5 Life Lessons From 2 Years of Interviewing NYC's Top Chefs

New York chefs from our We Chat With... column. Photos by Brent Herrig.

In January of 2012, I sent Serious Eats a sample interview with pastry chef Stephen Collucci of Colicchio and Sons. A few weeks later, I had a column, interviewing some of New York's finest chefs.

New York chefs from our We Chat With... column. Photos by Brent Herrig.

It's been over two years and 120-odd chefs since then, and plenty of those interviews have stuck with me for various reasons. Some are personal; Stephen proposed to his now-wife with a transcript of our interview, during which he'd stated his upcoming intentions, and I've formed a few outside-the-restaurant friendships I'm thankful for. Others inspired me professionally, like Ron Ben-Israel, Thiago Silva and Stephen guiding me into making a friend's wedding cake on an island far, far away (a four-part feature coming up here soon).

New York chefs from our We Chat With... column. Photos by Brent Herrig.

Then some are fleeting moments of honest reflection, like Ignacio Mattos ruminating on the energy he puts out into his kitchen, Joseph Marazzo unearthing hidden secrets when building his wine bar, and Dale Talde remembering his grandmother making papaya salad.

A few have cemented themselves in my heart more than others. Hundreds of hours of conversation later, here's what sticks most of all.

Alex Stupak of Empellón: Be Afraid and Barrel Through


"Creativity has to be about doing something you don't know how to do. So if I do what I know how to do, blindfolded and drunk, and get praised for it, where's the personal excitement? The stress or the fear? Where are all those emotions? All those things need to go into creation.

"I don't care about failure and I'm not afraid to fail."

"You adapt to yourself and your kitchen—that's why you change. We're in a constant state of dissatisfaction with our menu, and things can always be better. People don't believe me when I say this, but I'm truly free in that I don't care about failure and I'm not afraid to fail. I wake up every morning and I can't believe what we've pulled off thus far. It will sound weird because I love what I'm doing, but I'm also a nihilist in that I don't believe in uber-deep importance of it. We're restaurants; we're in the entertainment industry.

"But it's not about getting good reviews—it's about doing something you haven't done before. So if it takes me 10 years to get to that, or 15 or 20 or I never get to it, at least I'm trying to do it. Because I was so inspired by the guys I worked for that I'm trying to hold myself to their standard. I'm trying to reach for something that's very far away."

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Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy: Be Brutally Honest

Amanda Cohen, Dirt Candy

"I want to be really honest about what goes on—we have this open kitchen and I always say we're a little bit more open than other open-kitchen restaurants because you can literally see everything that happens. You can see us running to wash our hands all the time and tasting the food constantly. And we're really honest in the dining room; when people come five minutes earlier than their reservation we're like, 'I know you think that's a good thing but we can't deal with you, so you can sit down but we're going to fall behind if we deal with you.' So we're pretty open about how we run the restaurant.

"I used to think the real competition on Top Chef would be two people cleaning the grease trap."

"And then I started thinking about writing the blog; it was around the time Top Chef and the Food Network were exploding and really glamorizing this life that isn't glamorous at all—it's wonderful and awful at the same time. I just felt that there needed to be some perspective that was, you know, that this is really, really hard and it's emotionally draining, and other people need to know that before they decide to be a chef. I used to think the real competition on Top Chef would be two people cleaning the grease trap. Once you own your own restaurant, you're the expendable person, so when the dishwasher doesn't show up, you're the one who's gonna wash dishes.

"And you're like, 'Uh, really? Here I am, 45 or 50 and I'm washing the dishes at my own restaurant.' That's hard. So I have this voice and I love using it and I love when people are like, yeah, that's right, that is what happens. We're small and I don't have to answer to a lot of people. I can say what I want to say."

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Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Cafe: Take the Time to Cook from the Heart

Chef Carmen Quagliata, Union Square Cafe

"Sunday Sauce at Union Square Café always brings me back to Hurricane Sandy. It was a really hard week. I felt lucky because we were pretty much unscathed except for the power, but I was like everyone else—shocked at what was going on. At first me and the sous chefs were excited to see each other all safe, and then we strapped flashlights to our heads and started clearing out the walk-in. And we were joking around, but after about a half an hour it had gotten so depressing to throw things away, things we had pickled from the local farms that were a part of our pantry.

