This summer Dan Kluger, chef at ABC Kitchen (this year's James Beard Foundation Award winner for Best New Restaurant), accompanied several food writers on a road trip to New York's Hudson Valley to tour some of the farms (and one distillery!) that supply Manhattan's hottest restaurants, including his own. I was lucky enough to join—and it was not just a great day, but a rare peek into what really goes into creating the local ingredients your waiter rattles off when he tells you the day's specials.
"We buy a lot from Paffenroth Gardens and Windfall Farms and we get pretty much all of our goat cheeses from Lynnhaven," says Kluger about three of the stops on the trip, which was sponsored by James Beard Foundation partner Mercedes-Benz. "On this tour I wanted to hit places that were interesting and different and you could see their stories and how passionate they are about their product."
And that was what was really struck me during the trip: the immense pride that everyone had for whatever they specialized in—and how important it is for diners to support these family-run ventures. At Paffenroth, owner and farmer Alex Paffenroth showed us his gorgeous produce—beets, carrots, onions and leeks—and how the quality of the black soil on his property is key to producing vegetables with the best flavor. At Windfall Farms, the biggest attraction—aside from the friendly piggies—was a huge greenhouse containing dozens of varieties of delicious-looking microgreens. Tuthilltown Spirits—which makes cult favorite Hudson Baby Bourbon—uses grain harvested from farmers less than 10 miles away. Tantillos Farms is known for their apples, sour cherries, and on this particular day was bursting with fresh, sweet peaches. And Lynnhaven Dairy Goats boasted not only prize-winning goats, but incredibly creamy, flavorful goat cheeses.
Which all makes for amazing, locally raised product that New York City restaurants can serve with pride. And good thing too: though most of the farms sell to the public at the Union Square Greenmarket, they say the bulk of their business comes from city eateries. "The philosophy of ABC Kitchen is really about local, seasonal and organic food," says Kluger. "And we use organic loosely in the sense that it represents the interest of the people who care as much about the product and the land as well."
How important is it for your food to be locally sourced? Does it affect your vendor choices as a restaurateur? Does it affect your restaurant choices as a diner?
Brandon Gillis and Josh Sharkey definitely have high-end chef cred: Gillis graduated from the French Culinary Institute and has worked at New York City's Tabla and Franny's; Sharkey graduated from Johnson and Wales University and has worked at New York City's Oceana, Jean Georges, Tabla, Bouley, and Café Gray. But in 2009 they opened Bark Hot Dogs in Brooklyn, a casual restaurant that features burgers, sandwiches, and of course, hot dogs. But the ingredients are locally sourced, the condiments are homemade and they even have a Bark Ale among the beer options. Gillis and Sharkey tell us how they've used their classical training to elevate fast food.
Why did you decide to open Bark?
Brandon Gillis: Josh and I worked really well together and started a small catering company on the side while at Tabla. We realized there was a huge gap in the quality of food between fine dining and casual and saw an opportunity there.
Josh Sharkey: Fast food in America has a stigma—that it must be cheaply made, mass produced, and with little indication of its origin. With that comes little focus on quality. We wanted to change that.
Do you think restaurants in general are getting more casual?
JS: Yes, for better and for worse. There certainly are a lot more casual restaurants than ever before. I think the economy has a lot to do with it at first. But ultimately I think the consumer is much more educated and knowledgeable about food than ever before. If you're going to charge $30 for a roasted piece of lamb, it needs to taste amazing, be perfectly cooked and seasoned and come from a reputable source. The upside is that we are now eating better food, at more sustainably driven restaurants, and supporting local farmers and artisans.
BG: The downside is the misconception from some restaurateurs that because they are running a more casual concept, some of the standards of high-end cuisine do not relate—and this is where things go wrong. Just because a restaurant is casual, it doesn’t mean that it should not still have quality, attentive service, high cleanliness standards and focus. I hope that with the influx of casual restaurants from experienced and seasoned industry workers this becomes less and less of an issue.
What techniques do you use from your previous training? What do you do that's different from your non-classically-trained competitors?
BG: We have a very traditional brown stock in our gravy, a gastrique for our Angus Chili, béchamel base for our Smoked Cheddar Sauce, and incorporate our sausage-making training. Even a classic custard technique has influenced how we prepare our slow-cooked egg on our breakfast sandwich.
JS: On the flip side a lot of our recipes were tested for months to get them perfect, such as our pepper relish and cucumber "green" relish. Having a background in classical techniques has allowed us to approach food in this fast food setting very differently. Efficiency used to come from mass-produced and pre-made products to speed up production, but we utilize the skills we had in professional kitchens to create an efficient production system. A big part of what we do is sourcing the right seasonal ingredients from the right people and that’s one of the main things that sets us apart.
