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

By Timothy Cooper

This interview originally appeared in ICE’s Main Course newsletter. 

Born in Los Angeles, Ken Friedman attended UC Berkeley, where he discovered San Francisco’s lively music scene. He left college to pursue a full-time career in music as a concert promoter, first independently and then working for the impresario Bill Graham. He moved to London to manage bands such as The Smiths and UB40, before finding himself in New York City, working with the renowned Clive Davis at Arista Records.

Ken Friedman

When Friedman turned 40, he decided to make a career change. Opening a restaurant was a natural next step: He’d already spent many nights frequenting New York City’s best restaurants while entertaining his clients, and friends continually offered to invest in his first project, sure it would be a success.

Thus, in February 2004, Friedman opened New York City’s first gastropub, The Spotted Pig, with Chef April Bloomfield. Since then, the duo has opened The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, The John Dory Oyster Bar, Salvation Taco (with a second soon to come in Williamsburg), Salvation Burger, White Gold Butchers, and Tosca Cafe (Friedman’s first venue in San Francisco), all to critical acclaim. He is also a partner in The Rusty Knot, The Monkey Bar and Locanda Verde, with Andrew Carmellini. In 2016, Ken was honored with the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.

How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?

Ken Friedman: I was the high school kid who had no idea what I wanted to do in college. I decided to go to UC Berkeley as an art major, with American history as a minor. What happened in the ’70s and ’80s was pretty much everybody in the art department at Berkeley, and Stanford and California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute—we all formed punk rock bands. I did the same.

That led to me putting on concerts and working for a guy called Bill Graham, a legendary concert promoter in San Francisco. All of a sudden I found myself on the business side of things.

I dropped out of Berkeley and moved to London and managed bands, then moved to New York and worked for record companies. I was basically living in nightclubs. I was really fascinated by public assembly in general, and restaurants specifically, which are sort of clubs for adults. I found myself looking at the chefs and speaking to the chefs as the artists.

I was living in New York an throwing parties and barbecues in the Hamptons; it was a creative outlet for me. I loved hosting dinners. People told me how great the food was and how great the experience was. So I started to realize that I should either be a chef or open a bar or open a restaurant. I’ve got a good ear and eye and nose for upcoming talent.

Then I was inching toward 40 and I wasn’t really all that happy in the music business, so I started to think, “Do I want to be that guy who looks back on his life and says, ‘Damn, I wish I had tried that; maybe I would have been good at that’?” I don’t want to have regrets.

Maybe the most important part of it is that when you’re an artist, a novelist or a songwriter or a painter, if you write a song and it’s a hit song, for the rest of your life you get paid for that. Not just when you perform the song, but if you’re sitting on a beach with a beer in your hand and someone is buying that record, you get paid for it. I was only getting paid when I was awake; I wanted to get paid when I was asleep.

What do great artists do—great songwriters, great novelists, great painters? They make work for themselves. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t say, “I’m going to make a record that sounds like what’s being played on the radio now.” He just makes a record that he enjoys and it works. So I thought, well, I’m going to do that when I do my restaurant.

How did you know what you wanted in terms of the venue, the menu, and the beverage service?

I was a punk rock musician. I was an alternative thinker. What didn’t New York have? Well, British food wasn’t really a thing that people took seriously. People thought British food was fish and chips. They didn’t really know that there’s a great tradition of fabulous seasonal British food. I’d lived in London for three years, and I’ve always been kind of an Anglophile from music, so I kind of knew that.

I knew about the gastropub phenomenon, where all the best young chefs in London who didn’t have the money to open restaurants would just go to the old pub on the corner. Four people would sit there all day Sunday, and there’d be no customers Monday night. So the chef would go to the owner and say, “Give me Sunday and Monday nights and let me cook. You get the bar proceeds, and I get the food proceeds.” And that’s how gastropubs first started. I also thought it would be cool to have a female chef, because there just aren’t enough.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to actually find a British female. She thought the way I did and she was obsessed with America, and specifically Chez Panisse. When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I worked there to pay the rent, so that was my introduction to working in restaurants: Chez Panisse, the best restaurant in the country. We shared that.

So The Spotted Pig was born. And design-wise, I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder, I love going to flea markets and thrift stores, so I had a bunch of stuff. I liked the way pubs are designed with a photograph of the local prizewinning cow, or a photograph of somebody who just caught a bunch of ducks.

Often pubs didn’t have names, or didn’t have signs with letters because people couldn’t read. “Pubs” is short for public houses. So I thought, well, a spotted pig is super-visual, and I don’t need to put a sign up that says “spotted pig.” I can just hang a pig sign.

How did that first meeting with April Bloomfield come about?

I was introduced by Jamie Oliver. We just started emailing each other, and I liked her right away; she liked me right away. So I flew her to New York and my friend Mario Batali and I took her to a farmers’ market and a few other places, and he said, “Yeah, she’s perfect.” And I said, “How do you know? We haven’t even tried her food yet.” He said, “She’s worked at all your favorite restaurants in London. That’s an indication that she’s got the same taste.”

And he said, “She’s got all these burns on her arms.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “She’s a badass—she reaches into hot ovens and she’ll do anything to make sure the food is treated right, and that’s a big deal.”

So I hired her and made her a partner right away. I believed that restaurants co-owned by the chef were cooler and better, and the chef would care more.

During the initial opening, how did you settle on a menu? How do you keep that menu continually fresh?

I worked for record companies—Arista Records, London Records, Interscope Records. When I would sign a band—I was always an A&R guy, a talent scout—I’d sign a band that was great or had potential to be great, and give them money to make a record.

But my philosophy was very much, “I’m not going to tell you how to make your record. I’m a failed musician. My job is to keep the rest of the record companies away from you so that you can be an artist and not have to talk to a bunch of suits and bean counters about your art.”

I have the exact same philosophy when it comes to April and other chefs I’m partners with in some other restaurants. I never, ever tell them what to do. I think the worst thing you could do to an artist is start advising them on how to make their art better.

It’s hard for me to say, “You should put sesame seeds on this bun instead of poppy seeds,” or “These pickles are too garlicky.” I love April’s food, and it totally fits in the places we do. If she does something that I think isn’t perfect, I know she’ll figure it out.

She doesn’t get permission from me. If she wants to buy expensive tomatoes instead of cheap tomatoes, I understand. The dirty little secret of chefs—the thing that separates great chefs from not-great chefs—is ingredients. So we spend a lot of money on the best ingredients. That’s okay because we sell them all and we mark them up enough, we make the profit, we pay all our employees.

What are some of your favorite offerings at your own restaurants?

I love April’s burgers. I love her veggie burger, now that I’m trying to eat less meat. April does pretty incredible vegetables and salads. The lamb burger at The Breslin is awesome. The roasted chicken at Tosca is another favorite.

April had never even heard of a Cubano before she moved to New York. I took her to a Cuban place, she had one, she flipped out, and she put on the menu at The Spotted Pig. It’s won all kinds of awards for the best Cubano in New York, so I love that.

I’m also partners in Locanda Verde with Andrew Carmellini, and the same goes for him. I love his pastas, and I love his chicken for two.

I’m lucky—I get to eat great food for free at my places. I always leave a big tip, though. It’s not fair for me to eat for free and the staff still has to do the work, so I always tip the kitchen and the front-of-house staff.

What was your next venture?

Our second venture after The Spotted Pig was the first John Dory, which failed. Luckily we believed in the concept still, so we moved it to Ace Hotel. Closing your second restaurant is like your first album is a big hit, and then your second album doesn’t even make the charts. So we remixed it and put it out again.

