From a Top Chef finalist to the top chef of Fenway's Boylston Street corridor, Tiffani Faison has long been one of the rising stars of the Boston restaurant scene, working her way up the culinary ladder. But in the eight years since she first took on the top chef position at the now-defunct Rocca, the self-described 'army brat' has settled into Boston, making it her home. More than that – she's gotten comfortable.
From opening her first restaurant, Sweet Cheeks Q, Faison's domain has continued to spread out in the Fenway neighborhood, with her second restaurant, Tiger Mama, and her soon-to-debut third, Fool's Errand. A hub for locals and tourists alike, Fenway has no shortage of customers – but despite the grind of the Red Sox fans and concert crowds, Faison's restaurants have stayed the course. Sweet Cheeks is known for its "damn good food," as the Globe says, and Tiger Mama provides "an upscale experience without sacrificing the soul of its source cuisines," per the Improper.
Could it get any better? Actually, yes. Just last month Faison was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef, Northeast. We're calling it – Faison is no longer a rising star. She's a certified Supernova.
The day she decided to open Sweet Cheeks Q
"When Rocca closed, it was so sudden and so shocking and in many ways painful. I had devoted every ounce of my heart, my brain and my life to it. I was dumbfounded. I decided that I would never let that happen to me again."
Let it never be said Faison doesn't stick to her guns – less than a year after Rocca shut its doors, Sweet Cheeks Q opened theirs to rave reviews.
Named “Boston’s Best Barbecue” six years straight by Boston Magazine, Sweet Cheeks takes on the Texas-style barbeque Tiffani best remembers from one of her many childhood homes. But making her current home in Boston has had an equal influence on her craft.
How being in Boston influences Tiffani's style of cooking
"Our clientele is educated, savvy and well-traveled, which makes for a perfect audience. They’re engaged and interested. Mix that with the quality of ingredients we have immediate access to - specifically our fish and the incredible farms that surround us and you have a dream scenario."
The one dish on the menu at Sweet Cheeks that everyone in New England needs to try
"At Sweet Cheeks, we’re known for our biscuit. But our brisket is the real stunner. There’s not better brisket outside of Texas."
Faison really brings her devotion to quality to bear when it comes to the meats they serve at Sweet Cheeks. While they do source as often as they can from area farms, the team's preference runs to what they call "never ever" beef – beef that has never been exposed to the myriad of conditioning sources so often used in modern farming practices – and poultry and pork that is raised with similarly rigorous standards.
But wait – there's more! We haven't even talked Tiger Mama yet.
Located on the same Boylston Street block as Faison’s award-winning barbecue restaurant Sweet Cheeks Q, Tiger Mama opened in December 2015. It was here that Faison really expanded on her culinary skills, branching into a very different cuisine than her devoted diner's had come to expect. Inspired by her travels to Southeast Asia, Tiger Mama sports a menu that adventures through Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, reinterpreting classical dishes from each culture, without straying too far from the cultural source.
The one dish on the menu at Tiger Mama that everyone in New England needs to try
"At Tiger [Mama], I’m obsessed with the LeTigre House Fried Rice. It’s Chinese sausage, scallops, tobiko lettuce mixed with vinegar and spicy mayo. I could eat bowls of it!"
Faison's obsession stems from her love affair with another rice dish – the one that started her on her journey into Southeast Asian cuisine.
"I remember my first bite [of Pad Kra Pao] more clearly (and more fondly) than my first kiss," Faison writes on Tiger's site, rhapsodizing over the classic chicken-and-egg rice dish from Thailand, a country she and her wife, Kelly, return to often. But Tiger Mama is more than decadent takes on classic street food – they dish up plenty of intricately prepared meat & fish, veggies packing an umami punch, and world class tiki bar.
As with any great restaurant, Tiger and Sweet Cheeks are only as good as their chef's standards – of which Faison has high ones. Having cut her teeth under Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse and Todd English, among others, Faison's instincts – for tools and tastes – are as sharp as the knives she wields in her kitchens.
The one instrument in the kitchen she can’t cook without
"My spoons. Sounds like a kooky answer, but I've had the same ones forever and they all perform a separate function."
The one skill amateur chefs need to pick up
"Becoming comfortable cooking with high heat. It scares people, I understand that. BUT getting a good sear on something is the difference between good and great; adept and unskilled."
Dining out in Boston
So, what's next for Faison? Continuing her Fenway neighborhood takeover with the upcoming Fool's Errand, a restaurant that lives in mystery until the doors open.
We do love a good surprise. And with Faison at the helm? We couldn't be more thrilled.
Sweet Cheeks Q - 1381 Boylston St., Boston, MA, 617-266-1300, sweetcheeksbbq.com
Tiger Mama - 1363 Boylston St., Boston, 617-425-6262, tigermamaboston.com