What's next for you guys?
BG: Our goal from the beginning has always been to open more of this concept. It is an economy of scale inside and out. Not only in terms of purchasing and infrastructure, but also hopefully on its impact on the community. If we can influence just a small part of how people view fast food and how their children view fast food then I think we will have accomplished our goal.
Long before the first customer walks into a restaurant, the most important meal of the day, arguably, has already been prepared: The Family Meal. It's the meal that restaurant staffers eat together before service starts, and it needs to sustain them through the next eight or so hours. Often used as a way to repurpose overstock and leftovers, it's also an opportunity for cooks to experiment with new ingredients, prepare different cuisines than what the restaurant is known for, or just make what they happen to be craving that day.
Needless to say, the quality varies. "I believe in taking care of employees and keeping them happy," says Kevin Chun, executive chef at Macao Trading Company in New York City. Recent staff meals at Macao featured seafood fried rice, artichokes and linguini and chicken enchiladas. "But I've been in many kitchens where family meal consisted of scraps, unedibles or product on the verge of spoilage. I wouldn’t serve those items to any of my family, so why would I serve it to my staff who I spend more time with than my family?"
Luckily, most of the chefs I interviewed have had positive family meal experiences. Here are the best meals…and some that are better off forgotten.
Anthony Meidenbauer, executive chef, Holsteins Shakes and Buns at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas
The staff tends to love stewed items, like braised short ribs and pork belly. My favorite is when we turn the short rib into a rich tomato ragout over fresh pici pasta. Korean braised pork belly with kimchi fried rice is also a huge winner. Fajitas are the least favorite because they’re served too often.
Manuel Trevino, executive chef, Marble Lane at Dream Downtown, New York City
We have a twelve-day rotating staff meal schedule, including a day for tacos, burgers, sandwiches and a focaccia-like pizza made by the pastry chef. There is no day for pig ears yet. A favorite is burger day when the real treat is the curly fries.
Beth Castollio, pastry chef, Blaue Gans, New York City
We typically start with something like a Bibb lettuce salad with beets, apples, and pumpkin seed oil. We almost always have a pasta dish, like bow-tie pasta with peppers, carrots, and celery in a tomato cream sauce. Then a meat—chicken wings are a favorite. Dessert is cookies or leftovers from the day before. Schnitzel and spaetzle are also a favorite, as are cheeseburgers. One time one of our line cooks took whole potatoes and wrapped them in schniztel and baked them. The potatoes looked interesting—but they weren’t actually cooked.
Jake Klein, executive chef, Morrell Wine Bar, New York City
The three most popular dishes are paella, a Latin-style meatloaf studded with whole hard-boiled eggs and chunks of provolone, and fried chicken. One of our cooks can always be counted on for a great Mexican meal—his grandmother makes a killer mole poblano from scratch and sends it in a care package. One of our bartenders brought in her mom's kimchi, that was awesome. We've also had a couple of mishaps: chicken so spicy that even the bravest, most heat-proof palates on staff couldn’t eat it. Risotto was also noteworthy—texturally, think Elmer's glue.
L.A. Thompson, venue manager, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, New York City
Before service the staff gets a hearty meal of rice, mixed salad and roasted or grilled chicken or Cajun grilled salmon. Other days fried chicken, crispy French fries, and green salad are on the menu. The roast chicken is a favorite because it's not as heavy as the fried chicken. The best meal was the other day: lobster, rice, mixed salad, and roasted fingerling potatoes. The least favorite is frozen vegetable lasagna from the grocery store. Hey, some days it's got to be like that because there's too much going on.
Forget Paula Deen’s Lady’s Brunch Burger, KFC's Double Down, and the fact that New York's Governors Island was renamed Pig Island last weekend: There is a new wave of diners who are heading in a more restrained direction food-wise, whether that means being more mindful of their food's origins or going all-out gluten-free or vegan.
"In general, a lot more people care about where their food comes from," says Dan Kluger, chef at the James Beard Award-winning (and perpetually packed) ABC Kitchen in New York City. "For us, organic is more of a sustainable, green sort of culture whether it is good animal husbandry with the raising of the meats we use or sustainable agriculture and aquaculture. But there’s definitely more knowledge and interest among diners."
So how can restaurateurs tap this market, if they haven’t already? Terry Walters, nutrition expert and author of Clean Start, weighs in on the trend.
Have you noticed an uptick in interest in eating clean?
