Meet & Eat: Caroline Fidanza, Meat Czar

"For a long time when I would cook at home I listened to Tom Petty, Hard Promises. I think it's because it was the first iTunes album that I successfully downloaded. I never really listened to that record unless I was cooking. Now I mix it up."

Author's note: We're bringing you a bonus round of Meet & Eat this week, brought to you by Annaliese Griffin, editor of Brooklyn Based. She chatted with Caroline Fidanza, who established a culinary beachhead on Williamsburg’s southside a decade ago when she became chef of the now-neighborhood-staple, Diner. As the restaurant family expanded to include Marlow & Sons, Bonita and Bonita II, "Cheffie" (as Fidanza's most commonly called) shaped the menus and implemented a whole animal program in the kitchens, which led to Marlow & Daughters, the just-opened butcher shop. She'll be teaching a class next week at the Astor Center on local pastured meats. And now, Annaliese introduces us to Cheffie! —Erin

20090109-meet-eat.jpgName: Caroline Fidanza
Location: Wiliamsburg
Occupation: Meat Czar, and former Executive Chef of Diner and Marlow & Sons

Did you always want to be a chef? What were your other ideas about your career? No, I never expected to be a cook or a chef. I always thought I would work in "the arts." I grew up in Poughkeepsie, about 10 miles south of the CIA. Nobody in my entire high school of 2,000 students went to the Culinary Institute. In fact, we sort of thought of it as vocational school. This was the mid 1980s before food had become a viable—let alone a desirable—career choice. When I did decide to go to (macrobiotic) cooking school I felt a little funny about it. Like I was kind of a loser. But I was always attracted to jobs in food so I decided to give it a try. I immediately knew I had made the right choice.

How did you get connected to Diner? I was put in touch with Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth, owners of Marlow & Sons/Daughters, Diner, and Bonita, through one of Mark's friend. I met Andrew first, in the summer, on one of those hot, humid 90-degree August days. I walked from the northside of Williamsburg to the southside, which at the time was still a bit of a no-no. He offered me hot tea and watched me sweat and squirm uncomfortably on my stool. I thought he was a sadist and could tell he wasn't impressed with me. I didn't hear back until a few months later when they still hadn't found a chef good enough and willing to work in a diner on the southside of Williamsburg. This time Mark was there too and it was quite a different meeting. We all hit it off and decided we could make something good happen.

How did the menu at Diner, and then at Marlow evolve? The Diner menu was very simple and small at first, built around the fact that I was really the only one in the kitchen. I had help from Kate, Andrew's wife, who worked on the line and made the chocolate cake everyday. We had another girl helping but no one was a professional cook. We were flying from the seat of our pants. But we were in the edge of Williamsburg and the press wasn't coming. We thought if we could serve 30 people a night that would be great. We had no idea what we were in for.

Tell me about the challenges of incorporating a whole animal into a restaurant menu. How did you make that work at Marlow/Diner/Bonita and what were the biggest challenges? The whole animal program really changed both restaurants' menus dramatically. We became more meat-focused than we ever had been, and fortunately, the people involved were ready and capable. The meat program is particularly exciting because we really believe we're the only one's doing it as authentically as possible. We're not doing it to be authentic though, like the produce we just can't support anything less anymore.

Where did your farm-ingredient-seasonal approach come from? The early days were really about growing and keeping up. I was initiated into the ways of Greenmarket shopping when working for Peter Hoffman at Savoy. Each of the cooks had a Greenmarket day where we'd shop for the restaurant. Though stressful, it got you in there. I knew I would shop at the market when we started Diner but in the beginning, there was no way to buy enough to last a week, so we could only do so much. Finally the farmers started delivering about five years ago, which really changed our ability to use local produce almost exclusively. This created an irreversible situation. I could never go back to working with other ingredients. It just wouldn't be worth it.

The menu has always come from the market. I've never felt any reason to only have asparagus in one dish. If it's in season, let's eat it. Put it on everything, it only lasts a month or two. That approach—eating what is available rather than creating a menu around what you think people will want—has always been the approach. I always think about what I want to eat and assume the customers will want it as well. And when tomatoes are in season, that's pretty much all I want to eat. We've never had a formula at either restaurant.

You're not on the line on a nightly basis now. Do you miss it? What's your role like now? Where are you headed next? I'm sometimes at a loss as to what my role is now—working on the butcher shop, sourcing ingredients and farmers, working on the Diner Journal. It's kind of esoteric and I miss being able to define myself as someone who works in the kitchen, but that's not really manageable anymore. I miss being in the kitchen, being around young cooks, especially those who I could have a positive effect on. I'm extremely proud of the work of the others here both back and front of the house and the restaurants are dynamic in their thoughts and vision as much as their food and service. I continue to be excited about thinking about what we do and how.

What's on the stereo when you cook? And what do you most enjoy cooking right now? For a long time when I would cook at home I listened to Tom Petty, Hard Promises. I think it's because it was the first iTunes album that I successfully downloaded. I never really listened to that record unless I was cooking. Now I mix it up.

What’s your go-to, standing over the kitchen sink meal when you get home from a long day with no energy to cook a real dinner? Right now my standing-over-the-kitchen-sink meal is Salvatore ricotta with sea salt and olive oil either on Finn Crisp or fresh Italian bread.

Favorite guilty food pleasure? Doritos? Hawaiian pizza? Kraft mac n' cheese? I don't have any real guilty food pleasures, the worst culinary offense I commit is sometimes buying Asian noodles at Kim's Millennium Market. They never end up being what I want though sometimes they're half-frozen because the fridge is too cold. I don't mean to sound pious but I have no desire or nostalgia for junk food. I guess my mom did her job. I do love Stella D'oro cookies though.

What's your favorite dish for someone else to make for you? My mom's sauce and pizza. Jose Soto's white pizza (he's a former Marlow & Sons/Diner liner cook). Anything made by Stephen Tanner.

Where, other than King Luke (the Marlow/Diner restaurant group) restaurants do you like to eat? Franny's is probably my favorite non-King Luke restaurant. Their pizza is, of course, amazing but good pizza generally makes me feel really good.

Is there anywhere in New York you haven't eaten and are dying to? I'm not dying to eat anywhere in New York. I really want to go out to eat in London.

There are still tickets available for Fidanza's class "Slow U: Local Pastured Meats, Good for You, Good for the Planet" at Astor Center next Wednesday, January 14, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.