Farm Boy

Ryan Tate, formerly of Savoy and Le Restaurant, May Have Found Finally the Perfect Home at Blenheim

Ryan Tate, in the kitchen at Blenheim (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Ryan Tate, in the kitchen at Blenheim (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK CITY — Chefs’ professional fates can turn in an instant. A restaurant’s shuttering can leave them scrounging for work; a sudden opening or bit of serendipity can prove the first step in a new chapter.

Case in point: Ryan Tate, who honchoed the kitchen at the recently departed Le Restaurant in Tribeca, where he served a daily set tasting menu and garnered stars (one from Michelin, two from the New York Times), experienced both ends of that equation. Le Restaurant’s demise was of the slow, painful variety: Perched on the fringe of Tribeca, despite critical attention (among others, Gael Greene also found much to like there), Tate and owner Kyle Wittels (the two also collaborated on the restaurant’s adjacent sister business, the marketplace and cafe All Good Things), never quite found the customer mass required to keep the joint open.  And so, as June crawled to a close, they made the painful decision to shut it down, and Tate was soon to be a gun for hire … but before he’d served his last meal, another door had opened.

Maybe it was karma: Tate had been committed to cook at Pig Mountain–the upstate “pig roast and veggie fest”–later this month, but with no benefactor, he would have had to go out of pocket for ingredients and transportation, and wasn’t in a position to shell out the necessary coin. So he did the responsible thing and called producer Heather Carlucci to explain the situation as soon as possible.  The call set off a domino effect:  Carlucci told him that the chef of Blenheim had just left two days earlier, at which point Tate called former colleague Jonathan Russell, who happened to be the beverage director at the West Village establishment.  (Talk about quick twists of fate: original chef Justin Hilbert was out of Blenheim in a New York minute, owing to what the owners termed “irreconcilable differences.” The shift forced the restaurant to temporarily close after less than a month in business.)

Within hours, Tate was on the phone with Blenheim co-owner Morten Sohlberg, who also owns Blenheim Hill Farm, which supplies the restaurant with a steady flow of fresh ingredients, and Smörgås Chef restaurants with his wife and partner Min Ye. Continuing the real life fast forward, Sohlberg and Ye dined at Le Restaurant that very night. It was the second to last service, with a scant six souls in the dining room, two in the kitchen, and a solitary server soldiering back and forth between them.  But the couple were able to see past the funereal setting and were blissed out by the food.  … 

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Labor of Love

David Waltuck Just Wants to Cook.  Five Years After Chanterelle Closed, He’s Back in the Kitchen at Élan.

[Note:  This is our monthly sister post to my Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater.  Click over there to read part 1 of my interview with David Waltuck, joined by wife and Chanterelle partner Karen. - A.F.]

David Waltuck. (photo by Michael Harlan Turkel, courtesy élan)

David Waltuck. (photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, courtesy élan)

NEW YORK CITY — Once upon a time, there was a little boy named David.  He grew up in the Bronx, on Eastern European home cooking, but had a fascination with French food and restaurants. On the weekends, he would experiment in the kitchen, at first with elemental preparations like mayonnaise, and then with more ambitious projects such as terrines.

This was back in the mid-1970s and that boy grew up to marry his high school sweetheart, Karen, and together the couple, the Waltucks, opened one of the landmark restaurants of its era in the United States:  Chanterelle.  On Monday, without Karen (but in partnership with former Chanterelle GM George Stinson), David will launch the new restaurant élan, on East 20th Street in Manhattan.

The thing that’s always fascinated me about David (with whom I collaborated on Chanterelle’s cookbook), is that as much as any chef I’ve ever met, all he’s ever really wanted to do was cook, but that’s easier for a little boy in the Bronx as a hobby than it is for a grown professional in New York City, especially these days when real estate costs are driving even the likes of Union Square Cafe to new digs.

But love is a powerful thing, even the love of cooking, and it can drive a man to stay the course until he’s back with his beloved. Like Daniel Day Lewis’ Hawkeye screaming, “No matter what occurs, I WILL FIND YOU!” in Last of the Mohicans, David has always found his way back to cooking, back to a situation that has allowed him to cook his food, even though, most recently, it’s taken years…. 