"And we went through that day and I said, 'You know, what everybody in the city needs now is a bowl of pasta with Sunday sauce.'"

"The final day I was like, 'The power has to come back on today.' The city needed to get back on its feet. I stayed in New York—it was so cold in New Jersey the day before—and saw on Twitter that there was power going on in Chelsea, so I came down here and sat in the dark here until eight o'clock. Boom, the power went on. The next day we got a menu on the line by noon. And we went through that day and I said, 'You know, what everybody in the city needs now is a bowl of pasta with Sunday sauce.' I'd never made it here. Never.

"There are two sides to me as a chef; the person that loves the athleticism and the rush and the crisis management, and the grandma in me. And that's what hit me that Saturday night. It was as long week and it had been a long day, but I started at eight that night and had it on the menu Sunday morning, and since then we've had it on the menu on Sundays for lunch. So Sunday sauce means a lot to me. It just warmed my heart to make it."

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Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax: Don't Knock it Till You've Tried It

Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax

"What's most gratifying for me is when someone comes in and they think that we're just some sorta flashy tech bar, and then they realize this is a friendly place where they can enjoy what they're drinking in an unpretentious environment—that makes me happy for that customer.

"But if they just want a peach drink, we say, 'Here's your peach drink.'"

"I think at the very beginning we as a group were too excited about the things that we were doing, and that translated. I was reading Yelp—horrible, horrible thing to do—and this person was like, 'These guys really love their technique stuff.' That's the last thing I wanna hear. So we had a meeting and I was like, 'Listen, this is a bar, not a tech bar.' I don't want the tech thing shoved down the customer's throat. If someone says, 'Oh, peaches, how did you get it to be clear?' Then we say, 'We blended it with an enzyme that breaks down pectin and hemicellulose, spin it in a centrifuge at 4000 times the force of gravity for 15 minutes, strain it off and BOOM, there you go.' But if they just want a peach drink, we say, 'Here's your peach drink.'

"This is not about flashy stuff. Okay, we chill glasses with liquid nitrogen; it happens to be the best way to chill a glass. It also happens to be really cool, but it's also the best; there's no ring around your fucking glass. Yes, the red-hot poker creates giant flames in the bar, and people like seeing giant flames in the bar. Yes, it's showy. But the red-hot poker makes a drink unlike any other drink you can have, and it harkens back to an old-technique that was around centuries ago.

"Shaking a drink is showy. A lot of things are showy. I don't want to say that I'm anti-show. If something makes a drink better, awesome. If it happens to be showy, double awesome. But you gotta get your priorities straight. If it's showy and neutral, cut it. If it's showy and slightly detrimental, cut it very quickly. You know what I mean?"

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Michael Psilakis of MP Taverna: Remember What Food Really Means

Michael Psilakis, MP Taverna

"The year my dad died I was celebrating Easter at my his house, the same place I'd celebrated every Easter. And my brother and I finished putting the lamb on the spit, and it was odd that my dad wasn't there; 40 years of him being there, helping, me seeing him put his hands in the animal, and now he wasn't there doing it. We just wet the lamb with our hands, with water. I called my son over and it was exactly like my dad had done; he's standing in front of me, I pour water in his hands, it's hitting him, it's hitting me, and it's splashing all over the place and he's giggling.

"And I knew in that moment that that was food, right there. It wasn't about the lamb or how to cook it. It was just the water and being together."

"And I was thinking to myself, 'I should be happy but I'm really sad.' I didn't know how to feel. And I was looking at the water in his hands I had this fucking moment of clarity because I really saw my hands 30 years earlier. I remembered that moment, standing in front of my father, him towering over me and pouring water into my hands. And I knew in that moment that that was food, right there. It wasn't about the lamb or how to cook it. It was just the water and being together."

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