Interview by Allison Beck, De Gustibus Blogger
What brought you, Ben, to Oceana?
I had been the Executive Sous Chef at Union Square Café in 2003, and moved over to Tabla in 2004, and was looking for the next challenge for myself. I wanted to work at an established restaurant, a place where I could break out and hit the ground running, leading a 3 star restaurant to even higher heights. At the time, I had been cooking for 16 years, and wanted to put that experience to work in a place of my own.
How has Oceana changed since your arrival?
I’ve brought international flavors and style to this seafood restaurant, putting my Italian, Indian, and Mediterranean culinary experience to work to create a hybrid influence all my own.
How large is the team in the Oceana kitchen?
We have 16 guys, some of whom are there early in the morning, breaking down the fish and seafood that arrives fresh on a daily basis, and prepping other ingredients. I was very lucky, in that, when we moved Oceana to its new location in the McGraw-Hill building, Jansen and I were given the once in a lifetime opportunity to design, with a kitchen designer, our “dream” kitchens. For example, we have a dedicated bread station, where all breads used in the restaurant are baked fresh daily.
In your past restaurant positions in Monte Carlo, with Danny Meyer and his restaurants, and at Lespinasse, what experience has had the most profound impact on you?
During the five and a half years at Tabla, under Floyd Cardoz, was definitely one of the most life changing and learning experiences. At the time, most of my experience was formal, classic, contemporary French regional cuisine. Floyd helped open my eyes new techniques, flavors, and spices, infusing my traditional background with ethnic flavors. I learned a lot about precision under Christian DeLouvrier
Why did you choose to work in a very seafood-focused restaurant?
When I was chef de cuisine at Tabla, I fell in love with Poissonier (the fish station). Oceana’s concept was a perfect fit for me.
How did you get started in the culinary world?
Not as a kid!! When I was younger, I considered every profession, from stockbroker to lawyer. I was an economics major at Boston University, and took a side job as a cook in my dorm. This wasn’t just any old dorm food, but really truly excellent meals, definitely one of the better sources of food on campus. And the rest? It’s history…
Do you have a favorite item on the menu at Oceana?
For sure. It’s one of the oldest, too. A dish that I first created when I joined the Oceana team. It’s simple: a taro (a root vegetable) wrapped filet of pompano, served with a delightful coconut-cilantro sauce.
You have a wife and three kids at home? Do you cook with them?
Even with me working late evenings most nights, our family sits down for a home-cooked meal at least once a week. One of my kids’ favorite meals is simply roasted fish. They love it. And we sometimes go out, kids’ choice. They absolutely love the burgers at Burger Deluxe and will request to go there!
What is one must-have utensil in the kitchen for seafood?
A flat spatula – not one of the “fish” spatulas with that has long holes, but a solid one. Perfect for flipping filets, steaks, scallops, and more.
What kind of pan do you prefer for searing off fish filets?
Many use nonstick, but at high heat levels, nonstick isn’t good for your health. I like to use either seasoned cast-iron or black steel pans. Even stainless steel pans work. We use black steel pans in the kitchen at Oceana.
With the horrible disaster in the Gulf after the oil spill, how has that influenced your purchasing?
We are still purchasing clean shrimp from our trusted purveyors who source their products from approved clean areas. However, we are continually monitoring the impact to ensure we are only serving clean product.”.