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Bitters … Sweet!

How a New York City Actor-Waiter-Bartender Turned into a Budding Entrepreneur

Tobin Ludwig.  Upright Brew House, Hudson Street.  June 2014.

Tobin Ludwig. Upright Brew House, Hudson Street. June 2014.

NEW YORK CITY — Presidents issue pardons, tennis tournaments hand out wildcards, restaurants hold tables for VIPs … so call this the blogger equivalent: On this, my birthday, I’m invoking personal privilege and profiling an honorary family member who, though he’s been intermittently involved in the restaurant trade, isn’t a chef.

Tobin Ludwig, one of the trio of young entrepreneurs behind the relatively new brand Hella Bitters, is something of an adopted son, or at least baby brother, to me and my wife, Caitlin, here in New York City. Tobin’s mother Josette, was a dear friend to my late mother in-law, Joan, and when he came to New York to spend a year here before college, we worked our network to help him secure a job, landing him a gig as a barista at The Harrison, which was about to open in Tribeca.

The timing of Tobin’s arrival seems comical now, but wasn’t at the time:  September 9, 2001.

Two days later, on September 11, he was woken by his roommate at the 92nd Street Y.  The guy’s girlfriend had called from Israel, alarmed about the attack on the city that was in progress. Tobin shuffled out onto Lexington Avenue and saw the smoldering towers way down south…. 

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A Tale of Two Chefs

At Home, and in the Kitchen, with San Francisco’s Sean and Reneé Baker

Sean and Renee Baker, outside Omnivore Books.  San Francisco, California. February 2014 (photo copyright 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Sean and Reneé Baker, outside Omnivore Books, San Francisco. February 2014. (photo © 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in San Francisco over the past year, researching the chefs of the 70s and 80s. But I’ve also been very much in the present, in part thanks to Sean and Reneé Baker, who have graciously hosted me in the guest room of their Noe Valley home on my last few visits.

As Toqueland readers may know, Sean is a partner in both Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and Verbena, which opened on Polk Street in December, and where he is the chef. Reneé is a private chef who works for a Bay Area family, cooking for them at home and on the road when they travel.

I first met Sean and Reneé during the Chef’s Holidays program at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park two years ago. Over a beer in the pub, we talked about the pluses and minuses of being a two-chef couple. They met in the kitchen at Millennium restaurant in 2004, then cooked together at Google before their professional paths diverged, Reneé finding her current gig when a desired change of pace led her to perusing the possibilities on Craig’s List.

My assumption was that living in a two-toque household must have helped their relationship endure because chefs’ spouses (they were married in 2011) often feel that they come in a distant second to their partner’s work.

Reneé concurred: “If I wasn’t in the industry, I might not understand why he isn’t home for fifteen hours every day,” she said. “Women not in the industry might not get it, or stick around.”… 

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David Kinch: The Toqueland Interview

The Manresa Chef on Staying Grounded, Writing His Book, Being the Subject Matter, and Quitting by Text

David Kinch.  (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

David Kinch. (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

From his restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California, David Kinch has evolved into one of the most celebrated chefs in the United States today.  The restaurant holds two Michelin stars, four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and David was recently nominated as Outstanding Chef (in the nation) by the James Beard Foundation. It’s a busy time for him:  although Manresa is his lone restaurant, he’s planning a bakery, published his first cookbook last fall, and, along with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, is the subject of the recent documentary The Farmer & The Chef.  David cooked for such influential chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Barry Wine, and consulted to the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, before moving to the Bay Area.  His first restaurant as chef-proprietor was Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which he opened in 1995 then sold in 2002, the year he opened Manresa.

I hadn’t met David before last November, when he granted me an interview for an upcoming book project. When we connected again last month for a follow up, I asked him if he’d submit himself to a Toqueland interview. Most of this dialogue took place over lunch at Zuni Café, with the remainder conducted by phone the following week.

TOQUELAND: You’ve got just the one restaurant. How tough is that to stick to these days? Do opportunities come your way? Do you constantly have to resist things in order to stay there?