Then The Breslin was our third one and that was a huge hit; it still is. That was us getting back to what we were best at. We went back to the gastropub concept in a hotel had been renovated and changed to Ace Hotel; we called it The Breslin because it had been the Breslin Hotel since the late 1800s.

The nose-to-tail trend took off at least partly because of The Breslin. How were you so attuned to that movement?

To do this American thing where you eat the tenderloin and throw the rest of the cow away is kind of dumb. And the most humane thing to do if you’re going to kill an animal is eat all of it.

When we opened The Spotted Pig, April would go to the meat purveyor and say, “What do you do with your chicken livers?” They’d answer, “Oh, we just give them away. Nobody even wants them.” So we got chicken livers for free from the meat purveyor.

The chicken liver toast that she did, which she called “chicken liver parfait,” was and is one of her bestsellers, and that’s all profit. Instead of charging $70 for a steak, we can charge $46 because we’re making so much money on the other parts of the same animal. We basically got to the point where we were buying whole cows and pigs because we were using every part. It wasn’t a movement as much as, that’s how people used to eat.

April grew up poor, and her mom would buy cheap cuts of meat and boil the hell out of them and season the hell out of them. That’s what pastrami is, that’s what corned beef is. The cheeks are the best part of the pig. To make head cheese, April takes all of the bones out of the pig head, boils it, rolls it up and ties it and slices it—and you have this beautiful meat like bologna or mortadella.

April makes liver and onions that bring tears to people’s eyes: “Oh my God, this is what my mom used to make us.” It’s a feel-good thing that’s good for the environment and good for the soul.

How has that philosophy continued with White Gold Butchers?

We get whole animals into our store on 78th and Amsterdam, and we sell and use every part of the animal. One of our bestselling dishes is beef heart.

People on the Upper West Side and others go there to maybe get a skirt steak for dinner, but they end up buying a bunch of cuts of meat that they never really knew how to cook because Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest, our partners who are the butchers there, are right at the counter. They say, “Here is what you do with this cut. Oxtail is really just the tail of a cow, and here’s how you make soup out of it.”

We do and will continue to sell any and all cuts of meat, including the innards and the offal. Hopefully more and more people are getting hip that it’s a good way to eat. Sometimes we even know the animals’ names. We go to the farms and pet them, so we know what we’re eating and we know what our customers are eating.

What’s your advice to people who want to be in the same position as you someday?

Life is full of trial and error. If I don’t succeed at this thing, I can go try something else or go back. Don’t think you’re stuck in one kind of career, unless you actually are—and even then I would take a look at how you can get out of doing something you just hate. Your hands aren’t tied, you know? If they are, untie them.

As time goes on, people are realizing, “I’m in charge of my own life. I can do whatever I want.” I switched careers at a point when everybody said, “You’re crazy.”

Say a young restaurateur has an idea, but not the money. How do they overcome those financial hurdles?

Think small at first. Instead of finding a shoe store and spending millions of dollars to transform it into a restaurant, find a building that was a restaurant, so you don’t have to spend too much money. Or, if the owner spent thousands or millions of dollars on infrastructure and kitchens and exhaust systems, that’s great. Make them a partner instead of giving them a bunch of money to walk away.

Don’t focus too much on rent. Pretty much 100 percent of the time when a restaurateur says, “I moved out because the rent was too high,” they’re not telling the truth. They moved out because butts stopped sitting in their seats. If the rent ends up being five or six days’ sales, you’re in trouble—but usually it’s not. If you’re doing well, rent could be three days’ sales, and that’s where it should be.

I’m not a bean counter. The way I solve every problem in my restaurant is get more customers in. Everything else falls into place. Your labor costs go down. Your food costs go down. Everything goes down by having more people there, so focus on doing something great.

For our readers who are coming from the chef side, what is your advice on forming a partnership with someone like you?

Be smart. Don’t be like a lot of chefs who think it’s all about them. It’s not. Chef-owned restaurants are boring. Chef-and-another-person-owned restaurants are not boring. A chef wants a blank canvas to show their art. They want no music, they want no other art on the walls; they want nothing to get in the way of their beautiful creation that they slaved over on the plate.

Customers don’t really want that. They want a casual, fun place, or a not-casual fun place. If you want to eat by yourself in quiet, stay home. If you want to go out, you want to go to a place that’s packed with people who are great to look at and interact with.

Food is the most important part of a restaurant, but it’s not the only reason why you go somewhere—in New York especially. You’ll walk by ten places that are empty and wait for an hour at the eleventh one, because you want to be there.

So my advice to chefs is: It’s not all about you, and stop trying to be on TV. Be a restaurant chef or don’t be a restaurant chef, but quit acting like you’re a restaurant chef when you really just want to be a TV star.

What’s next for you?

We’re in a lot of hotels—I have Locanda Verde in the Greenwich Hotel. We have two restaurants and a lobby bar in Ace Hotel. We have a restaurant in the Pod Hotel on 39th Street, Salvation Taco—and Salvation Burger in a Pod Hotel on 51st Street. We’re opening up Salvation Taco in a Pod Hotel in Williamsburg. I’m a part of the Monkey Bar with Graydon Carter, the editor of “Vanity Fair,” in Hotel Elysee.

People always come in The Spotted Pig and say, “Why isn’t this a hotel? Why don’t you have rooms upstairs that have the same kind of country pub feel?” Maybe that’s what we’ll do next.

It’s never too late to follow your passion — click here to learn how you can launch a new career right away by enrolling in one of ICE’s career programs. 

By Timothy Cooper

This interview originally appeared in ICE’s Main Course newsletter. 

Padma Lakshmi is perhaps best known as host and executive producer of Bravo’s Emmy Award–winning “Top Chef,” currently in its 14th season. But prior to that position, she was also an actress, food expert, model, and award-winning author.

Padma Lakshmi

Photo Credit: Inez & Vinoodh

Born in India, she grew up in America, graduated from Clark University with degrees in theater arts and American literature, and worked as a fashion model in Europe and the United States. Early on, she hosted two cooking shows on Food Network: “Padma’s Passport,” where she cooked dishes from around the world, and the documentary series “Planet Food.” She also wrote the best-selling cookbook “Easy Exotic,” and a second cookbook, “Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet.” In 2016, she published her memoir, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” as well as her new culinary compendium, “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs.”

For her hosting and judging role on “Top Chef,” she was nominated for an Emmy. Her line of culinary products, called Padma’s Easy Exotic, includes frozen organic foods, spice blends, teas, and more.

In 2009, she cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to bring attention to the disease she’d suffered from for years. In addition to helping launch a research facility for the disease, she helped get a bill passed in the New York State Senate to expand teen health initiatives throughout the state.

You’ve already had such a varied career, in areas including acting, modeling, authoring, TV hosting, and more. How did that develop into a focus on food?

Padma Lakshmi: My earliest memories are all about food, actually. They occurred mostly when I was a toddler in India. I still remember being on my grandmother’s cool marble floor in her kitchen. I wasn’t allowed to really cook back then, but I could still shell peas out of their pods or break the ends off of beans. From very early on, I associated cooking with womanhood. All the fun stuff was always happening in the kitchen.

Now you can get everything everywhere, but when I was a child there were certain delicacies that you couldn’t get in the south [of India] that we would have relatives bring us from the north. So just being covetous of different ingredients from different places started very young for me. I have been hunting and gathering ever since. My new spice book is definitely an offshoot of that lifelong passion.

Those ingredients you coveted—were a lot of them spices and herbs, or did they span the gamut?

In the case of coming from north India to south India, I remember my uncle used to always bring us something called aam papad, which is like a slightly thicker version of fruit leather. There’s sour mango, and there’s also sweet. I always liked the spicy, sour kind. So they weren’t necessarily all spices. But a lot of times, we were transporting things from different ends of the country, like dry lotus root from Kerala that was dehydrated and refried to accompany some rice dishes.

