In the latest episode of Restaurant Roots, Food & Wine checks in with Anne Burrell of Food Network fame a few months after debuting her very first solo restaurant project: Phil & Anne’s Good Time Lounge in Brooklyn.
Anne Burrell is crying.
“The day I came in here and saw my staff, I had to take a minute," shes says. "I was like, it’s really happening and it’s happening now."
Her staff was causing a small ruckus earlier making family meal. But now the ruckus seems to have moved to the psychedelic green dining room at the back of Phil & Anne’s Good Time Lounge in Brooklyn where Burrell is aglow under the skylight.
“When I decided to go to culinary school, I told myself that I’m going to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and I will open a restaurant,” Burrell says, a little teary and flushed. ”This many years later, it finally came true.”
After about a year and a half of gas issues, shelves falling and breaking $3,000-worth of dishes and other setbacks, Burrell threw open the doors of her first restaurant, Phil & Anne's Good Time Lounge, at the end of May. She opened it with her friend, bartender and other half of the restaurant name, Phil Casceli of Daddy-O in the West Village—and with their own money, no investors.
“We’re kind of like mom and dad,” says Burrell. “Phil makes exceptional cocktails, and I make food that’s delicious but not fancy. I call it comfortable food.”
There are meatballs and a big, fat chicken soup (her words), Bloody Marys and classic Old-Fashioneds on the menu. It’s everything the pair wants to eat and drink everyday, the things that fuel a good time. They first met when Burrell was a regular at Daddy-O. Over the years, they talked about doing something together, but it didn’t turn into a serious discussion until this space in Cobble Hill landed on Casceli’s lap.
“We knew the business pretty well,” says Casceli. “So I called Anne, we met up for dinner, and I just cut to the chase and told her what’s up.”
“I was doing the TV thing for a while now, but the more I was doing that, the less I was cooking. I missed that,” says Burrell. “I thought, ‘The universe will tell me when it’s time.’ And the universe brought me to Brooklyn.”
During the day, Burrell films "Worst Cooks in America," then rolls into the closet-sized kitchen at Phil & Anne’s Good Time Lounge. It fits about three cooks. “Mr. Brightside” plays in the open kitchen and the usual sterile look of a restaurant kitchen is filled with things that remind you that this is Burrell’s. A little white birdcage holding a spool of kitchen twine. Lavender towels neatly folded on a shelf.
“Are you crazy? Are you masochistic? Are you passionate? Are you creative? Do you like to eat and drink a lot? Are you a rogue?” asks Burrell. “The restaurant world is the land of misfit toys, and I fit right in.”
Long before she was a star on the Food Network, beloved cookbook author and overall household name, she was Anne Burrell, head hunter for physicians. Fresh out of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, she hated the first (and only) office job she ever held. The punching in and out. Sitting at a desk. Wearing casual office clothes. After calling in sick day after day, she realized she needed to get out and applied to the lauded Culinary School of America in Hyde Park, New York.
She got in, loving every minute, then studied in Italy, ended up working as a sous-chef at Felidia in New York City, helped Mario Batali during the pilot taping for "Iron Chef America" and the rest is history.
Or so it seems. Almost a decade ago, Burrell was the executive chef at Centro Vinoteca in New York City, then left a year later due to her TV schedule. Her first Food Network show, "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef," premiered later on. Rumors swirled of her opening her own restaurant in 2010, but nothing panned out. Instead, that year, "Worst Cooks in America" debuted on the network, and 11 seasons later is going strong.
It seems almost backwards how Burrell rose to fame first through TV and that she’s only opening her first restaurant now—after over a decade of being onscreen. But walking down memory lane with Burrell and listening to one story in particular to tells you a lot about how she approaches her career.
“How to get a braise started: one of the most important lessons I learned in Italy,” says Burrell. “I made a big, fat bolognese for family meal at this tiny, 30-seat restaurant in Tuscany. I cooked it for hours and hours, and the owner took two bites and said, ‘This ragu is wrong.’ I was like you’ve got to be kidding me.”
She explains the lesson she learned.
“I was getting the braise started too fast,” she says. “I was just giving the vegetables a quick sweat, but you need to take the battuto [finely diced vegetables cooked in pork fat] to the edge of disaster, yank it back and and build the ragu from there,” she says. “There is no rush in braising.”
And as far as Burrell is concerned, the same idea seems to work with opening a first restaurant.