"Now I have a room full of guys who know how I want things; we've developed a team and a skill set to get things done, so now it's like, "Well, what's next?"
When most of us think of The Waverly Inn, we think of mega-celebrity sightings and ginormous price points. Or maybe of Cole Porter; for some reason "Don't Fence Me In" was running through my head most of our pre-interview photo shoot, as I assumed his caricature was somewhere amongst the famous faces muraled around the Greenwich Village space. The Waverly invokes nostalgia, even if you're there just to interview its newest executive chef, Ashley Merriman.
Merriman's easily recognized from her stint on season six of Top Chef, a period she somewhat regrets getting involved in, because "at that point, the brand of Top Chef was... enough." New Yorkers might know her plates a little more intimately from the many years she spent as Alex Guarnaschelli's chef de cuisine at Butter and The Darby. She's been at the Waverly for well over a year now, enjoying her self-proclaimed anonymity and using the time to "just keep practicing and keep cooking."
You were contemplating opening your own place before you took the interview to work at the Waverly. What about this job won out? I'd been working for Alex off and on for the better part of a decade. I was ready to branch out, and this is a really good first executive chef position in Manhattan. It's nice that no one knows I'm here—I can sort of just hide out. I'm a chef of a very well known, very busy restaurant, and it's a good way for me to keep practicing and keep cooking. Not to say that I've given up on my pipe dream, but I've got time. And here I have a lot of freedom to do what I want.
What are those confines? How do you get to make your mark when you'll never get to take that Truffle Mac and Cheese off the menu? I'll never get to take that mac and cheese off! There's a sort of style and approach that the owners want and they're the ones who opened a restaurant that's been very successful for eight years, so you have to respect that and come in knowing that's part of the deal. I've changed all the signatures dishes since I got here, I think for the better.
When I got here that truffle mac and cheese... we'll forget about what it was. I've changed the cheeses, incorporated some ingredients and a little more modern technique so that the cheese sauce is better. You have to take a certain amount of pride in that. If you don't, what are you doing? Other than those dishes I've changed the entire menu and every single night I run three to additions to keep stretching and pushing my cooks and my sous chefs.
One year in, what are you doing now that you couldn't do a year ago? When I walked into this restaurant I had ten new guys staring at me, all with different backgrounds and who had been taught different things. Now I have got a room full of guys who know how I want things; we've developed a team and a skillset to get things done, so now it's like, "Well, what's next?" They all want more now.
Now more than ever super-critical eaters like to bash celebrity restaurants. Did you consider them when taking the job? Of course. It's impossible to not thinking of the history of the Waverly Inn. Yes, it's an expensive restaurant, and it's sometimes hard to get a reservation, but still anyone can pick up the phone and call. But I've really taken into consideration the idea of it being expensive, and there are a couple of things I really want to meet. No one's ever going to leave here and be hungry; we're not cheap with the amount of food. I never want people to say, "My god, I'm paying $25 for this bowl of pasta and it's two bites."
It's interesting to hear chefs on both sides talk about how they treat VIPs, including high-profile celebrities. But here you have so many big names. How do VIPs work here? Every single night of the week there are people who I consider VIPs. Everyone says that "everyone is an important guest", and that's the approach here, but of course there's going to be a time when someone comes in and we'll send a round of Champagne because they're so-and-so; that's going to happen. But it's also going to happen when a friend of a waiter comes in who has never been to the Waverly before; we'll send a round to that table, too.
Is there anyone that has thrown you off your game? About nine months after I started here Anita Lo, Elizabeth Falkner, Amanda Cohen, and Charlotte Druckman came in for dinner. Together. I was like, "You better get your shit together, chef! Get your shit together." You've got to be on point when that table comes in. It was so exciting, and I felt really honored—chefs don't get many nights off. When the dining room's going right, it's a pretty tough dining room to beat.