King has managed to distinguish itself in a city where the phrase “farm-to-table” can feel more like a vibe than the truth.
Much like farmers or umbrella salespeople, the women of King are beholden to the whims of the weather. The menu at the small Soho bistro, which serves beautifully executed Southern Italian food in an understated setting, reinvents itself each day based on the produce, meat, fish, dairy and wine that shows up at their door. Because general manager Annie Shi and chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer are committed to working with tiny, local producers, mornings at King can resemble a reality cooking show—they must figure out what to do with what they have before hordes of regulars start filing in, expecting to be stunned.
King has a rabbit guy. He can only give them ten rabbits a week, and once they hit their quota: No more rabbit on the menu. King has fish people, too, who text them what they’ve caught (if anything.) Depending on the heat and humidity and tides and luck, ingredients vary daily, and even a specific item like fennel can arrive different than yesterday’s fennel, thus requiring a different approach.
“Our cooking mirrors that style of cooking where you open your fridge door and see what you have,” Shadbolt says. “One day the fennel can be large and a little bit tough, in which case you poach it to bring out the sweetness. Then today, they’re small and tender, so we did it raw in a salad. It’s nature, and things aren’t the same every day—thankfully—and we get to respond to that creatively each morning.”
A daily-changing menu focusing on ingredients at the peak of seasonality seems like it could describe many New York restaurants, but something sets King, which just received one of Pete Wells’ most glowing reviews in recent memory, apart. Perhaps because at King, “farm-to-table” isn’t just an aesthetic—it’s their organizing principle. De Boer and Shadbolt, veterans of London’s storied River Café, and Shi, a former JP Morgan employee, met in London and landed on their concept almost immediately: simple and reflective. They opened King’s doors in September of 2016. You’ll find inspired dishes like wild halibut grilled with asparagus, Castelluccio lentils, sorrel and marinated anchovy, and hand-cut tagliarini verde with spring nettles, nutmeg and Parmesan—but no guarantees, ever, because you never know when the asparagus guy is going to fall through.
The fact that the restaurant three women helm, and the kitchen is entirely staffed by women, is unique too, but de Boer, Shadbolt and Shi would never want that to be the reason someone came to eat at King. They privilege talent and excellent food, above all else, and the icons who paved the way for their brand of simple, thoughtful cooking just so happen to be women—they cite Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, Rita Sodi and Jody Williams as some of their most important influences.
“We only realize that we’re three women when people draw it to our attention,” says Shadbolt. “We wanted the restaurant and the food to speak for itself. We wanted to prove ourselves on the plate, and the dining room every single night. If people are intrigued by us being women, that’s great, but the three of us aren’t.”
De Boer adds, “We don’t champion women because we are women. We champion women because the restaurants that we look to and draw inspiration from are run by women.”
In less than a year of opening, King has already accumulated regulars who return several nights a month, even a week. Because the space is so small, the staff knows their names and their ordering quirks, like the one diner who always starts the meal with an Aperol spritz. Shi mentions a couple that comes in repeatedly with their young daughter, Elsie.
“Every time she comes, her parents say she wants to be a chef,” Shi says. “If we do that, that’s wonderful.”