KINCH: There are a lot of opportunities that come my way; none of them really interest me. There’s not one that is a slam dunk. Anything interesting, I’ll entertain. Is it harder just to do one restaurant? No. I like going to work. I like going to Manresa and doing what I do for fifty people a night.

I’ve never really cooked for more than 120 a night. Ever. I’ve never had any interest in it. That’s not why I’m in the business. I’ve always been interested in the bespoke nature of fine dining. I’ve worked in a couple of hotels. They weren’t for me. I don’t know how to do volume.

TOQUELAND: You’re not interested in it or you literally don’t know how to do it?… 

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Ruminations: The Sweet Spot

Eleven Madison Park and Contemporary Fine Dining

The dining room at Eleven Madison Park (photo courtesy Eleven Madison Park)

The dining room at Eleven Madison Park (photo courtesy Eleven Madison Park)

NEW YORK CITY — I’m fond of saying that Toqueland is a chef site, not a food or restaurant site, and that I’m a chef writer, not a food writer. But I had such a wonderful dining experience the other night that I felt compelled to write about it.

The restaurant was Eleven Madison Park, and before I write another word about it, I want to be very clear that I was there as their guest. They didn’t invite me in for the purposes of a review because I don’t write reviews. In fact, one could reasonably contend that I had worked for my supper:  On hearing of my upcoming book about the chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, EMP co-owner Will Guidara and his company’s Director of Strategic Development Aaron Ginsberg invited me to speak at one of the “Happy Hour” talks they sometimes arrange for their staff in advance of the nightly service.  As my book is still a work in-progress, I asked if I might bring along a chef to fill in any holes in my research. They said “of course,” and I asked David Waltuck, formerly, of course, of Chanterelle, where he became the second American-born, Manhattan-based chef to earn four stars from the New York Times, and currently readying his new élan for an opening early this summer.  At the end of the talk, as a gesture of thanks, Will invited us in to dinner…. 

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Vins of the Father

Chef Bruce Marder plays Godfather to Son Max’s New Restaurant Marvin, Which Opened Last Week in Los Angeles

Bruce Marder and his girlfriend, Shelly Kellogg, at Buvette.  May 23, 2014.

Bruce Marder and Shelly Kellogg, at Buvette restaurant, New York City. May 23, 2014. (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK, NY — A new restaurant called Marvin “officially” opened in Los Angeles last Wednesday, after quietly welcoming walk-ins for several days. According to co-owner/operator Max Marder, when we caught up with him a week ago today, despite some issues with the phone lines and website, the restaurant itself had been performing to his expectations.

Whether or not it is running according to another man’s expectations is another story: That man is Max’s father, Bruce Marder.  If you live and dine in LA then you probably know him as the man behind such fondly remembered restaurants as West Beach Cafe and Rebecca’s, and more recently Capo and Cora’s Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, as well as Brentwood restaurant and its adjacent cafe.  If you don’t reside in the City of Angels, then it’s quite possible you never heard of the guy.  That’s, in part, because Bruce is famously introverted (some would say antisocial) and completely uninterested in the PR/marketing game that has become de rigueur among professional chefs…. 

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Consider The Radish

Jimmy Bradley and the Role of Confidence in Being a Chef and Creating a Restaurant

[Note:  This is our monthly sister post to the Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater.  Click over there to read our interview with Jimmy Bradley.]

Jimmy Bradley, in front of The Red Cat, which recently turned 15.  (photo courtesy Jimmy Bradley)

Jimmy Bradley, in front of The Red Cat, which recently turned 15. (photo courtesy The Red Cat)

NEW YORK, NY — A few weeks ago, during a quick visit to the Napa Valley, I caught up with Brian Bistrong, chef de cuisine of Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant in Yountville. As we were talking, our mutual friend, Jimmy Bradley, chef-owner of The Red Cat and The Harrison in New York City, came up.

Brian had cooked for David Bouley before he became executive chef of The Harrison, Red Cat’s sister restaurant in TriBeCa, where we got to know each other. He then returned to Bouley as chef de cuisine after Braeburn, his own restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

We kicked around some stories about Jimmy, then I asked what it had been like collaborating with him.

