By Danielle Page

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

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

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

Simone Tong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Vaknin

photo courtesy of Beyond Sushi

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

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

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

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

 

Chef Miguel Trinidad

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

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

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

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

By Caitlin Raux

“During the Qin Dynasty, a scholar was studying for an exam. He went to a park on an island to study. The scholar’s wife wanted to bring him noodles for lunch and she had to cross the bridge.” Simone Tong (Culinary Arts, Culinary Management ‘11) was filling me in on the legend behind “crossing the bridge noodles,” also called mixian (mee-syan), the Yunnan province specialty that New Yorkers are eagerly slurping at Simone’s new East Village restaurant, Little Tong Noodle Shop. “She discovered, because she was very smart — smarter than her husband, obviously,” Simone continued, with a chuckle, “that a layer of chicken fat covering the broth would keep the noodles hot while she crossed the bridge. And then she cooked the raw food in the broth once she arrived.”

Ingenuity, it turns out, also finds its way into the kitchen of Little Tong, where Simone’s impeccable technique and reverence for each ingredient is met with her own brand of creativity and humor. The result is dishes like the “Lijiang old town grandma-inspired” Grandma Chicken Mixian: an addictive combination of light chicken broth, tender chicken confit, black sesame garlic oil, tea-steeped eggs, house-made fermented chili and pickles, finished with a smattering of bright flowers. Simone, who cooked with Chef Wylie Dufresne at wd~50 for nearly five years, explained, “I want my food to be seriously tasty, but also have a hint of elegance, a hint of humor and a hint of surprise.”

Simone Tong

Simone Tong during dinner service at Little Tong Noodle Shop (Photos by @caseyfeehan)

On a recent Wednesday morning, while the shutters of Little Tong were still drawn, Simone and I chatted about her path from the kitchens of ICE to wd~50 to her own bustling downtown restaurant.

Little Tong Noodle Shop

Salted Cucumbers with Bang Bang Sauce and Mint

What inspired you to enroll in culinary school?

The first real inspiration came from my mom. My parents are art dealers, so they had a lot of beautiful paintings. My mom had the idea to create a restaurant where they could hang some of their paintings, mostly renaissance period, and she could sip coffee all day. She had no idea what owning a restaurant entailed, so she hired a chef and opened a restaurant called Café Firenze. One day a French chef walked past the restaurant and he thought the restaurant was decorated in good taste, so he wanted to become the chef. I was home from college for the summer, so I helped translate his French-accented English to my mom in Sichuanese. He went into the kitchen and started cooking these beautiful, classic French dishes like tomato concasse. That was my first inspiration.

Then after I graduated from college, I saw a show called “After Hours with Daniel.” Chef Daniel Boulud would visit different restaurants, talk to the chefs and bring his own ingredients. The first episode of the first season was wd~50 with Chef Wylie Dufresne. I was so wowed by it — the combination of art, science, cooking and food. It seemed so fun to be a chef. You get to sit around, drink, talk about food, taste food.

I did extensive research. Where is wd~50, how do I go there, how do I learn what they do? Then I researched the different culinary schools in New York and I visited three of them. I realized I could get two degrees from ICE — Culinary Arts and Culinary Management, which economically made sense. The other big factor was that at ICE, we would do an externship. So I decided to enroll at ICE. I wrote my first cover letter to wd~50 — I knew I was going there.

Where is wd~50, how do I go there, how do I learn what they do?

Did you use what you learned in ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program to open your own restaurant?

The thing about New York is it’s so crazy. I don’t think you’re ever prepared to open a restaurant — you just do it. But if you’ve never been in the industry, you want to learn from a school that draws the best examples of how to run a business. And that’s what they do at ICE.

Banna Shrimp Mixian

Banna Shrimp Mixian

How did you know it was time to open your own restaurant?

I always wanted to open restaurants. But the opportunity came when a mutual friend introduced me to my business partner, Simon Xi. His background is more finance — very numbers-driven, which is a huge contrast to a chef. But we shared a passion for opening a restaurant that served modernized Chinese cuisine, to bring new memories to New York. We wanted to build upon our memories of Chinatown and Chinese takeout and lo mein.

Little Tong is on the same block as Momofuku Noodle Bar – does that draw comparison?

