By Danielle Page

It’s no new news that New York City is known for its incredible eats. Manhattan’s restaurant scene is a constantly evolving mix of avant garde concept restaurants, storied and respected, high-caliber eateries and hidden, hole-in-the-wall gems. And while each borough offers up something unique, every few years or so a new section of the city experiences a fresh wave of restaurants, bringing a resurgence of inventive new fare to the area.

New York City’s latest restaurant hotspot? The East Village. No longer are the village’s best eats limited to the quick, cheap grub on St. Mark’s Place. With restaurants opening by seasoned and up-and-coming chefs alike, getting a reservation in the East Village is quickly becoming a challenge.

Not surprisingly, many chefs and owners behind the latest and greatest East Village openings got their start at ICE. Here are just a few ICE graduates who are at the helm of these noteworthy eateries in the neighborhood.

Simone Tong

Simone Tong, chef and owner of Little Tong Noodle Shop
Culinary Arts, Restaurant & Culinary Management ’11

Little Tong Noodle Shop, Simone Tong’s first restaurant, opened in the East Village this March. “After traveling to source international inspiration from countries like Moscow, Copenhagen, Brussels, Shanghai and Taipei, it really hit me that Chinese culinary stories and cuisines still remain largely underrepresented in the western world,” she says. Tong embarked on a three-month long culinary research trip through the Yunnan Province, which is the cuisine Tong’s restaurant is devoted to — specifically Mixian, a type of rice noodle.

“I spend my days mostly in the kitchen and dining room – preparing dishes, coming up with new dishes, getting to know our customers and interacting with them,” says Tong. “I am always thinking about ways to offer special new dishes and make seasonal updates to each of the Mixian noodle bowls, which pay homage to the beautiful Chinese province of Yunnan.”

Why the East Village for her first venture? “The East Village is a fun, vibrant neighborhood with an inimitable energy and bustling restaurant scene,” says Tong. “There is a younger demographic here full of students, artists, musicians, young professionals, young families and foodies – which Little Tong Noodle Shop really resonates with. Like Little Tong Noodle Shop, the East Village has a humbleness and authenticity to it that we appreciate.”

As for her advice to ICE grads looking to open up shop in the East Village, Tong says to seize the opportunity this neighborhood has to offer. “ICE grads considering locations in the East Village shouldn’t be afraid to look outside of their day-to-day cuisines and at dishes that aren’t often seen in the city and find ways to approachably introduce them to a willing East Village audience,” she says.

Catherine Manning, owner of Villanelle
Restaurant & Culinary Management ’15

Manning opened her artisanal New American restaurant, Villanelle, in the East Village this past March – which had many advantages for this ICE alum. “First, it was important to me that my restaurant be near my home so I could always be available on short notice,” she says. “East 12th Street is situated in a busy commercial, educational and residential corridor with plenty of foot traffic, which was very appealing. We are a vegetable-forward establishment using local and ethically sourced ingredients, so having the Union Square Greenmarket in our backyard has been a fantastic resource for us as well. The multiple subway lines coming into Union Square make it very convenient for our guests and staff to reach us.”

Manning oversees all operations of the restaurant. “The beauty of this business is that there are infinite opportunities to innovate and create and push the envelope with the reward being smiling guests who return regularly,” she says. “It’s very gratifying to work with the team we have who share this same goal. We live and work for those smiles.”

While you’d think that having many businesses competing in one space wouldn’t be the recipe for supportive neighbors, Manning says the East Village has been very welcoming. “It’s a very nice community to work in,” she says. “We know our neighbors by name and we help each other out. I think there are unique opportunities to grow and learn and participate in building something that comes with the types of establishments, like ours, that proliferate here.”

Guy Vaknin

photo courtesy of Beyond Sushi

Guy Vaknin, executive chef and owner at Beyond Sushi
Culinary Arts ’07

Being a resident of the East Village prior to opening his restaurant made this location an obvious choice for Guy Vaknin. “I lived in the area for seven years prior to opening and was always drawn to the neighborhood and its community,” he says. “I opened the first location of Beyond Sushi five years ago on East 14th street.”

Vaknin’s day-to-day duties include creating menus, running the operations of the company, overseeing food quality and managing the chefs. “Our specialty is vegan sushi,” he says. “It’s also a fast-casual concept that focuses on clean eating, using fruits and vegetables as star ingredients.”

Why does Vaknin think the East Village has become the new restaurant hotspot? “The East Village is a dynamic place to be,” he says, “[with] diverse residents, and it’s always changing.”

 

Chef Miguel Trinidad

Miguel Trinidad, executive chef and owner at Maharlika Filipino Moderno and Jeepney Filipino Gastro Pub
Culinary Arts ’07

Miguel Trinidad grew up in the East Village, which he says made it a logical location to open his restaurant. “I opened the restaurant with my partners eight years ago,” he says. “The East Village has always been a mixture of great food. It is the perfect place to showcase a new cuisine.” While there are plenty of diverse restaurant offerings in the area, Trinidad says the fact that there aren’t many Filipino options in the East Village also gave this location appeal.

Trinidad’s daily duties include everything from menu development to kitchen management and administrative tasks. One piece of advice he has for ICE alums interested in opening up shop here? Get used to tight quarters. “Make sure your skills are honed as you will be working in small kitchens,” he says. Despite the minimal work space, there is still plenty of room for opportunity in this lively NYC neighborhood.

Ready to carve out your space in today’s vibrant culinary scene? Learn more about ICE’s culinary and hospitality career programs.

By Chef-Instructors Ted Siegel and Cheryl Siegel

One of the most beautiful cities in North America is Quebec City, which sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Canada’s Quebec province. The city’s historic district was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. Of all the cities in North America, Quebec City is as French as a city can be without actually being in France.

Laurie_Raphael_lunch

Lunch at Laurie Raphaël (poached halibut with summer beans, sauce choron and tempura of garlic scapes)

During a recent trip to Quebec City, we experienced firsthand a new trend that’s sweeping the food culture in Quebec: using indigenous ingredients, similar to those found in the Nordic climate. We noticed an emphasis on foraged ingredients, such as sea buckthorn, salicornia, cattail, fir, Nordic berries, wild mushrooms, wild fish and shellfish, with a focus on foods with high levels of monounsaturated, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.

The chefs who are the major proponents of the new Nordic Quebecois cuisine are Daniel Vézina of restaurant Laurie Raphaël (Quebec City and Montreal) and Jean-Luc Boulay of restaurants Chez Boulay and Saint-Amour.

Laurie Raphael

Lunch at Laurie Raphaël

We have enjoyed meals at Laurie Raphaël in Quebec City several times, for both lunch and dinner. The menus change frequently based on what is available, daily and seasonally, in the local markets. The most memorable dishes we tried at Laurie Raphaël were smoked red deer gravlax with foie gras, oyster and sea urchin with black truffle and Champagne sabayon, mackerel quenelles with a velouté of kombu, delicately poached halibut with summer beans, sauce choron and a tempura of garlic scapes.