I've noticed a huge increase. Many factors have lead to the increased interest in eating clean, from difficult economic times, to increased illness among all ages, greater awareness of food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies, environmental changes and much more. Greater demand for locally grown produce has lead to greater support of our local farmers, more accessibility to locally grown produce and a greater connection between farms, farmers and the greater community.
How should restaurateurs to pay attention to this trend?
If a restaurant wants to make itself accessible to people following a vegan or gluten-free diet, then I think that’s fabulous. But if it’s simply not what they’re about, then that’s okay too. For instance, there will always be a demand for steak houses, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find many vegans dining there, and if the do they shouldn’t be surprised to find limited options.
Any other advice?
I get tired of the only vegan option on a menu being a stack of grilled or roasted vegetables. But just because I like to eat vegan and gluten-free, doesn't mean that everyone I dine with prefers that as well. I like a restaurant that's connected with local producers, whose menu changes with the changing season and according to availability, and who has something to offer to everyone. I'm not a fan of labels that perpetuate judgments about diet and nutrition, and find that they turn away more than they serve.
In chef Gabrielle Hamilton's best-selling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, she tells of running into a colleague on the street, where he introduced her to his mother as "one of the best female chefs in New York City." Hamilton, owner of beloved East Village restaurant Prune and newly minted James Beard Award winner, then cracked, "Now, if we could just get that word 'female' out of the sentence."
Yes, women chefs are still definitely a minority, even though the likes of Hamilton, Nancy Silverton (Los Angeles's Osteria Mozza), Stephanie Izard (Chicago's Girl & the Goat)—and of course the old-school game changers Alice Waters and Lydia Bastianich before them—run wildly popular, critically praised establishments. So how do female chefs not only deal, but thrive in a notoriously macho industry? Here are some tips:
Learn how to navigate office politics. "I tried to align myself with people who could help me and avoid working with people who could hold me back," says Amy Eubanks, executive chef of BLT Fish in NYC. "You need to be very good at what you do and don't give anyone any reason to question or doubt you. They may not want you there, but if you show up early every day, work harder than anyone else, keep your head down and your mouth shut—there isn't a negative word anyone can say about that. And when you're finally in charge, start changing the system from the inside."
Acknowledge that there will be prejudices—and then move on. "I always experience discrimination because I am a woman in BBQ," says Lee Ann Whippen, chef and partner at Chicago's Chicago q restaurant. "The only way I've been able to overcome it is by being strong, successful and winning contests." Whippen has won a slew of barbecue competitions, was the only woman featured in the TLC series BBQ Pitmasters, and beat out Bobby Flay in a pulled pork Throwdown. "It has been a rough road but with tenacity and being goal-driven, I have received a lot of respect from my peers."
Use PR wisely. "I take the fact that I'm in the minority and capitalize on it," says Whippen. "When promoting my restaurants or competition teams I emphasize that I'm a woman in my public relations content. Sometimes being the underdog drives customers or fans to be on your side and help you succeed."
Don't play into stereotypes. "Never lose sight of the fact that most of the world considers cooking women's work—just because it's professional doesn't make it men's work," says Eubanks. "Try to surprise people with your work ethic and positive attitude, don't sleep around at work, and above all else, become friends with the dishwashers."
It wasn't too long ago that traditional riojas and sherries were the only wines associated with Spain. And while the crazy popularity of Spanish cuisine has definitely bolstered appreciation for the country's wines in America, Katrin Naelapaa, executive director of Wines From Spain, makes it her business to ensure Spanish grapes get just as much love as their Italian and French counterparts. Naelapaa, who's been with the company since 1992, tells us how she helped build the once-fledgling industry into a $2 billion export business.
How has the perception of Spanish wines changed over the years?
It's night and day compared to what it was in the early 1990s. There were only a handful of wineries actively selling their wine in the United States then. Packaging design was generally poor and the overall quality and variety was nowhere close to where it is today.
What do you think needed to be done?
I felt strongly that Spain needed to elevate its image and align itself with the changing culinary landscape in major U.S. cities. Thankfully, at this time many tremendously positive changes were happening in the Spanish wine industry, so it became increasingly possible to capture the attention of the wine critics, sommeliers and the wine trade.
You work in a very male-dominated industry. What have you learned about making yourself stand out and succeed?
Over the course of my tenure with Wines From Spain, women have gained so much ground in the industry that I no longer think of it as a male-dominated industry. On the winemaking side in Spain, more women are enrolled in winemaking career programs today than men, and in certain regions such as Rias Baixas, there are more female winemakers than male. On the marketing side, many women are in the top positions of their companies as well. Certainly the same could be said about the wine industry in this country.
What advice would you give to winemakers in lesser-known markets today?