Sometimes. Food writers either say it’s similar but a different style, or they say “good for her for being so close to this legendary icon.” I worked for Chef David Chang briefly, but we also met when he came to wd~50 from time to time. He’s been very generous and very kind to me. He sent me a text to congratulate me and brought beers over.

Little Tong Noodle Shop

Extra Chili Oil

Tell me about your style of noodles.

They’re called mixian (mee-syan): it literally translates as rice threads. It’s from the Southwest region, a Province called Yunnan, which translates as southern cloud. It’s a very beautiful place, almost like a fantasy world. Not many people have discovered it; people in China only started traveling there in the 1990s. Now it’s popular, because people talk about how beautiful it is.

I was born in the Province next to Yunnan, Szechuan, which is known for spicy cuisine. I didn’t truly discover Yunnan until my research last year — I was there for 3 months — but my passion for mixian developed when I was very young. Mixian is like the foster child of Yunnan cuisine. Everybody knows about mixian in the rest of China. Even restaurants in New York, like in Chinatown or Flushing, serve mixian or “crossing the bridge” noodles. It’s a bowl of rice noodles with 20 plates of different ingredients, and you dump what you want in — kind of like Vietnamese pho. In China they add raw chicken, pork, fish or beef; then some sausage, pickles, lots of vegetables, boiled eggs and tofu. That’s what I grew up eating. You can find this in New York, but there’s not as much raw protein because of health department regulations.

I don’t think food should be something just to show off your technique. It should be wholesome. It should make you smile when you eat it.

What do you add to this traditional dish?

All of the dishes on our menu are inspired by dishes from the region and recreated in our own way. A classic example is the Grandma’s Chicken. It’s our most popular, most written-about dish. I discovered Grandma Chicken at a restaurant that only serves chicken mixian in Lijiang, an old town in Yunnan. We spun that dish around and did something new. We cook the broth for 36 hours. We sear the chicken skin so it’s more dynamic in flavor. We add a lot of aromatics and we also make a black garlic oil with black sesame so it’s toasty and aromatic. We ferment our own fresh chili and cook the chicken in its own fat, which is what they did in Lijiang as well. We use antibiotic-free, cage-free chicken. Then we add a tea egg that’s been steeped in tea and spices, and finish with fresh flowers. If you look at the dish, it’s very spring, it’s very Yunnan. But the flavor is reinvented slightly.

Grandma Chicken

Grandma Chicken Mixian

Do you have any advice for people opening their first restaurant?

With millennials, you can’t be hard on them and chastise them. They will just quit. They don’t see value in putting their head down and working. Inspiration is really the thing and a little sense of humor. [Ed. note: a waitress on duty when we visited the restaurant confirmed, “Simone’s hilarious.”] Sometimes you walk into the kitchen and you can sense that everyone is mad at each other — you can feel the passive aggression. How do you turn this passive aggression around? I’ll find myself shouting orders and they’ll delay five seconds in reading them back. Then I realized I need to try to relate to them and say something humorous to bring them out of their own misery. Refresh them. Then let’s get back to work. Sometimes, though, you have to tell them directly what’s the right thing to do. I have no problem being direct.

I think the most difficult part of having a restaurant is managing the people. How do you build a team from strangers? How do you make sure they’re professional? How do you make them do the right thing? How do they carry the spirit of your restaurant and keep the energy up? It’s everyday mentoring. We’ve changed about 12 dishwashers now. It’s crazy how hard it is to find a good dishwasher — someone who consistently shows up to work. That’s a challenge. It’s all about the people and how to get them to produce the same quality every day.

What is your culinary voice?

I used to watch that show “So You Think You Can Dance,” and I always liked when the ballet dancers turned into break dancers and changed the genre. I want my food to be seriously tasty, but also have a hint of elegance, a hint of humor and a hint of surprise. I want to create something more amusing than serious. I don’t think food should be something just to show off your technique. It should be wholesome. It should make you smile when you eat it.