On Thursday and Fridays, Laurie Raphaël is open for lunch, and offers a five-course tasting menu for $50.00 (CAD) — an amazing value any day of the week.

Lunch at Chez Boulay

Though Jean-Luc Boulay is almost unheard of in the United States, he too is considered one of the godfathers of this current school of cooking. We’ve had the pleasure of dining at Saint-Amour, which is best described as a special occasion restaurant, with a romantic old-world ambiance. Last winter, we indulged in the decadent eight-course “Discovery” tasting menu. One of our many favorites was an unusual soup — butternut squash and curcuma velouté, garnished with a confit of smoked wild hare, fried shallots and an espuma or foam of hazelnuts. Another favorite dish was the seared magret of moularde duck with a sweet potato and foie gras purée and sea buckthorn sauce.

Chez Boulay, the sister restaurant of Saint-Amour, has more of a casual, brasserie-like feel, with a menu that reflects the lush and hearty influences of French-Canadian homestyle cuisine, and impressive portions interpreted with a modern sensibility. There is a prix fixe lunch menu of three courses in which the entree price determines the overall price. At Chez Boulay, two people can dine well, including drinks and dessert, for less than $100.00 (CAD). The dinner menu is more extensive and has á la carte pricing.

Dessert at Chez Boulay

At Chez Boulay, there are a number of different starters or “tasting plates,” including a selection of house-made charcuterie (which we ordered), a tasting of French Canadian cheeses, or a plate of prepared fish and shellfish. During our most recent dinner, we also indulged in the cured pork belly and clam salad, snow crab from the Gaspé Peninsula served with an apple-kholrabi mille feuille and milk sauce infused with bacon and hemp oil, and a tasting of two versions of boudin noir — one presented as a thick “pave” prepared in the classic manner and the other filled with cabbage and leeks, the recipes having been in the Boulay family for multiple generations.

The desserts at Chez Boulay have been some of the best that we have sampled in any of our travels: the frozen parfait with cloudberry confit, sunflower seed nougatine and honey from the chef’s bee hives; and the iconic sea buckthorn meringue pie with a crème anglaise flavored with pine forest spikenard (spikenard is the flower from the nardos plant which is a member of the Valerian family).

Restaurant Toast (Boudin noir with fondue of shallots, apples, baby
arugula and aged cheddar galette)

Creative Petits Four at Europea

It is always hard to choose which of all the restaurants is our favorite. It’s like asking us to choose which of our children is our favorite — an impossibly difficult task. However, we have a deep affection for Restaurant Toast in the Hotel Le Priori, located in the lower section of Vieux Quebec. The chef-owner Christian Lemelin is producing his own version of modern Quebecois cuisine with an international influence. We have thoroughly enjoyed two dinners at Toast, one last winter and more recently this summer. The small dining room features a fireplace, and in the summer we dined on the beautifully landscaped outdoor patio. Of the preparations not to be missed are the foie gras torchon with a “jambonette of duck” sherry vinegar, brioche with camerise ketchup (camerise is a Nordic berry similar in taste to a wild blueberry); seared foie gras on a crisp pork belly confit with nutmeg flowers, roasted squash, maple cranberries and poultry jus; Jerusalem artichoke vichyssoise with house smoked scallops, poached wild shrimp and sunflower seeds; surf and turf of lobster and sweetbread served with a mushroom risotto and Béarnaise sauce; seared halibut with a celery root brandade and lovage velouté. We savored two perfectly executed desserts: a vacherin of seasonal local berries, wild honey, lemon sorbet and cream, as well as a frozen vanilla parfait with a compote of sour cherries, mascarpone, orange and bitter chocolate.

Other essential restaurants are Échaudé and Le Quai 19 (more popularly known as Chez Rieux et Pettigrew), both of which are ideal locations for lunch.

An Elaborate Salad from Le Quai 19

Another food destination worth the visit is the Marché du Vieux-Port, a popular marketplace in the Old Port of Quebec City. Here you can sample the best of local produce, cheeses, meats, seafood and prepared foods, as well as ciders and wines from small, local artisanal producers.

While in Canada, we also spent four days in Montreal, a city we love for its restaurants and food culture. On any trip to Montreal, one would be well served to pay visits to restaurants Toqué! and Europea, owned and operated by Normand Laprise and Jérôme Ferrer, respectively. These chefs radically altered the face of Quebecois cuisine and transformed it into the many modern derivatives that are being practiced throughout the province. Though there is too much rich food culture in Montreal to cover in this post, you can read more about our gourmet adventures in Montreal here.

Want to study the culinary arts with Chef Ted? Click here to learn more about ICE’s career programs.

 

By Caitlin Raux

Miguel Trinidad didn’t plan to create a mini-empire of Filipino cuisine in New York City. “I thought when I graduated ICE I would cook Italian food,” says Miguel, who grew up idolizing PBS chefs like Lidia Bastianich. After graduating from culinary school, he landed a gig as executive chef at a popular restaurant in Soho. That’s where he first met Filipino-American Nicole Ponseca, the restaurant’s general manager who was looking to open an eatery that served the foods she grew up eating, like kare kare (oxtail stew) and chicharon buklakak (deep-fried pig fat). At the time, there was hardly a taste for Filipino cuisine in New York. Miguel had sampled Filipino food before and was intoxicated by the combination of bold flavors. So he hedged his bets and joined Nicole’s mission. Today, Miguel and Nicole helm two critically praised restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, and they’re in the works on a cookbook, due in early 2018.

Chef Miguel TrinidadOn a recent afternoon, I caught up with Miguel at Jeepney. On the wall hangs a photo of two hands tenderly cradling an egg — it’s the famed Filipino dish balut (a fertilized, fermented duck egg). And yes, it’s on the menu. The interior — vibrant colors, mismatched tables, the occasional pineapple and nods to Filipino culture — matches the chef’s style: loud but thoughtful. Miguel and I chatted about Filipino cuisine, cooking at the James Beard House and the rise of fine-casual dining.

How was your experience at ICE — did you enjoy being a student?

I loved being a student at ICE. By the time I started with classes, I had been cooking for a long time. I knew a wide variety of ingredients and I had the opportunity to use that knowledge and do things with it. But there were a lot of things I didn’t know, like [the five French] mother sauces and advanced techniques. I got to refine a lot like plating and timing.

I remember in Module 2, during our practical [exam] with Chef Ted, we had an hour to cook a steak, pommes frites and green beans. I was sitting there, watching everyone and Chef Ted said, “Miguel, what’s wrong?” I told him I didn’t need an hour to do it. He said, “Really? You think you can do this in how long?” I told him 15 minutes. He said he would time me, and if I didn’t do it in 15 minutes, he’d fail me.