The spices that my mother uses—luckily they were all available at Kalustyan’s [in NYC’s Murray Hill neighborhood], but that’s because we lived in a major city. I think a lot of people experienced a sort of culinary homesickness. So what I’m describing is not that uncommon.

It sounds like Kalustyan’s was a major access point for the ingredients you longed for.

Yes, definitely. For several generations of immigrants in New York, Kalustyan’s was a real godsend. When I was growing up, there was only Kalustyan’s; and certainly when my uncle and my mother first came to this country, they didn’t have much else. Kalustyan’s started out as an Armenian shop. It wasn’t even Indian. Then over the years, as the neighborhood changed, the store changed along with it. And because they sold a lot of Eastern ingredients, meaning Armenian or Turkish, a lot of Indian people started going there to buy some overlapping spices. Now it’s become this gourmet ethnic food store that just covers the whole world. Every student should make a trip to Kalustyan’s. It’s very inspiring.

How did the concept develop for your latest book, “The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World” (HarperCollins)?

It’s actually an encyclopedia. It is an A-to-Z compendium. It’s a reference book. There are some recipes to make teas or tisanes [herbal infusions] or oils. There’s a section on how to roast spices, how to keep them fresh and store them. It’s cataloging every single spice on earth and telling you where it comes from, how it’s traditionally used, what cultures use it, if it has any historical significance, how to use it, what flavor notes are in it, how to store it, how much of it to use—all of that. It’s meant to be a guide that a cook, whether novice or professional, will reach for every day.

I was always curious about spices from other countries and how to change up my cooking and learn about other cultures through how they eat. I wanted one place I could go to. Of course you can go and Google anything these days, but it’s wonderful to have a tactile book in your hand—that pleasure of leafing through the pages, seeing a beautiful, vibrant picture. I was also itching to do something scholarly—something very empirically, scientifically accurate that wasn’t subject to taste or anything else. This book seeks to be that.

At what point did food media, food hosting, and culinary publishing start becoming a career for you?

I always loved to cook. I did a movie that I had to gain weight for, but aside from that, I had never tried to lose weight in my life. I was still in my 20s. So I really discovered how to trim the fat out of the food I ate and make it more healthy, and a book naturally came out of that. Nobody thought the book was going to do very well, but it did do well; it won a prize in Versailles. So I think people were surprised by that. I really fell into it by accident. I went on Food Network as a part of my book tour to publicize the book. After I was on there twice, they asked me again, then they offered me a development deal, which is how I started.

But before we get into food media or food hosting: Everybody wants to be a star these days by the time they’re 25. Sure, that happens to a lot of people, but you have to educate yourself. Whether it’s culinary school or working under a great chef that you admire or traveling with your backpack, going and literally tasting the world—or all of those things, hopefully—that will start to establish in you a point of view that is unique. Ask yourself, “Well, why do I want a career in this?” It’s not good enough to say, “I’m interested in food.” I’m interested in dance, but that doesn’t mean I should be a dancer.

What you want to think about is, what can you add to the food culture that already exists that is different? There are so many cookbooks. There are so many young people out there that say, “Oh, I want to be a chef, or I want a food show.” Well, why? Cooking is actually manual labor. It’s hard work. The hours are horrible. Just ask any chef! But if this is your passion, then I strongly suggest you live a little. Go and eat at great restaurants. Educate yourself. Buy books to gain knowledge. You just have to be hungry for information and experience.

I was recently working with a young person who was assisting me. They were testing a recipe with me, and they made the recipe to see if it worked. Then they said, “Well, I don’t know what this is supposed to taste like.” Of course they don’t—in this case, it was a spice blend, baharat. So they’ve led a particular life, and they haven’t had the chance to go to Turkey. But I think you owe it to yourself to go to a Turkish restaurant, if you can’t fly to Turkey. It’s a wonderful time to be young these days, because you have the Internet. You have mail order. The good news is, of course a rack of lamb is going to cost you a lot of money, but spices, for the most part, are relatively inexpensive and require little effort. It’s a great way to open your horizons.

When I was a kid, there was a guy on TV named Jeff Smith. They had a show on PBS called “The Frugal Gourmet.” Jeff would pick a country every show, and he would make all the dishes from that country. Through those recipes and talking about the ingredients, he would tell you about the history of that country, what grows there, the climate—all this information. You really got to immerse yourself, just within that half-hour, in the culture through the food.

It’s what I tried to do with “Planet Food,” these hour-long documentaries I did over a decade ago. Tell me what somebody eats, and I will tell you who they are.

So I think those young people who want a career in this business—it’s important to set yourself apart. It’s important to develop skills and tastes, and develop a palate, and really challenge yourself; really think about what your unique point of view is. If you were to open a restaurant, why should somebody invest in you? It costs a lot of money to open a restaurant and to keep it going. Most restaurants in New York fold within the first year.

Even if you don’t want to be a chef, if you want to be a writer, now everyone’s blogging about every other thing. You have to sharpen your literary skills, your writing skills, and your food skills, because every person with a computer is your competition now.

Through hosting “Top Chef,” I imagine you’ve seen many examples of people with a distinct culinary point of view. How can chefs start to recognize and develop their own voice?

I think a lot of people who have succeeded have a particular voice and a point of view that is instructive. I think Ina Garten is great because she’s very straightforward and in command of what she’s doing. She believes in common sense. That shows through. It’s simple recipes; but they work, and they’re very crowd-pleasing. They’re very elegant but still approachable. So that is her particular métier.

Somebody like Diana Kennedy, who’s English—she’s not even Mexican—has devoted her life to researching Mexican food, its heritage, its nuances, its regional differences; where things grow, why things grow. So she’s coming at it from a particular point of view. She’s so committed that she moved to Mexico years ago.

Even with Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook “Plenty”: I think the reason that “Plenty” did so well is because there were a lot of people who were eating like that, and there weren’t a lot of vegetarian cookbooks or recipes that were colorful and interesting and that didn’t feel like substitutes for meat and were full of flavor. Where Yotam comes from—I used to live right around the corner from his little gastropub in Notting Hill. So I know how he prepares his food. I’m a big fan of it. It’s got a beautiful point of view. It’s always very herbaceous, always very fresh, always has a lot of pomegranate and za’atar, these beautiful ingredients from the Middle East, but it’s not traditionally Middle Eastern. It’s much more contemporary and cosmopolitan than that, because he’s from London.

So you have to know what audience you’re talking to. For me, my audience is always me. Whether it’s a piece of jewelry or a recipe, I’m creating that for me or my friends. I don’t want to create or make anything that I wouldn’t feel really enthusiastic and proud to either use myself or give to someone else. So you can’t phone it in. You have to think about pockets of the culinary landscape that maybe haven’t been explored as much. When I first started, people were saying, “Wow, people aren’t really into global cuisine. Sure, you’ve traveled, but not everybody’s interested in using all those strange spices or whatever.”

But I think now the world has caught up to me. I probably seemed exotic in 1999, but I think everybody eats like me now.

Can you talk a bit more about how what were once considered niche cuisines are now going mainstream, or becoming targets of fusion with American or other cuisines?

The world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time. The possibilities and opportunities to taste different kinds of foods are much more prevalent today than even 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, because people are traveling, in spite of certain parts of the world that are dangerous, you do get to try more things. With the Internet and Instagram, you get to know about all these funky dishes.