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

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 David Waltuck — Director of Culinary Affairs

Richard Olney’s book “Simple French Food” is one of my favorites. This exploration of “simple” food has a 40-page introduction explaining in detail what the author means by simple — clearly, simplicity can be complicated. The idea of the book — focusing on preparing simple foods very, very well — was made clear to me during a trip to France, years before I opened my restaurant Chanterelle.

plated sea bass

Like many young, aspiring chefs of the time, I was inspired by La Pyramide, the mythic three-Michelin-star restaurant in Vienne, France, and of its formidable chef Fernand Point, who mentored a whole generation of great chefs and is considered the father of nouvelle cuisine. Point had died long before I made my pilgrimage to La Pyramide in the mid 70s. (He died in 1955, the year of my birth. Coincidence?) But the restaurant, still run by his widow, remained a shrine to his legacy. The style and service at La Pyramide would stay with me throughout my career and influence the way I eventually conceived of my own restaurant.

First and foremost, La Pyramide demonstrated the importance of simplicity — with a caveat. Point famously reinvented haute cuisine by focusing on regional dishes, reworking and refining them, and ultimately achieving a seemingly simple perfection: one that was only attainable through much effort. As it turns out, the trick of simplicity is to never let the effort show.

Though considered the height of haute cuisine, La Pyramide was unpretentious in terms of service and style, something I noted in other great restaurants in France. The humility of the restaurant and staff made all of the difference in the experience for the client. This starkly contrasted with many French restaurants in New York in the 70s and 80s, where snobbishness and condescension were a matter of course. Like La Pyramide, my restaurant, Chanterelle, was noted as a place that was welcoming and unpretentious, though quite serious about food and service. This once surprising combination has since become the norm.

Finally, La Pyramide hammered home the value of the kind of expertise that only comes with time. At La Pyramide, everyone from the sommelier to the servers to the chef had been a part of the team for years, so their craft had become second nature. I discovered a profound lesson here: To be really good at anything, you must master technique to the point where you can relax within it. Like an athlete or a dancer, you must become so familiar with the movements of your craft that you’re completely at ease even at moments of great effort. This ease comes with practice and repetition, and in my opinion, relies on simplicity and lack of pretension. When you are confident and comfortable with what you do, there’s less temptation to indulge in showiness or condescension. Your clients will sense that they are in good hands and will want to go with you wherever you take them.

I like to think that the success of Chanterelle was in large part because I embraced the above lessons — humility, expertise through repetition, and the appearance of simplicity. I am sure that some chefs still practice this approach nowadays — though restaurants are going in a million directions, from perfected comfort food to elaborate, modern creations, I’m still a firm believer in stripping away. If something is on a plate, you should be able to give me a reason why. Though substantial efforts may go into each component of a dish, the result should feel simple. Diners can then enjoy the food on its own terms, and though they are on some level aware of the work that went into preparing it, they are not ostentatiously reminded of it.

Ready to get started on your culinary education? Click here to learn about ICE’s Culinary Arts program.

By Stephen Zagor — Dean of Restaurant & Culinary Management 

Picture this: You’re a new sous chef clocking 55 hours a week and bringing in $40,000 per year. Suddenly, as of January 1, 2017, abracadabra! You’ve magically found yourself with an additional $450 per week (approximately $23,000 per year) in your pocket. Holy Wolfgang Puck! Did you just win the lottery? Were you an heir of a distant aunt who just died? As it turns out, you have just benefitted from an amendment to the New York Wage Order that raises the New York exempt level (that is, exempt from overtime) from $35,100 to $42,900. This means that anyone being paid less than $42,900 per year in 2017, whether salaried or hourly, is entitled to overtime pay of time-and-a-half for every hour worked over 40 per week. The new law stands to affect restaurant workers at every level, from dishwashers to sous chefs to managers. Diners can expect to feel the impact too.

restaurant burger

To clarify, this is a New York State regulation. The federal government passed a similar regulation that would have increased the exempt threshold to $47,500. However, at the last second, an enlightened federal judge froze the implementation of that rule. Nevertheless, by 2019, the New York threshold is scheduled to climb to a whopping $58,500 — way ahead of the proposed federal figure. Again, this means that anyone paid less than $58,500 will be eligible for overtime. That is a whopping 67% increase from the 2016 base.

If you are a floor manager or sous chef, don’t run out and put a down payment on a beach-front condo in Costa Rica just yet. Do you think a restaurant owner will pay this increase? Not likely. Instead, what may happen is a reduction in hours, so the overtime burden will decrease or even disappear. Otherwise, if the distance to the new base from current salary is minimal, the base salary will be raised to $42,900 — a nice extra stipend, but probably only enough for a cabana rental in South Florida.

