By Caitlin Raux

What happens when a former Chanterelle sous chef takes up donut-making? For one thing, New Yorkers get a fresh supply of amazing-quality, artful (read: Insta-friendly) donuts. Add a healthy shake of scrappiness — an essential ingredient for anyone crazy enough to open a 116-square-foot artisanal donut shop inside a busy carwash on the West Side Highway — and you’ve got yourself a quintessential New York story. There’s even a line of yellow cabs in the background.

Underwest Donuts from ICE alum Scott Levine

With his hugely popular Underwest Donuts, Scott Levine (Culinary Arts, ‘04) has elevated the hole-y donut to new heights, and has managed to do so in a place where most fledging owners wouldn’t look twice. But in a space the size of most suburban closets, Scott saw an opportunity to reinvent a New York staple and ran with it. Suddenly, Westside Highway Car Wash had a new stream of customers, more interested in the “Car Wash” glazed donut (vanilla-lavender flavor) than an actual car wash. Riding on the success of their first location, Underwest Donuts opened a second outpost in a similarly transit-heavy area, just a few steps from Penn Station.

Recently we caught up with Scott to chat about his unlikely entry into the artisanal donut game and his definitive stance on a very heated topic — dunking.

Caitlin: Can you explain the success of Underwest Donuts?

ICE alum Scott Levine, of Underwest Donuts

photo courtesy of Underwest Donuts

Scott: I believe it started with having an interesting story. I don’t think that’s a prerequisite for success, but it just happened to be what I had in advance of opening Underwest — the fact that it’s in a unique location in a carwash. Especially at a time when leases and commercial kitchens are extraordinarily expensive, especially in Manhattan.

Part of it was luck, part of it was timing, but most of all, there was an interesting story and a good product to back up the whole thing, which was the clincher. The story would have faded if the product weren’t good.

And you have a fine dining background too, right?

Yes. I worked at Chanterelle (Ed. note: helmed by ICE Director of Culinary Affairs, David Waltuck), and that was my longest tenure in the finer dining restaurants. I also worked at Del Posto and Le Cirque for shorter amounts of time, before I ended up at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events, which used to be a catering company. That wasn’t fine dining per se, but it was a catering company started by the folks of Eleven Madison Park, so they had high standards. That was my culinary background – but none of it was in the pastry kitchen.

So why donuts?

Originally, I wasn’t considering donuts. I saw what Shake Shack had done to hamburgers, and I wanted to take the same approach to bagels. I liked how [Shake Shack] took something that was so commonplace and put it on a higher plane. Then the real estate issue came in. Not being independently wealthy, I needed some help on that front. My father-in-law, who’s a car wash owner and operator, had some space in his car wash on the West Side Highway, and I decided to open something in that 116-square-foot closet-like space. I thought, If I’m opening a food establishment here, what can I do with the space I have? The idea of coffee and donuts was born out of the fact that there’s a big morning business at the car wash, and I wanted to capitalize on that – coffee and donuts were a no brainer.

It’s kind of brilliant because you have the regular customers and then you have the crowd that just goes there for the donuts and, ya know, the Instagram.

Right. I learned quickly that my product doesn’t speak to the folks lining up to get their car washed in the morning like it does to folks who are coming just for the donuts. The price runs a little high for some people. I can understand them not wanting to spend that much money on a coffee and a donut.

How did you train yourself to become a donut expert?

I had no experience in donuts, so I bought a hand-held donut depositor. It looks like one of those contraptions at the diner that they make pancakes with. You press the button and out drops pancake batter, in a measured way.

I bought one and just started doing it in my apartment. My wife was pregnant at the time, so we say that our first child was nourished with donuts. I started training myself at home. Although I never worked in the pastry kitchen, I think ultimately it fits my personality better as far as just being more recipe-driven, and more exacting in a lot of ways. I felt comfortable operating in that world. I took three or four donut recipes from different sources, and then made them as the recipe called for them, then slowly I learned what certain amounts of certain ingredients did. It’s all about ratios.