If you have an interest, there is a portal for you to see that interest now where there wasn’t necessarily any before. For somebody like me, social media has been a huge boon, even though it is kind of tiring to always keep it up. But it’s important to remember that there are people out there who share your likes and passions. If you can tap into those people, then you’ve got something. My thing is, I always like to take classic dishes like macaroni and cheese, or chicken pot pie—very classic American comfort food—and then turn them on their heads; make them a little more modern, maybe slightly healthier.

In my last cookbook, there’s a recipe for Mexican macaroni and cheese. Just by adding two or three ingredients, like Mexican oregano, shallots, and pickled jalapenos, it does change the character of a dish. Subtle changes like that are also easier for people to explore certain new flavors with.

What do you personally like to make at home?

Well, I think one thing to do is just pick a handful of spices that are probably already in the spice rack. They kind of came with the kit, so to speak, and there they are, still sitting there. Herbes de provence is a good one, because you can use it in everything from pasta sauce to ratatouille to poultry and fish and roasted potatoes or sautéed vegetables. Curry powder is another—it doesn’t have to be spicy if you don’t want it to be.

I think a nice way to use these spices—and these are just two—is that I would make a compound butter. You just basically let the butter come to room temperature, and you just smash in some salt, some pepper, some curry powder or herbes de provence, and a little bit of pureed garlic or ginger, then just whisk that together and let it set in a ramekin. You can get fancy and make a log to slice.

Once you’ve done those two compound butters, you can take a nice, healthy pat of it, melt it in a frying pan, and toss some shrimp in it or sear off a chicken breast or a duck breast, or do some fish. Something like that you can use as an all- purpose weapon to flavor your food.

Another spice blend is ras el hanout, which is a Moroccan or North African blend that has a lot of different spices in it. And keeping a jar of preserved lemon is great; you can just remove the seeds and cut half a lemon up into small chunks. All you have to do is sauté that with some shallots and some parsley, and you can sauté any vegetable you want, from green beans to zucchini to parsnips and carrots and potatoes. You can do any kind of protein, like veal scaloppini.

I think people get intimidated by spices because they don’t understand them. They don’t want to measure. They don’t know how to mix it or what to use it with. So just pick one spice. Start small so you’re not overwhelmed.

You mentioned traveling and expanding your horizons, especially for young people. Do you have particular recommendations of destinations that changed the course of your life or your palate?

I think we really don’t have any clue about Mexican food. What we get is guacamole, but Mexican food is so layered and so elaborate. The spices are really beautiful. The more you go into the Yucatan and to Oaxaca, you can see how complex the cooking is. It’s quite sophisticated, and there are just so many flavors that never trickle up to us in the north. But you have to get out of the resort towns and go to Merida, places like that.

The regional food of Spain is also quite fascinating. And Turkey—while they’ve had some political unrest, I think Turkish food is really beautiful and delicious. I think it’s going to have its moment soon, because there are a lot of vegetarian dishes that are full of flavor and are not step-downs from meat dishes. They’re just holistically and proudly vegetarian dishes. Also, lentils and pulses and beans—all that kind of peasant food around the world that we haven’t really paid much credence to—deserve a deeper look.

What’s some advice you’d like to leave people with, especially those who are working on expanding their culinary horizons or even exploring a career in hospitality?

When you go to sleep at night, you should know something you didn’t know that morning—whether it’s going on the Internet for 10 minutes, picking up an old cookbook, going to an ethnic market, trying a different culture’s food, or watching a different show than you would normally watch. Whatever it is, you should try to always educate yourself.

My grandfather was hired as a civil engineer when he was 16, but after he retired, he went to law school. I think that thirst for information, that thirst for skill, should never cease. You should always be a lifelong student, because those are the people that not only have interesting lives, but continue to evolve and have stage two and stage three and stage four of their careers.

Ready to follow in Padma’s footsteps and launch your own exciting culinary career? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs. 

By Andrea Strong

In 2013, Dominique Ansel opened a tiny pastry shop in SoHo where he married a croissant and a donut and turned its offspring, the Cronut®, into an overnight Instagram sensation that was heralded by TIME magazine as one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2013.” Since then, Ansel has gone on to create some of the most inspired and viral desserts in the industry, including the Cookie Shot, Frozen S’more, Blossoming Hot Chocolate, Gingerbread Pinecone and Christmas Morning Cereal. His out-of-the-box creations have given him a reputation as a “culinary Van Gogh” (Food & Wine) and “the Willy Wonka of New York” (New York Post).

Dominique Ansel

photo credit Thomas Schauer

What’s the next step for the creator of the most Instagram-worthy pastry on the planet? To quote Ansel, “the creation isn’t killing the creativity.” He’s taking yet another risk and expanding into unchartered territory — the savory kitchen, with a full-service restaurant called 189 by Dominique Ansel set to open this fall in Los Angeles at The Grove. The restaurant name is personal: it is taken from the address of Ansel’s original SoHo shop, located at 189 Spring Street. Coincidentally, his LA restaurant address also happens to be at 189 The Grove Drive. “It was meant to be,” said Ansel. “It reminds us of our home, and now it will be our second home on the West Coast.”

Andrea Strong spoke with Dominique about his move from pastry to savory, the challenges of opening restaurants in new cities and finding inspiration in unexpected places — like nail art.

What inspired you to choose Los Angeles as a location for your first savory restaurant? I’m a tad upset — what about NYC! 

I’ve always loved LA. The food scene is so exciting and so eclectic, and it’s so much a part of the culture there. Each time I visit LA, I find myself going to different neighborhoods, ones that are often out of the way, just to eat. One minute you can be having amazing Korean BBQ, Ethiopian food the next, then al pastor tacos from a truck somewhere late at night. And there’s beautiful fresh produce year-round so I’m excited for that, too. Plus, coming from New York where our Soho shop is quite small and has a tiny kitchen of just about a hundred square feet, it’ll be nice to have so much more space to work with.

How does your pastry background influence your savory cooking?

I actually started working in kitchens on the savory side before turning over to pastry. It’s the science behind pastry that really stuck with me. I love that it requires precision and measuring. You have to be exact. And I think that carries over to all parts of cooking — the level of discipline, precision and planning that goes into all that you do in a kitchen regardless if it’s a pastry or a savory kitchen.

I wonder what you might tell a student about being limited to pastry or savory cooking. In other words, should a pastry student stick to pastry or should they be open to doing savory? Is it best to stay in your niche?

You should never limit yourself. I always tell my team to stay curious and to really push yourself and not be afraid of trying something new. If people always stayed in their niche or stuck to what’s comfortable for them, then creativity wouldn’t be possible.

One of the things I think is most impressive about chefs is their fortitude. You are constantly faced with criticism and I wonder how you stay true to your goals and follow your passion when there are naysayers along the way.

For us, it’s about continuing to create. We have a saying: “Don’t let the creation kill the creativity,” meaning, don’t let one creation stop you from continuing to come up with new ideas and to keep pushing. Even before we opened, there were people who would tell me that a French bakery in New York would never work, and that I should make cupcakes and cheesecakes. I didn’t listen. Every day, we work on developing new ideas, new creations and when I see our guests enjoying what we’ve made, it makes all of it worth it.

You have said that when you cook you try to make an emotional connection with people. Desserts like the Cronut and the Frozen S’more take people to a more simple time. What is it about food that you think really moves people and how do you figure out how to do that so well? 

Food is such a personal thing. You always remember that birthday dinner you had with your family, celebrating special moments with a beautiful cake, spending the holidays around the table with your loved ones — all of these moments that are centered around food. With desserts, there’s a sense of nostalgia there too — roasting marshmallows around the campfire during the summertime, having cookies and milk after school, baking with your mom or grandma when you were a kid. For us, food is a way to create a memory or an emotional connection with people.