That’s one side. Now let’s look at it from the restaurant’s perspective. First off, it’s likely that most owners haven’t even heard of this new law. Unless they are a member of a trade association and regularly read their bulletins, they’re probably blissfully in the dark. That is, until they are discovered to be noncompliant and fined tons of back penalties and taxes.

Next, if our restaurant owner is paying salaries at the old $35,100 threshold, one option is to increase those salaries to $42,900. That’s a 33% increase. If more than one salaried employee falls into this range, the total increase could be financially unsustainable. The only other option is to reduce hours. Then, the issue becomes: Who will do the work? The answer: wage-earning employees. Either way, this could be a big labor cost burden on the restaurant. Combine this with highly publicized minimum wage increases and the changing tip landscape, and the new labor world will be oppressive.

So who benefits in this equation? For starters, the state — with higher payroll taxes from higher wages plus the penalties from non-compliers. The restaurant owners? Not likely; just another challenge for a business model that is already on the ropes. The guests, then? Definitely not. Who is going to pay for these extra labor costs? You got it: the diner. If you thought burgers were getting expensive last year, get ready for even pricier patties. This change is just one of multiple wage increases occurring in 2017 and 2018. Buckle your seat belts, diners, there is more to come.

Want to take a deeper dive into food business studies? Click here for more information on ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program. 

 

By Caitlin Raux

When our ICE alums grab the headlines, we can’t help but feel like proud parents. From Detroit-style pizza to home-style meatloaf to authentic Welsh cuisine, ICE graduates are using their culinary skills to create better dining experiences across the board. In 2016, ICE graduates and their restaurants were showered with praise — here’s a short list of those who regularly took spots at the top:

  1. Missy Robbins (Culinary ’95): Missy was the chef on everyone’s mind this year. For starters, she was donned Best New Chef – East, at the inaugural Taste Talk Awards. Lilia, the Williamsburg restaurant where Missy is chef/partner, was named one of The New York TimesTop 10 New York Restaurants of 2016, claiming the #2 spot. Lilia’s Cacio e Pepe Fritelle was among the Top 10 New York Dishes of 2016. Her Agnolotti dish topped the list of Time Out New York’s 85 best dishes in NYC 2016. Turning to the 2016 Eater Awards, Lilia won the Reader’s Choice for Restaurant of the Year. The Infatuation listed Lilia as one of New York City’s Best New Restaurants of 2016.
Zoe Nathan and partner Josh Loeb

Zoe Nathan and partner Josh Loeb

  1. Zoe Nathan (Culinary ’01): The west coast restaurateur has received accolades for the restaurants that she co-owns, among them Cassia, which was included in Bon Appetit’s 50 Nominees for America’s Best New Restaurants of 2016. As the BA Staff proclaims, “Given the powerhouse team behind this blockbuster — the same folks who gave L.A. its beloved Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, and Milo & Olive — no one in Santa Monica would be surprised to find that this Southeast Asian restaurant fires on every imaginable cylinder.” Another of Zoe’s restaurants, Rustic Canyon, was listed as one of LA Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants. Michael Bauer, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, also included Rustic Canyon as one of his new L.A. Favorites.
  2. Matt Hyland (Culinary Arts ’05): In a town famous for its pizza, it’s a rare feat to stand out from the pack of pizza makers. Matt and wife Emily have the secret sauce for success, judging by the cult-like following of their New York pizza eateries: Pizza Loves Emily, and its progeny, Emmy Squared. As Andrew Steinhal of The Infatuation succinctly stated, “We love everything about Emily.” Zagat named Emmy Squared’s Le Big Matt pizza (Detroit-style crust and burger ingredient toppings: Fleisher’s beef, American cheese, Sammy sauce, pickles and mizuna lettuce) as one of 25 Essential Dishes to Try in NYC. 2016’s Eater Awards awarded Matt the National Instagram Badge of Honor for Emmy Squared — likely due to their incredibly Instagrammable #ronicups. Matt Hyland - Pizza Loves Emily
  3. Owner Illtyd Barrett (Management ’12) and executive chef Tom Coughlan (Culinary/Management ’12), who were once ICE classmates, have teamed up to bring Welsh cuisine to NYC with Sunken Hundred in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. They were awarded 3 stars from Eater for their efforts. Food writer Becky Cooper also gave Sunken Hundred a glowing review in The New Yorker. Writes Cooper, “The pub atmosphere and the barrage of My Bloody Valentine and the Clash are incongruous with how quietly thoughtful the food is.”
  4. Ann Redding (Culinary ’02): Uncle Boons, the perpetually packed Thai restaurant where Ann and her husband Matt Danzer are owners and chefs, has been rolling in good press. Eater named their Toasted Coconut Sundae as one of The 20 Perfect Desserts in New York City. According to food writer Ryan Sutton, “If you don’t like this, you are a flawed human being.” As if having one wildly successful (and understatedly cool) restaurant in downtown Manhattan wasn’t enough, Ann and Matt opened a second eatery, Mr. Donahue’s. With just two tables and five counter stools, the restaurant was quickly donned a New York Times Critic’s Pick and included in Pete Wells’ Top 10 New York Restaurants of 2016, coming in right behind ICE alum Missy Robbins’ Lilia at #3. Mr. Donahue’s Roast Beef also landed a spot in the Top 10 New York Dishes of 2016.
Ann Redding and Matt Danzer

