere on Long Island. Watch Lim make it, and talk more about his kitchen, in the video above.

  • 1 pound shell-on shrimp

  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon chili flakes

  • 2 cups tapioca flour

  • 3 cups neutral oil, for frying

  • Juice of 1 lime

  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed, leaves picked off

1. Devein the shrimp. Mix together the garlic powder, salt and chili flakes, and add half the mixture to the tapioca flour.

2. Toss half the shrimp in the tapioca mixture, making sure to coat evenly. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. You’ll know the oil is hot enough when it begins to shimmer and a small bit of the tapioca mixture sizzles immediately when you drop it in.

3. Fry the shrimp for 30 seconds to a minute on each side, flipping when they are a nice golden brown. (Lim likes to use a pair of chopsticks for this step.) Drain on a paper towel-lined tray or cutting board.

4. In a large bowl, toss the fried shrimp with a few more pinches of the salt mixture, half the lime juice and half the cilantro. Serve immediately, preferably with some cold beer; once the first batch disappears, repeat with the rest of the shrimp.



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