How a Restaurant with a 25 Year-Old Chef Opened in Four Weeks

"When I told my parents I was gonna do this they thought I was crazy, but to me it seemed like a massive opportunity and fun time."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

When Chef Vanessa Miller heard about what Kim Stolz (America's Next Top Model) and Amanda Leigh Dunn (The Real L-Word) were doing with the large two-level space that would become The Dalloway in SoHo, she jumped on the chance to helm the kitchen and offered a free tasting. Stoltz and Dunn were floored, and widened their "lesbian-implied" club/lounge idea to include a full-scale restaurant upstairs. Doors opened only a month later with a full reservation book, with Miller adapting the menu as her 80-hour work weeks passed.

Since taking this interview, we have been told that Miller will be leaving The Dalloway to return to her native Boston. But she gave us such smart insight on what it takes to be a young chef in a tough city that we really wanted to share it before wishing her well on her journey. We have a feeling this isn't the last New York will see of her.

You're really young to be an executive chef. What do you think you're doing right? Although I've only been a chef for two and a half years now, I've been in restaurants since I was 16, so I've been around food. I was front of house for a really long time, so I got to see first-hand how people responded to things; what worked and what didn't. How it's about the customer and giving them what they want. So I was able to take that in the back with me and have a good understanding of what people are looking for.

You opened The Dalloway in one month flat. Did the immediacy help or hurt? Doing something like that forces you to trust your gut and go with it rather than second-guess yourself, so that helped. And because we opened so quickly we were like, "We're gonna see what works this week and then we're gonna switch it up." So we were constantly making changes to the menu and tweaking things; one thing off, one thing on. And I think going in with that mindset helped us tailor what we're going for.

Beet Risotto

Your owners are celebrities and took a lot of the press light when you first opened. How did that help? It took a little bit of the spotlight off of us back there while we honed it up. At the same time we were booked solid the first week we were open, so we had that built-in crowd we knew we were going to be serving. We knew the hard work was going to be paid off right away, so that was exciting for us and definitely something we haven't taken for granted.

Was there any negative effect from juggling a big crowd and new kitchen so quickly? I've said this before, but the only thing more stressful of being a chef at a busy restaurant is being the executive chef of a slow one. When you're busy you get to focus on the food, and when things are slower you're trying to lower your costs. Those days are more stressful because they take you away from the stuff that you actually love to do. So I would, hands down, rather work 80 hours a week with a busy restaurant than 70 hours a week with a slow one.

How did your age play into that? Do you recognize any advantage to being young in that situation? Definitely. I think there's a certain amount of freedom in being naïve about things. When I told my parents I was gonna do this they thought I was crazy, but to me it seemed like a massive opportunity and a fun time. I think we had this certain naïve air about us that allowed us to pull things together.

Scallops / Polenta

How did transitioning from Boston to New York go? You didn't exactly have a network of chefs here to call up, and Kim and Amanda are both restaurant newbies, too. How did you figure out even where to get your stuff from? Ha, yeah. I was lucky enough to have a couple of purveyors up in Boston who work down here. And then the first morning I was here I sat out on the corner of West Houston and West Broadway and just watched what trucks were going by to see what people were using. Then I looked them up and had a lot of meetings the first week. It was tricky but it was fun.

You've got youth and moxy on your side, but how did that work in the kitchen? How do you command a staff at 25? We have a mixed group of people. For some it's their first kitchen job; on the other hand one of our line cooks is 37. It's a mix of men and women, which I'm not used to but I love. It's tough, but I have this background in team sports, and that's a big part of how I manage a kitchen. It feels like a team back there rather than one person's vision executed by everyone else. I like to think we kind of have a collective vision. I want people to feel that they can contribute, and I think knowing that adds to kind of the overall dynamic.

Your dishes have been well received and you seem to have a handle on what you like and don't like. Can you define your style or palate right now? I guess that's kind of a tough question because since I am so young I'm constantly learning and developing my palate. I use a lot of fruit in my dishes to bring out the sweetness to it in places that you wouldn't necessarily see. A lot of people have commented on that, so that's something I guess I do a lot. But I guess I'm still working on figuring it out. It's all playing and developing.