Ann Redding and Matt Danzer

Want to join the ranks of these ICE grads? Click here for more information on our career programs.

By Caitlin Raux

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

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

Chef Ashley Merriman

credit: Brent Herrig © 2013

Are you from New York?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your first gig after ICE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s rare nowadays.

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

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

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

What does a typical day for you look like?

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

What is your culinary voice?

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

Chef Ashley Merriman

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

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

By Stephen Zagor — Dean of Restaurant & Culinary Management Program

“Is New York Too Expensive for Restaurateurs?” read the recent New York Times headline. What’s going on here? Are we about to experience a restaurant Armageddon? To read recent well-written and thoughtful stories in The New York Times and New York Post about the extremely challenging New York business environment for new and existing restaurants, one would think we are on the threshold of a cataclysmic event. Will our lives be mostly composed of delivered meal kits and food courts?

New York City flatiron building

Well, skyrocketing rents are very problematic; the new labor laws and wage and hour policies are challenging; food and ingredient costs are never a bargain; and burdensome laws and regulations targeting food businesses appear in an endless stream. Each of these is a serious issue on its own. Now add doing business in New York City with its unique issues and sprinkle in intense competition from the most restaurants per capita anywhere in the United States. The result makes you wonder why anyone would be in this business. Let’s open a dry cleaning business – it must be easier.

But wait. Is this the whole picture? Maybe there is still one hugely important critical piece missing from the story and it could tilt the balance between feast and famine: Do most owner/operators really know how to run their businesses? To be a popular chef or even a restaurant owner doesn’t necessarily mean someone really knows the “how-tos” of the business of restaurants. After all, in calm or even choppy waters, the restaurant business is challenging but doable. Yet when the economic storms roll in, if you don’t really know the operating side of restaurants, there is no surviving. Read between the lines – all of the forces mentioned above (rents, higher wages, new laws and competition) are forces imposed from outside, tossing operators around like a ship in a storm. What’s missing here is what is going on inside the ship. Does the captain know what he/she is doing?

I was recently shown a space by a woman who is an experienced restaurant GM and budding restaurateur. It was a closed, fully built restaurant on a busy street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It could seat 40 guests plus a handful more at the tiny bar. She was in love with the space; it had the bones to become the cute café she had always dreamed of; it looked great and had a low investment and easy conversion; she even lived nearby. Then I saw the rent — it was astronomical. It required strong, seven-figure sales to survive just the landlord. If she had signed, she might have lasted a year. She would have been working for the landlord, not herself. It would have been just the beginning of not knowing how.

As a former owner/operator myself and a long-time consultant and educator, I have had the incredible opportunity to see behind the curtain of some of the most respected and famous chefs and operators in America. I also have an army of students who, after learning the “how-tos,” have gone on to work at major and minor food businesses only to discover that many restaurants survive on magic and luck. Words like recipes (knowing the true production cost of products), retailing (understanding the true purpose of your business), yields (how much is left to serve after trim and cooking), Q Factor (cost of the “free” items like bread basket, ketchup, mustard, etc.), and purchasing strategy (proper buying and receiving procedures) are unknown. I can name numerous celebrity chefs whose business acumen either doesn’t exist or is pushed to the side in the name of creativity. This doesn’t include those who play with the cash, and keep loose systems and accountability so as not to get caught.

restaurant-kitchen-8-copy

This is not to say that the new wage laws, tip rules, rents, etc., aren’t major challenges. They definitely are. One celebrity chef recently noted in The New York Times that the way we operate now will not be the way we operate in the future. Still, it’s amazing the number of operators and chefs I have seen who appear successful but are really marginally profitable or not profitable at all. Some don’t even know how much they make. They are simply marketers hoping that “volume covers all sins.” When the going gets rough, it’s easy to look outside and blame everything else but yourself – especially when you may not know better.

