Slideshow: Our Favorite NYC Chef Interviews of 2012

Chef/Owner Alex Stupak; Empellon Cocina, Empellon Taqueria
Chef/Owner Alex Stupak; Empellon Cocina, Empellon Taqueria
I was warned that chef/owner Alex Stupak could bit a bit brusque in an interview; but while I found him to be confident in his opinions, it was his hard work and humility on his place in the New York food scene that stuck with me the most. His plates at Empellon Cocina are beautiful—reviewers have compared their plating to modern artists on canvas. Here's what he said when I asked if he takes inspiration from other forms of art:

I do think food should be beautiful, but I don't take references from music or art or other things only because other people do it, and when I hear it, I don't like it. I don't like the way it reads in the press. I have a friend who is freakishly talented and that's what he does. So I respect it—don't get me wrong, I respect it—but he will tell you, "I saw this painting and those colors made me do this dish". He backs into a dish that way. Again, fine. I don't do that. I didn't do that with pastry.

And now with this way of cooking the idea is "how do you make it look Mexican / beautiful?" Because I think Mexico has a very interesting aesthetic, but I think a lot of people would agree with me that Mexican cooking just doesn't look good—it doesn't strive to be beautiful. So how do you makes something beautiful without stripping it of its soul? I guess that's kinda my inspiration right now. And sometimes we don't make it beautiful. Sometimes we just serve the dish.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Alex Stupak

Chef Anthony Ricco; Spice Market
Chef Anthony Ricco; Spice Market
More than any chef I've interviewed this year, Ricco wants to feed people—Brent and I left this interview with very full stomachs and a bag to take along. The entire conversation flew with in-depth descriptions not only of the food he has created, but the satisfaction he gets from nourishing people who appreciate it. He's a chef who truly loves to cook, and here—with his very New York sense of humor—he tells us how the kitchen still brings him focus and comfort, especially when other aspects of his job try to pull focus:

During a rough day I'll just bury myself in the wok. There's so much information coming at you that nothing else matters at that point. When you have to cook 300 fried rice orders a night, there's nothing you can do for those three or four hours but cook—personal issues, home problems...nothing else matters. I'm free. Fee from paperwork, all the other chef shit I have to deal with on a daily basis. It just shuts up. It's great when it's busy for lunch and there's only one person on a station and I pull them out of the shits. You can quote that too—"the shits"—it's an industry term. Sorry.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Anthony Ricco

Chef/Owner April Bloomfield, The Jon Dory, The Breslin, The Spotted Pig
Chef/Owner April Bloomfield, The Jon Dory, The Breslin, The Spotted Pig
April was about to have her first book out to the public when we took our interview—having gotten my hands on it a few days earlier, I was already enamored by the respect and love she shows produce and animal alike, and the quirky stories peppered throughout the pages. Her flavors are bold and comforting—the kind of plates that fit celebrations, hangovers, and any old night of the week. Here she gives a bit of advice on how to be a bit more present when we cook for ourselves:

Be open—things change. It's good to be aware of an ingredient from the moment you buy it, to the moment you prep, cook and eat it. Because things are just not "the same." A tomato in one part of the season isn't the same as another tomato in another season. So just learn to trust your own palate, and keep training your palate to know how to work with something to make it delicious.

Read the full interview: We Chat With April Bloomfield

Chef/Owner Daniel Holzman, The Meatball Shops
Chef/Owner Daniel Holzman, The Meatball Shops
It's easy to chat with Holzman; about the LES, about the gluten-free meatballs he put on his menus after I'd asked him for a recipe for the gluten-free Easy Eats magazine, and about the curious smells pouring out of windows on a brisk early-winter day. The conversation lent itself to banter; his answers peppered themselves in a roundabout way. This tidbit is the full conversation around a simple question, and continues to amuse me whenever I go back to reference the transcript:

How does it feel to have your career, right now, focused primarily around a little ball of meat? Well, I was really nervous that I would feel pigeonholed and kind of not creatively stimulated, but it's just not the case. There haven't been any dull moments when I've kind of felt depressed, like, "geeze, you know, I really wish I could make something flat."

Very well put. I mean, can I make a payard!?

Ha, I'm sure you could. I can make a hell of a payard, girl, you have no idea.