I started tinkering and playing until I got my formula, and then once you start adding different ingredients, you have to tweak again. For example, if you add nut paste, you’re changing the fat content, so you have to compensate. If you add fruit purée, you’re adding water content, so you have to compensate. I went down these different avenues and adjusted until I got something that I could call my own. I think it took me six months to come up with recipes that worked well on my stovetop.

When I got a commercial donut fryer and started making donuts at Underwest, I learned very quickly that recipes that worked well on my stovetop did not work well in a commercial donut fryer. So I was opening a donut shop in a week and couldn’t make donuts.

Oh my gosh. That’s a curve ball.

It was a little shocking. But there was no turning back — you sink or swim. You figure it out. And here we are today.

Back to the donuts — besides being delicious, they’re also super Insta-friendly. Do you ever create things with an eye toward social media?

Our approach to donuts always puts an emphasis on presentation, so the Instagram-ability is a byproduct of that attention to detail. I would say that we consider in advance what works well from a photographing standpoint.

When we’re changing the menu, we think about the lineup and what colors are included. If we’re going to make a springtime donut, do we want to use certain colors? When you’re making donuts for a foodie event, you have an opportunity — there’s a good chance a lot of people will take photos so you want to bring something that looks good and that people can post. We want to continue to have that strength on social media.

It was a little shocking. But there was no turning back — you sink or swim. You figure it out. And here we are today.

What is the best donut you’ve eaten in recent memory?

The coconut lime donut that we have on our menu right now — it’s maybe my all-time favorite.

Yum.

I’m really excited about a new springtime donut that’s coming out soon, too. It’s going to be very honey-focused, with some floral notes like chamomile. It’s still a work in progress.

Coming down to the last question and it’s a tough one: what is your stance on dunking?

What’s my stance on Dunkin Donuts or dunking?

The verb of dunking the donuts.

The action of dunking donuts. Hmmm… I don’t think about my donuts as something that I would dunk, but a plain old-fashioned donut for sure. Dunking cookies in milk, donuts in coffee, I’m all for it. But with our donuts, I wouldn’t want that flavor attached to whatever donut I’m eating. But for a plainer donut, that would be great, sure.

All right. So pro-dunking in certain situations.

Yeah. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all model. Again, in the right situation, dunk it.

We can call it qualified dunking.

Exactly.

Ready to embark on a career in the culinary or pastry arts? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

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At ICE, we make it our mission to help students find their culinary voice — that creative drive within each of us that determines how we express ourselves through food. Whether it’s a career training program, a recreational course in pie crusts or a special event featuring handmade pasta, we’ll give you the tools to hone your culinary creativity. Join us as we ask some of today’s leading food industry pros to share their culinary voice.

“My culinary voice is my Korean style,” begins ICE alum and James Beard Award nominated chef Rachel Yang. The co-owner of four hit restaurants in Seattle and Portland — Joule, Revel, Trove and Revelry — offers diners a unique experience, combining the culinary traditions of her Korean roots with a sense of place — the Pacific Northwest. In this video, Chef Rachel explains how she tempers Korean cuisine to her guests’ palates, and the result is addictively delicious dishes like geoduck fried rice. Watch now as Chef Rachel Yang shares her culinary voice.

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By Danielle Page

It’s that time of year again. The prestigious James Beard Foundation has announced the 2018 finalists for restaurant awards — and not surprisingly, the short list is full of ICE alums.

Each year the James Beard Awards embodies a theme, with this year’s focus, “RISE,” celebrating the power of food through community. As per the James Beard Foundation, nominees who are “championing causes, committing to values, speaking up for those who can’t be heard or cooking their hearts out” are being recognized in 2018. Semifinalists were announced just last month, with final winners to be revealed on May 7th in Chicago.