Dominique Ansel

You have shops in London and Tokyo. How do you learn about a new culture before you make the leap? What is your process? Do you move there? Eat there for a few days? Talk to friends? 

We took a lot of time in developing Japan and London, both of which were years in the making. Japan is somewhere where I get a lot of inspiration — from the food, from learning about the culture, appreciating the dedication that people have for food and for their craft there. And the talent there is incredible — well-trained chefs who have the skills and the discipline to maintain quality. And with London, there’s quite an international scene when it comes to food and a blend of history and heritage there that’s special. We spent quite some time immersing ourselves in the culture, learning from the locals and about local ingredients and traditions, understanding people’s tastes and how to work with new ingredients we hadn’t worked with before and learning from our partners there who helped guide us along the way.

What are the challenges you’ve faced in expanding overseas or to new markets?

With distance, quality becomes the most important thing — maintaining quality day in and day out. And communication becomes crucial too — having a team that’s on the ground who communicates with one another about what’s happening in the kitchen and in the FOH, and also communicating to our team here in NYC that’s an ocean away.

There’s also a learning curve when it comes to working with local ingredients, because with pastry, the tiniest nuances and changes with moisture levels, fat content, how the flour is aged, etc., can make all the difference. Learning to standardize ingredients and recipes in London and in Tokyo took some time to work out. In the UK, for example, the dairy is richer and thicker, so infusion times go up. The eggs are different, the butter is different, so we took a lot of time working on standardizing recipes to adapt.

Do you have any advice for someone who is trying to make that move to expand to an unfamiliar market?

You have to make yourself familiar first and foremost. If you don’t do the proper due diligence to really understand the culture, local tastes and adapt accordingly, then you shouldn’t be heading into that market.

Let’s talk a bit about inspiration — where do you find yours? Did the Cronut come to you in a dream? 

For me, inspiration can come from anywhere — from traveling, from art and architecture, fashion, even something totally unrelated to food that I see on Instagram, like nail art, for example. Each item that we create has a different story and a different inspiration, so there isn’t a set formula.

The Cronut was just one item that we decided to add to our menu. It took more than two months and 10 different recipes until we finally got it right. We change our menu every six to eight weeks, so it was just another new creation.

How do you instill inspiration and motivation in your staff? 

We’re always working on creating something new, and I encourage my team to push themselves to think out of the box, even if that means failing the first few times we try something. I also think that a product is never really complete. There’s always a way that it can be improved, whether it’s figuring out a different way to present or plate it, or a different technique when it comes to the baking process. It can always get better, and we can always get better.

What comes next? Will New York City get a savory restaurant too? (Please say yes!)

We’re taking things slowly and steadily, making sure not to overwhelm the team or open something just for the sake of opening. We put a lot of thought and a lot of time into each place that we open, so it’s never just a cut and paste. We just opened a new shop in Tokyo, and with the LA restaurant coming up in the fall, that’s our focus.

Ready to pursue your passion for food? Take the first step by clicking here to learn more about ICE’s career programs.

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 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.

 

By Caitlin Gunther

Ben Wiley (Pastry Arts ‘06), co-owner of five successful Brooklyn bars, is on the move. Whether he’s scooting to a jiu-jitsu class in Manhattan or popping into one of his bars for a weekly visit, he’s always headed somewhere—that and a passion for the service industry seem to be his calling cards.

ICE Alum Ben Wiley

From his hometown in northern New Jersey, Ben headed west to the University of Illinois to study Japanese. He then traded the Midwest for Yokohama, Japan, where he enrolled in a master’s degree program through Stanford University. It was during this time that Ben developed a love for baking and craft beer. Motivated by a paucity of good, readily available bread, he spent countless hours in his home kitchen trying to create the perfect loaf. When he wasn’t studying or in the kitchen, Ben was a regular barfly and part-time bartender, which served to improve both his language skills and knowledge of good, craft beer. After five years in Japan, Ben returned to New Jersey, at which point, with visions of a small café or bakery in his head, he decided to enroll in the Pastry Arts program at ICE. After completing an externship in one of the hottest kitchens in New York City, Del Posto, he and his brother hatched a back-of-a-napkin plan to open their own business—a neighborhood bar.

Though transitioning from pastry chef to bar owner seems like a leap, the detail- and service-oriented nature of both are a natural fit for Ben. He took a pause from one of his typical, frenetic days to do the ICE alum questionnaire.

ICE graduation year: Pastry Arts ‘06

Location: Brooklyn, New York

Occupation: Co-owner of five bars in Brooklyn: Bar Great Harry, The Owl Farm, Mission Dolores, Glorietta Baldy and Cardiff Giant

Ben Wiley at Mission Dolores

Favorite sandwich spot:

There is a bodega right on the corner of 27th and 8th Avenue, right by FIT. It’s a standard-issue bodega that probably makes the same wraps as every other one in town, but they know me. I get a spinach wrap with chicken, sautéed spinach and some kind of cheese—I always tell them to pick one for me. It’s perfect. It digests well, and I can work right after. It’s six bucks, and it makes me happy. 

Describe a day in the life.

My wife and I get up around 7:30 a.m. I make her coffee every day. I don’t have to get up early, but I like to. With the dog, I walk her halfway to work, then the dog and I come back. I work from home for about two hours—emailing stuff, ordering beers, working on upcoming events and organizing anniversaries. With five bars you end up having anniversaries all the time. I scoot on my scooter into Manhattan and train jiu-jitsu for an hour. I stop by the bodega, grab my wrap, then I scoot to whichever bar I’m working in that day. I generally pop into each bar once a week. I’ll work for about two hours, then come home to start prepping dinner and walk the dog. When my wife comes home, we’ll have a drink (or not—we take a month off drinking sometimes). Then we hang out, put our feet up and laugh at all the nonsense we’ve gotten up to that day. Or I work out again. We work out a lot.

Mission Dolores Brooklyn

Mission Dolores

What inspired you to go to culinary school?

After I got my master’s degree in Japan, I landed a job as a translator for the Japanese government. They shipped me to Fukui, where I lived for three years doing a “suit-and-tie” desk job. It’s hard to find good bread in Japan. There are amazing French bakeries spotted around the country, but the general level of bread was limited to big, fluffy white bread. I couldn’t find the “healthy” bread that I wanted, so I got into baking. I was making bread in bread machines, then experimenting with 48-hour fermented dough and trying to catch yeast in the air. I bought a ton of books. That’s one thing: if I get into something, I get into it pretty seriously.

After five years in Japan, I came back to the states. I moved into my mom’s apartment in Patterson, NJ, working for a garbage collection company and trying to figure out my life. I realized that I’ve always loved bread, so I Googled and found ICE, located right in New York City. “This could be my ticket to a new life,” I thought. I envisioned opening a small bakery or café one day. So I enrolled. When I graduated, I got an externship at Del Posto when it had just opened.

The key is to treat people well enough that they’re succeeding and happy so that they don’t have to take from you to be happy. I say, “Make the people who work for you win first, and you’ll win later.” 

What got you into the bar business?

After culinary school, I moved in with my brother in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. He was working in a job where he was doing well, but not happy and looking to shake things up. The craft beer scene was very small in New York at the time. One night over beers, my brother and I started talking about opening up a bar. I remember sitting in our kitchen, literally mapping things out on the back of envelopes— if we sell 10 beers an hour, open eight hours a day—those types of calculations. We both loved the idea. One night we were out at a crappy little bar at 280 Smith Street (where Bar Great Harry is now), and there was a little old guy at the corner of the bar, wearing a suit. I said to Mike, “What’s a guy like that doing here? He has to be the owner.” When he went out for a cigarette, Mike and I followed him outside. “Is this your bar?” I asked. “We want to buy your bar.” The guy smiled and said, “Really? I want to sell my bar.” Three months later the contract was signed, and we completely renovated the space. That was Bar Great Harry. I bartended every day for weeks and weeks until we could hire more staff.

