Interview by Allison Beck, De Gustibus Blogger
What attracted you to ABC Kitchen?
I had run into Jean-Georges at the Greenmarket, and it was sort of an “ahh” moment – we both very much loved the fresh produce, and the sheer variety, available at the markets, and conversation of course naturally flowed to nature’s bounty that surrounded us. I was originally slated to open The Mark, and then this nebulous project that was to be in the ABC Kitchen space, but it was delayed. In the interim, I helped Jean-Georges open four other restaurants around the nation, and consulted on the menu for Pipa, the other restaurant at ABC Home. When the vision for ABC Kitchen was [finally] complete, I was eager to be on that team – and here we are, the concept has finally come to fruition!
What was it about the ABC Kitchen concept that drew you in most?
I’ve always been an avid “shopper” at the Greenmarket, choosing what was the best of the fresh, and certainly cooking as the seasons indicated. I loved how the ABC concept held the simple, local, organic philosophy as its core. Paulette Cole, who heads up ABC Home, had an integral role in creating the vision – and reality – of ABC Kitchen. The whole concept is green, very community-centric, while also utterly homey.
How did you balance Jean-Georges impeccable taste and cuisine with the rustic, down-to-earth nature of greenmarket focused dining?
Jean-Georges has always used greenmarket produce, but it is usually not listed right on the menu – that is not the primary focus of the diner when choosing a Jean-Georges experience. I wanted to take it to the next level, working to make sure that the food at the restaurant wasn’t just reflective of the season, as is at most restaurants that tap the Greenmarket in New York. Instead, the goal was to highlight the most incredible Greenmarket finds, and the farmers that grew that specific food. For example, corn. We love to use the Marais variety that Paffenroth Farms grows. Yes, the corn is amazing, but we also want to celebrate the talent of the farmers at Paffenroth. It’s really about supporting the greater food community.
ABC Kitchen’s focus is simple, local, and organic. What does that mean to me when I dine there?
Our food is simply prepared – it’s about the food (with an added kick), not necessarily the lovely flourishes and molecular gastronomic touches. And certainly, everything we make is easily replicable by the home cook. We seek to use primarily locally sourced food: produce, meats, cheeses, etc. However, there often is a supply and demand challenge with small, local producers (more below). In that case, we will choose organic foods of the highest quality. Or, in the case of Parmigiano, sometimes there is no comparison to the real authentic stuff from Italy. Overall, though, 90% of the food served at ABC Kitchen is locally sourced.
As a restaurant that served 90% locally sourced food, how often do you go to the Greenmarket?
Quite often!! The Union Square Greenmarket, lucky for us, is a short walk away. It is held Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, we wheel our large, double-decker cart down once a day to load up on foodstuffs. On Fridays and Saturdays? It’s a sight to see! We make three trips (with that same cart!) each day. It’s a lot – but it is also re
Now, going local in the dead of winter is a challenge. How are you going to overcome that?
We shall see – this will be our first over-wintering season. Lots of root vegetables, cured meats, cellar-friendly foods (think apples, too). The local/organic vs. not challenge is one we constantly deal with. There are many small producers of the most delightful products in the area, but when you need to serve hundreds and hundreds of people in a given week, our demand ends up being much higher than their capacity. As much as we would love to feature small local producers, we need to serve our customer’s desires, and consistently. Thus, we often have to turn to larger, but stringently organic, producers who can meet our needs (albeit at a greater distance from NYC).
When you a restaurant focusing on greenmarket-dictated cuisine, your menu is apt to change often. How does Jean-Georges approve every change? Is he in the kitchen often?
Yes, our menu is greenmarket-dictated, so it does indeed change from one day to the next. Lucky for me, though, I have earned Jean-Georges’ trust and he is confident in the day-to-day changes. Of course, when he does come in, any big changes we’re contemplating are prepared for him to sample. But, mostly I have the freedom to make whatever changes I see as needed.
How local has ABC Kitchen gone?
Well, we have a little experimental garden on our roof. This is our first season open, so we of course started with lofty goals of growing chives, various herbs, and some experimental (new varieties that we may want to have sourced for us in larger scale next year) herbs, spices, and produce. Of course, to maintain a garden, it’s a full-time job, and we don’t have a full-time gardener!! It was more of a test playground for us, and given it was our first season open, and it has been non-stop crazy busy, the garden was neglected a bit…but we did have some successes, some our experimental crops that we will have some of our farmer friends grow much more extensively for us next year.
Now, a little more about you. Where did you grow up? Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
I grew up in New York City, but certainly didn’t know I wanted to be a chef. I was thinking primarily about being an architect, or going into physical therapy. I ended up majoring in nutrition in college at Syracuse, and had a little bit of exposure into the world of food service and hospitality through those classes. In 1995, I met and interned with Danny Meyer at Union Square Cafe while in school, gaining formal experience in the front of the house, but also hung out with the guys back in the kitchen, and certainly took in all that I saw back there. Ironically, when I changed my major into a more food-centered focus, I went from a D-student to an A-student. I guess my passion for food and hospitality certainly helped my academic efforts!
How big is the kitchen at ABC?
On a given day, we have about 30-35 people in the kitchen.
you have a favorite item on the menu?
All of them? I can’t really decide.
On your days off, do you cook at home or go out?
Usually I am too tired to cook on my days off, so my wife and I order takeout. But, sometimes, I’ll cook. I love to make pizzas (my neighbors might not – we have a temperamental and sensitive smoke alarm!). I’ll also try out new dishes and play with new ingredients, looking for inspiration I can take back to the restaurant.