Ryan Tate, formerly of Savoy and Le Restaurant, May Have Found Finally the Perfect Home at Blenheim
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.
“I liked that he had the courage to work with flavors that aren’t commonly used, or associated with each other, and pair them,” says Sohlberg. “Doing that comes from an enormous amount of experience and experimentation. Not every dish was perfect but we saw that he had that ability.
“That’s what we do at the farm, too,” he added. “We are willing to forgo profit sometimes for experimentation.”
The job was Tate’s, and it’s a logical next link in his personal and professional chain. The soft-spoken Michigan native grew up the grandson of a butcher and a farmer and knew from an early age that he was kitchen bound. In New York, he’s been associated with a number of restaurants that have particularly strong links to regional farms and producers–he was a sous chef at Cookshop and chef de cuisine at Peter Hoffman’s Savoy. A few months ago, I spent a day with him at Le Restaurant to write a “The Trail” piece that I let sit too long and didn’t get posted before the restaurant gave up the ghost. I was struck by Tate’s ego-less, laidback demeanor and how he spent the first hours of the day in solitude, tweaking his menu based on what was or wasn’t available from his purveyors and doing much of the early prep himself.
From his initial conversation with Sohlberg to the re-opening of Blenheim with Tate at the helm was a headspinning seven days. During that time, Tate and his girlfriend joined Sohlberg, Ye, their children, and various members of the Blenheim restaurant team for an overnight visit to the farm during the 4th of July weekend. They met with the farmers, foraged the land, and swam in the pond. Tate resisted the urge to cook, instead making mental notes for the menu he needed to pen.
After serving up a nightly tasting menu at Le Restaurant, Tate has been working himself back into a set-menu mindset. “Man, I’ve been doing such small portions, it’s taking me a little time to get in the groove of doing à la carte again,” he told me when I sat down with him and Sohlberg one recent morning at Blenheim, where his menu will change eight times a year to reflect what he sees as the Northeast’s eight agricultural seasons, plus incremental adjustments to incorporate what might become available (or vanish) at any given moment. To devise the menu, he has called on some critical darlings from his Le Restaurant days, such as a skate wing dish that caught Pete Wells’ fancy (“so rich and tender I thought Mr. Tate had found a part of the piscine anatomy that nobody had noticed before” swooned the Times critic), expanding it to main-course proportions.
Most other dishes are and will be inspired by the bounty of Blenheim. According to Sohlberg, the farm produces forty or fifty types of crops outdoors and at least two dozen in the greenhouse.
Tate’s moving fast at Blenheim. He’s launched brunch, and has already instituted a tasting menu option akin to what he served at Le Restaurant. He’s trying to confine himself as much as possible to product from the farm, but will need to look elsewhere for certain favorite ingredients such as snails or razor clams.
Tate has a soul mate in Sohlberg, who grew up in Norway. “What we do there is forage,” he says. “The CEO of the oil company and the mailman live next door to each other and go foraging together. I’ve had nothing else my whole life. We fished the fish we ate and five minutes would yield you two or three buckets of chanterelles; we had a carcass of moose hanging by the ribs in our basement and it would dry-age and you would come down and cut off big slabs and cut it into steaks. This was all in my blood. I’m not technically a chef, though I have been the executive chef in our other restaurants. I’m an entrepreneur, restaurateur, farmer.”
Sohlberg exudes respect for Tate, whom he says “has more knowledge than anybody I know about the ingredients and how flavors combine.”
Accordingly, the owner defers to the chef on just about anything culinary. “In terms of what goes on the plate, my wife and I only get involved where we see that business needs require that we do something. If there’s a perception among enough customers, either directly or via our online forms, or our own observation, we say something.”
For now, Tate is still honing his groove at Blenheim. It’s in a more well-trafficked nabe than was Le Restaurant, but the chef’s singular style isn’t as easily defined as, say, Cafe Cluny across the street. “We do things differently,” says Sohlberg, accurately; the menu at Blenheim calls out such ingredients and preparations as sea plants and onion ash. “We’re a different type of restaurant in a neighborhood place, which is the challenge and the exciting part.” We try to be creative and do all those things we love, but still have some familiar pegs that people can hold on to.”
When we sat down two weeks ago, the restaurant was doing one full seating every night and Tate and Sohlberg were kicking around all kinds of ideas. Said Sohlberg: ” We’re throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”
Continuing the rapid-fire developments at Blenheim, the Daily News‘ Stan Sagner has already weighed in, bestowing four (out of five) stars on Tate’s menu, calling the restaurant “a stealth— but very worthy — rival to the city’s current farm-chic temple, Blue Hill.” Now, Tate and Sohlberg wait for one of the city’s most influential tastemakers to pass judgement, another way in which the fate of a restaurant, and a chef, can turn in an instant.