Wait, like beginning from raw potatoes?

Yes! We had practiced this. You dice your potatoes, put them in cold water, bring it up to a boil, once it comes to a boil, you drain them and put them in the cast iron pan with parsley and oil, and let it cook. At the same time, you’re cooking your steak. Medium rare? Sure, that takes less than 12 minutes. Beans, you blanch them and pop them in a hot pan with garlic and butter. I almost failed, because I was a little too confident. But I did it in under 15 minutes.

When did you discover Filipino food?

I tried it for the first time when I was 19, and again when I met [my business partner] Nicole Ponseca after I graduated from ICE. I was working at a Southern restaurant in Soho called Lola and she was the general manager. I became executive chef after two months of working there. Nicole wanted to start a Filipino restaurant but couldn’t find a chef who believed Filipino food could become mainstream. We teamed up and went to the Philippines to backpack through the country for three months.

Jeepney NYCDid you hit up the grandmas and grandpas for their secret recipes? 

I learned a lot of recipes from Nicole’s dad. I spent time with the yayas, which are housemaids, and the lolas and lolos, which are grandmas and grandpas. I also spent time with some of the top chefs in the Philippines like Claude Tayag. I absorbed as much as I could, and then when we came back, we created a menu and started as a pop-up restaurant in the East Village in 2011. We just did brunch. We did that for eight months until we earned enough money to start Maharlika.

Our first day, we had five people. Our second day: 10 to 15. Someone wrote an article about us in Time Out New York. Then the third weekend there was a line around the corner. We went from 15 covers to 120 to 170 to 200 — all served within a three-hour period.

And then the New York Times listed you as a Critic’s Pick — that must have kept the momentum going.

We’ve been very fortunate with press. Maharlika won Metro New York’s Best New Restaurant. We’re Michelin-rated, Zagat-rated. Jeepney received two stars from the New York Times, three stars from Time Out New York. Condé Nast Traveler named Maharlika on their list of Where to Eat in the World.

What do you love, and what do you think people love, about Filipino food?

Filipino food is like a punch in the mouth. It’s big, it’s loud and it takes you on a journey. You have sweet, salty, sour — it all comes together. We approach our food like a glass of wine. We want it to hit you on the nose, all over the palate and have a strong finish. Even when you’re stuffed, you still want to take another bite because it’s so delicious.

Has it been challenging introducing Filipino cuisine to New Yorkers?

People are open to trying it. The flavors can be polarizing, but for the most part people are intrigued and happy and want to try more. They come in just to try balut — fertilized duck egg. The first time I had balut, the egg was a little overdeveloped, so I had some feathers and beak. We usually get them 11-14 days before they hatch, and it tastes like a rich, hardboiled egg.

Jeepney NYCWhat changes have you seen in the culinary industry since starting?

One of the biggest changes is that for a long time everyone wanted to get into fine dining. Now, everybody’s more into fine casual. The food just needs to be good. You can’t spend too much time on tweezers food, especially for a restaurant of Jeepney’s size. Here it’s about quality, about turnover, about fun and about experimenting. It’s not just about the plate. It’s about the service, the atmosphere, the crowd, the music, the cocktails — the whole package. I’m giving you a mini-vacation every time you walk in the restaurant.

When you’re hiring, do you look for people with a culinary education?

It helps when they have it on their resume. Especially when I get someone from ICE, I give him or her a chance to see what he or she can do. I feel like I’m giving them an extension of their education. It’s helpful to have someone with a culinary background, but at the same time, it’s important to find someone with grit.

You cooked at the James Beard House recently — how was that?

For one, it was a huge honor. It was absolutely insane and everything went off without a hitch. The food came out perfect. I was extremely happy. I also had an opportunity to work with my friends again. There’s a group of us chefs who work in different restaurants — we’ve been friends for a while and we try to support each other as much as we can, to the point where if one of us is short on the line, someone else will jump in. When I told them I was cooking at the James Beard House, they said OK, what day are we there?

What is your culinary voice?

I’m loud and in your face (laughs). My culinary voice is all about really enjoying what you do. Listen, look, feel, taste, have all your senses involved in everything you’re doing, then put it on the table and let someone else come into your mind —and see what you’re feeling when you’re cooking.

Ready to find your culinary voice? Click here to learn more about ICE’s career programs. 

Watch Miguel talk about his culinary voice here

Always cook pasta until al dente, right? Wrong! Because most of us are probably committing more noodle no-nos than we realize, Chef James Briscione will show you how to cook perfect pasta every time in a new video, “You’re Doing it Wrong: Cooking Pasta” — watch now to learn why you should finish cooking pasta in the sauce, step away from the olive oil and, yes, you will need that very large pot to boil the water.

Stop doing it wrong. Start making really good pasta.

Want to learn to cook pasta and more like a chef? Click here for more information on ICE’s career training programs.


By Michael Laiskonis — Creative Director

“If you cook, you are going to get hurt.” The crowd that gathered for a panel discussion on modernist cooking erupted into laughter, but Wylie Dufresne’s observation was gravely accurate. Extreme heat (and cold — working with liquid nitrogen was the object of Wylie’s remark), sharp knives and heavy equipment are some of the perils that cooks must navigate in their daily workplace environment. Add to the mix a dash of occasional chaos and the pressure to produce at breakneck speed, and it’s a wonder more chefs don’t bear hideous deformities.

Chef Sharpening Knives

Young cooks are instantly identified by the rows of scars running up their forearms: the reminders of brief skin-singeing encounters with blazing hot oven racks and pan handles. A cook’s relative experience is easily judged by his or her fingertip’s tolerance to heat (a seemingly heat-proof layer of skin inevitably forms with time). Another telltale sign of a chef is the tough, raised callous at the base of the index finger: the contact point of skin and the carbon steel blade of a chef’s knife. This callous never fully returns to soft, supple flesh, even after years of retirement from daily slicing and chopping. It’s a calling card of sorts, a silent testament to one’s lifelong métier.

While kitchen scars may fade with time, they rarely disappear completely. My first ghastly kitchen injury dates back to my days as a baker. The shop where I worked focused primarily on bread and cakes, but we also did some light takeout fare and off-site catering. During the mid-December holiday season, we were catering one or two small parties every night. One of those afternoons, the chef/owner executed one event while I simultaneously staged a second party at another location. I could easily handle the responsibility of the arrangement, but I was probably still too green of a cook to entrust with the logistical feats these parties presented.

Hot Kitchen Boiling Over Flames

I was wrapping up my prep list with that menu’s protein: a Cajun-spiced, blackened chicken affair (this was the early 90s). Proper blackening technique — as I knew it, anyway — would dictate exposing the oiled, spice-rubbed meat to a fierce high heat and only a little added cooking fat. In my haste to get everything finished, I ignored the gradual buildup of oil in my smoking cast iron pan. Worse yet, I violated the cardinal rule of adding food to any pan: always place the item so that it falls away from you. This precaution ensures that, in the event any hot cooking oil splashes, it does so away from you.