I believe you. [With attitude and a nondescript accent] "Girl, I'll make a payard that will blow your f'ing mind!"

Speaking of accents and, um, stuff, most people associate meatballs with Italy or maybe, Sweden, but you're not Italian. No, I'm a Jew from New York. And, like, half a Jew really because I'm a Jew by culture and by association, not by religion. But it's as Jewish as it gets—I get guilted by my mom and all that.

I grew up Catholic and I got the same thing. Yeah, they have guilt-mom syndrome too there big time. And they make you eat a lot. I've noticed that, in the same way. Catholics and Jews...you know Jesus was a Jew before he was Catholic, so...

[Gazing off to my photographer, Brent] He's got a good-looking pair of boots on. [To Brent] What kind of boots are those?

Brent: These are Cole Haan.

They're a good-looking pair of boots.

Brent: Thank you.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Daniel Holzman

Mastermind Dave Arnold; Booker and Dax Bar
Mastermind Dave Arnold; Booker and Dax Bar
For the 90 minutes of our recorded interview, things were bubbling, smoking and popping away in the background. An answer to one question averaged about 700 words. The piece in its entirety before editing was 6,626, and Dave even took a breath to say, "This is so boring, it's so long, it's so hard to explain because it's so confusing, but you'll chop it down."

Thing is, nothing about those 90 minutes was boring. And when I crave a—yes—perfect cocktail, I immediately think of Booker and Dax. If it takes a little liquid nitrogen or a flaming hot poker to make that happen, I'll just accept their presence as the new normal in the back of the bar. Here's what about two minutes with Dave can be:

I think, you know, one of the things that people still don't realize is that these techniques aren't things that only Wylie [Dufresne] is doing, or Grant [Achatz] is doing, or even, you know, what we're doing here at the bar. I think this bar is a good case and point. We have our drinks. But we're not trying to make things that are, you know, crazy or weird. We're using all the techniques that we can to make all these drinks better. Which is why we don't have any weird garnishes. It's always been my point that using these new techniques doesn't mean you're making something wacky.

One of my favorite things I'd say teaching is, "yes, Wylie is very known for using a lot of these things, but every single four-star restaurant's kitchen in this city is using them." Even Le Bernardin for years—the most conservative of those four-stars—and Daniel, and Jean-Georges when Johnny [Iuzzini] was there, they were using a lot of that stuff. A lot of that stuff trickled in from the pastry departments; Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernardin was using this stuff before they were using it in the main kitchen. A lot of these techniques were used in every single one of those kitchens.

Do you find that pastry chefs have sort of spearheaded the use of these techniques? Well, pastry chefs in general do a lot more work with a lot of things like gelées and foams. In general, yes, but I don't know why frankly. There's a lot of trite BS that, "well, pastry chefs are used to measuring already". I think you would find if you did a random sampling of high-end pastry chefs versus high-end chefs that the pastry chefs were fairly early adopters of a lot of this stuff. On the low-temp side a lot of savory side chefs started using low temp and sous vide because it really helped them do a lot of work, so that was kind of really quickly adopted by a large amount of people. Does that make sense? I feel like this is so fucking dry!!

Read the full interview: We Chat With... Dave Arnold

Owner Doug Quint; Big Gay Ice Cream
Owner Doug Quint; Big Gay Ice Cream
Doug Quint took on ownership of a soft serve truck almost on a lark; as a professional musician, he was looking for something that would keep him in the city steadily for the summer and provide a bit of fun, with no expectations that it would go anywhere. I particularly loved that the only focus he and partner Bryan Petroff had in the beginning was to serve fun takes on traditional soft serve with the kind of friendly demeanor currently lacking in the ice cream truck scene. Here he tells us that, while unconcerned with the consequences of the name they took on for their business, it was both a hindrance and then a point of pride for city-goers who wanted to show their support:

Bobby Flay was supposed to come to the truck for one of his morning shows and we set the whole thing up and he never showed. And we found out the producers didn't feel that "middle America was ready for Big Gay Ice Cream." So we kinda had the suspicion that we were going to be limited by our name—which like we said was okay. But then Rachael Ray's producers started talking to me and I said point blank, "are you playing with me, because a couple of times national programs have approached us and then basically wimped out." And they said, "well, we're a syndicated show, we put out whatever content we want, and then the network has to air it or not. We're going to shove you down their throats." And I thought, "oh my god, people are actually really behind this."

