Angie Mar on the Art of Not Compromising
The 2017 F&W Best New Chef and author of Butcher + Beast talks about book publishing battles, firing and hiring, and the art of staying true to your creative vision.
Get to know Angie Mar, and consistent themes come up: family, team, loyalty, hard work, style, and unadulterated love of the restaurant industry. This week, Mar dropped her debut book, Butcher + Beast, a raw and unapologetic love letter to the business and her restaurant, The Beatrice Inn.
Co-written with Jamie Feldmar, the book features Polaroids shot by photographer Johnny Miller and more than 80 indulgent, time-intensive recipes. You won’t find remedial versions of her food. “I’ve decided I’ll leave that bullshit to the semihomemade set,” Mar writes in the introduction, setting the tone for what comes next.
The book takes you from cobblestoned West 12th Street down into the clubby rabbit hole barroom of the historic Beatrice Inn, where you brush past servers carrying magnums of Champagne and trays of goblet-sized gin and tonics as the host ushers you into the back Safari Room. In 2016, Mar bought the storied restaurant from Graydon Carter, transforming it into a nocturnal palace where massive cuts of aged Pat LaFrieda beef are served on silver platters, crispy-skinned ducks arrive flambéed in cognac, suet-crusted pies stuffed with melting lobes of foie gras stay on the summer menu, and many of the offerings are presented, carved, or prepared tableside for maximum visceral, animalistic, hedonistic, Rome-is-burning pleasure.
Butcher + Beast belongs on the same shelf as Marco Pierre White’s groundbreaking 1990 White Heat and early-aughts Anthony Bourdain—meaning it’s not for everyone. Mar details the gutsy moves that earned her a glowing two-star review from Pete Wells in the New York Times and a 2017 Best New Chef nod from Food & Wine—including an essay about how she and her sous chef fired the entire kitchen staff of “mercenaries” and rebuilt the team and the culture in the weeks before Wells arrived to dine.
I interviewed Mar over the phone earlier this week in advance of a special dinner at the Beatrice Inn on October 23 that she's co-hosting with Food & Wine, Jacques Pépin, and Pat LaFrieda. Tickets (available here) include a five-course dinner, wine pairings, a copy of Butcher + Beast, and a copy of the Food & Wine November issue, which features a story about Mar and LaFrieda’s bourbon-fueled duck hunt in Arkansas and William Hereford's photographs. A portion of the dinner’s proceeds will be donated to the Jacques Pépin Foundation.
Hunter Lewis: Let’s talk about the original book proposal and how it evolved.
Angie Mar: The book started six years ago. I’ve always been who I am. To be told by so many people that that’s great, that’s who you are, but it’s not going to sell—it was disheartening. I thought maybe I should compromise so people would pay attention, and then later on in life I can say what I want to say.
In six years, the book has changed so much. We had to fight for every photo, essay, curse word. It's very much a reflection of who I have been in the past six years and a snapshot of who I am right now.
You almost walked away from the whole thing. How did you convince Clarkson Potter of your vision and what you wanted to do?
One of the best pieces of advice anybody gave me was, "Always know that you can give the advance back and walk away and sell your book to somebody else." I didn’t realize that. I felt empowered. Here I am so excited to write this book, feeling so blessed that someone wants to publish it, but caught between a rock and a hard spot. They want me to write it, dumb my food down, and be more P.C. This writer told me "You get to decide."
Then it was about identifying key people who understood that it would be out of the ordinary, different, and beautiful. Those were hard conversations because I wanted to do so much more than recipes. I wanted to write scary stories that I haven’t talked about until this book.
What was harder, talking about business and your hustle at The Bea or going deep about your family?
Both were hard for different reasons. When I looked at all the books on my shelves, I know the industry and restaurants aren’t really like that. This is a tough industry—from finding real estate, and legal, the right representation, forging the relationships and hustling the fuck out of them—we all know it but nobody wants to talk about that.
I’ve spent the majority of my career forging relationships with press and others in the industry who might not not necessarily be in the kitchen every day but they’ve provided me with a lot of guidance. The next generation getting in the industry needs to know that. It’s not about going to have a beer around the corner with whoever. It’s about your relationship with your purveyors. Are you getting the best product? Do you have people you can call on to help with real estate or legal advice? Even writers and publicists. How are you getting people in the doors?
It’s a completely different game than it was 20 years ago. We would just have to cook good food and people would come for good food. But now being a chef and owner, we do so much more than that. We have to sit on panels, do great TV and give great interviews and have insight into the world around us— that’s what it truly takes to make it. It’s a lot. I wrote all those things down and after I hit send and thought, shit, I’m putting all of my actual thoughts out there.
As far as my family, putting it out there was really hard. While I was submitting my first draft, I lost my father. There’s no pain like that. I didn’t actually think I would be able to finish the book. I couldn’t work, think, eat, sleep. I was grieving. I didn’t know if I could manage my business let alone this book project. Out of all that grief came a lot of really beautiful things. Jamie Feldmar was so important in writing the headnotes and stories and recipes. Those essays came out of a period of grief where I felt I needed to pay homage to my family and my heritage. My family had a huge impact on the way I cook and the person I am. I hope I did my dad justice in the pages of that book.
