Editor's note: After abandoning NYC for the other coast, former Served correspondent Hannah Howard has returned to Serious Eats: New York. Today, she's chatting with Allen Stafford of Hell's Kitchen wine bar Casellula, where she was once a waitress. Take it away, HH!
NAME: Allen Stafford
TITLE: Founding Waiter/ Quasi-Manager/ Social Architect of Casellula Cheese & Wine Café, in Hell's Kitchen
Hannah: So many people to come to Casellula with the purpose of seeing you.
Allen: Partly that's because I'm so charming and hilarious, and partly because I put a lot of thought into introducing them to some of the interesting things that Casellula has to offer.
H: I remember you telling a young kid who ordered a "pig's butt" sandwich that it was called a "pig's ass." How do you know when to push people's buttons and when to back off?
A: I've spent many years making mistakes and learning from them. I've also learned a great deal about trusting my instincts and taking risks. I worked for a brief time at a pyschiatric facility when I was young, interacting with patients and paying attention to what relaxes them, and what escalates their fears and angers.
Waiting tables is quite similar—if a bit less dramatic. I see what the guest is asking about, or excited about, and I often take a leap and suggest a dish or a wine that they might not know about. I also believe, generally, that people find it refreshing when a server is honest and unguarded.
I learned a lot, too, from working in Danny Meyer restaurants—about doing little things that make a guest feel that I'm paying attention to what makes them happy. Sometimes that simply means being invisible, and letting the guests enjoy their time together; sometimes that means an in-depth discussion about ingredients, purveyors, farmers, winemakers, and the state of the food industry.
H: If you could go back three years ago, when you were in the dreaming/planning/building stage and see Casellula now, what would be the biggest surprise?
A: Only one big surprise? We have so many.
We imagined that New York diners were ready for a place where they could have a world-class cheese plate in a casual environment. Our fantasy was a room filled with diners excited to have a cheese plate—perhaps as a prelude to dinner, or after a Broadway show. And, since we had so much delicious cheese, we thought we'd create a few sandwiches, salads, and desserts utilizing them.
What has actually happened is that our food menu has expanded quite a bit, and most of our guests are making Casellula their main meal for the evening. Many guests never even order cheese plates. They come for our food. The cheese community nationwide, and even in Europe, has been very excited and encouraged by what we are doing.
We like to think that we showed the industry that it could be done.
H: How did you come to be doing what you're doing now?
A: I met Casellula's Brian Keyser when we were waiters at Union Square Cafe. We made friends with some incredibly knowledgeable food and wine professionals. Since then, each of us has worked in some of the finest restaurants in the city, learning a great deal and socializing with the restaurant community.
Many of these folks throw amazing cocktail and dinner parties, and I began to enjoy creating interesting desserts. Some were better than others, but I taught myself how to make my ideas into dishes, with the help of lots of pastry professionals along the way. Brian liked my desserts, and wanted them on Casellula's menu.
Eventually, I returned to my roots as a server, and have focused on service. I found that what was most exciting to me was the innovation—but in a restaurant, most of your time is spent making the same chocolate cake over and over. I get bored doing that. I think it's noble, and amazing—but it's not how I like to spend my day. I'd rather spend a few minutes helping figure out what you should order.
I'm so pleased to see that risks really do pay off. Any time we have something new and creative, people are excited to try it—whether it be a wine made from a grape they've never heard of, or a region they didn't think of as winemaking, or a cheese from the milk of a camel.
H: What would you be doing if you weren't the maestro of Casellula?
A: Probably I'd be doing what I am doing—which is creating art. When I'm not at work or socializing, I'm working on this series of sculptural pieces made by flattening the colorful foil capsules from wine bottles and tacking them onto wood. "Farm Glory" is one of my first pieces, and it hangs on the wall at Casellula. I have completed a few other commissions and am working toward a series of pieces for an exhibition. I'm not sure where that will show, but the work is very satisfying.