How did studying pastry arts at ICE prepare you for owning bars?

Culinary school, especially pastry, is all about being prepared. The execution, a monkey could do. It’s how well you prepare and measure everything out, that’s what’s important. That skill set is tremendously important to a small business that’s inventory-based. In a service industry, it’s different, but we have liquid that I sell. Everything has to be calculated—what’s the yield from this keg of beer, how many servings do I get, which size servings, how many do we have to sell. That idea of weighing, measuring, preparation, mise en place—that had a tremendous impact on me and how I manage our business.

Bar at Mission Dolores

Bar at Mission Dolores

Advice for anyone considering getting into the bar business?

It cannot be said enough how important your staff is. In a bar, your staff will make or break you. If you’re successful with one bar, you’re going to open two and three. You can’t be everywhere all the time. As soon as you’re not there all the time, you can have all the checks and balances you want, but people will take from you. The key is to treat people well enough that they’re succeeding and happy so that they don’t have to take from you to be happy. I say, “Make the people who work for you win first, and you’ll win later.” Hire people who you trust deep down. You can train people to make a drink. But when I interview people I think about whether I really trust them and whether they really want to be there.

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

In five, I’ll still be partners with my brother in the bar business. Maybe we’ll have six or seven bars at that point. I think six and seven will be different from the first five, but not sure what form they will take. Hopefully doing something a bit different from before. We’re also looking for houses up the Hudson River.

Ready to launch your new career? Find out more about ICE’s career programs. 

 

Interview by Chef Kathryn Gordon—Co-Chair, Center for Advanced Pastry Studies (CAPS)

Interview with Stevi Auble - HeadshotJust like many of our professional Pastry & Baking Arts students, cake designer Stevi Auble didn’t always dream of constructing trendsetting cakes. Yet this career changer’s shift from interior design to edible design has cemented her as an icon in the field of custom luxury cakes.

Formerly, you were an interior designer. What inspired you to shift your focus to cakes?
It was something that evolved a few years ago. I started making cupcakes for my youngest daughter’s preschool and the director really started to push me to sell them because they were so well received. Eventually that word of mouth turned into inquiries from all over, and it put me in a position where I had to decide whether or not I wanted to create a legitimate business. Ultimately, I decided go to forgo the interior design industry and become my own boss. Initially, the concept for Hey There, Cupcake! was a small designer cupcake company, but soon that transitioned into full-sized cakes (including wedding cakes). My design background plays a huge part in my cake decorating style, translating basic design principles into the construction of each cake. In particular, I have always loved textiles and prints; an influence you can see in the majority of my cakes.

How did you develop your signature specialties for your cakes?
I have always done my best to stick to what I like personally and really stay away from “trends.” I always draw my inspiration from the design and art worlds, rather than looking at other cakes. This may lead to unconventional cake designs, but they are something that I am proud to have my name on regardless of how they are received by the public.

What do you think is the root of your success?
I would say that my success stems from a combination of perseverance and being confident in my design choices. I have found this business—as with any other—to be very challenging. It takes a lot of perseverance to move forward through it all. A big piece of that is knowing who you are and sticking to it. I believe that any of the success I have had in this business is because I have always created what feels right to me. I never ask myself, “Will other people like this?” I think that’s a creativity killer.

Interview with Stevi Auble - Wafer Paper Flower Cakes

What advice would you give to pastry professionals interested in entering the cake field?  
I think it’s important for them to know that it isn’t easy, not in the least. There are so many facets to this particular field, as the majority of designers are also small business owners. Not only do you need to be extremely consistent and reliable as a baker and decorator, but you also have to have extensive knowledge of how to run a business.

What is one “cake disaster” that you would share with students as a lesson?
My biggest disaster was actually just this past summer. During a delivery, my assistant was cut off by another car, and the cake she was transporting fell over, significantly damaging the top tier. I happened to be out of the country teaching, and it was the middle of the night in Germany. She didn’t feel she could call me for advice on how to rectify the situation, so she fixed the cake as best she could and the florist was able to add some flowers to hide some of the damage. However, the cake was not what it was supposed to be. Luckily the couple was extremely kind and understanding, but I learned a valuable lesson—to make sure, first and foremost, that my staff knows that they can contact me at any time. It’s also important to remember that sometimes life just happens and all you can do is your best. It’s the way that you react to situations that really matters.

Can you tell me more about the “Wafer Paper Flowers” class you’ll be teaching on Feb 9-10 at ICE?
I will be teaching the students how to create three different kinds of wafer paper flowers—my favorite technique. I love the visual lightness that wafer paper offers. For me, it’s the perfect balance of a lovely visual effect in edible form. We’ll also cover a fun paint technique to enhance their overall design.

Click here to register for Stevi’s class and to see the full 2015 schedule of advanced pastry classes at ICE.

By Carly DeFilippo

In our increasingly global food scene—where we can access ingredients as diverse as octopus, chicory and passionfruit; where our shelves are lined with cookbooks celebrating Italian, Filipino, Middle Eastern or South American cuisine—what is the value of regional cooking? It’s a question that ICE Culinary Arts alum Vivian Howard and an evolving community of chefs are exploring by revisiting the flavors of their ancestors, celebrating the ingredients and dishes of regional American cuisine.

Acclaimed for both her work as chef/co-owner of Chef & The Farmer and her acclaimed PBS show A Chef’s Life, Vivian was presented with a Peabody Award in 2014 and has been nominated twice for the James Beard “Best Chef Southeast” award. But beyond these honors, Vivian’s cooking and storytelling are breathing new life into the culinary traditions of eastern North Carolina, inspiring a new generation of chefs to explore their own roots and celebrate the taste of home.

What were you doing before you enrolled at ICE?
Before I started cooking, I worked in advertising as an executive on the Pantene account. But I knew that I didn’t want to do that forever, so I quit my job. As I was trying to find myself, I started working in restaurants, and the first real place I worked was as a server at Voyage, which did southern food via the African diaspora.

I became very interested in the stories behind the food, so I started working in the kitchen as a means to become a food writer. I didn’t intend to become a chef, but I found that I enjoyed the camaraderie, the fast pace, the deadlines and the message of it all. The chef I was working for recommended that I enroll in a culinary program, so that I could get an internship in the city’s top kitchens.

REX MILLER_DSC_7194
What were the highlights of your time in culinary school?
I liked ICE’s approach, and I felt it was a well-rounded program that would help me discover what direction I wanted to follow. My first instructor was Alex Guarnaschelli, who was such a great storyteller, a passionate teacher and—of course—a female chef. She really set the bar for my experience. I also remember Chef Ted; he was very intimidating, but turned out to be one of my favorites—so knowledgeable, very open and just knew everything. All my teachers were great. I never popped up so easily in the morning as when I was in culinary school.

Where was your externship, and how did it influence your future in the industry?
My externship was at wd-50. It was just about to open at the time, and the New York Times did a big spread on the restaurant. I remember reading about the avant-garde techniques, and thinking, “I want to do that.” It was a kitchen of super intense males at the top of their game, but they were open to [me externing]. The first day, I was terrified. It was overwhelming for a young woman from North Carolina—I was still working on my knife skills! But I had a great experience and became more comfortable.

