The first time Buku Executive Chef Amanda Haisley cooked solo, she almost set the kitchen on fire.
“My sister was babysitting and my parents were out of the house,” she says. “My mom had this Sophia Loren cookbook and there was a recipe for Neapolitan pizza. I made the dough myself and cranked the oven up to 500 degrees, which of course made it smoke the whole house out…but the pizza turned out really great.”
Haisley, 27, never truly considered another occupation, though she flirted with the idea of studying art or math education. She cooked in several kitchens throughout high school and, in 2007, began classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. The curriculum included working in the school’s restaurants and studying a variety of subjects beyond cooking, like business, economics and psychology, which she says has been helpful in learning to manage a restaurant.
While in school, she took a whirlwind trip across Italy sampling wine and food, connecting on a deeper level to the cuisine on which she was raised. She grew up in Lancaster, NY, watching her mother, a third generation Italian-American, cook traditional dishes.
“Her grandmother was from Calabria in Southern Italy, and obviously [the recipes] go through a filter each generation, but my mom made a good amount of Italian food, and it was always very simple…lots of fish, lots of garlic, lots of fresh herbs,” she says.
This early introduction to fresh, straightforward food influenced her cooking philosophy. “I am very simple and hands-off almost, about food,” she says. “I have a soft spot in my heart for gorgeous food, really fresh produce and well-raised animals. I just believe in letting the product do its thing, not messing with it too much. It’s pretty awesome as it is. I really enjoy the interesting flavors we have here at Buku; it’s keeping things simple, but with a twist.”
Haisley followed her parents and sister to Raleigh soon after her graduation from culinary school and started working at Buku as a sous chef in 2011. She was promoted to executive chef in the spring of 2014, and considers her early years at the restaurant an extension of her education.
“The owners, Tony [Hopkins] and Sean [Degnan] are great. I’ve become very close with them and been able to pick their brains and see the innards of how a business works,” she says. “I’m highly influenced by the people I work with. We’re a great team, and we all learn from each other.”
Buku bills itself as “global street food.” The menu, full of big flavors from other continents, pays upscale homage to humble food cart items from around the world: Vietnamese pho, duck larb and Korean barbecue bibimbap coexist with Argentinean short rib, Hawaiian tuna poke and roasted sweet potato pierogies.
“We wanted to examine all the unique little niches around the world, the kind of Anthony Bourdain-type stuff that people don’t usually get to try when they’re tourists,” she says. “Little by little we are pushing the limits [of] our food, and I’d like to keep seeing that progress…not just for this place, but with the whole city. It will be interesting to see how our food scene grows.”
Lately, she has been part of the team developing the concept and menu for Soca, Buku’s new Caribbean and Latin American-inspired sister restaurant, set to open January 17 in Cameron Village, but she will be staying at the helm of Buku downtown.
“It’s important to cook from your heart,” she says. “You’re trying to make somebody happy at the end of the day, making something they are really going to enjoy, maybe make them think of a memory. Maybe they’ll remember that they had a really wonderful dish while they were at Buku.”