"I was in New York and meeting all these people and restaurants, and it really started to feed the flame inside."
Chef Lisa Giffen's background is deliciously mixed; adopted by American parents, she spent many childhood years living in Germany and eating very grown-up meals all over Europe. A stage at Prune and stints at Blue Hill, Daniel and Adour led her to Maison Premiere, where she helped with the opening menu and recently took over as executive chef of the fish-heavy kitchen and constantly packed oyster bar.
And while the transfer wasn't completely out of the blue, the spotlight shift has been rather crazy, and she's now working on balancing building her menu with fuller, non-fish dishes with the press that's been streaming through her door. We had a chat over some of her new chicory iced coffee, and as you'll see at the end of this interview, found there are more than a few surprises ahead for Chef Giffen.
You were working here as a cook before the promotion to chef. Did you feel ready? When you've been someplace since the start of a restaurant or their program, you have an idea in your mind of all the things you wish you could do and where you could go. So I think I was ready, even though it wasn't a planned out decision.
What about this restaurant in particular made you confident that you could do it? Because I put so much effort into the beginning of opening it I was kind of just like, "Uh, what if the concept of the vision changes going forward?!" And the owners are very detail-oriented, high quality standard people, so I wasn't working with people who didn't know what they're doing.
What are your goals in making the menu more personally yours? I want to focus more on seasonality. This year we're working with more farmers upstate. We get our fish from everywhere—it's very hard if you're a seafood restaurant to only source New York State fish. So it's nice to get some ingredients that I'd like to highlight here.
How does building a restaurant in Williamsburg differ from what you might do in Manhattan? I think price point is obviously one. But Williamsburg's evolved. I lived her three years ago and I don't think you would have had this type of establishment back then; people weren't ready for it. But now people have money to spend on a nice setting that is local, and everyone wants their "local" establishment. So I think it's a good thing that people already know it as their oyster bar and they're like," Oh, now we can have food!" You put items on the menu that you feel passionate about and then you hope that the people coming in like it.
How do your family's roots fit into your menu? Well, I'm adopted, and both of my parents are from the Midwest. But I grew up in Europe so we were cooking American food but also traveling all over Europe, eating in Paris....
Sounds horrible! I know! But I actually hated it as a kid because I wanted to do what kids want to do; stay home and watch TV and play with my friends, you know? But of course I look back on it now and see the opportunity. Growing up was a great influence— my mom is a great cook and loves and is passionate about all types of cuisine. So it was never just one type of food. She had stacks of Gourmet magazines, and when we traveled we went to different types of restaurants that adults would go to. So she really influenced me in loving food and loving cooking. Our family was very centered around that.
Did you have an idea that this is what you would be doing? Because you were in business for a while, right? Yeah, I did, but I was advised to get a college education first. And I would never change the path I took, because things I learned about business, about management, about other parts of jobs besides the culinary world, have helped me now.
What had changed that made you decide you wanted to go into food? The work that I was doing every day wasn't bad. I learned a lot about sales, customer service and interacting with people, which helped because when you're in a kitchen with your cooks and porters and vendors that's kind of your world. So I had learned how to be presentable with people and how to negotiate. But I knew it wasn't a job I wanted to do in five years, or ten years, or fifteen years. I was in New York and meeting all these people and restaurants, and it really started to feed the flame inside.
Nowadays chefs are flooded with media inquiries and even diners just wanting to meet them when they come in. How have you been feeling with this now job outside of your job? I'd rather be in the kitchen, I know that!
Ha, of course. But it brings recognition to the establishment to people who have never known about it. Obviously articles are a good way to get people in here, because there are so many restaurants in New York. So I think you have to do this stuff, it's just a matter of not jumping at every one so you don't overstretch yourself or lose the message of what you try to tell people.
Anything you miss about not being the chef? Sometimes I miss the days of being a line cook where you focus on your one job and do it really well, and at the end of the day you know you're going in the next to do the same. It's definitely been a new challenge for me. But it's a lot about management. You know what you want to do with the food, but it's all aspects of managing labor and costs. I think people who want to be chefs should know that that's part of it, too.
Do you feel now in the position to mentor younger chefs? I hope so. The team I have now is a bare-bones team. I'd love to get more people here on staff, but I think it's a good balance; there are a ton of chefs coming to Brooklyn or starting in Brooklyn, and a lot of places to live and work here. There are people that want to learn more from the chef they're working with and be a part of the menu process. I think you want to provide that, and inspire people to want to work and stay. You don't have to babysit everyone every single time when you inspire them with, "This is the way you don't do it. Don't you want to do it this way?" You watch them less and feel more confident in what they're doing.
What is unique about what you get to cook here? Because it's seafood-oriented we get a lot of fun stuff. We get live sea urchin—like, a lot. We get live abalone. We get all these things that a lot of cooks might only get to see on YouTube. I don't want to be someone who serves "weird" seafood— like we'll look for weird seafood and put it on the menu— but the fact that we can focus on those type of items and highlight things that people maybe wouldn't order is an exciting thing for me and it stretches my imagination a bit.
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.