As I tossed the last chicken breast onto the fire, my face and eyes were stung with a spray of hot and spicy oil. I dropped back from the stove and somehow managed to feel my way to the three-compartment sink for some temporary relief. I splashed my face with cold water, wiped myself off and glanced at the clock. I was running late and I didn’t have time to assess the situation properly.

I managed to arrive at the catering gig fully prepped and on time, but as I worked my chafing dishes I was filled with self-conscious dread. I thought I’d scarred myself for life, that I’d need a shroud to hide my culinary deformity like some modern-day elephant man — all because of one impatiently flung piece of chicken. As it turns out, the burn on my face was minor and fully healed within a couple of weeks. But it could have been far worse. The lesson learned? Always respect the fire. That scar may have faded, but others have been permanent.

Chopping Onions

Another early mishap of mine persists in the form of a long-term, conspicuous reminder. A year or so after the blackened chicken incident, I was working my way through a very large pile of onions. It was a straightforward task: hack the polar ends off of each one, score through the skin, peel that off, then halve the onion lengthwise and perform a simple, uniform julienne. At ICE, our fledgling cooks are taught to tuck the thumb back and under, using the broad surface of the resulting fist to both secure the food and guide the knife while chopping. Of course I knew that then, too. But in my urgency to finish all those onions in time, I either looked up or the heavy chef’s knife slipped…and into the mountain of sliced onions went the tip of my left thumb.

My reaction was swift. I didn’t want to look closely at the damage, nor did I have much time to fret over it. I rinsed my hand in the nearby sink, slapped on two or three Band-Aids, wrapped it with a length of gauze and secured it all with what must have been a foot or two of electrical tape. And then I went on with my prep.

I certainly didn’t forget about it over the course of the night’s work. I was in a sense of denial. I was uninsured and living check-to-check on my cook’s wage. I didn’t want to bother with any workers’ comp benefit I may have been entitled to, so there was no professional medical attention given to the mangled digit. After a day or so, when I realized I might have made an error in judgment, I still didn’t seek help. I feared getting yelled at by some nurse or intern for not going directly to the emergency room. Instead, I kept it clean and wrapped, and it eventually healed. The contour of my left thumb is no longer rounded, but now sloped off at a sharp angle.

Butchery Fish Butchering

I’ve heard many stories over the years—likely mythical legends by the time they got to me. The fish bone that went in one side of someone’s finger and emerged months later on the other side. The arm broken in multiple places by an industrial mixer. The fingers severed on deli slicers. I’ve had close calls throughout my twenty years battling in the kitchen, but in comparison to many colleagues, I’ve survived mostly unscathed. My worst injuries were the result of total rookie moves.

A young cook might boast over a particularly gnarly burn or gash, eager to display it as a badge of honor. It’s part of the bravado, the mandated sense of fearlessness that pervades the kitchen. As I grow older, I’m not proud of my mistakes. With time, one increasingly feels stupid over the tiniest nicks and scratches, embarrassed for even a split second’s lack of control. So a word of advice to those starting out in the industry: the second you sense you’re playing too close to the edge, slow down. You won’t work faster with a half of a finger, a burnt face or a broken arm.

Want to study with Chef Michael? Click here for more information on ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

By Caitlin Raux 

“The Italian language wasn’t passed on — but the food definitely was,” says Chef Frank Proto, ICE’s newest career program instructor, on his Italian-American upbringing in Long Island. Since childhood, Frank received a firsthand education in Old World cooking methods: homemade sausages hung to dry from bamboo in the cellar; wine made from Grenache grapes purchased at the Brooklyn Terminal Market. It’s no surprise that once he became a chef, Frank gravitated toward unfussy Mediterranean cuisine made with the highest quality products.

Chef Frank Proto

At the outset of his career, Frank found a mentor in renowned Chef Joe Fortunato, now chef/owner of the West Village mainstay Extra Virgin. Chef Frank not only rose through the ranks in Joe’s late restaurant Layla, he helped him to build new restaurants from the ground up, and went on to do the same with restaurateur Marc Murphy, too. When the New Haven restaurant Barcelona needed an executive chef, Chef Frank had the chops to take the helm. Young chefs who have had the opportunity to work with him, and now ICE students, would be lucky to call Chef Frank a mentor. With an affable, encouraging disposition, he’s the kind of chef that makes you want to work harder and better because his passion for cooking and his high expectations for others who have chosen a culinary path are clear.

Chef Frank plans to use his straightforward approach and decades of restaurant experience to teach ICE students how to succeed in the culinary industry and how to prepare delicious, uncomplicated food. On a recent Thursday, after introducing a class of culinary students to Lombardy cuisine, Chef Frank and I sat down to chat for ICE’s “Meet the Chef” series.

Growing up, what was food like at home?  

My dad’s side of the family is Italian-American. And though my mother’s side of the family is German, she learned to cook from my paternal grandmother. So I grew up with Italian-American traditions, like making wine and sausage. We still make our own tomato paste — it’s a process I’ve never seen anyone else do. We dry the tomatoes, we peel them, remove the seeds then dry them in the oven for 48 hours until they’re brick red — it almost looks like a brownie.

Do you still make sausage?

I made sausage in the restaurants where I worked. I’d like to get back into making dry sausages at home. We used to make the sausages then hang them on bamboo in the wine cellar to dry out, because the temperature is perfect in there. We’d dry them out and put them in old, glass mayonnaise jars, then top them with olive oil so they’d store well. Then you peel the skin off and eat it like a salumi.

Chef Frank Proto

What was your first restaurant job?

I worked in a catering hall in Long Island in high school and college. I was a dishwasher, a prep cook, a line cook — I did everything. I always wanted to be a chef, though. I know that’s kind of weird — kids usually want to be firemen or policemen or lawyers. I don’t know where I got the idea but I always wanted to be a chef. I come from a family that cooks. Back in the 70s, when people were eating canned stuff, my mom always had fresh vegetables, and not for health reasons — that’s just the way my grandma taught her. You go to the store, you buy vegetables and you make them. You don’t get them from a can. So we had a lot of good food as kids.

Tell me about your decision to enroll in culinary school.

I had gone to community college for two years to study restaurant management. For me, culinary school was the next step. So I enrolled at CIA [Culinary Institute of America].

What was your first job out of culinary school?

I did my externship at Tribeca Grill, but my first job out of culinary school was at Layla. It was a restaurant that served Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. That’s where I met my mentor, Joe Fortunato. I worked up the ranks and became sous chef there. Then I moved around with Joe and I also worked on and off with my other friend Marc Murphy. When Joe was opening something, I’d help him open it, when Marc was opening something, I’d do the same.

When I started working with Marc, I helped him open Landmarc and Ditch Plains. I was the corporate chef.