ICE alum Chef Rachel Yang of Joule in Seattle

Rachel Yang, right (photo courtesy of StarChefs)

While it’s no surprise to see ICE graduates on the list of James Beard Award contenders, having an all-women roster of finalists from ICE is certainly noteworthy. “I don’t think any other culinary school in the world has the track record ICE does, serving as a training ground for bright and ambitious women who go on to become culinary leaders,” says ICE President Rick Smilow. It’s exciting to continue seeing so many ICE alumni gain recognition and success at the level where they are finalists — or winners — of James Beard Awards.”

Here are this year’s James Beard Award finalists who got their start at ICE. Congratulations to all!

In the restaurant and chefs category:

  • Missy Robbins (Culinary ’95) of Lilia (Best Chef: New York City)
  • Rachel Yang (Culinary ’01) of Joule (Best Chef: Northwest)
  • Mashama Bailey (Culinary ’01) of The Grey (Best Chef: Southeast)

Mashama Bailey, left (photo courtesy of The Grey)

Other ICE affiliated nominations include:

  • Kismet for Best New Restaurant, where Meadow Ramsey (Pastry ’02) is pastry chef.
  • Outstanding Chef for Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, where Ashley Merriman (Culinary ’04) is co-executive chef.
  • Best Chef: West, for Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon, which is co-owned by Zoe Nathan (Culinary ’01).

In the Cookbooks and Broadcast Media category:

  • Stacy Adimando (Culinary ’10) for “Nopalito” (International Cookbook)
  • Vivian Howard (Culinary ’03) for A Chef’s Life (Outstanding Personality/Host) and Panna Cooking: Black Bean-Glazed Salmon with Ginger Cabbage (Video Webcast, Fixed Location and/or Instructional).

Launch your culinary or hospitality career with ICE — learn more

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By Chef Simone Tong, Little Tong Noodle Shop

With less than 24 hours until the first day of spring, we’re hitting the market for our favorite spring vegetable: asparagus. Here, Chef Simone Tong (Culinary Arts, Culinary Management ’11), of the critically acclaimed Yunnan-inspired rice noodle restaurant, Little Tong Noodle Shop, shares a unique take on asparagus, incorporating some umami, a hit of spice, and pidan, aka century egg — a delicacy in Chinese cuisine that adds a layer of complexity and richness to any dish.

Grilled Asparagus from ICE alum Simone Tong

credit: Little Tong Noodle Shop

Grilled Asparagus with Pidan (Century Egg) Sauce

Ingredients:

1 pound asparagus
Olive oil
Maldon salt
Pepper
Lemon
1 fresh cayenne pepper, seeds removed and thinly sliced

For the Sauce:

2 tablespoons white miso
3 pidan (century eggs), peeled (Simone’s note: You can find these in Chinatown or Chinese supermarkets.)
1 cup chicken broth or vegetable broth
Pinch Maldon salt
¼ teaspoon xanthan gum (optional)

Preparation:

  • Coat asparagus with olive oil, salt and crushed black pepper, and grill over high heat, rotating often, until evenly charred. Remove to a plate while you prepare the sauce.
  • Purée all sauce ingredients in a Vitamix blender until smooth. Optional: Add 1/4 teaspoon of xanthan gum for a thicker consistency.
  • Pour sauce over grilled asparagus and finish with cayenne pepper slices and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Ready to study the Culinary Arts? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

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At ICE, we make it our mission to help students find their culinary voice — that creative drive within each of us that determines how we express ourselves through food. Whether it’s a career training program, a recreational course in pie crusts or a special event featuring handmade pasta, we’ll give you the tools to hone your culinary creativity. Join us as we ask some of today’s leading food industry pros to share their culinary voice.

The chef behind such creations as a whole, crispy Sasso chicken served on a bed of smoldering hay, ICE alum Greg Proechel (Culinary Arts, ’09) has a proclivity toward bold, flavor-forward dishes with the occasional touch of whimsy. Asked to describe his culinary voice, Greg says it comes down to balance — a simple balance between acid, fat, texture and salt, plus one more essential element. Watch the video and discover the final ingredient in Greg’s culinary voice.

Find your culinary voice with ICE — learn more about our career training programs.

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