Chef Wylie Dufresne and former Pastry Chef Sam Mason of wd-50

Chef Wylie Dufresne and former Pastry Chef Sam Mason of wd-50

I remember working in pastry, making a parsnip cake that Chef Sam Mason was so well-known for at the time. He did a lot of vegetable-based desserts, which I found very interesting and that I’ve carried with me over the years. I also remember working on a squid noodle dish where we froze the squid and then sliced it into long strips. It was one of the first times I really witnessed reinvention or a sort of culinary “trickery” on the plate.

What came next for you after wd-50?
From there I went on to join the opening team at Spice Market, and I stayed there for 8-10 months. I enjoyed the super fast-paced environment, with a ton of covers and Jean Georges himself on board—a great learning experience. But I began to think I might like catering, so I started working in that field after Spice Market and had a little non-legitimate catering business that I was running out of my apartment.

Around that time, I had some folks interested in investing in a soup shop in the city, but when my parents heard that I was really thinking of putting down roots in New York, they said, “Oh no, come back to North Carolina and we’ll help you open up a restaurant here.”

So I moved back to eastern North Carolina and began renovating a building and starting over from scratch. It took just over a year to actually open, and since I was just a line cook in New York City, I had no real experience running a kitchen. I was still trying to find my voice. But as I learned more about this place where I grew up and the food that I ate during my childhood, I came to love and respect that food. So I slowly started reinventing traditional dishes from our region of North Carolina, and we got a great response from our neighbors and the community.

How did running a regionally-focused restaurant evolve to the point where you were producing A Chef’s Life?
Four years ago, I had some neighbors who invited me over to make collard kraut. Here I am with four sixty-year-old men, using the same seeds that have been passed down for generations. They explained to me the traditions—including specific rules like the fact that women never made the kraut—as well as certain beliefs based on the farmers’ almanac. I found this so interesting, and I wrote a little blog post about it.

But my interest in these kind of traditional, regional stories really started to grow, and I started talking about filming and sharing them with other people. Finally, my husband said, “Please go talk to someone else about it.” So I reached out to a childhood friend, Cynthia Hill, to ask if she’d be willing to help out with the project. We started experimenting with what I was like on camera, and finally we came up with a pilot around the subject of sweet corn.

At that point, Cynthia had some contacts in New York and at University of North Carolina TV, but everyone said no. They didn’t understand what to do with it—was it a cooking show or was it a documentary? But we felt strongly that it was special, so we brought it to South Carolina TV, and they loved it and wanted to take it national to PBS. But for that to happen, we had to make 12 more episodes to create a series. We raised the money locally through economic development groups and a Kickstarter campaign, scraping together just enough to make that first season.

You’ve won a number of awards—notably James Beard Foundation and a Peabody awards—for the series. Are there any particular milestones or accomplishments of which you feel most proud?
I used to be very milestone-oriented. “Oh, if I can get a review by this newspaper or if I can get nominated for this award.” Or, “Oh, if we can just make this first season.” But at this point, I’ve decided that I’m not going to focus on those things and just try and enjoy the journey. Because with every positive milestone comes challenges, too.

What might people be surprised to learn about your job?
I don’t know if this would surprise people, but my day-to-day routine has changed a lot. A year ago, I would have been in my kitchen starting at 9am, prepping for service, expediting and then going home for the night. Instead, I’m in a car with two friends, heading to a bluegrass festival to shake hands and sign autographs. Clearly that’s not every day, but my role in my restaurant is changing as a result—even though, when I get off the phone with you, I’m going to write out the mise en place sheets for some new dishes I’ve developed. I’m still trying to run a restaurant kitchen, so there’s a lot of juggling that goes on [between my two careers].

What do you hope the future holds for you, for A Chef’s Life, and for the restaurant?
I would like to see what we’re doing in our community make the community a stronger place—with more economic opportunities, more young people, etc. I want our restaurant and our series to help make eastern North Carolina a place that folks want to travel to and spend time in. On a personal note, I also want to find balance in my life, where I can feel like I’m doing right by my restaurant staff and that I’m doing my best as a mother and a wife. I have no interest in developing a restaurant chain; I want to impact and support those people who are close by.

How would you describe your “culinary voice”?
I believe in cooking food that has a story behind it and integrity to it—food with a very specific sense of place and that people want to eat.

Click here to read about other ICE alumni pursuing careers in the field of food media.

 

ICE - Pro Dev - Wylie Dufresne

Wylie Dufresne. [Photo by Dominic Perri]

It was recently announced that Chef Wylie Dufresne, one of the leaders of the country’s modernist cooking movement, would be closing down the acclaimed, 11-year-old wd~50 on New York City’s Lower East Side. Dufresne has gained national recognition for his cutting-edge creativity, receiving awards including the 2013 James Beard Award for “Best Chef New York City” and a Michelin star, which he has maintained every year at wd~50 since the founding of the Michelin’s first American edition, in 2006.

It is a set-back that we are sure will open up many new opportunities for the famed chef, who, prior to striking out on his own, served as sous chef at Jean Georges in New York City and chef de cuisine at Prime in The Bellagio, Las Vegas. Today, Dufresne also oversees the kitchen at Alder in New York City’s East Village, a restaurant that reflects a more approachable interpretation of his modernist leanings.

Earlier this year, we spoke to Dufresne about his influences, his unique perspective and what’s next for him as a chef.

How your passion for food translated into a career in this business?

I think my joy of eating has translated into a curiosity about how things are made. You know, whether I’m eating sushi, and I wonder how that piece of fish is cut or butchered, or want to learn more about the rice-making process, or I’m at a diner and am fascinated by the short-order cook and what he or she is doing behind the counter. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know anything. I’m a curious person, so it’s been exciting to me to realize that cooking is an opportunity for continuing education; it will never end….No one will ever know everything; it’s mathematically impossible.

I was in Mission Cantina the other night eating Danny [Bowien]’s food. And I’m not a particularly good student of Mexican cooking…But, you know, the fact that he’s making his own tortillas and the nixtamalization [cooking corn to prepare it for masa dough] that’s involved…There are times when I certainly can figure out how somebody did something. But I don’t know how exactly one makes corn tortillas, and, while it’s a simple thing that’s been made by simple people for centuries, it’s still fascinating to me because it’s something that I don’t know how to do.

You got your degree in philosophy at Colby College. What led you to cooking?

I went through life as an average student. It wasn’t until I found a love of cooking and was able to really apply my curiosity to it that I excelled. No one at Colby College remembers me for my academic achievements.

When I stumbled upon the kitchen, I realized that I had found something that I wanted to do. I had learned how to learn [with philosophy], so I just transferred that onto the subject of cooking. I take a very academic approach to cooking, but it was accidental that I was drawn to cooking.

Do you know what it was that initially made you start applying yourself and wanting to learn everything about food?

I realized that playing team sports and working kitchens were very similar, and cooking was the closest I was ever going to get to playing professional sports. There’s a lot of similarities between the kitchen and sports. The life lessons that you find in sports, you find in kitchens, and the experiences that you find in team sports, you find in kitchens. The physical aspect, the mental aspect, the hierarchy, the layout. The fact that there is a chef and a coach overseeing a sous chef and a team captain—and practice players are sort of like prep cooks.

The first half of the day is preparing for the second half of the day, which is a lot like going to practice before the big game. There’s an anxiety level, the redemptive quality, the fact that you missed a layup, or you struck out. Or you overcooked a piece of fish, but you’ve gotta do it again and again and again….Each time, you have a opportunity to try and do it better than you did the time before.

You thought you could excel in this career.

I didn’t think I could excel; I hadn’t done anything that I enjoyed as much. I hadn’t done anything that moved me. I was slated to go spend a year as a ski bum in New Mexico. But I blew out my knee skiing in college, so I couldn’t go.

