By Caitlin Raux
In a city like New York, where restaurants are as abundant as rents are high, getting diners in the restaurant door is only one side of the coin. The other side, getting return customers, presents another set of challenges. At Villanelle, a veggie-forward newcomer to the Greenwich Village restaurant scene, first-time restaurant owner Catherine Manning (Culinary Management ’15) has found a balance between casual elegance and exceptional food, and the result is a steadily growing roster of regulars. With dishes like crispy octopus with charred cucumber, green curry and mint, the food is tasty, fresh and feel-good. While there are plenty of delicious reasons to overdo it, chances are you won’t leave feeling like you did. It’s all part of Catherine’s goal of providing great, highly repeatable dining experiences.
The restaurant’s name, Villanelle, comes from the eponymous 16th century Italian poem, traditionally performed by song and dance. The name captures Catherine’s spirit of hospitality as a form of entertainment. To dine at Villanelle is to experience a series of pleasant surprises. From the moment you walk in from East 12th Street, just two blocks from the bustle of Union Square, you find a surprisingly charming yet laid back space that looks less curated than it is. From the bare, wood tables and the grey-washed pine walls to the pristine marble-top bar (that seems perfect for Instagram’ing their gourmet cocktails), it’s the kind of setting that invites you to cozy up and stay a while.
Villanelle’s true entertainment, however, comes from the kitchen. The chefs take simple ingredients and prepare them with impeccable techniques and unique flavor pairings — like the macerated brussels sprouts with cheddar, cashews and rye. “I like taking familiar dishes and reworking them so people feel excited. It’s familiar food, but when you see it, it’s not what you expect,” explained Villanelle’s sous chef Christian Grindrod, an alumnus of ICE’s Culinary Arts program (’16) and the critically-acclaimed, recently closed Betony. “Then you bite into it, and it’s exactly what you wanted.” Take, for example, the composed cheese dish: what appears to be a sweet slice of pumpkin pie with a tuft of whipped cream is actually a savory slice of squash topped with tangy cloumage cheese — a trick of the eye and a delight for the palate.
Perhaps coincidentally, before Villanelle, Catherine led a successful career as a producer of visual effects and animation for commercial projects. “In a way, running a restaurant isn’t that different because it’s still production,” said Catherine. “You’re making food instead of TV commercials, but you have crews, schedules and budgets. The skill sets match.” With four daughters and a frequently full dinner table, she and her husband spent years as hobby cooks who loved entertaining. “Those were some of our happiest times,” Catherine recalled. “And an important reason why I did this — hospitality, a good meal and the conversation that ensues while having a good meal.” At some point, it occurred to Catherine that she might like having her own restaurant some day. When Catherine decided it was time for a career change, she enrolled in ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program.
The menu at Villanelle holds true to the farm-to-table claim. Most of their entrées feature thoughtfully chosen meats like Berkshire Pork Loin and Green Circle Chicken, and with the Union Square Greenmarket a short stroll uptown, chefs frequently pop by the market to hand-pick the season’s best produce. Despite the ubiquity of the term, staying farm-to-table can be trickier than it seems. Chef Christian enjoys the challenge. “It’s all about anticipating what’s going to be good this season and working on recipes for those ingredients. When they become scarce, you have to be quick on your feet and change it up,” Christian explained. “That’s part of the fun of working here.” For her part, Catherine mapped out the business side of owning a farm-to-table restaurant during her time at ICE. “The business plan component [of the Restaurant & Culinary Management program] was really helpful for me — to go through the entire process and put together projections,” explained Catherine. “It helped me crystallize what it was I had in mind.
After developing her restaurant concept with the help of ICE’s expert food business instructors, Catherine was as prepared as possible for opening her first restaurant. Still, her status as rookie lends the restaurant a sort of start-up vibe, for better or worse. What they lack in experience, they make up for with energy and ambition: staff are motivated to work harder because they know their contribution makes a difference; communication is paramount; voices are heard. “None of us have been fully responsible for opening a restaurant before,” said Catherine. “We’re all on the same team. It’s exciting to build a business and everyone feels that.”
With a write-up in the NY Times and glowing customer reviews, Catherine and Villanelle are already making waves downtown. “We’re still figuring things out as we go, but I think our customers are pleased with what we’ve done so far.” Jumping head first into NYC restaurant ownership may have been a bold move, but with her preparation and a passion for hospitality, Catherine is successfully navigating the transition. On a personal level, Catherine is enjoying her new career in the restaurant industry. “What’s not to like about bringing something that makes people happy into existence? If you serve people a great meal and they have a great experience, that’s a great business to be in.”
Learn more about ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program.