You don’t see Polaroids in cookbooks. How did you decide to use them and stick to your guns?
Johnny Miller is such a genius. The project is an art book. When we met, he hung out at the Beatrice, got the vibe, we got to know each other, had a couple of phone dates and talked about the restaurant and the book and the vibe we wanted. He came to the restaurant one day with a pile of Helmut Newton Polaroid books and said, "This isn’t a cookbook, this is about a world you’ve created here, and the food that exists in it."
He really got that right. Restaurants are a different animal. There’s so much more to them than the food. It’s the music, the way the air smells, the ambiance, the lighting, the service; that’s what restaurants really are. The Beatrice is very much about the world and the people that sit around the tables. Shooting Polaroid was the biggest triumph we had and one of the biggest fights. Everybody was so set in their ways that it was the food the food the food—yeah, it’s that, but the Beatrice is also about the parties, the music, the energy.
If you flip through all the Polaroids and the ambience, you really feel like you’ve stepped into our world for one night. It’s very transportive. You lose track of what time it is. What temperature it is outside. The whole book is nocturnal, which I love. You have no idea what season it is. Even if it’s spring or summer, there are fur coats. It doesn’t matter what’s outside, it matters what you’re experiencing right in front of you. That’s what the Poloroids did. It wouldn’t be the same book without them
I’m going to cook from the book, starting with the milk-braised pork this weekend. But this to me is more than anything an industry book. Is that something you were intentional about?
It evolved to that. There was a point when I said, "Fuck it. I’m going to say what everyone else is afraid to say." This is really hard work and not a romanticized version of what everyone thinks a restaurant is. It’s hard, and it’s a grind. If it’s not one thing, it's another. I’ve got a leaky basement or leaky roof, someone called out today. Cooks coming right out of school and can’t shuck an oyster. It’s a business. We’re in a society right now where everyone wants to be a chef and run a restaurant. It’s a romantic ideal. No, this is a business. We’ve gotta pay West Village rent and we’ve gotta make people happy day in and day out. We have to keep growing and expanding so my people here have somewhere to go. In a lot of books, especially recently, that hard truth gets lost.
Images of White Heat flashed through my mind. Those images of what a kitchen in the 1980s in London looked like. The Polaroids are more glamorous and have a different vibe, but the words are as real as White Heat.
When we made the decision to say fuck it we’re going to say what everyone is too scared to say, that’s what I admired so much about Marco Pierre White and Anthony Bourdain. They weren’t scared of the truth. We’re at a time when the industry needs it. It needs to be unabashed and unapologetic. My whole thing with this book is, I’m going to stop with the pleasantries.
There’s not one recipe where if you want to make a quick pie you can sub store-bought dough. Why would I do that? Things done well are truthful even if they’re not easy. This business isn’t easy. I wanted to shed light on the reality of that.
Some people feel there’s an art in compromise. Is there a relief in being unapologetic in your style?
We’re in the business of making people happy, but I’m never going to apologize for who I am, the food I create, or having a very singular vision in my food. We’re living in a world where a lot of people think we have to make everyone happy—a dish for the gluten-free and vegans. I don’t care. I want to leave my restaurant every single night and know that every single item on the menu, every wine, every cocktail, every ingredient is the best of the best and a true expression and translation of what my vision is for what I want the food to be on a plate. I should never be in a position to apologize for having that vision or having that conviction in my belief.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy other food. This is my expression of my vision. That’s one reason why I never pay attention to what anyone else is cooking in the city. I don’t go out for a specific reason: I don’t ever want to be influenced by somebody else’s restaurant or food. The more I go out, the less creative I am. It’s noise interrupting my own thoughts.
Frankly, I don’t care. It’s not personal. All I care about is being in my own world and focusing on and cooking the food I want to cook. Who cares what the trends are? If I’m following them then I’m not setting them. Isn’t the whole point of being a creative is that we want our vision to be singular and an expression of who we are? How can I do that if I’m distracted by others? Once I stopped looking around I found a very comforting conviction in my own vision. It’s probably the most freeing thing that I’ve experienced.
During the early days of the Beatrice there was a high turnover rate. What happened when you decided to call your sous chef and said, “Fire them all?”
I fired everyone. We had to do it.
What is your culture now and how much turnover do you have now?
When I bought this restaurant nobody knew who I was. I didn’t have a track record or kids that wanted to work for me. I had to build it. What I did have were mercenary cooks who were here to collect a paycheck. They were talented, but they weren’t doing it for the love of the industry or further their own career growth. To be surrounded by that was really hard. There’s something to be said for cooks in the kitchen who are so excited about the food and the vision. The energy is palpable. You can taste that in the food. You can certainly taste it in the food we’re cooking now. When I opened the Beatrice it wasn’t like that.
