Food & Wine: Walker Stern and Joe Ogrodnek

© William Hereford

Joe Ogrodnek & Walker Stern

F&W Star Chefs

RESTAURANT: Battersby (Brooklyn)

EDUCATION: Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY)

EXPERIENCE: Ogrodnek: Union Square Café, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Gramercy Tavern (New York City); Anella (Brooklyn); Stern: Mix (Las Vegas), Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Blue Hill, The Vanderbilt (New York City); Anella (Brooklyn)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
WS: I worked for Roland Passot in San Francisco starting when I was 17. I cooked at his brasserie, the Left Bank in Menlo Park, and then I did my externship at La Folie when I was 18. A French kitchen is good because it kind of puts you in place. You can’t just run wild.

JO: At Union Square Café, I learned how to make simple, good food in a fast-paced environment—how to hustle. At Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, I learned about perfection and taking food to the highest level. With Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern, I learned about working with others, leading a team. At Anella, I was the executive chef, so I started to take those tools that I’d learned at the other restaurants and apply them in my own way.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
JO: I have a lot of memories of cooking dinner with my mother, making meatballs or chicken Parmesan. My mom was a homemaker, so we pretty much cooked every single night at home, and I always had an interest in being in the kitchen. My first restaurant job was at Opus 251 in Philadelphia. I remember my first task: I had to julienne a bunch of vegetables: carrots, peppers, onions. It took me a while! But the chef was very forgiving, showing me what to do.

WS: I remember in home economics class in middle school, we made Dutch babies. Then another day we made Orange Juliuses. Then we did a lot of sewing.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
JO: Start with one of your favorite dishes. You get the best results when you make something you love and want.

WS: Anything that’s simple. A vegetable salad dish is good, or baked fish is a little bit more forgiving than a roasted piece of meat. To roast meat properly, you need high temperatures, and I think people are scared of cooking the way we cook in the restaurant, searing the meat, and then the home oven doesn’t have as much power as a restaurant oven. If you put some lemon and tomato and capers in a pan and put a piece of fish on it and bake it in a low oven until it’s cooked through, I think that would be pretty easy. Throw some olive oil on top.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Both: The Alain Ducasse Grand Livre series.

JO: I like how comprehensive it is and how in detail it goes in recipes. It brings back a lot of memories of working at the restaurant, the dishes we did, how much work that goes into it and how beautiful the food can be. Along with that comes a lot of passion.

What's a dish that defines Battersby’s cooking style?
JO: Anything on the menu, really! We don’t have a specific style. I think that's what’s kind of cool about Battersby. A dish could have anywhere from Asian to French to Italian to Middle Eastern flavors. It’s just simple food done with the highest execution that we can with our kitchen. The kale salad is pretty popular. It has two parts: the raw ingredients (raw chiffonade of Tuscan kale, then, depending on the time of year, there’s a raw vegetable like green papaya, cucumber, kohlrabi or a radish. Those ingredients are cut finely and dressed with this Thai-style vinaigrette, made with palm sugar, lime juice, chile and fish sauce. The second part is the crispy whole kale leaves, sautéed in olive oil, that go on top. Then we spoon some of the dressing over top, and garnish with toasted peanuts. So you have the mix of textures: The crispy kale is a very specific kind of crispiness, but it’s also light, it doesn’t taste heavy or fried. The dressing is the key to the whole thing: It has that flavor profile that touches every single part of your tongue: the spicy, sweet, sour, salty and umami from the fish sauce. It’s very addictive. We change the menu a lot, but when it’s on it is the best seller.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
WS: Different people have different skills and they’re still good cooks. Some are really disciplined and focused; some people are freewheeling and still make great food. I feel like with age and maturity, I’ve come to respect that range of styles. When I was working for Sylvan and Ducasse, if I saw someone doing something more freely, I might have looked down on that because it wasn’t the style I was practicing at the time. Probably the most important skill is a good palate. To be able to taste something to know it’s the best that it can be and stand behind it. Confidence is equally important.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
JO: There’s always room for improvement in every skill. I think chefs go through phases. At one point you might be really interested in desserts, another point in bread. But I like to try everything.

WS: Same, I could get better at anything. Battersby is the kind of place where it’s all hands on deck. Everybody has to do their little piece, so you don’t always have time to devote a week to improving a skill. But I’d like to continue improving all around.

What is your current food obsession?
JO: I’m always interested in bread making. Every kind: Sourdough, yeast breads. Bread is one of my favorite foods. It’s simple, and satisfying, and this is more of a subconscious thing, but bread always signifies the start of the meal. Often it’s one of the first things you eat when you sit down to dinner. It’s also a sharing thing, which makes it special. And it’s kind of a dying thing in restaurants now. It’s so nice when you get a really nice bread at a good restaurant, and it’s made that day, and it’s hot and crispy and complimentary—it’s not on the menu with a price next to it. At Battersby, we make a simple rosemary flatbread. Instead of butter, we serve it with whipped ricotta—normal cow’s milk ricotta cheese that we put in the food processor with olive oil so it gets creamy. We chose to do that because of how small and limited our kitchen is. But it works out well. We make it every day and people love it.

