Kitchen Lifer: After More Than 30 Years, Ed Brown Is Still Going Strong
Chef Ed Brown would like you to know that you can eat dinner at Lincoln Center even if you're not there to catch a show. For the last several months, the longtime restaurateur and the company he works for, Restaurant Associates, have been working on Lincoln Center Kitchen, a "pet project," he says, that represents a divergence from the types of concepts that have long filled Avery Fisher. "We've done several different things in the Lincoln Center Kitchen space," he says. "But they've all been Italian or Italian-American. We wanted something different. Decoration-wise, you can't do a lot there, so that was gonna have to happen with the menu. We decided to start by not being Italian in any fashion. We said, let's just be American. Let's serve great food that people want to eat and buy, priced reasonably, and served with great hospitality. It sounds simple, but it's not so easy to pull off."
This restaurant is the latest in Brown's long and prolific career, and it definitely won't be the last project he undertakes. For the last four years, he's been the chef innovator at Restaurant Associates, where he works on everything from developing new concepts to refurbishing restaurants to pitching clients. The position is a culmination of his more than 30 years in the industry, and he's not ready to rest on his laurels.
The chef grew up on the Jersey Shore, "a very typical middle child wedged between two older brothers and two younger sisters," he says. He spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, and because he loved to cook and eat, he began working his way through local restaurants, where fish became a big part of his life. When he graduated from high school, he went to the Culinary Institute of America, and then worked in New Orleans and Nashville before returning to New York City under Christian Delouvrier at Le Parker Meridien.
While he was there, Alain Senderens invited Brown to come work at his Parisian restaurant Lucas Carton, which held three Michelin stars. "It was a life-changing moment," says Brown. "To go to the upper echelon was a wonderful experience. I showed up in Paris, at a famed restaurant of the highest caliber, and I was the only American cook in a lineup of 22 French cooks. I was leading the fish station, which was already my specialty. It was a great experience. I learned a much greater respect for the food, discipline, and organization."
Back on American soil, Brown helped Delouvrier gain a third star from the New York Times for the Maurice, and then became the youngest executive chef in New York City when he took a post at a new spot called Marie Michelle. "I did everything — order the food, cook the food, see the guests, order the toilet paper," he says.
From there, Restaurant Associates tapped him to oversee the Tropica, a seafood restaurant that was boundary-breaking at the time. "People forget that seafood-centric restaurants, which are everywhere today, are really relatively new," says Brown. "Back then [in 1990], you only had the [Grand Central] Oyster Bar and a couple of other seafood restaurants — there were no other restaurants that only served seafood. Tropica was going to be serving Floridian and Caribbean flavors. It was not the next Oyster Bar. It was out of the box, and very successful."
The project launched a long career with Restaurant Associates and its affiliates (including the Patina Group), that ended only when Brown decided it was time to realize a lifelong goal — building a restaurant of his own. He secured space on the Upper West Side for Eighty One, a fine-dining restaurant for a neighborhood that was lacking in high-end eateries. "I wanted to build something [where] I could stay for the rest of my career," says Brown. "I'd lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. All of my peers were going to these restaurants all over the city, but they lived in that neighborhood. So I took a leap of faith. I built a restaurant from scratch, from the ground up. I built a kitchen any chef would want to be in all day, every day. I hired an A-plus team of people culled from all the years. We had a lot of momentum behind us. We were a luxury restaurant, with amazing ingredients and tremendous execution in a nice setting, but you could come wearing your jeans and loafers."
Unfortunately, Eighty One also had terrible timing — it opened right before the financial crisis of 2008, when fine dining suddenly became too expensive for many people. Brown held on for a couple of years, gaining a Michelin star both years, but ultimately, he was forced to shutter.
Not long after, Jeffrey Chodorow asked him to help open something in the Empire Hotel, and so Brown got to work on Ed's Chowder House, applying lessons of high-end fish cookery in a casual setting. He wanted a full-time gig, though, so that's when Brown returned to Restaurant Associates.
Looking back on all that time spent within New York City's restaurant industry, Brown says he is most struck by how the diners have changed. "In the early days, if it wasn't French, it wasn't good," he says. "Now what restaurateurs provide is driven by what the customers demand. Customers are hungry for new, interesting, and ethnic. It's about education. Worldwide travel exploded and then people came back to America and said, how about real Italian food, real Spanish food, real Middle Eastern food?"
And that's pushed major change within the industry, beyond fashionable cuisines. "That increase in knowledge from diners wanting better food has pushed us ten decades ahead in the span of a couple of decades," he says. "As a cook, I learned the basics, and then I went from classic to wanting to break out of that. I'd ask, how do I make it interesting? Today, it's: How can I take something off the plate and cook less? If I'm cooking striped bass, who caught it? Did I get it fresh? Did I leave well enough alone? Am I supporting the fisheries? That's very far from where I started."
Brown sums up his career, noting he's written a book — The Modern Seafood Cook — been an author-revisor for The Joy of Cooking, owned restaurants, run restaurants, and run restaurant groups. But he's far from done: "I want to continue to participate in things that make me happy," he says. "I'd like to have a television show. I need to put my mind to it. There has to be some substance to it; I'd like to show things people don't know about food."
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