F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Mile End Delicatessen, Black Seed Bagels, Grand Army (NYC)
Education: McGill University
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
My maternal grandmother, whom I called Nana. She taught me that the most delicious food is the food that you share with the people you love the most. Her chicken matzo ball soup was my favorite.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
The thing that inspired me to open Mile End is Montreal-style smoked meat on rye bread with mustard. I like very simple food that’s very well made, which is not to say that making rye bread, mustard or smoked meat is simple, but when it all comes together, I don’t need anything else on the plate. I’d rather have a sandwich with four ingredients than the Subway-style with a thousand vegetables. All I ask is that each component be prepared really, really well. Our rye bread used a living sourdough starter, which was tangy and real. We baked the dough on a hearth, so it was crispy outside, really moist inside, aromatic and flavorful. A rye bread that can sit on a shelf for a few days is a good rye bread to me. If it’s stale the next day, it’s cheaply made. I like a smooth mustard with some heat and aromatics, but not too heavy. It should be complementary to a sandwich, rather than an entity unto itself. That’s how I feel about condiments broadly. They’re meant to be a complementary addition to a plate.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Chicken soup was one of them. I remember stirring the pot and rolling the matzo balls. The first thing I remember trying to make really well was cooking salmon to try to impress Rae, who’s now my wife. She was just a girl in my class in college.
For neophytes, my suggestion would be to try a cookbook that’s more instructive, like a Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipes. It’s the ultimate home cook guide. I love how they take you through their process, so you can understand not only how to get the final product but why you’re doing it. It begins to teach intuition in cooking, which to me is the most important tool anyone can have.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipes.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I were quicker at prep. I don’t spend enough time in the kitchen to be a prep master. I see chefs where the knife is an extension of their arm, and it’s such an awesome skill. Prep is generally annoying and the quicker you get it out of the way, the more enjoyable cooking can be. I wish my knife skills were badass.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
It’s easy to say salt, but the science of the food that we make requires that we use it. It’s the most transformative ingredient that anyone could have in their pantry. Our base is Diamond Crystal kosher salt, but for finishing dishes we use Maldon. We generally don’t use table salt. Even for the table, we use Maldon.
What is your current food obsession?
I can’t get enough of all the new Thai food in New York. I could eat at Pok Pok and Uncle Boons almost every night of the week. I try to stay away from trends, but I love ramen. The boom in ramen shops in New York City has made it possible for me to understand that ramen can be spectacular. I’ve been drinking a lot of natural wines. We just introduced a beer program at the deli in Brooklyn and our beer specialist has introduced me to very traditional European regional beers.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I’m dying to leave New York and explore.
I would really love to go to try Alma in Los Angeles. It’s very interesting to me because they have the whole farm program, and their format and price point is very approachable and reasonable. There’s an altruistic approach and I’m curious to see how they pull it off.
Some friends of mine opened Rolf and Daughters in Nashville. I’d really love to go there for the good down home cooking and am curious to see what that means in a place like Nashville.
I’ve always been intrigued by Fäviken in Northern Sweden. It’s a small inn and restaurant on a 20,000-acre natural wildlife preserve where they grow and forage for everything. It seems the full embodiment of what everyone else is trying to do.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Montreal. Even the old-school places are really really good. There are two year-round farmers’ markets, which are amazing. A plethora of new restaurants have opened in the last two or three years and they can easily compete with Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon. If you live in New York, you have no excuse not to go to Montreal. You could do a long weekend in Montreal for the same cost as doing as a staycation and a couple of nice restaurants in New York.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I play bass, but I’m not that talented at it. I put a lot of energy into the construction and design of our restaurants and our commissary in Red Hook, and I have done some contracting myself. My interest in food, my interest in design, my interest in construction and real estate come together in my restaurants.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be a party train that went from city to city, set up a pop-up restaurant for a few days and kept moving. The way politicians in the 1930s would travel on trains and speak from a caboose, we would pull up to a train station and cook from the caboose and build a restaurant on the platform of a train station. I like the roving circus, old-timey vibe.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I’d like to take Thomas Keller for a tuna melt at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in Manhattan. I have the most to learn from him from a business perspective. He seems still quite hands-on with his businesses and is choosing a path a bit less glamorous and TV-oriented. I’d prize the opportunity to sit with a chef like Thomas Keller, so I’d want the food to be good and well made but not distracting, hence the tuna melt.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think we’re still going to be talking about heritage grains. I’m curious how we’ll be using grains. I think people are still carb-shy and the resurgence of properly made grains is going to come back and we’ll move away from the protein craze.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Sometimes I’ll eat cheese straight out the fridge or cut a nub off of some salami. I’ll eat whatever’s there. The whole point of eating out the fridge is you don’t have to be particular. I’ll usually keep Hebrew National or the red wrapper Babybel cheese on hand. The truth is my fridge is a little bit sad because I don’t eat at home every day. I have more condiments than I could possibly use in the next three years.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I’ve been using a lot of Red Boat fish sauce lately. As a food tool and pantry item, it’s incredible. It’s this amazing delicious umami.