What does being corporate chef entail?

Doing everything. We did all the menus together. I was the operations manager and he managed the big picture. I trained chefs, cooks, planned menu changes, specials. I managed costs, all of the ordering systems, basically building everything from scratch. When I left, we had two Ditch Plains and two Landmarc locations.

Chef Frank Proto

Did you choose Joe as a mentor or did he choose you? How does that work?

It was kind of mutual. He wouldn’t have been my mentor if I did a crappy job. I’m a bit of a bulldog in the kitchen. I come in, I work hard and I’m quiet. Maybe he saw something in me. By him just pushing me along, he became my mentor. Eventually he moved me up to sous chef. At that point, he knew what I could do.

It goes both ways. There are a lot of guys who I chose to mentor when I was working as a restaurant chef. They get chosen because they have the work ethic and the passion for it. You say through your work if you’re worth being mentored.

What would you say is your approach to cooking?

I like simple. Don’t get complicated. A lot of people like to put a lot of stuff on the plate. Sometimes, the less you put on the plate, the better. A lot of young cooks do that before they have experience. Joey always used to ask, “Do we really need to put that on there?” I like to keep everything simple. The last restaurant I was working in, Barcelona in New Haven, was a joy because we’d cook a piece of fish on the plancha and serve it with a good salsa verde. That’s the way I like to cook.

I also like Middle Eastern and North African ingredients — the spices, pomegranate, molasses… the mezze. Even before small plates became the big thing, I always liked small plates. I don’t like committing to just one thing. I don’t play golf because I can’t commit myself to five hours on the golf course. That’s how I feel about a meal, and cooking, too.

What are you excited about teaching ICE students?

I’d like to bring some of my Spanish cooking background and influence to the curriculum. In the restaurant industry, for the past 15 years it’s been the cuisine. Now people are starting to recognize it outside of the restaurant industry.

Other than that, I want the food to taste really good. I want students to walk out of here knowing they’ve made some really good meals. I also want them to walk out of here with as much information as possible about working in the real world, and I’ve tried to include that in every lesson I’ve taught so far. Things like: when you go into professional kitchens, there’s not going to be a ton of paper towels like we have at the school; the less pans you use the better — I want to teach them the nuts and bolts, together with the substance of the lesson.

What advice would you give to culinary students starting their careers?

Show up early. Show up prepared. I always tell my cooks, If you come in 10 minutes early and ready to go, you already stand out. There are ways to stand out that take no effort at all. When I was a culinary student, I read and got as much information as I could about food. That’s another thing: be an information seeker. Learn your craft.

I read every day still, after 20-some odd years. There’s always something that interests me.

What do you read?

I read the Eater newsletter every day, I read Saveur, Food52, even the home cook-focused outlets like Bon Appétit. I like to see what they’re doing. I’ve always got the New York Times in my bag. I’ve been going to the public library more, too. It’s such a great resource. I also collect old books. I bought a copy of Larousse Gastronomique and a Fannie Farmer cookbook in the Berkshires last week.

What are your favorite things to do outside of the kitchen?

I have a workshop. I’m just starting to build it up. I really want to learn how to forge. I brew beer. My son and I just brewed beer last year and we’re doing another batch soon. Most of the things are food-related. In my workshop, I made gnocchi boards out of wood. I give them to friends.

gnocchi boards

Ready to hit the ground running on your culinary career path? Click here to learn about ICE’s career programs. 

By James Briscione — Director of Culinary Development

This past March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invited me to Brazil to help launch a new campaign called #USfoodexperience which was developed to introduce American ingredients and dining traditions to the Brazilian market. As part of my visit, I created a menu of classic dishes from around the United States and served it to 100 of São Paulo’s top chefs and media. I also toured local culinary schools and hosted a series of demos at each school, sharing recipes for some of my favorite American foods. But for me, the highlight of the trip was our dinner at D.O.M., the #2 restaurant in all of South and Central America.

Chef Alex Atala

Chef Alex – photo courtesy of domrestaurante.com

If you’re a fan of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, (if you’re reading this blog, I assume you must be) then you already know about restaurant D.O.M. You also know its chef Alex Atala — the bearded, jiu-jitsu-practicing chef who seemed to spend as much time in a wetsuit exploring the Amazon as he did in a chef coat. His restaurant ranks among the best in the world. So as soon as I found out that I would be spending a week in Sao Paolo, Brazil, nabbing a reservation at D.O.M. was a must.

Like at many of the restaurants that populate the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, dinner at D.O.M. is far more than a meal. Chef Alex crafts an experience — a journey through food that takes visitors on a tour of his native land. Different regions of Brazil are presented through a series of carefully crafted bites, smells and sips.

sake cocktails

sake cocktails served inside fresh chillies

Chef Alex grabs your attention from the very first bite. Our meal began with a sorbet made from fresh chilies. I expected it would be a cold bite that began sweet and ended with a spicy kick. Instead, the sorbet was savory, with plenty of salt and a barely detectable sweetness and fresh chile flavor that exploded on the palate, with no trace of heat whatsoever. It left you with nothing to taste but the incredibly complex fruity aroma of the chilies themselves. The sorbet was paired with a small cocktail of sake and Brazilian sparkling wine served in a hollowed out chile.

Small bites continued to flow from the kitchen: plump, freshly shucked oysters accentuated with dried mango and whisky, “ravioli” of puréed beet, cased in a sheet of local honey. Chef Alex has the confidence and vision to serve a course of nothing more than watercress stems and mustard seeds. It is so perfectly crafted and presented that you wonder why these pieces are discarded in nearly every other restaurant in the world. As a chef, my mind instantly went to the painstaking detail that goes into a bite like this — you must use tiny, surgically sharp scissors to mold the stems into the perfect shape, then switch to tweezers to carefully place mustard seeds and delicate miniature flowers. How many minutes go into the creation of something that is gone in a matter of seconds? A plate full of umami arrived after that: a crispy tangle of crunchy caramelized onions, seaweed and puffed rice, anchored by creamy mushroom flan.

My favorite plate of the entire meal arrived next. A tasting of pirarucu, the Amazonian fish that Chef Alex and his cooks are shown wrestling with on Chef’s Table. Pirarucu is a monstrous fish that can grow up to 10 feet long. Back in the restaurant, Chef Alex demonstrated his mastery of one my favorite approaches to crafting a dish — showcasing great ingredients in different forms on the same plate. A piece of crispy fried fish skin was topped with a savory purée of banana and dried shrimp. Another application showed the fish perfectly seared to emphasize its meaty texture and mild flavor. The fish sat on top of a few spoonfuls of açai purée that were so flavorful and complex that I had trouble identifying it as the same fruit found in trendy breakfast bowls and smoothies. Smoky and sweet grilled onions and peppers with a touch of heat rounded out the flavors on the dish.

watercress stems with mustard seeds

watercress stems with mustard seeds

The next dish arrived with several components as well. First, a shrimp head with its contents removed, seasoned, cooked and replaced was served with a single shrimp that could pass for a miniature lobster. The grilled shrimp was glazed in sweet Brazilian butter and sat on top of a pillow of finely shredded Brazil nut, dotted with segments of fresh citrus and mint leaf.