Read the full interview: We Chat With... Doug Quint

Chef Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin
Chef Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin
It didn't come up in our conversation, but I'd read up on Chef Ripert's background in Buddhism and how his demeanor with his staff had changed over the years to one of patience and support. As we walked around the restaurant with Brent snapping away, my introductory "how are you today, Chef?" was met with, "Today I am happy. Today, when I woke up, I was smiling." I was further moved by his response to when I asked how he felt about restaurants being closed and damaged by Sandy, and how his restaurant had shown some extra support for those who needed to be fed:

We feel we are lucky to be a high-end restaurant because we live with our passion—we are happy and feel lucky to work in this environment. We don't wait for a catastrophe to arrive to be involved with the community. We do it on a daily basis. And then when Sandy destroyed New Jersey and our coast here, obviously, we didn't feel good about that. Everybody has a sense of compassion here. So we helped a little bit more than we do usually but, again, for us it's a daily thought—to help, especially people who are hungry. I'm the co-chair on the board of City Harvest because I feel I can't be successful and feed lucky people and have people who are not even homeless who are hungry. So we don't want to procrastinate. So our main focus is City Harvest, in feeding people who are hungry.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Eric Ripert

Chef Floyd Cardoz, North End Grill
Chef Floyd Cardoz, North End Grill
Our chat with Chef Cardoz was one long, ambling conversation stopped a few times for him to plate a dish, open a side door for a customer or wave hello to a staff member or regular. Amongst discussion about his radical shift from being part of a privileged Indian family to food service, and the challenges he faced being a chef from India when he landed in New York to his success at Tabla, Chef Cardoz was continually most animated when talking ingredients. With classic French training and the dynamic background of his native cuisine, here's what he says most inspires him still:

It's the way [an ingredient] looks, the way it tastes. It could be a bunch of different things—I could see a tomato today and get totally excited about it, and see the same tomato tomorrow and not have anything to do with it. I never pre-determine any dish. I'll be talking to my fish purveyor and say, "bring it in." "What are you going to do with it?" "I have no idea, just bring it in." And when I look at it, it triggers things in me. It could be how it feels outside, the way the sun is shining or the way the heat is coming off the grill. The way someone ate or did not eat a dish. It could be a bunch of stimuli. I don't know what it is that does it.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Floyd Cardoz

Chef/Owner Gabrielle Hamilton; Prune
Chef/Owner Gabrielle Hamilton; Prune
Two days before our interview, I picked up Gabrielle's memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, and couldn't put it down. In her own account she was a badass ruffian of a young cook, a lesbian, a temporary stripper, and a lazy writer. When her success at Prune opened her up to media scrutiny, those were labels (as well as being called specifically a female chef) that she had to deal with. Here's how she did:

Here's the thing—you just put your head down and do your job. I do. I just do my job. And define for myself what my work is, what's important to me, and who I am. I tend to really ignore everything—positive or negative—assigned to me. It's an incredible distraction and drain to get caught up in other people's subjective take on you. Frequently I'm disrupting people's assumptions about me when we meet—I'm not a blustering bad-ass anymore with unfiltered cigarettes and dropping the F-bomb every five minutes—because I have nothing to really defend or fake anymore. My strength is really clear to me.

I met someone last night who said, "so, I think I have a book in me, too. Did you just worry about it and say, 'fuck it, I'm just going to write this book anyway?'" And I was like, "no, no, no. I kept those voices of self-doubt and loathing with me the entire time I wrote the book, and I listened to them and what I ended up doing was reading each page and making sure I was writing in a way that would quiet those voices. But I didn't ignore them or just write fly-in-the-face of them. You have to listen to the harsh voices. It's nice if you can tell it to yourself before someone can tell it to you. Then it doesn't hurt as much.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Gabrielle Hamilton

Chef/Owner George Mendes; Aldea
Chef/Owner George Mendes; Aldea
George is a first-generation Portuguese-American who grew up in a very rooted Portuguese culture in Connecticut. It's a cuisine many don't know how to pinpoint, and it takes on a new dynamic when combined with his classic French technique and time spent in Spain. His success with Aldea (the duck rice haunts me when I'm particularly hungry for comfort food) has opened conversations about what Portuguese food is, but here he explains what his menu means to him:

My first awakening was with Chef Alain Ducasse—he had a refined style of cooking, but everything on the plate was so pure and simple. If I took what was on the plate and put it on a paper plate, and removed all the luxury around it, I could see the honesty and authenticity and respect for tradition that was on the plate. The honest flavors. And that's what had a big impact on me—the honesty in it.