Is proper culinary education helpful? It certainly could be. In the words of a student who came to ICE already the owner of a successful restaurant, “After I graduated, I put to use what I learned and made a lot more money with no more effort.” But maybe more knowledge will definitely help some. It won’t relieve the pains of a bad lease signed too quickly. But managing costs and maximizing revenues all present opportunities for change. It’s just knowing how.

Are NYC restaurants in a challenging time? Definitely. The way we have operated in the past will probably not be the way of the future. Being a great operator will require knowing how to run a successful business.

Want to study restaurant & culinary management at ICE? Click here for more info. 


By Caitlin Raux

When you speak with Adrienne Cheatham (Culinary Arts ’07), you can hear the tenacity in her voice. As a former sous chef at Le Bernardin and executive chef at Red Rooster, and the subject of a recent NY Times Taste Makers video, Adrienne is mindful of the accomplishments behind her. She’s more concerned, however, with the missions that lie ahead — like leaving her comfort zone (if working 16-hour days seven days a week can be called a “comfort zone”) and branching out on her own. Adrienne balances her time in the kitchen with an activity that calls upon a completely different skill and mindset: dance.

While scoping out locales for a potential forthcoming project, Adrienne took a pause to chat with me for the ICE blog.

ICE Alumnus Adrienne Cheatham

First, congratulations on the Taste Makers piece. What was it like working on that?

They were trying to steer the focus of it to the challenges that a woman faces in the kitchen, and I didn’t support that idea. I didn’t want to be a part of that kind of story. I think that kitchens are the great equalizers — either you can do the job or you can’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re short, tall, your gender, your race, none of that matters in a kitchen. That’s why I was glad they took the focus off of that.

Is it a relevant question anymore: what’s it like to be a woman in a kitchen? Or is that a cliché at this point?

In some ways, it’s cliché because it’s asked so much. At least now people are aware of women in kitchens. And yes, women are still the minority, but you experience the same things that the guys do. Maybe you feel differently about a crass or vulgar joke but that offends some men too. It’s not as much of a gender issue as before when it was novel to see women in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been the only woman in the kitchen for three to six months at a time. I’ve also been the only black person. But anyone can be the minority. You could be the only blond in the kitchen, but it’s not an issue because everyone’s there to work. It’s a complete meritocracy. You’re judged by whether you did a good job at your station.

When did you realize you wanted to work in restaurants? 

In high school, I told my mom that after graduation I wanted to go to a four-year culinary school and she was so unsupportive. And rightfully so — [having worked in restaurants herself] she had seen a lot of her friends burn out and have nothing to fall back on. She said I could go to a regular four-year school first and then if I still wanted to go to culinary school, I could. She told me, we’re not rich, so if you want to go to culinary school, you’re completely on your own.

So I went to college in Florida. I started majoring in business and finance, and then I switched to journalism and PR during my junior year. Business and finance were cool — those were principles I needed to learn. My mom was pushing me to get a job in finance. She told me to make a lot of money and then cook as a hobby. But I still wanted to go to culinary school, and if I wanted something to fall back on in the same industry, I figured that journalism would be the best option.

Do you do any writing nowadays?

I did the recipe testing and editing of the Avec Eric cookbook with Eric Ripert. Recently, I helped write and test the recipes for The Red Rooster Cookbook by Marcus Samuelsson. I also did the book’s food styling, working with the prop stylist and photographer.

What inspired you to go to culinary school?