And I started thinking, “Well, why don’t I go, you know, go be a cook?” Because it’s the only thing that I’ve done that really moved me the way playing sports had. I mean, I would be a professional athlete if I was as good at sports as I am at cooking.

How have you changed since you first started out in the kitchen? 

Well, I was always committed, but I was green, and I’m no longer green. I have 21 years under my belt of professional cooking, so I’m more comfortable. Back then I had a different role. I wanted to be the best line cook I could be, I wanted to be the best cook in the room. I wanted to be better than everybody else….

I had the mindset of an athlete, like, “I’m going to be better than all the people here, I want to be better”. “Who’s the best one in the room?” “I’m going to size that one up. I’m going to try and do whatever he or she is doing better than they’re doing it. Whatever it is they know, I want to know”. And I became a voracious consumer of knowledge. Early on in my career, I spent all my money on cookbooks….I still continue to invest in them.

Did you have any particular mentors?

Early on in my career, I was lucky to work for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. He was probably the person that’s left the deepest impression on me. I’m lucky he’s still a partner in this restaurant; I was on the phone with him yesterday. He’s someone who I consider a mentor, but now I consider a friend as well. Still to this day, when I think about food, whether consciously or subconsciously, he’s very much a part of my process.

What are some of the lessons that he imparted that stuck with you the most?

Simplicity. He showed me the value in taking away, taking things off of a plate. He always talked about two, three, four elements on a plate. That’s it. The more you put on the plate, the easier it is to hide. The more you take away, there’s nowhere to hide—it has to be good.

More than just about anyone I can think of, he has done a great job sort of melding traditional European style with some of the Asian influences. He took traditional French food and lightened it. He took all the cream and the stocks and replaced them with juices and oils. It’s still, to this day, very compelling to me.

ICE - Pro Dev - Wylie Dufresne

Wylie Dufresne in the wd~50 kitchen. [Photo from newyorkkitchen.net]

Tell me about the reality of running a restaurant versus working in restaurants earlier in your career.

Well, it’s very different. I think it goes without saying that it’s easier to be an employee than it is to be an employer at times. When you become a manager, you’re responsible for more people. As a line cook, you’re responsible for your own sort of small, little world. As an employer, obviously, you have a bottom line, you have investors, you have to somehow try to make a profit. You just take on more weight as you move up the ladder.

You have to see a much larger picture as you become a restaurant owner. So not only do you have to think about the little things, but you also have to think about the larger things and all things in between. But if the myth of Sisyphus is compelling, if you don’t mind pushing the rock up the hill—if you can find the joy in the doing, as Camus said—then it’s great; you don’t mind moving that rock.

But you feel a responsibility for other people. I have, between the wd~50 and Alder, 55 employees, and I have to look out for them and worry about them and make sure that they’re okay, as well as the clientele. But I see all of those things not as a burden but as a joy.

What brought about the second restaurant? What was the opportunity there, or were you looking?

We can take wd~50 and put the restaurant in a place that’s not as hard to get to, because we’re still a destination. Like, you could come to Alder for just a bite and a drink. Or a drink and a bite. It’s not as much of a commitment. You don’t have to come for a tasting menu. It’s not as expensive—you can get in and out. The average check is $55 [for Alder] versus $165 [for wd~50].

Like I said, I surely don’t favor one over the other; obviously, they’re both very important to me, and Alder doesn’t exist without wd~50. So Alder is hopefully standing out for the quality and the approach. It’s a boat in a pond full of other boats; wd~50 is in a pond all by itself.

Are there any particular restaurants, chefs, or cuisines that are inspiring you right now?

I’m on a bit of a Japanese kick right now. We don’t know much about Japanese cooking as a culture, even as cooks, and the more I learn about Japanese cooking techniques, the more intrigued I am. It’s very labor-intensive and very complicated stuff that is presented in a way that’s very simple. So you don’t see the labor behind it, and that’s what I find beautiful. It seems effortless, but yet there’s layers and layers behind it.

I’m always intrigued by what the Spanish are up to. Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastián [in Spain], is probably one of the smartest and more clever chefs in the world today. Whatever Heston Blumenthal is up to I find compelling. And then, of course, I always return to France, because that was sort of my first love and where I started in terms of cuisine and the cooking styles that I was drawn to initially.

ICE - Pro Dev - Wylie Dufresne

Dishes of wd~50. [Photo from chefhermes.com]

How much stock do you put into restaurant criticism and awards and stars?

I think that there’s always going to be an interesting relationship between those that do and those whose job it is to critique those that do. Whether you’re a writer or an athlete or a painter or a chef, there’s going to be people whose job it is to critique what you do because that’s the nature of the beast. Maybe it’s the philosopher in me that sees it that way. But there is inherently an unease between them.

You go into it knowingly. Very few of us are blindsided by the fact that suddenly, we’re reviewed by the New York Times. Or that we did or didn’t get a Michelin star. You can’t say, “Well, that’s not fair.”, you can’t stomp your feet. You signed up for it. This is the name of the game.

When a restaurant gets an award or a star or recognition in some sense, it’s an acknowledgement that the team is really working on all cylinders, the team is being effective. So yes, it’s nice for me personally, but it’s more satisfying for me because it’s acknowledgement for a lot of people who are often anonymous in the process.

You can’t say that this is a four-star restaurant or a three-star Michelin restaurant without acknowledging that there’s a bunch of people whose faces you’ll never see, killing themselves for you. It lets those anonymous people know that, in fact, people are seeing the details.

 

ICE - Pro Dev - Wylie Dufresne

Wylie plays with his food on Late night with Jimmy Fallon, as the host and Questlove look on. [Photo from Eater.com]

You’ve been on Treme, Top Chef, MasterChef, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and more. Do you have a favorite experience after being on so many different shows?

It’s not something that I ever expected to come my way; it was very serendipitous. I do think that Top Chef, which I’ve done the most, has been really enjoyable. But I feel lucky, you know, whether it was Treme or Top Chef or local news. Again, it was never a goal, it was never something I set out to do, so I feel fortunate that it’s been an unexpected part of what I do.

Do you have a current dream, goal, or mission you’re working toward or that you could envision?

I have a couple more ideas that I’d like to sort of spring on the world and see if they’ve got legs, but I don’t have like a plan for world domination or something. You know, I’d like to continue to grow. I’d like to continue to take the restaurants that I have and operate and continually make them better.

I’d like to continue to improve. Hopefully as an individual, as a parent, as a leader, as a chef, as a restaurant owner. Take better care of our customers, better care of our staff. Just see how we can make it a pleasurable place to work. Make it a good organization to be a part of. That sort of thing.

What are you looking for when you’re hiring?

I’m just looking for somebody that has the right attitude. That has a willingness to learn. I just want people that are willing to think. And I mean that in a broader sense—people who don’t want to just charge ahead but stop and say, “Why am I doing it this or that way?”

ICE - Pro Dev - Wylie Dufresne

[photo from thebraiser.com]

For people who are studying culinary arts now or thinking about getting into the industry, do you have advice?

It’s harder than people think it is. I think to excel at anything or be good at anything, there has to be a lot of personal sacrifice. A good support team around you, whether that be family or loved ones. Whether you want to be the greatest, you know, stamp-licker in the world, or an Olympian or a painter, you have to be willing to make some sacrifices. You have to be willing to love the miles.

Any last words for students who are just starting out in the restaurant world?

Don’t email your resume. Drop it off in person. If you didn’t take the time to walk in here, I’m not going to take the time to read it. If you take the time to walk into the restaurant with your resume, somebody from the kitchen will walk out and shake your hand and look you in the eye. But if you email it to us, it won’t even get to us.