I made a decision because we were in the middle of our review period. I knew that I couldn’t have people cooking my food who weren’t excited about it. They couldn’t even understand it. Couldn’t wrap their minds around it. So I fired them all in one fell swoop on a Friday night. It was me and my sous chef the next day.
I called Anita Lo and said I fired my whole kitchen and she said, "What the fuck were you thinking? Pete [Wells] is coming in." She said, ‘Well, you’re right, you had to do it.’
We rebuilt. There are two-star reviews and two-star love letters. We got a two-star love letter. Had we not done what we did, we would not have gotten the review we did because [Wells] understood the idea, the love, and the passion. He could taste that in the food. You can tell from the review that he understood it and got it. I guarantee had we not made that move and let everyone go and started from scratch, we wouldn’t have gotten it. I feel the same for Food & Wine [Best New Chef] because you guys were scouting me too.
On a personal level, I’ll never be scared of anything again. To walk around the corner, pour yourself a glass of champagne and call your sous chef and write the paychecks and fire them all right now—that’s one of the ballsiest things I’ve ever done. It took away all of the fear. If I had to do it again I would.
Do staff at the Beatrice still talk about that story? Does that story reinforce your culture?
I’ve had people who are still here from that time. What it did was force everybody to rally together. It showed me who was really here for us. It truly showed me what my team was made of. The ride or die people. "OK, great, chef just fired our whole kitchen, Wells is reviewing us, Food & Wine is scouting us. She’s in there everyday with her sous chef." We didn’t dumb down the menu. We still cooked the entire menu. We rebuilt from scratch. It’s talked about not in a fearful way but in how it influences our mentality now and how we run it now—from management down to our dishwashers.
We now take the attitude that we would rather do more work ourselves and know we have the right people here than to put bodies in our restaurant to just cover a shift. We all roll up our sleeves because we all believe and are going in the exact same direction for the bigger cause. That’s the most powerful thing that could come out of the experience. That really set the tone for who we are and the kind of people we hire and the culture we would build. I didn’t know that it would at the time.
When you’re hiring cooks now, what questions are you asking of candidates that you weren’t a few years ago?
Why this restaurant?
What is your plan in the next year look like? 5 years, 10 years.
What’s your ultimate goal?
A huge part of my job is to make sure every single person we hire is moving closer to their end goal. If I’m not helping them move closer to their goal then I’m not doing my job. It’s a very different move going from player, then to coach, then to owner. It’s taken me a couple of years to settle into ownership. I’m still trying to settle into it.
With ownership comes a huge responsibility to pay it forward and to set my team up for success not only here but anywhere else they go. The interview process is long, you come in and sit with me. Letting my whole kitchen go changed me. In order for me to find the right people, it takes a minute. It takes a while to get to know people. What’s the first impression?
It takes time. We interview and three or four or five trails before we make you an offer. Come for a trail, think about it. Call me on Monday. Come back in for a second trail. What that’s done is given me a really low attrition rate and gives me confidence that in knowing the people we do bring in are ready to learn and ready to grow with us.
I ask, "Are you going to commit to a year-and-a-half to two years here? Six to nine months, what’s the point of that? The problem with restaurant professionals now, they want to put the best restaurant on their resume, but what are you going to learn in six to nine months? That’s just one station. You’ve got to do a whole tour of the kitchen. Six to nine months you’re should still be learning garde manger. I’m transparent about the time commitment. I expect that time.
That’s asking a lot of somebody but what I’m giving in return is my time. I’m here all the time. I promise my time. I’m here before my cooks arrive and after they leave. I close the restaurant with them. That’s my commitment to them. Yes, you’re going to give me two years of your life, and I’ll be here with you the whole time.
During that third or fourth trail, what are you looking for?
Are they asking the right questions? How are they jiving with the team? Tasting their food? Working clean? It’s less about their habits and more about their attitude, hunger, and tenacity. Of course there’s an artistry to cooking but really we’re craftsmen. The goal is craftsmanship: Making the same dishes day in and day out consistently. Craftsmanship you can teach. Integrity you cannot. You either have it or you don’t. If there’s a spark of integrity and ingenuity that’s what I’m looking for and what I want to foster.
Your food is visceral, animalistic, primal, sexy. What is it about tableside service in particular that excites you?
I really love the drama of tableside service, the anticipation of it. There’s something to be said for having a show. It shouldn’t be entertainment for just the taste buds; it’s full sensory overload. To have things flambeed tableside, things en croute releasing beautiful aromas, it whets the imagination. It’s about engaging all of our senses. I don’t want to just have what’s put in front of me. I want everything—the drama, the show, the romance. So much of what we do is this exchange. It’s almost like dating. There’s this seduction to it. If we can seduce our diners every single night at the table, that’s really exciting to me.
Who is blacklisted from the Bea?
You really want that list? Come on, I’ve probably had a blacklist since I was five on the playground and had it folded up in my OshKosh overalls.