And I think that carries over into what I do at Aldea today because I am representing the flavors of Portugal—sometimes it's an exact replica of a classic dish, sometimes it's the inspiration of a classic dish. I'll have an older Portuguese couple come in and say, "wow, this is definitely not what I've had in Portugal, but I can taste it." At the end of the day, that's what I'm trying to do here—respect the flavors of Portugal but translate it through my own lens and in a kind of modern New York sensibility.

Read the full interview: We Chat With George Mendes

Editor-in-Chief James Oseland; Saveur Magazine
Editor-in-Chief James Oseland; Saveur Magazine
I remember the issue of Saveur that officially made me a devotee: #123, October 2009. I had read Saveur before, but there was something about the particular cut of lamb on the cover and the extensive pieces on cinnamon and the perfect baking apples inside that cinched it. Now, whenever I pick up an issue, I'm instantly connected to other cultures and countries through a shared respect for faith, family, and earth, brought together by food created for more than mere survival.

It makes sense that James heads up Saveur. Our entire discussion was peppered by his fascination with food and culture, and how his path in life was set down by those two things. In this initial response—though unclear to him at the time—it seems that path was laid rather early:

I was a product—honestly, there's no other way to slice or dice this—of a pretty bland, almost kind of horrifyingly typical American childhood. My dad was an office product salesman. When he was around—which was frankly not very much—he would duplicate these great dishes he had eaten on his work travels. So really at my dad's side was where I got fascinated by how this thing that we must do every single day could be this very wonderful and glorious and exciting and interesting thing. It made my very bland, dull world interesting. It seemed like the small international section of the supermarket and the dishes that my dad used to make replicating these fabulous continental classics that he'd eaten on the road were a portal into something else, into another world. It was essentially an escape. When I was 8 or 9 years old I was inspired by a Julia Child episode where she was making Cesar Salad and I had an aha! moment of, "I can do that!" And I did. From there on it was my default—my fundamental comfort zone. There is nothing that settles and satisfies me at the same time more than the act of cooking in my own kitchen.

Read the entire interview: We Chat With James Oseland

Chef/Owner Jehangir Mehta; Graffiti, Mehtaphor
Chef/Owner Jehangir Mehta; Graffiti, Mehtaphor
I honestly don't know how Chef Jehangir gets so much done in a day with the smile that's been on his face every time I've seen him somewhere. Or the excited twinkle in his eyes as he describes a dish of oysters, pop-rocks, and sorbet that he created in an attempt to bring us back to the child-like sensation of running through crashing waves. His passion for food truly seems to motivate the long hours and to-do lists, and here he gives credit to his former employer Jean-Georges Vongerichten for helping him put daylight hours to good use:

One day I was working the lunch service and I got a call from another restaurant just down the street saying, "would you like to come head up pastry with us?" I had to say, "You know what, I'm so happy that I just won't leave. The point is not the money; you might give me $10,000 more. But I love it here." It was everything: it was a fun environment, very unique. And I think if your boss really likes you and is about protecting his group... Jean-Georges was the best boss I could ever imagine. He was the worst person to teach you anything; you literally had to grab things by just looking and looking. But that's just what he was; he was a boss and chef and not a good teacher. It was more, "You wanna learn? You stay sixteen hours instead of your usual nine or ten." I had no problem putting in those hours—I was young, and when you work with the best you gain confidence just because of the persona of how the place sounds. I knew how lucky I was to be there.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Jehangir Mehta

Sommelier Paul Grieco; Hearth and Terroir
Sommelier Paul Grieco; Hearth and Terroir
Thanks to Paul, it's almost impossible to utter, "but I don't really like Riesling" in this town. His list of requirements for a good wine (it must be balanced, complex, finesse-full, have a sense of place, have the ability to age, and be yummy) makes it almost easy for even the least sophisticated palate to formulate an opinion. He will battle against the notion "Riesling = sweet" and with equal fervor for the exciting wines coming out of Australia. But did he ever predict his contribution to the NYC wine scene to be all about a six-pointed white wine?