Two meat courses followed. The first was quail, which was served with portions of both the breast and leg with a savory jus and bitter Brazilian cocoa. Then arrived a succulent braise of lamb in red wine. The lamb braise was so perfectly constructed that I nearly argued with Chef Alex after the meal when he informed me that the only spice in the braise was toasted black pepper. I could hardly believe him — it tasted so distinctly of coriander, cinnamon and dried fruit.

With the savory courses complete, we enjoyed a simple dessert of mango, chocolate and cream flavored with puxuri, an Amazonian fruit grown for its aromatic seeds. The puxuri seeds are similar in flavor to cinnamon and star anise. The true standout of the evening, however, arrived before the dessert. Strangely enough, one of the most memorable bites of the evening was our cheese course served in the form of the classic French aligote. If you’re unfamiliar with aligote, you’ve seriously been missing out.

Aligote is technically a potato dish, though by ratio it actually contains more cheese and butter than potato purée. Of course, at D.O.M. this classic preparation is given a Brazilian spin, made with a tender fresh cheese called minhas. Perfect texture, seasoning and flavor aside, the truly great part of this course is the way it’s served. Aligote typically looks like one of those ads for mozzarella cheese sticks, with an impossibly long strand of melted cheese connecting the two halves after it’s broken in half. Our server picked up two very large spoonfuls of the aligote from the kitchen and began twirling the spoons as he walked out the door. Keeping the aligote in constant motion, it was basically suspended between the spoons as he made his way to our table. After stopping at the table next to ours, where he dropped two portions on the plates of our neighbors, with spoons still in motion, he came to our table where he twisted and twirled two more portions of these luxurious potatoes onto our plates. Not only was it incredible theatre, but by the time the aligote reached our plate it was at the perfect temperature. The silken mixture had become just firm enough to “cut” with the edge of spoons and then melt into salty, cheesy perfection in our mouths.

For me, D.O.M. was a dining destination, but for its chef and staff, the restaurant is a constant journey. Through a steady stream of thoughtfully prepared and beautiful dishes, they truly brought the best of Brazil to our table.

Ready to launch an exciting, international career in the culinary arts? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

By Caitlin Raux 

In a dining room on the ground floor of the Whitney Museum, where an open kitchen sits across from a towering glass wall and not an inch can escape the natural sunlight, I met with Suzanne Cupps (Culinary Arts, ’05), executive chef of Untitled. With a menu featuring colorful contemporary American cuisine, Untitled has enjoyed warm critical reviews, including a place on the New York Times “Critic’s Pick” list. Suzanne has played no small part in the restaurant’s success.

Though she began at ICE without knowing how to hold a knife, Suzanne, a former math major, was a disciplined student and a quick learner. By the time she graduated, she was ready for the New York restaurant scene and earned her stripes in the kitchens of Annisa and Gramercy Tavern before landing a gig as chef de cuisine at the buzzy new meatpacking restaurant, Untitled. Recently, Suzanne scored the enviable position of executive chef, not to mention the right to call the restaurant her own — something she does with a discernible note of pride in her voice. She’s transitioned from top student to head teacher, creating not only a menu, but also an atmosphere from the top down, one that allows for questions, experimenting, mistakes, and ultimately, learning — more learning, Suzanne thinks, than the traditional, chef-as-dictator style.

Chef Suzanne at Untitled (credit: Melissa Hom)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Suzanne took a quick break before dinner prep to chat with me for the ICE blog.

First, congratulations on your promotion to executive chef of Untitled! What are the changes that go with this new title?

Michael Anthony [Managing Director of Untitled, as well as Executive Chef and Partner of Gramercy Tavern] is very trusting, so he allowed me to know about financials and hiring and the other management things when I was chef de cuisine. With his help, I was running the restaurant already. I think the biggest difference is that Mike’s not here anymore. It wasn’t that I took over a bunch of different duties. It’s just that now the responsibility of making sure the business succeeds falls on my shoulders. I was invested as chef de cuisine, but now even more so because it’s my restaurant.

Do you still get to spend time in the kitchen?

Oh yes, definitely: I’m actually working the grill station tonight. In fact, I think that’s the hardest part about the job — there’s a lot of emails and paperwork but I try to spend as much time in the kitchen as I can. I would say on a normal day, I spend 70% of my time in the kitchen.

What does a “day in the life” typically look like for you?

There’s a lot of running around. One of the things that’s unique and challenging about our space is that we’re located on three floors. Untitled is here on the ground floor, our prep kitchen is two floors down and then we have another restaurant, Studio Café, on the 8th floor. That separation can be a challenge — to be in the right place at the right time. My job is a lot about being available. I have a list of things I need to do and only about 20% of that gets done because I get pulled around. Sometimes it’s a busy service and they need extra hands, sometimes a meeting pops up, or I have to sit and chat with an employee, or work on a special. I get pulled back and forth. But I’ve always liked multitasking rather than sitting at a computer or being in one spot all the time. It’s a little different each day, which I like.

Are there any aspects of your job that people might find surprising? 

I think people think of a chef as just creating dishes. That’s probably what I do least in this role. Running a business is the main priority. Often people don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to manage labor and food costs. Also, I feel that a lot of people picture a chef as ordering people around and making demands. Here, we try to take more of a teaching approach. Instead of telling people what to do, it’s showing, asking questions and allowing cooks to be part of the creative process.

Did you introduce that from the top down? 

Yes. It’s something I learned from Anita Lo [chef owner of the acclaimed restaurant Annisa, which closed in May 2017] when I worked at Annisa. She was very open to allowing us not just to make mistakes, but to really learn on the job. Also, Mike was a big teaching mentor. When I went to college, I was an education minor and I thought I would end up in teaching. It didn’t work out, but this is a bigger teaching job than I ever could have imagined.

It sounds like you’re moving away from the militant kitchen prototype.  

For me, it’s about how people respond. Not only do you make people feel good when they come to work, you also get the response you want. Sometimes when the action is negative or too short people respond in a closed off way. It doesn’t allow them to show their personalities or be creative. I’ve found that this style works better, as a way to manage. It doesn’t mean that we drop standards. We just do it in a more respectful way.

I read that you’re from South Carolina. What were family meals like growing up?

I grew up in South Carolina but my family’s not southern. My mom is from central Pennsylvania and my dad’s from the Philippines so we did not eat southern food —no grits, no fried chicken. I mostly ate Filipino food and rice and some traditional American food.

Was cooking a big deal at home?

