Some weeks ago Eric Rosenfeld told me I HAD to go eat at "Community table" in Washington, Connecticut—that it was very different, very creative and absolutely wonderful, one of the best restaurants up here, and as the Food Editor, I needed to know it. Washington is about 50 minutes from Millbrook, a bit off the beaten path and not a must for me to cover. Then I read the review from the New York Times and agreed that I had to go. Gerard and I had a lovely meal, ordering and eating things we had never seen elsewhere and never tried before and that we truly enjoyed. I made an appointment to go back this week to interview the chef and learn more about him. You were raised Milwaukee by a mother who cooked and baked, and that’s how and where you developed a passion for eating and cooking at an early age. What were her best dishes?
She spent years perfecting her cheesecake, and hers was the best. She is not the person who I would say taught me to cook, but she taught me to love food. She cooked for our family of five every night, and every night we enjoyed her food. Sunday was “fend for yourself day,” so as a child, I made pasta and grilled-cheese sandwiches and began to create various versions of those simple meals.
Did you always know you wanted to cook as a career?
No, I was going to go to law school but got bored filling out the paperwork, so it became clear that was not for me. My sister got me a job at a local restaurant. As a bus boy, where I spilled six glasses of water on an elderly customer. I was sent to the kitchen to wash dishes and stay away from the front of the house. In the kitchen I worked my way up from dishwasher. The chef, a graduate of Johnson & Wales Culinary School, encouraged me to enter a recipe contest at J & W and helped me formulate it. We came in number one in Wisconsin, and I won the scholarship.
One of the early jobs you had was at Gramercy Tavern in New York City. Who was the chef when you worked there?
It was Tom Colicchio.
Did you get to know him? Work with him?
Well, he hired me, so I have to say I did know him. But I stayed a short while. Most of the people in the kitchen were much more experienced than I was. Many went on to become famous. I felt I was in over my head and needed to get more experience.
You then went to work for Katy Sparks, at Quilty’s in Soho, who had worked for years for Barry Wine at The Quilted Giraffe. That was probably the first “farm to table” restaurant I had ever been to.
Yes, he farmed his own vegetables. I learned much from Katy. She is the person who recommended me to the owners of Community Table.
You spent nearly a decade in New Orleans, which you refer to as the Culinary Soul of America. Really? Better than New York?
It is different. New York has great restaurants from all ethnic backgrounds and all culinary cultures—but it does not have a tradition of local culinary culture. New Orleans has its own culinary culture that combines both Cajun and Creole—influenced by both its African and French roots. Many rich families in New Orleans have always sent their servants to school in France to learn cooking techniques and then apply them to the local ingredients. In New Orleans they have pig-slaughtering festivals in which they use the entire pig to make wonderful dishes. The crawfish, the fresh shrimp dishes, the gumbos. There is a deep and rich culinary heritage.
OK, now please explain what is great about Noma? Considered the best restaurant in the world. I spent two years in Scandinavia and while the herring was very good, I cannot say I was impressed with the Nordic culinary culture.
No, I agree. Danish food is not traditionally very good But Scandinavian food is very trendy now, and Chef René Redzepi is a remarkable pioneer who is not just creating great food but a great food movement.
How did you get to Noma?
I wanted to work at one of the top restaurants in the world. I did my research, and the San Pellegrino Top 50 is generally considered a respected reference. I was attracted to Noma’s philosophy and the important work they were doing. I requested a job and was hired.
What is Noma’s philosophy? What did you learn?
I learned new techniques—different fermentations, how to make Horseradish Snow—but above all I learned how to practice a philosophy of maintaining a sustainable food supply, of serving and eating foods that are healthier for us and healthy for the planet. About food foraging—respecting the ecosystems. Understanding how the picking of one plant will affect the growth of the others in the field. We need to learn how to live in harmony with nature. In the 1800s we had “naturalists” who drew pictures of plants and wrote up what they knew about them. Over centuries we learned what is edible and what is poisonous. We are losing all of this heritage by not practicing it any more. We need to get back to it. I have learned to see the landscape as the food supply.
Ah. Like the hay ice cream I had last week.
How did you get the idea that hay is a flavor worth pursuing?
When I drove through the countryside with the windows open, I could smell the fresh-cut hay. I said that wonderful smell—must have a flavor to it. So I started experimenting with using hay in the food and was particularly happy with the hay ice cream.
I was, too. So the menu you cook here is totally different from one you would cook if you had a restaurant in, let’s say, Virginia.
Yes. Totally different.
How long did it take you to put together the menu?
About six months. I had to get to know the farmers. Visit with them. See the farms and the produce. Everything I use is local.
Can you define “local” for me?
Well I might get some seafood from Maine, or some produce from southern New Jersey before our season starts—but that is about it—everything is basically within 200 miles. I get my venison from Millbrook.
Is Millbrook venison good?
It is fantastic.
If you are home alone—no one looking, no one else to please—what do you make for yourself?
A flatbread pizza.
If you could relive one meal of your life, which would it be?
I am torn between two of them. Certainly the last meal I had at Noma. It was fantastic. Twenty-two courses. The Aged Duck, the Dehydrated Carrot Dish and above all the Cauliflower Roasted in Pine come to mind. But then I might choose a simple Italian meal I had some months ago at a restaurant called Pici Pasta in Pienza, in Tuscany. They made a dish of wild boar ragout with porcini mushrooms and homemade pasta that was sensational. I really couldn’t choose.