It was something I had planned already. I was working for a pastry chef at a resort in Florida, and I thought I wanted to go into pastry. The chef and the sous chef knew I wanted to go to culinary school and they were very supportive. They believed that even if you have been working for a few years, it’s good to back up your credibility with a culinary school education. I figured because I’d worked in pastry for a few years, if I go to culinary school, I’d go to the general program to learn new skills. I thought I’d go back to pastry, but the culinary arts program offered such a different mindset, I ended up liking the freedom and creativity on the savory side.

adrienne_cheatham_alumni_

Is that how you ended up working at Le Bernardin?

I got referred there through a classmate. I’m originally from Chicago and I wanted to do my externship there, so I was holding out for Charlie Trotter’s. I thought, in case it doesn’t work out, I should look for something in New York. One of my classmates was doing her externship at Le Bernardin. She gave me the name of Chef Ripert’s assistant and I stalked her. When I didn’t hear back, I said, “Ok, you and I are about to become best friends.” I showed up at the restaurant to leave another hard copy of my resume. I would email her three times a week and call her four times a week until she finally responded. She owns Ardesia, the wine bar, and the Camlin in Brooklyn now.

Did ICE prepare you to work at Le Bernardin?

I felt comfortable in the kitchen because during all the modules at ICE you’re in a kitchen environment. You learn how to stand out of the way and not be intrusive in someone else’s space when it’s not your kitchen. I had great chef instructors and they had the same temperament and demeanor as the chefs at Le Bernardin.

In the NY Times video, you said, “There’s a point in your career when you have to put yourself out there. I do want to open my own restaurant. I want to develop my own style.” Have you reached a point in your career where you’ve developed your own style?

Yes, I think I have. When I tried to put things on the menu at Le Bernardin, Chef Eric would say, “It’s really good, but the ingredients are a little too humble. We have to elevate the dish a lot more.” So I learned the Le Bernardin style of elevating ingredients, making them more than themselves. Then working for Chef Marcus, a lot of the dishes I put on the menu were too sophisticated because Red Rooster is very casual. So the dishes there were too sophisticated for Red Rooster but too humble for Le Bernardin. Eventually, I started running specials—dishes that I wanted to do, separate from the Red Rooster menu. One day Chef Marcus said to me, “I’m not sure if you’ve had time to focus on your style. I think you’re still in the process of developing your style.” That made me realize that I do have to push myself out there. And I’m not going to do it when someone else says I’m ready. It’s a moment that you decide that you’re ready. There’s always more to learn. You’re always going to be learning from different people, from continuing education classes, magazines, visiting other restaurants. You’re not going to stop learning because you open your own place, but you still have to be confident enough in yourself and what you have to share with people. And you have to want to do it, too. I was perfectly happy working for other people. It’s so safe and comfortable. It’s a guaranteed paycheck and the comfort of knowing what you’re going into every day. But at some point, I had to ask myself: What do I want to convey? What do I want to execute that is my vision every day of the week? Plus, with Chef Marcus, I was working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. If I’m going to kill myself, it’s going to be for me.

What is your culinary voice?

Anybody who works in a kitchen and creates food is a very sense-oriented person. It’s about texture, visuals, flavors, aromas — everything that engages the senses. My voice is a reflection of everything about me: not just what I like to eat, but the kind of person I am. So a dish that I put together is an expression of love, of happiness, of learning. Being from Chicago, having family from Mississippi and a fine dining background, it’s not just those things combined. It’s a reflection of all of my life experiences that have created the person I am, and translating that into the food that I create.

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


By Caitlin Gunther

On a Tuesday evening in the midst of September Fashion Week in New York City, I meet Thea Habjanic (Pastry Arts ’10) at La Sirena, the buzzy new restaurant in the Meatpacking district of Manhattan where Thea leads the sweet side of the kitchen as executive pastry chef. Given the restaurant’s location and the unseasonably warm weather, it will no doubt be a long night for Thea. Still, she seems poised and unhurried as I have her stand for a handful of portraits in her kitchen attire.

In a professional pastry kitchen, where technical skill is only half the battle, it takes a certain personality type—one that can stay focused on the details through an onslaught of tickets, demands and the occasional snafu—to truly succeed. Thea has the qualities to thrive in the restaurant world—though that wasn’t always her career path. She graduated from NYU with a degree in journalism and worked for several years as an entertainment writer before deciding to enroll in the Pastry & Baking Arts program at ICE.