My mom cooked every single night. She had a very balanced approach to eating, but I was not into cooking when I was younger. Food bored me — it wasn’t until I moved to New York that food started to be interesting to me. Even when I started cooking, I was more interested in the cutting and precision. Then I started enjoying different flavors of food.

You went to culinary school basically carte blanche, isn’t that right?

Yes, I knew nothing. I failed the first herb test because I didn’t know the difference between parsley and cilantro. I remember taking those potatoes home and trying to dice them for hours and hours. I had never held a knife. I didn’t know a thing about cooking. But I enjoyed it. It was all so new. It’s hard to remember how I felt back then, now that I’ve done those things so many times.

What were your goals when you set out from culinary school?

I didn’t know anything about the New York restaurant scene. I heard someone in my class say that Gramercy Tavern was a good restaurant so I went there to trail and ended up doing my externship there. That was before Mike was there. I had also heard someone say that Annisa was a good restaurant, so when I was done at Gramercy I went there. It was the only place I ever interviewed or applied. Anita hired me on the spot.

Was she your mentor?

Yes, Anita and Mike. I was very fortunate to fall into two kitchens that had great chefs. I think that’s why I really started to enjoy cooking.

They must have seen something in you, too, that made them want to mentor you.

With Anita, I paid attention and picked up things quickly, and I think she saw that right away. For Mike, by the time I started working with him I had been working with Anita for five years, so I had gained a lot of skills before going to his kitchen.

What advice would you give to culinary students starting their careers?

It’s not for everybody, but I would recommend working in restaurants first, even if it’s just a short period of time. It doesn’t matter what you want to do in food. Restaurants are a great place to see as much as you can. You get to work with more products and work on bigger teams, generally. You also reinforce those skills you learned in culinary school. It’s important to go somewhere where you’ll actually learn, too. It’s one thing to follow a chef’s instructions and do what they say. It’s another to learn how to cook yourself and learn to season food yourself. It’s important to pick places where you can find a mentor or learn from the other chefs. Also, pick a place where you like the food.

Are there any chefs that inspire you?

Lots. New York is cool because you can be inspired by not just the fining dining chefs. There’s something to learn in a small hole-in-the-wall place, just like there’s something to learn from a long tasting menu.

Are there any menu items you’re particularly excited about?

I’m making the spring menu more fish-heavy, so I’m excited about adding more seafood to the menu. That’s how I like eating in warmer weather. It’s a bit lighter. It’s not the only thing we cook by any means, but I like the delicate nature and the cookery of fish.

If you’re going out for a night with friends, what are your go-to places?

I like Uncle Boons. I also like a newer restaurant in Brooklyn called Insa. The chef Sohui Kim, who’s also an ICE graduate, actually came out of Annisa, too.

What’s one restaurant on your hit list?

Le Coucou. I’ll have to save up for that one.

Ready to launch your culinary career? Click here to learn more about ICE’s career programs.


Alternative flours — like chickpea flour, banana flour and grapeseed flour — can add a nutritional kick and a tasty nuance to many everyday recipes. Though substituting your tried-and-true AP flour may seem a little intimidating at first, once you have a few recipes under your belt you can add these alternative flours to your regular cooking and baking repertoire. To help you get there, Chef Sarah Chaminade is sharing three new recipes that she developed for ICE and Direct Eats using alternative flours. First, Chef Sarah uses chickpea flour to add a sweet and creamy texture to her chickpea canapés. Then, Chef Sarah demonstrates how to make a gluten-free angel food cake using banana flour —with all of the lightness and none of the gluten. Then, she uses merlot grapeseed flour in her chocolate chip cookies to create a gluten-free and vegan take on the classic recipe. Watch the video below, and then scroll to get the recipes.

Chickpea Canapé
Servings: three to four dozen individual canapés, depending on the size of each

In Liguria, the region flanking Genoa along Italy’s northwest coast, farinata is a classic dish. Farinata is a thin chickpea cake typically cooked in a wood-burning oven. In Liguria, bake shops put signs in their windows announcing the time that the farinata will be ready and customers line up to buy it. It’s a perfect snack when eaten like a piece of pizza on waxed butcher paper. Farinata, just like pizza, can be stuffed or garnished with any vegetable, cheese or sauce.

Ingredients:

3 cups chickpea flour
5 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon oregano, chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Optional garnish: dollop of creme fraîche, crispy prosciutto or micro herbs like micro arugula

Preparation:

  • Preheat convection oven to 450 °F (or 475 °F for a conventional home oven).
  • Combine chickpea flour and water with whisk until smooth — let sit for 1 hour to allow batter to thicken slightly.
  • Stir in remaining ingredients.
  • Pour the batter onto a silicone baking mat or a baking sheet lined with parchment. Spread evenly with spatula and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.
  • Use a knife or pizza cutter to cut farinata into squares (5×7 or 6×8, depending on the size you prefer) and top with optional garnish.

* Recipe adapted from Ciao Italia by Mary Ann Esposito

Gluten-Free Banana Flour Angel Food Cake
Yield: one cake

1 10-inch angel food cake pan with removable bottom
15 egg whites, room temperature (note: it’s essential that they are at room temperature!)
1 pinch of salt
½ cup plus ¾ cup coconut sugar
1½ cups banana flour
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean
* Flavor variations:
Replace vanilla with zest of one lemon, two limes or half an orange, or replace vanilla with two teaspoons of cinnamon

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 350 °F.
  • In a very clean, dry mixing bowl combine egg whites and salt and whip to soft peaks. Gradually add ½ cup of coconut sugar. Continue to whip egg whites to medium peaks, being careful to not over whip.
  • In a separate bowl, sift together the remaining coconut sugar and banana flour.
  • Gradually sift dry ingredients into the whipped whites, folding gently to be careful not to deflate.
  • Fold in vanilla extract and vanilla bean.
  • Pour batter into an ungreased angel food pan, spreading carefully to distribute batter evenly — do not bang the cake pan, as this will cause the batter to deflate.
  • Bake for 50 min, or until golden brown and cake springs back when lightly touched.
  • Remove from oven and invert onto a cooling rack without removing the mold.
  • Allow the cake to cool completely before unmolding.

Vegan, Gluten-Free Merlot Grapeseed Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yield: one dozen cookies

2 ½ cups almond flour
¼ cup merlot grapeseed flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup coconut oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup agave
1 cup 72% bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 325 °F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Melt the coconut oil in microwave or on stove top. In a medium bowl, combine all wet ingredients.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.
  • Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients, mixing with a rubber spatula or spoon to combine.
  • Stir in the chocolate chunks, and allow the mixture to chill in refrigerator at least 30 minutes.
  • Using a cookie scoop, scoop mixture onto your prepared baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes.
  • Let cool before enjoying. Because these cookies stay nice and moist, they taste great the next day too.

Master culinary or pastry arts with ICE’s expert chef instructors — click here for information on our career programs.

