"It's little things you do 365 times a year to wind up with something you're very proud of. That's the challenge of operating a restaurant—every day you have to have your eye on one little thing and make it a little bit better."
Following Chef Jonathan Benno around Lincoln Ristorante is an education: in regional Italian cuisine, in being meticulous as you prepare a dish, and in leading staff to function at their best. While he built us three dishes from his current menu focusing on the Umbria region (which will be featured at Lincoln through March), we got a schooling on the versatility of black truffles, the rusticity of this land-locked, mountainous region and how you can almost confit rabbit legs in olive oil. Benno—who spent years working with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry and Per Se over a 20-year period—is a natural teacher.
As sunlight pours into the exposed kitchen, with the Julliard school flanking the restaurant on the north and the Lincoln Center theatres wrapping around from the south, his staff moves quietly as they prepare to open for the day. So how does an exposed kitchen, a regionally-focused menu, and a jump from French to Italian cuisine motivate the leader of such a restaurant? We scrambled at his heels to find out.
It's clear why this kitchen is the "stage you've always wanted to perform in." But why is this the kind of food you always wanted to create? I worked for Chef Keller for almost ten years over a 26 period. Four or five years into Per Se I started to think about what would be next, and I knew that I had to do something completely different.
Why completely different? Both for myself, but also in order to be successful but I wasn't going to go across town and open another French American gastronomic restaurant that did tasting menus.
Why Italian? I've always loved Italy—the people the cuisine, the culture. I've been lucky enough to travel over there a lot over the years. My wife is a chef as well and has worked for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich for many years now, so I've always been around great Italian kitchens. Although Per Se is a French-American restaurant, we used soy sauce and jalapenos and ingredients from all over the world. Granted the cuisine of Italy is very diverse, but I really wanted to focus on one thing.
We speak with a French dialect in the kitchen, but Italian cooking is rooted in somewhat similar classic techniques. Was there a big learning curve when you transferred your focus? We had Heston Blumenthal here for lunch the other day, and he asked me that same question; "How did you go from working for Thomas to here, doing Italian cuisine?" And we talked about it a little bit and he said, "Yeah, if you know good technique you can basically do just about anything."
I guess that was the easy part of this transition. And I was lucky enough to work and learn under really talented chefs: Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and all of the people that were working in their kitchens at those times. I learned good technique and treating products with respect. So if you take those two skills or values and apply them to Italian cooking you've already got the foundation.
If that was the easy part in this situation, then, what was the hardest part? Giving the restaurant an identity, because the restaurant didn't really have an identity when it first opened and expectations were high. Very few restaurants get it right from the very beginning. And of course our colleagues in the food press give you all of six to eight weeks and then drop the gavel. So now two and a half years into this thing, the restaurant's kind of grown into itself. It's really a great restaurant today.
What does the open kitchen do for you? Did you have to make an adjustment in how you work in this space? You have to behave yourself back there, that's the first thing. It has to be clean. You see the way the cooks carry themselves. Tasting still freaks people out a little bit, like, "They're eating back there!" Well, you know, they have to! I think people understand a lot more about restaurants today thanks to the television and the internet, but it's still funny to hear some people's comments.
Does it personally fluster you anymore? It's still strange to look up and see someone literally standing at the glass, watching you almost like you're an exhibit in a fish bowl. There has to be control back there. It's really easy to lose control Saturday night at nine o'clock when it gets a little overwhelming. But certainly the way we interact with one another back there and how clean and organized we have to be at all times... that's engrained into how I grew up as a cook. But here we have to be meticulous at all times.
Has it taught you anything specifically, even as far as hiring a certain kind of staff goes? Not necessarily hiring because staffing today alone is a real challenge.
How so? You don't have to go to New York to work in a great restaurant anymore. It used to be that you had to have a couple of years in a great New York restaurant on your resume—you had to play for the Yankees or the Giants. You don't have to do that anymore. You can work other places at great restaurants and have a very good quality of life. The cost of living discourages young people to move here, and even if you want to come to New York, you don't even have to come to Manhattan—there's 30 great restaurants in Brooklyn you can work at. Staffing becomes more and more challenging as time goes on.
Your name first came up for me in an interview with Eli Kaimeh at Per Se, who said you sort of took him under your wing and eventually led him to the position he has there today... Well, Eli had a lot to do with it, too.
You've listed Keller, Colicchio, and Boulud as mentors, and now you're in a mentor position yourself. Is there something most significant that you remember as a young chef that you've held tight to and try to pass on? The year I spent at the French Laundry almost 20 years ago now really cast a mold for me. At that time there was just a handful of us in the kitchen and I worked right next to Chef Keller all day, every day. His passion, discipline, level of integrity, and drive I still think back to. It really set the bar for me in many ways, and in some ways I'm still trying to hit that bar.
In what ways do you feel you're missing? You always try to do better; we're by no means done here. Yes, it's a beautiful surrounding, we're given all the means to do well, and there's a really talented young staff who are really driven under great leadership. Yet that's not enough to sustain success in New York City. It's so competitive here on every level.
You said as we were cooking earlier that in an ideal world you'd live in California. Yeah, but only if I won the lottery—actually, then I would live in Hawaii! I love working in restaurants. What makes the job so gratifying is being able to create and execute something like that pike dish; a lot of people had their hands in that in order to make that what you saw today. And it's very gratifying to work with people and be a boss, a teacher, and a mentor.
Someone said or I heard once, "Every day you try to make one thing at the restaurant better." That doesn't mean painting the walls or putting a new floor in. It's little things you do 365 times a year to wind up with something you're very proud of. That's the challenge of operating a restaurant—every day you have to have your eye on one little thing and make it a little bit better.