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As her recent kitchen roles can attest, Thea has the demeanor and the work ethic suited to fast-paced restaurants. Said ICE Creative Director Michael Laiskonis, who hired Thea for her first pastry gig at Le Bernardin, “Last year, I signed on to create the pastry program for the newest Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich restaurant, La Sirena. When it came time to hire a pastry chef for the upscale and busy restaurant, I immediately thought of Thea. Her previous experience in both fine dining and high volume made for a perfect match. She has played a vital role in crafting La Sirena’s desserts, earning critical praise. She runs the hectic pastry kitchen with that positive, can-do attitude that initially impressed me!”

Thea was kind enough to pop out of the pastry kitchen and share with the ICE blog a glimpse into her daily life and her path to ICE.

ICE graduation year/program: Weekend Pastry & Baking Arts, 2010

Current Address: East Harlem, NYC

Occupation: Executive pastry chef at La Sirena

Describe a typical day in your life.

I start every day with an iced latte; whether it’s cold or hot outside, I need my iced latte. I don’t drink drip coffee—it has to be espresso with cold milk. I’m a big yogi and I do yoga six days a week, so that’s usually where I go before work. I typically go to work in the early afternoon. I’ll check in with the staff that have been doing production and see if they have any questions and if we have everything for the day. Then I’ll talk to the executive chef and see what’s in store for the night—if we have any parties and how many covers. After that, I’ll do some production and work on recipe development or specials for the day. We have a pre-shift meeting where the whole FOH and BOH discuss protocol issues or specials for the day. From there, it’s pretty much service all night.

We have more time to set up in pastry—we won’t normally get our first ticket until after 7:00 p.m., so we have time to get our stuff together. You hear the kitchen come alive on the savory side around 5–5:30 p.m. and we catch up eventually. But then, of course, pastry is always the last in the restaurant because we finish much later. I run the line, plate, make sure everyone is sending out all the dishes correctly. I’m very hands-on—I’m not the kind of chef who will leave early and let the cooks handle everything. I like to stay until the end. I still help clean and scrub.

How did ICE prepare you for being a pastry chef at La Sirena?

One of the first things I remember learning at ICE was something that my teacher Nicole Kaplan said: “Nothing about restaurant life is glamorous, so if you’re into a fantasy about this being a prissy job, then you’re going to be disappointed.” She was 100% right.

ICE was awesome. I made great friends and learned so much. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant before or in the culinary field, they give you a foundation for what the life is really like. Because I think people have no clue. It’s hard work, a lot of hustling and long days. It’s a bit of a masochistic job. But people who go to school and end up working in this field have a lot of drive and ambition. They love what they do.

How did you land your first externship at Le Bernardin?

I had been there once as a child—my parents had a wedding anniversary dinner there and I tagged along. When I was looking for externships, I didn’t know if I wanted to work in a bakery or a restaurant, and I thought of that dinner at Le Bernadin. I looked up the pastry chef [Michael Laiskonis] and I found out that he was very well known and respected. At the time, I didn’t realize what a pastry celebrity he was. I wrote him an email, he responded and the rest is history. I went in for a trail and it went well. I think Michael saw something in me that he believed in. He’s been my mentor ever since.

Nothing about restaurant life is glamorous, so if you’re into a fantasy about this being a prissy job, then you’re going to be disappointed.

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What inspired you to go to culinary school?

My dad was a chef. He owned a couple of restaurants on restaurant row on 46th street, so I grew up going there with my mom and I saw the business firsthand. He always encouraged me not to work in restaurants because it’s very hard. But we were always a big cooking family—we cooked dinner every night. Food around the table was always a big deal. Initially, I didn’t think of it as a career. I went to NYU, got a journalism degree and did that for several years. But then a bunch of life changes happened and my ex-boyfriend was always encouraging me to go to pastry school since I used to bake all the time. Then I finally did it. I totally changed careers.

Thoughts on the current culinary landscape?

It’s so vast and broad. I think there’s something for everyone out there. But there’s not a lot out there that hasn’t been done before. People always ask me: what’s your favorite food to make or what’s your specialty? I think that’s a silly question because I don’t have a specialty. I love to make everything. I love to make things that taste good and are beautiful. In pastry, you’re leaving the last impression on a diner in your restaurant. You want them to look at the plate and say “oh my gosh, that’s so pretty.” But in the end, I want the plate to taste better than it looks.

Ready to jump-start your career in pastry arts? Learn more about ICE’s career programs.