“I learned a lot working for Jimmy,” he said, without hesitation.

The swiftness with which the answer came made me think that it was something Brian had spent some time reflecting on in the intervening years.  For me it was actually a surprising comment because, with no disrespect to Jimmy (who’s one of my best friends), given Brian’s professional pedigree, I wondered what Jimmy could have shown him, culinarily speaking. I asked Brian what he meant.

With zero hesitation, he said:  “Jimmy’s very sure of himself.”… 

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Milestones: All The Right Moves

Gavin Kaysen, Executive Chef of Cafe Boulud, is Leaving New York City. Those Who Think He’s Crazy Haven’t Been Paying Attention.

Gavin Kaysen.  (photo by Gary Payne, courtesy Gavin Gaysen)

Gavin Kaysen. (photo by Gary Payne, courtesy Gavin Kaysen)

“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all–Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

NEW YORK, NY — Which is worse: having cancer or moving to Minneapolis?

OK, that’s a rhetorical question. Clearly the former is a less desirable fate.  But if you were Gavin Kaysen, you might be growing confused. Ever since announcing that he would be leaving Manhattan, and a coveted gig as executive chef of Cafe Boulud, to return to his Minnesota hometown and open Merchant restaurant later this year, Gavin has been met with unconvincing smiles and artificial optimism that rival those that greet sufferers of potentially terminal illness.

“It makes me sad to think that people look me in the eye to say ‘congratulations’ and turn around and say, ‘Why he is doing that?’” Gavin wrote me during an email exchange the other day. “I know it is going to happen, and I knew it was when I made my decision to do this. But I have a hard time understanding why people ask ‘Why?’”

It’s the restaurant industry’s version of the old, myopic Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover: You don’t voluntarily leave New York, goes the conventional wisdom.  You leave when you have no choice.  You leave when the city’s used you up, and vice versa. When you’re too old and creaky to hack it on the line, and your ideas reek of a bygone culinary era. That‘s when you leave; not when you’re just thirty-five-years old and the favorite son of one of the world’s most successful fine-dining moguls…. 

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Highwire Act

Le Cirque’s New Chef, Raphael Francois, on Moving to New York, Auditioning for the Job, and Pleasing All of the People, All of the Time

Le Cirque's new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January.  (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

Le Cirque’s new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January. (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

NEW YORK, NY — Just a few months ago, Chef Raphael Francois took on a task both flattering and perhaps unenviable when he assumed the toque at New York City’s storied Le Cirque restaurant.  Le Cirque, a New York institution with a rich heritage of great chefs including Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, Sottha Kuhn, and Sylvain Portay, has been engaged in a Sisyphean enterprise since being taken down (shockingly at the time) from four stars to three by Ruth Reichl in 1993.  Since then, in the Times‘ estimation, the restaurant has dipped down to two stars and back up to three during Frank Bruni’s tenure, then down to one star by Pete Wells in 2012.

With that backstory, there would be no shortage of pressure on whoever took over the kitchen next to restore at least some glory to the forty-year-old Le Cirque, and you could almost hear the thundering of white-horse hooves as Raphael arrived in New York City, most recently from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, where he earned two Michelin stars in 2011.  Raised in Belgium and France, Francois has cooked at Le Giverny in Tournai, Chateau du Mylord in Elezelles, Le Sea Grill in Brussels, and Four Seasons George V and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.  His working relationship with Hélène Darroze began in 2006 when Francois worked with her at her Restaurant Hélène Darroze, and several of her city-based projects.

We recently sat down with Chef Francois to discuss the unique nature of the task before him, and the delicate balancing act required in his position. (Two notes:  In the full-disclosure department, Le Cirque’s legendary ringmaster Sirio Maccioni, recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, graciously insisted we join him for dinner as his guests to try Chef Francois’ food; as the meal was gratis, we’ll refrain from detailed praise here and stick to the interview. Also, a special thanks to Toqueland pal Evan Sung for the images.)

TOQUELAND: Before you came here for this job, had you visited New York City much?

FRANCOIS: Yeah. I had to come to New York for a few events, so I came a couple of times.

TOQUELAND: Had you spent much leisure time here?… 

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