By Caitlin Raux

There’s a new school of chefs — those who wax on about ingredients and sourcing; who want to elevate or demote the act of dining out; who want to change the way we eat. Ashley Merriman (Culinary Arts ’04), co-chef of Prune, does not belong to that school. She’s a rare breed of chef nowadays, one who’s passionate about the job mostly because she loves the actual work — the sound of the ticket machine; the chopping during prep; the firing up of grills; the rush during service; and the cleaning — lots and lots of cleaning, as anyone in the industry knows. Ashley’s experience “on the line” dates back to high school, but ICE handed her the keys to the world of fine dining in New York, where she’s had the opportunity to work with some of the city’s great chefs.

I caught up with the former Top Chef competitor on a Monday afternoon before the crush of dinner service (yes, even on a Monday, the house at Prune is full). Ashley and I chatted about her love of the job of being a chef.

Chef Ashley Merriman

credit: Brent Herrig © 2013

Are you from New York?

I’m originally from New Hampshire, but I’ve spent so much time here that I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Was food a big part of your family life growing up?

Not at all. My mom was a single working mom. Consequently, there were lots of nights of: Here’s some hot dogs for dinner. I’m not from a big cooking family. It was more about feeding the family without a lot of time — my mom was working and we played a lot of sports and did extracurricular activities.

I got into the restaurant business because of the work. My mom made us get jobs when we were 12 and it was one of the only after-school jobs that I could get. My older brother mowed lawns. The only other job for kids our age was to wash dishes in restaurants. Once I started, I just liked the work.

Did you know that you wanted to continue working in restaurants?

I remember graduating from high school and I wanted very much to go to culinary school. I graduated in 1994 and I guess it was a very different time in our culinary world. It was not something that my mom had any interest in me doing — she didn’t think it was a viable career option, especially since I had gone to a pretty fancy boarding school. So I cooked throughout college and I cooked after college because it was the only paycheck I knew how to get. It was just the work that I liked the best. I thought for a while that I wanted to be an English teacher and I studied English in college. But I just kept doing restaurant work and I loved it. I love cooking and cleaning.

I think there’s a certain personality type drawn to cooking professionally.

Yes, definitely. At some point I took a career aptitude test and my choices were a cop, an EMT or a chef. In all of them there’s a certain level of stress or adrenaline, but also an altruistic side — of serving or helping people.

I would do this work anywhere, and not just at Prune. I would enjoy this work in small town USA, Kazooky’s Bar + Grill.

So you graduated from a four-year college and then went back to cooking?

I worked in a bookstore for a while, but I just liked restaurant work so much that I decided to go to ICE. That’s when I got serious about cooking professionally. I knew how to cook and I had a pretty lengthy resume but I didn’t know anything about food or fine dining. I just knew how to be a line cook at mom-and-pop restaurants. That’s what brought me to ICE — I knew it would be good to add to my resume and to get my foot in the door in New York.

I imagine you went to ICE to learn the technical skills too…

I didn’t know the next level culinary skills. I only knew what had been put in front of me, which was pretty little considering I worked as a line cook in the same restaurant for nine years before and during high school. I didn’t have a deep bench of experience.

What was your first gig after ICE?

At ICE, my very first teacher in Module 1 was Alex Guarnaschelli. She and I hit it off right away and Alex, being the smart person she is, saw that I already knew how to be a line cook. So she asked me to do my internship with her at Butter, which I did. I ended up staying at Butter for years. Then I worked in Seattle for a few years and came back to New York and worked at Butter again. I helped Alex open The Darby. Then I left and was the chef at The Waverly Inn for years. Now I’m at Prune.

I’m not saying this to flatter you, but Prune happens to be one of my favorite restaurants in New York.

Yes, it’s a good restaurant. I had been a regular there for years. I loved Prune so much. Gabrielle [Hamilton] and I are married (laughs) so I love her so much, too. It feels natural for us to be working together.

It seems like a very positive work environment – which you don’t find in all restaurants.

I think it’s one of Gabrielle’s signatures and something that she’s worked really hard to achieve. It’s why she has incredible staff retention and people really want to stay there. Prune is a feeling and it means a lot to a lot of people, not just the customers, but also the people who have worked there for years. It’s partially because of how the people at Prune are treated.

How has your ICE education prepared you to be chef at Prune?

The most important thing that ICE did for me was to expose me to fine dining – food and dining on a serious level. I already knew a lot about how to be a cook in a restaurant. I remember one of the first assignments at ICE was to write a paper about a chef who influenced you. Everyone else was talking about chefs like Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert and I had no idea who those people were. That’s what ICE exposed me to.

Did you aspire to become part of that fine dining world?

I only ever wanted to be a chef. I really mean this — and I don’t think this is how most people are anymore, though I’m not placing a value on it — I like the work itself much more than I like food. I like the act of coming to work and the ticket machine and the chopping and the lifting and the cleaning and the cooking – the actual act of cooking food. I care about it much more than I care about the ingredient or the product or the, Oh my god, lacto-fermentation. I think that stuff is interesting and valuable and it’s a part of my every day. But I would do this work anywhere, and not just at Prune. I would enjoy this work in small town USA, Kazooky’s Bar + Grill.

It’s more about the physicality and tangible aspects of being a chef.

I do really enjoy the tangible, pragmatic side: bring in the food, break it down, cook it, etc.

That’s rare nowadays.

I think a lot of people forget that every day is cooking and cleaning. I think that in our industry, a lot of people have forgotten about that part of the day, which is remarkable because it’s the biggest part of the day.

You cook every day – where do you look for inspiration?

Honestly, it’s so cheesy, but I’m really inspired by my wife. I think she’s the greatest cook. She doesn’t cook as much in the restaurant anymore, but I’m inspired by what she cooks at home. I’m inspired by our conversations about food. Long before we were married, I loved Gabrielle’s restaurant, before I even loved her. I’ve become a way better cook by working with her.

What does a typical day for you look like?

I’m in the restaurant by 11:30 – 12:00 p.m. I check in with the AM person and the porters and then I start the day. Prune is very small so the chef works the station every single night. There’s no expediting from the pass — you’re at the actual station. I spend the day setting up my station and helping the other cooks set up theirs. Other than that, it’s a pretty typical chef’s day. There’s ordering, receiving, managing, scheduling, actual cooking, running service, shutting down service, cleaning and organizing. Then I write in the log at the end of the night. I usually finish anywhere from 12:30 – 1:00 a.m.

What is your culinary voice?

My culinary voice is about the actual work. You see people with very clear voices and visions. My voice and my vision is about the day-to-day job that we have to do. I think it’s really important. My voice is a factual, objective voice about cooking.

Chef Ashley Merriman

Click here to watch Ashley in ICE’s Find Your Culinary Voice scholarship challenge video

Ready to find your culinary voice? Get more information on ICE’s career programs.