The Possibly Compromised Critic: Perilla Restaurant (New York City)
Harold Dieterle Hits His Stride
[First published in December 2009, here’s something I hope to do more of: a combination profile-review, in this case, of Perilla and Harold Dieterle, who’s gone on to open Kin Shop and the forthcoming Marrow in Brooklyn. In the intervening years, we’ve decided to start down the road of conceiving a book project together; more on that soon. Please note that the menu at Perilla has changed since this piece ran.]
[Note: The Possibly Compromised Critic moniker indicates that I’m reviewing/profiling a place where I’m a friend of the house (i.e., known to the chef, owner, and/or assorted waiters). It’s a full-disclosure tag that lets you know that I wasn’t there as an anonymous diner. BUT, when I don the PCC cape, it is because I believe readers will enjoy a similar experience to mine, based on the professionalism of the people involved. – AF]
A few weeks back, I was watching one of those season-expanding episodes that Bravo always airlifts into Top Chef just before finale time. It was the one in which Season 5 cheftestant Fabio invited a bunch of past competitors and winners to a house, then made them cook dinner, then almost goaded Season 2 veteran Marcel into a throwdown.
Seated at the end of that tense dinner table, was a friend of mine, Harold Dieterle, the first-ever Top Chef winner. I’ve only known Harold since 2004, but I have a bond with him that I don’t have with very many other people: We’ve cooked together.
Now, I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, but five years ago, Jimmy Bradley and I were writing his The Red Cat Cookbook together and decided to test the recipes ourselves. (There was no virtue in this; we were trying to save money by not hiring a tester.) To help us out, Jimmy tapped Harold, who at the time was sous chef to Brian Bistrong at the Red Cat’s sister restaurant The Harrison. (Brian has since moved on to Braeburn.)
And so, every other Wednesday night, we’d convene in the basement prep kitchen of The Red Cat, armed with rough-draft recipes based on interviews, divvy them up, and cook. We knocked down about 8 to 10 recipes each session, tasting each other’s dishes as they were done to determine whether or not a dreaded “retest” was called for. At the end of the night, we’d gather in Jimmy’s office and the guys would verbally share their notes with me as I furiously scribbled on the drafts.
I became a big fan of Harold’s in those sessions. Unlike many chefs who have made the quantum leap to television, Harold is in life as he was on the screen: an unassuming, head-down, professional. He was also exceedingly generous: I’m a good enough home cook, but have no illusions about the limits of my ability. Nonetheless, Harold went out of his way to compliment my cooking. Two weeks after I first made Jimmy’s Linguine with Clams, Pancetta, Butternut Squash, and Wilted Greens (sounds nuts, came out great), Harold came bounding into the kitchen for our next session, shook my hand, and the first thing he said was, “I’m still thinking about that squash pasta!” He was also a good and patient teacher; when testing in professional kitchens, I’m often loathe to ask a stranger-cook for advice on the rare occasion that I need to execute an unfamiliar technique, because I don’t want to be ribbed about it for the next four months (what can I tell you, I have the thin skin of a non-professional). But that wall came right down with Harold.
One night, Jimmy and I were talking outisde The Red Cat (I lived on the block at the time so we often found ourselves spontaneously kibitzing out there), and he told me that he thought Harold was going to be leaving The Harrison soon. It was just a vibe, but he had a well-honed instinct for such things.
“Where’s he going?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s going to open his own place,” Jimmy said. He looked off into the distance, thought for a moment, then nodded manfully as if recognizing that some cosmic justice was at hand. “He’s ready.”
Jimmy was half right.