My contribution was certainly not immediate. Growing up I was a fan of 1980s Brit new wave and goth-esque music. So kind of because of that and getting into the punk scene and having a skewed brain anyway, I loved fighting the good fight for the person who wasn't being defended or promoted. I loved the underdog, I loved being a contrarian...all those things. Even then, the majority of the wines I saw were relatively conservative. I understand that, as a beverage director, you create a program that appeals to your guests. You should—we're in the hospitality business. But I define the hospitality business somewhat differently. And that's why I go the route that I do.

So, why Riesling? Because it is the underdog grape. Because it is the greatest grape on the planet that was once regarded as such by not just somms and wine people but by everyone on planet earth. It was the most valued white wine. It was the most expressive of the place in which it was grown. It appealed to monarchs, it appealed to potentates, it appealed to the common man. And then we lost that. We lost it for very good reasons, so I view it as much job to bring it back and put it on its lofty perch.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Paul Grieco

Chef/owner Seamus Mullen; Tertulia
Chef/owner Seamus Mullen; Tertulia
I had never dined at Tertulia before our chat with Seamus, but quickly fell for it. I sought out Tertulia while Manhattan was in darkness after Sandy, and have been covering some of Seamus' work with the newly established NYC Food Flood. But one long, celebratory meal there with a few fellow chefs and cooks stands out as to why Tertulia is, in my opinion, a stellar representation of what it means to be a New York restaurant—exceptional ingredients, strong technique, unfussy presentation, and a relaxed environment. Here, Seamus explains how he updated classic Spanish cuisine for his New York audience:

One of the things about cooking in New York City is that New Yorkers have very sophisticated palates and relationships with and exposure to lots of different cuisines. In Spain there's a long-standing history with a specific cuisine—their cuisine—and a lot less exposure to other cuisines. So New Yorkers have an expectation to be transported to another place in a restaurant. It's more than just the food, it's the whole experience: it's the food, it's the music, it's the service—it's everything together that's taken into account.

For myself I sometimes find that very traditional dishes in Spain can be almost monochromatic in taste: they have one flavor and that flavor goes all the way through the dish, and it's very intense and bold. But there may not be peaks and valleys. So I like to capture that essence of the flavor, but then try as much as I can to create point and counterpoint: if something's really rich, having something acidic to balance it; if something's really spicy, have something mildly sweet to counteract that. To really create this balance of flavors. So that's something you'll see a lot here that is not so traditional in Spain. We try to capture the essence of the cuisine and the essence of the flavors and products, but present them in a way that's relevant for a New York diner in 2012.

Read the full interview: We Chat With Seamus Mullen

Pastry Chef Stephen Collucci; Colicchio and Sons
Pastry Chef Stephen Collucci; Colicchio and Sons
Stephen's was the first interview I took for Serious Eats, and it's been remarkable to follow how his work this past year—doing well in the Star Chefs competition, going up against the challenges of Ron Ben-Israel on Sweet Genius, manning his station at the Wine and Food Festival's Sweet event—and how enthusiastic he's been over the success of his peers.

During the course of our interview, he leaked to me that he was proposing to his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, and he ended up asking for a copy of the unpublished draft to give to her, waiting until she read down to the news before popping the question—he's now working on their wedding cake.

What comes across most distinctively about Stephen in my mind, though, is his pure excitement over sweet things. A year ago already, I asked him what dessert was currently blowing his mind:

Christina Tosi's Cereal Milk Ice Cream. I had it two weeks ago for the first time and I guess I must have stopped speaking, because my friend was like, "what's wrong?" And I just said, "it's stupid." She's like, "what do you mean?" "It's stupid how good it is. It's dumb how good it is. It's just dumb." I haven't felt that way about dessert in a very long time. I can always tell when it's really good because I don't share it. My friend asked me for a taste, and I said "absolutely not! Go get your own!"

Read the full interview: We Chat With Stephen Collucci