We Chat with Will Horowitz of Ducks Eatery
"We're purely about the food—there's nothing else. There's no gold foil or anything. It is what it is."
Chef/owner Will Horowitz is a hard dude to categorize. He was a teenage ping pong champion, has trekked all over the globe as an adult (sometimes cooking, sometimes meditating, sometimes ping-ponging), and came back to New York to open the eatery-side of Spin (the ping-pong club notoriously co-owned by Susan Sarandon). His paternal grandfather owned two Jewish delis in Manhattan and his maternal grandmother was a French-trained classic chef.
He now owns Ducks Eatery, a small east village space, with his sister, Julie, and turns out dishes like a "Thrice Smoked Lamb Sausage Corn Dog" and shrimp ceviche served in a sealed Mason jar, which emits apple-wood smoke when opened. The chairs are from an elementary school in Long Island and they built most of the bar themselves. The building is some sort of stable-area-of-yore or something like that, with lots of exposed brick and curved ceilings.
But what drew us to Will was his food; his pastrami was a standout at Brisket King of New York and we had to worm our way over to learn more about him. Ends up, at the end of a long conversation, he still can't be pegged.
Why did you come back to New York from Burma? The biggest reason was I ran out of money. That sucked.
What were you doing there? Were you cooking? I originally went down there to consult for a restaurant in Bangkok. I found myself on this small island between Burma and Thailand in a bungalow system that had gotten wiped out by the tsunami in 2004. So I was able to barter a deal and stayed there for a little bit. I was mainly meditating and cooking a lot, living very sustainably fishing and hunting and gathering. I had a little satellite phone that I would use to call my sister now and then to help me identify poisonous snakes and which sea urchins I could eat or couldn't eat. Stuff like that.
Both you and Julie had pretty atypical lives before you came back to open Spin. Julie was actually living on a small island off of Madagascar. Somehow I convinced her (or conned her) to come back to the States. She's still probably angry about that.
Was your childhood eccentric? Not many people can say they were adolescent ping pong champions or stomped the earth before opening a restaurant in New York. It was pretty mixed. Our grandparents traveled a lot; one had the delicatessen and on my mom's side my grandmother was a French-trained chef and my grandfather was a fisherman. They lived on Long Island and part of the year they would live in Pienza, in Tuscany—a really picturesque, gorgeous town where they actually shot the first Romeo and Juliet. That was a huge influence on us growing up: our grandma teaching us how to make homemade bread and pasta. But then our father is a very well-to-do cardiologist. So it was half that and half, like, tofu. It was kind of funny...
So not a very typical childhood? I think it was pretty far off. Especially with ping pong. Most of the ping-pong community is Chinese or West Indian, so a lot of Jamaican and Caribbean and Guinea. A good portion of my childhood I was training in Flushing or Jackson Heights.
How did you find out you had this skill? I kind of got pushed into it a little bit; my father was a competitive player. He was one of the top players of his time.
So even though he's a "well-to-do cardiologist" he wasn't pushing you to play soccer or something. Yeah. I played very competitively, the top of my age group when I was younger. Then when I was 15 or 16 I moved out of White Plains to Colorado and pursued skiing; that was my big thing out there. Then Buddhism and sustainability.
Your family's not Buddhist, right? No, I went to a very "out there" sort of college started by Allen Ginsberg and a very famous Tibetan monk in Boulder.
Okay, one more parent question. Were your parents supportive of all of this, even of you moving out when you were fifteen? Well, I got into a lot of trouble when I was younger...
That makes sense to me for some reason. I think New York just wasn't a great place for me growing up. It was too easy for me to find myself in trouble.
What kind of trouble? Just smoking a lot of pot, the usual stuff. Nothing too crazy. I had no real interest in school. Ducks Eatery is fun for me because we're very passionate about what we do and New York is a great city. But I'm more at home and at peace in the mountains, living more sustainably.
At the time you left New York didn't have as much of a "welcoming the rural in" vibe it does now. Honestly, I had zero interest in coming back to New York, so Spin was fantastic but didn't even remotely resemble anything that I ever dreamt of doing. At a certain point after Spin it was either "do we disperse this whole idea and go back to traveling" or, if we are going to stay here, let's do something that's really us and the type of lifestyle that we love.
I'm not asking you to define or give a label to your food, but what about your menu most directly connects you as a chef to your guests? I think history. That's the biggest focus for me right now and has been since we opened. When we create a dish a lot of it is just a creative stream of consciousness. But so much of it is rooted in heritage techniques—drying, aging, curing, fermenting, pickling, smoking—and then a lot of it is a study of history and trade routes and wars and civilization and immigration. Every culture has this beautiful way of taking their techniques to a new foreign land, then using what's there and doing something cool and sometimes even greater than the original with it. We start connecting the dots to build a flavor profile, and we end up coming up with very beautiful products from it.
There are so many chefs working without borders on their menus right now. Do you think we're creating a real "American cuisine"? Where else would be better, you know? Absolutely.
Maybe we're finally beyond the idea of "fusion." God, I hope so. People say that all the time and it's ridiculous. It's the difference between calling someone who came here fifty years ago an immigrant and calling a white person who came here a couple hundred years ago an American—there's no real rational sense to it. There are so many awesome techniques and things we think are part of our culture that came here 200 years ago from another culture. It depends on how far of a step back you take.
Do you feel you're taking a bigger gamble by presenting yourself in the food scene in this way? Yeah, 100%. It's one of the reasons we wanted a small spot—we knew that we were going to run into this issue where people don't know what we are. We have live music one night and crawfish flown in the next; we're completely laid back, but then we're doing techniques you're not going to find in many other places. We're doing it in a "cut the fat," laid back, ego-less fashion. We're purely about the food—there's nothing else. There's no gold foil or anything. It is what it is.
What would you say to someone who challenged you on the ego-less thing? You're doing what a lot of restaurants are doing now; using reclaimed furniture, literally building your own space with a hodgepodge design and menu with no label. How would you defend that? Argumentatively it's easy with the reclaimed stuff because, well, we're fucking poor and we're lucky to be handy. And in terms of the food and stuff like that, it's just... if I'm passionate about something I'm going to go with it and I'm going to trust that I think this is really interesting. The trend is going to come and go but the product is going to speak. Half of our clientele are "foodies" and chefs, and the other half are just people from the block that we're already good friends with. To have both of those and be able to do something genuinely and honestly (I hope) is going to be the foundation for something that's going to be long lasting. So we'll see.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about food and talks to people and builds sweet recipes for her (gluten-free) dough. It's a decent way to make a living. Please come read her rambles and grab her recipes at www.thedustybaker.com and tweet too much with her at @dustybakergal.