We Chat with Chef Victor LaPlaca of Isola Trattoria and Crudo Bar
"What it comes down to is I enjoy what I do. I really enjoy cooking and the social aspect of people coming in and having a good time. That's what it is.
It would be easy to assume that Isola Trattoria and Crudo Bar, in the Mondrian SoHo, is just another pretty face—the greenhouse dining room seeps romance into every meal. But Chef Victor LaPlaca doesn't let the glass and foliage trump his menu, which feeds not only the restaurant but also the 240+ hotel guest rooms above. His is one of care and attention—homemade pastas, fresh seasonal ingredients scattered on pizzas made with the original starter, bracingly refreshing crudos, and a playful variety of fresh fish. It's good food, "on his terms."
LaPlaca is no stranger to heading up a big kitchen, as he spent much of his prior 17 years cooking with Todd English at his many international restaurants. Nor was he shy when remaking what was previously the restaurant Imperial No. 9, which wasn't exactly beloved by critics. He's the kind of chef you love knowing is making your food—he's personally warm, sharply dedicated and extremely talented at using products to their fullest advantage. We sat down in that light-filled space to chat about his transition to Isola, where his strongest influences truly came from, and what cooking taught him about himself.
What was your starting point when remaking the menu from Imperial No. 9 to Isola? It's coastal Italian in this beautiful room, so the inspiration is simple. It's very rewarding. I don't get to see this room enough because we're downstairs, but the room lends itself to any meal period—cup of coffee and croissant in the morning or cocktail at night—so I think it speaks for itself.
How has the menu developed in the almost-year since you opened? We knew the pizzas were going to be an interesting portion of the menu, but I didn't realize they'd be as big as they'd become. We have a really great oven down there. The first week I was here we made a starter with the pastry chef and that's the starter we've been using that ever since. And the pastas obviously have done really well. I think everything is really coming into its own and we're trying to just come into the seasons. Our signature dishes like the agnolotti; next month that will become corn, which will be amazing, because we juice corn, and then heat the juice and it just thickens up, and we toss the agnolotti with it with chanterelles. It's really, really good.
How do you cater both to a New York native scene and tourists / business personnel? I don't think it's so much that New Yorkers are picky, but they can smell bullshit a mile away. So as long as you're true to what the product is and not masking it or making it something that it's not, people that know are very receptive to that.
And the guests of the hotel? You put things on for them that are more guest-friendly. Our chitarra pasta is basically tomato and spaghetti, but we hand-make the spaghetti, we make a sofrito and cook it down until it's almost a paste, then we toss that in with some tomatoes, basil, and parmesan cheese. For someone who's sitting in a room and is like, "I just want pasta and red sauce," here's your pasta and red sauce, on my terms. But I'm not gonna tell you it's on my terms, because it's just delicious. There's care that's gone into each step.
Restaurants fill and empty spaces quickly in this city. Did Imperial No. 9's departure make transferring to Isola harder? Before it felt like it didn't have much of a soul. Now I feel like this place has its soul and its own identity. As we were going through the tastings we could feel it and taste it, and I feel like any pressure kind of went away with that. If we keep cooking good food, it really doesn't matter what came before.
What has cooking taught you about yourself—here or with Todd? Something personal you've had to conquer? Discipline. I'm very shy but when I cook and serve food it's easy for me to talk, because I relate to it. If you want to sit here and talk about hedge funds I couldn't say anything. But with food we're inviting people in, and it's made me become very social. Throw a couple of drinks in there and it's all good. It's a party.
Did that give you confidence to be in a leadership position? What do you try to instill in your chefs for the longevity of a career making beautiful, relevant food in a time when many chefs are transient? That's a really good question.
Thank you! I think it's a really important question to ask. Not to, like, be very wordy about it, but I feel that when I was younger we got abused. Your outside influences were just going out to dinner, talking to other chefs, the internet was just kind of new. And now it's just so instant.
Cooking is instant gratification, I love that part of it. But there's no patience. You need to put a year in and really understand what you're doing. You need to have a personality, develop people skills.... Forget about cooking, which is obviously the most important thing—if I can't show you how to cook something, if I can't speak to you about it, I might as well just be cooking for myself. It's kind of an interesting situation. You have to cook before you can be a chef, right?
Do you feel like the cooking world is more competitive now than 10 years ago? Oh man, yeah. It's crazy. Now you get guys that sign a lease, they don't have any money to get the place open, they get the place open, and they're gone in eight months. If you're here five years, that's a long time.
Anyone here that you feel really needs to stick around? I'm spoiled. I love Lupa—it's one of my favorite places. I'm a big fan of Wylie Dufrense. When I moved back to New York I ended up living with him for two years. He doesn't get enough credit for what has happened in this city, and people are quick to bash him, "Oh, it's like wd-50 where it's too cerebral and you're not gonna get it." But the food has always been insane.
It honestly took Dave Arnold and Alex Stupak for me to get the entire point of modernist cuisine. I would never speak for Wylie but I remember when we were living together and he would call me a spaghetti-head and say, "We don't do weird for weird's sake. We do it because it tastes good and because we believe in it." And it's well thought out. Did you ever have the foie with the cocoa nibs and anchovies? He got canned for that in the beginning. I thought it was really cool and tasted great, but it just wasn't for everybody. His thing is he knows how to use all of these techniques, and he just wants to make it better and be true to it.
Wylie was a big influence with me. We're good friends. He taught me to stick to my guns, "This is what I'm gonna do no matter what anyone says." He's incredibly smart and really gifted in how to put dishes together.
From the outside in, modernist cuisine is a trend. But if you're Wylie it's not a trend—it's what do you. Did that influence help you whether trends you've seen?? I like to use what we can. It's funny, go back ten years and I used to do charred Caesar salad. There's charred Caesar salad on everyone's menu now. I don't do it anymore but I'll char the shit out of radicchio, and toss it in a nice vinaigrette and throw some breadcrumbs on it and toss it in the oven. What it comes down to is I enjoy what I do. I really enjoy cooking and kind of the social aspect of it and people coming in and having a good time. That's what it is.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks things now and then for her bread and butter. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet excessively with her at @WordsFoodArt.