César Ramirez takes his kitchen very seriously. Although he has taken some criticism for strictly prohibiting notetaking and photography in his 18-seat custom kitchen, Ramirez insists that his rules serve to ensure that his guests focus on one thing while they dine there—the food. Ramirez's attention to showcasing the highest-quality ingredients has earned him two Michelin stars—despite the fact that more traditional restaurants, with servers and wine programs, generally earn such accolades. He will be working on a more casual, larger Brooklyn Fare restaurant as well, set to open in the spring; and although he'll be in charge, he plans on hiring another chef to run it while he continues to focus on the kitchen.
Name: César Ramirez
Occupation: Chef, Brooklyn Fare
Location: Downtown Brooklyn
At what point in your life did you decide to become a chef? I always liked cooking, but I decided to make it a career when I was about 17 or 18 years old. I was skipping classes a lot, and a French chef was visiting in Chicago and he gave me a chance.
You didn't go to culinary school. Do you think that puts you at an advantage or disadvantage in any way? At that time, it wasn't that important to go to cooking school in the same way it is now. Now, when you apply for a job, people ask you where you went to cooking school. I've always used very classic techniques, though. People come in and expect to be wowed by smoke or something, but I focus on very classic cooking, perfect technique, and high-quality ingredients.
Who were your greatest culinary influences along the way? The people who worked around me. Not necessarily the chef, because the chef isn't always there, but the cooks who worked alongside me. That said, when I worked with David [Bouley], he was there every day—cooking every night on the line with us. He loves cooking and was one of my favorite people to work for. He loves the excitement.
You spent some time traveling to France and Japan, among other places. How did that change your approach to cooking and food? When I was 19 years old, I went to France, and that changed the way I looked at cooking. I got to see Europe; I was married to a French woman, and her family was very passionate about food. I'm not sure I could grasp it completely because I was so young, but in terms of product, tradition, how things are made, the scenery of where you are, how the regions are so different—they all had a huge impact. After that, I went to work in Spain, and I was there when everything was happening and changing, which was exciting.
At Brooklyn Fare, you cook for a small group in an open kitchen. What do you like most about this format compared to a more traditional restaurant? I like it this way because I have total control of what I'm doing. In a bigger restaurant, I knew that my food costs and labor costs would be very high to produce what I'm producing now. I would have to charge a lot more money, there'd be bigger staff and more problems. I didn't want that. We spent about a million dollars on this kitchen, and we're not even done with it yet. I just focus on eighteen people and give them the best food that I can. There's no dining room, no servers. There's no additional overhead because it's a kitchen, and it's a different experience from other restaurants out there.
It was never meant to be a dining room or something with grand service. There are only a couple of feet between me and the customer, so I can't lie about the quality of the food or give them something inferior, like some restaurants do. There is an intimacy that Brooklyn Fare provides, but this is my kitchen, and I want to do it my way.
When you're not at home or work, where and what might you be eating around the city? That's a hard one. I like very simple food. I had a nice meal at dell'Anima and have been wanting to go back for a while. I had a very good lunch at Marea; the pastas are amazing. I had a great meal at the original Sushi of Gari. I like cooking that is all about the ingredients and unpretentious. That's all I care about—something that's nice and fresh and tastes great.