The U.S. wine consumer is generally curious, restless and always looking for something new. High quality wines combined with clear packaging design, a flavor profile that is approachable, and a compelling story (which so many wineries have), can go a long way in helping sell wine.
What do you think the "hot" new Spanish wine will be?
Americans are becoming familiar with the indigenous Spanish grape varietals—Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albariño and Verdejo—and the names of the top regions such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rias Baixas. Seemingly every year, there is a new "hot" region or grape that critics and wine lovers embrace, like Priorat, Bierzo or Txakoli. Now, I think there is a lot of interest in individual parcels of land—wines produced from a single lot or vineyard that communicate the high quality and sense of place that Spanish wines offer.
It may seem like I've been harping on service lately, since my last post was about tipping inattentive waitstaff. But a recent incident between a powerful restaurant critic and a hot restaurant is just too interesting to ignore. (And, hey, it is called the service industry.) In the latest issue of GQ, critic Alan Richman wrote a piece about his experience with M.Wells, a perpetually packed critical darling (Bon Appetit just named it one of the Best New Restaurants in America) in Queens, New York.
After twice eating at the quirky establishment—which features unapologetically rich, super-tasty French-Canadian inflected fare served in a diner setting—Richman was charmed by the delicious food, if not the lackadaisical service. So he asked Sarah Obraitis, who owns the restaurant with husband and chef Hugue Dufour, if he could do a story about the restaurant. She agreed and a third visit was set.
During that visit Richman and his guests received extremely poor service—a 45 minute wait between courses, a huffy, eye-rolling server, dirty dishes and glassware. The next day he got an e-mail from Obraitis: "I am a bit distressed by the feedback I received after your visit last night. Either you had despicable service or you guys were in an awful mood. It seems we couldn’t make you happy, several servers heard you complain and ask for more attention. One of those servers, a female, received a hardy pat on the ass from you. Totally unacceptable in our world."
Richman vehemently denies the accusation and speculates that either the server fabricated the story to deflect attention from her behavior that night or Obraitis made it up to intimidate the critic so he wouldn’t write an unflattering review. Personally, I find it hard to believe that if Richman did sexually harass the waitress, he would call attention to it by writing about it in a national magazine. I do, however, find it much easier to believe that a hot restaurant sometimes has little reason to improve bad service when there are scores of people clamoring to get in.
Richman calls it the "hipster restaurant mentality"—and I am as tired of it as he is. For all the popular restaurants that have excellent service, there seem to be a few who act like they’re doing you a favor by allowing you into their temples of gastronomy—and equate indifferent service with being cool.
How do you feel about the M. Wells incident? Do you think Richman's reaction was justified?
Your food sucked, your server's attitude hovered somewhere between dismissive and hostile, and if there was an award for longest time elapsed between courses (delivered by the cockroach you saw skitter across the eatery's bathroom wall) this restaurant would win. Hopefully the grand trifecta of dining disasters does not happen to you. And if so, my condolences, and hopefully a trip to a nice Danny Meyer establishment to make it up is in order.
But what if one of the three happens? A more likely occurrence—and one you'd probably consider lowering your usual tip for when the check finally arrives. But do you? While some diners would have no problem leaving little or no tip when bad service is rendered, there are others who know that many restaurant workers rely on tips to make the rent (minimum wage for food service workers in New York is $5/hour; in other states it's close to $3). I almost always, as L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold advises, tip 20 percent, doing the New Yorker shorthand of doubling the 8.5 percent tax amount and adding a bit on top of that because, as my loved ones know, the less math I'm required to do the better.
But at dinner at a sushi spot in Fort Lauderdale, I had a waitress who was flippant to begin with: When asked to return a piece of sea urchin that was clearly not fresh, she said, "Well, some people aren't used to eating sea urchin." That may be true, but I live for sea urchin. If I were on death row, it would be somewhere in my last meal. I've had it in many forms, from the uni and lardo crostini at New York City's Marea, to my favorite, unadorned and impeccably fresh at Azuma in Sydney. To imply that I'm unfamiliar with it isn't only untrue, it's dangerous—especially if I had consumed seafood that was off.
She then became rude when I politely asked that the uni be removed from the check, claiming that any items taken off the bill were docked from her salary. When the check appeared I called the manager, who not only said that the item wouldn't be taken out of the waitress' salary, but promptly removed it from the bill. I left a 10 percent tip, but was upset by the experience.
What would you have done? How much do you usually tip—and what makes you tip substantially lower (or higher) than that number?
- What Farm-to-Table Really Means
- From Haute to Hot (Dogs)
- Feeding the Staff
- Courting a Certain Kind of Diner
- Female Chefs Dish it Out
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