WS: I love raw seafood. That’s probably one of the things I crave the most: shellfish, ceviche, crudo. I love playing with crudo or something else super plain.

What are your talents besides cooking?
JO: I’m really good at eating! Cooking’s my whole life. With this career, you have to fall in love with and devote your whole life to it. We even do it on our days off at home.

WS: I’m into history and documentaries, but I also don't have much time.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
JO: Colatura, a Roman-style fish sauce. It’s made from fermented anchovies. They put anchovies in what looks like a grape press and squeeze them. They put the juice into clay pots and ferment it in the sun for a long time. It’s kind of like anchovy essence. You use it as a seasoning, on a salad or pasta. Or if you’re just dressing some roasted vegetables with olive oil and lemon juice, you can add a dash of that to give it a deeper flavor.

What's the best house wine or beer and why?
JO: One of my favorite beers right now is Founders Pale Ale. In the new American beer movement, things sometimes get overdone. What was a pilsner is now a pale ale; what was a pale ale is now an IPA. And IPAs are so extreme. Everything’s supersweet, or as bitter as we can make it. This is one of those beers that tastes the way it should. It’s simple and great.

WS: We often serve Gruet, a methodé champenoise sparkling wine made in New Mexico. It tastes like Champagne, but it’s really cheap—at least, it’s way less expensive than Champagne. They do different ones—like a blanc de blanc and blanc de noir, and one with wild yeast strains. They’re all good.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
JO: Cheese. All kinds. I don’t tend to stick to certain types. I’m always snacking on cheese in the fridge at work.

WS: Cheese or a sliced meat, like a cured meat or ham. Or olives.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
WS: I don’t know! I'm not really one for souvenirs.

JO: I don’t know if it’s the most cherished ever, but the most recent, I just went on a short trip to Puerto Rico. My girlfriend and I ate at this restaurant in Old San Juan called Bodegas Campostellas. It’s really cool. It’s been around for 30 years. It’s probably one of the more food-focused restaurants in Puerto Rico. The guy who owns the shop imports wines; he does all the fine wines for Puerto Rico. And he imports olive oil. I had one of the best olive oils that I’ve ever had at the restaurant. He told me he’s probably the only one in the U.S. who imports it. It’s from his hometown in Rioja. So I bought a bottle. Every time we’re snacking on bread and cheese, we’ll pull that out and it’s kind of a little memory of the trip. I love olive oils that are buttery and floral and nutty. I’m kind of an olive oil fanatic; I love trying all kinds – and I like the ones that are spicy and bitter, too. But I love the ones that are so round and perfect but still have a little bit of acidity. To me, Spanish olive oils are not typically like that—they’re usually astringent, grassy and sharp. This one was so buttery, rich and balanced.

Favorite new store-bought ingredient?
JO: There’s this brand of olive oil we use at the restaurant called Olave from Chile. It’s extremely affordable. It’s getting really popular. I see it in every supermarket in New York right now. It’s one of my favorite olive oils right now, and it’s so cheap.

WS: I love trying new vinegars. We use a sherry vinegar called Hacienda 1917 [http://cookingdistrict.com/epicurepantry]. It’s really smooth; it’s not arresting. It’s very balanced. I wouldn’t say it’s nutty; it just has a deep aged flavor, yet it tastes fresh. We get it from a guy, Olivier [Wittman], who owns a company called Millissime. He gets all kinds of cool vinegars and other things. He has this Alsatian vinegar condiment called Melfor [http://cookingdistrict.com/store/SEAC.nsf/products/07A43276038B195C85257A70006FF194?opendocument&name=Melfor%20Alsatian%20Honey%20Vinegar] made from honey, which has a great balance of acidity and sweetness. Sometimes vinegars can be harsh, so you can’t add that much because the harshness will overtake the flavor. With many of his, you can add a really good splash and you’ll still get the great flavor.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
WS: I have this really silly idea, but I don’t want you to put it on the website. Plus, somebody might steal it, so I don’t want to divulge it.

JO: I would like to do a really awesome raw bar in NYC. My brother lives in SF and I go to visit him twice a year or so. The last time I visited him, I went to Swan Oyster Depot on Walker’s recommendation. I loved the feel of it. There’s some history to it, but the food was typical of our cooking style—on the extreme end, but very un-manipulative; just awesome, quality seafood. They’re proud of what they have and serve it with whatever they have, like a fillet with a little bit of salt, lemon juice and that’s it. I loved sitting at the counter, too, and watching the interactions of the guys that worked there. Plus, when you’re waiting in line out on the street, they might bring you a couple of pints of Anchor Steam. I’d love to do something like that in Brooklyn, with one long counter and maybe 15 seats. Maybe that will be our third restaurant, with an awesome cocktail program and wines, and some composed plates.

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