Martha's Andres Valbuena: Pop-Up Restaurants Are Like an Embryo -- They Need to Become a Person
Martha (184 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-596-4147) chef Andres Valbuena loves a challenge. The Venezuela native set out to travel after a short-lived career in graphic design, landing kitchen jobs with internationally acclaimed chefs like Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, James Beard Award-winning Florida chef Michael Schwartz, and Andoni Luis Aduriz at Basque country's Mugaritz. "I saw certain people that I wanted to work for and pursued my dreams," he explains. "I wanted them to mentor me. I would push push push until I worked for them."
He relocated to the States 12 years ago after he fled Venezuela and was granted asylum, and after cooking in restaurants in Florida, California, and here in New York City, he was ready to give up on the business completely. "This is a very crazy business," he explains. "There are a lot of egos out there. It was not about food, it was about celebrity -- that rubbed me the wrong way."
It didn't take him long to realize he missed cooking, though, so he launched a supper club, challenging the structure that had repelled him. When that was successful, he began thinking about a his own space. "I thought, why can't I translate that to a brick-and-mortar place?" he says. "I will treat employees like my family." He signed a lease and put together the Brooklyn Sandwich Society, marrying the fine dining concepts he'd learned to one of the most humble dishes on the planet, and running a kitchen where his cooks called him "Andres" instead of "Chef."
He soon realized, though, that a sandwich shop wasn't going to pay the bills. Instead of shuttering, he opted to retool. Earlier this year, Valbuena converted the Brooklyn Sandwich Society into Martha, a more refined restaurant informed by Asian flavors, taking on a completely new challenge as he set out to master a different part of the global culinary canon.
In this interview, he weighs in on his personal philosophy, the direction supper clubs are heading, and what he'd like to do next.
You really worked to understand the philosophies of your mentors as much as their techniques. Did you form a personal philosophy? What is it? Respecting the food as what it is. It's not just a piece of steak -- it's a life that was sacrificed. You need to pay homage to that -- you need to honor that life when you cook it. I'm not going to cure cancer with this, but a lot of people don't care about burning a piece of meat and tossing it in the garbage. It's sad that professionals just see food as food. We need to pay attention to our materials. I don't mean giving food an ulterior philosophical meaning or treating it like a little delicate thing, but we should have ethics when we work with it. That and treating people like people. Especially employees.
Why transform from Brooklyn Sandwich Society to Martha? It was more a business decision than anything. I'm very proud of what I did with sandwiches. It was a way to translate something that is so pretentious -- farm-to-table, haute cuisine -- and put all those ingredients inside bread. It's the same preparation I used to do in French Laundry, but I'm not going to charge $300 for a sandwich. I was democratizing that kind of eating -- you get to know those flavors without going broke. But I need to run a business, and I'm responsible for a bunch of people. Sometimes you have to detach from your ideas even if it's painful.
What was the vision for Martha? Asian was in the original thought process, but the whole thing was evolving from Brooklyn Sandwich Society dinner to that side. I wanted to support the local agricultural movement not because the carrots are better, but because these people work very hard and they need the money. With the supper club, I could put $25,000 a year in that system. In a restaurant, it's more. What I do with that, or what flare I give to it, that is what I'm feeling about what to do with those ingredients. I love to browse in Chinatown and Koreatown; I feel like a little kid. When I bring all these new ingredients together, my taste buds start flipping out. This is new and exciting again for me. That's why I chose Asian.
Talk to me about transitioning from pop-up to brick-and-mortar. People who do [supper clubs] see us as a happy ending to the story. We started this in our apartment, and now we do this. I believe that a lot of people in the industry who start doing that kind of business are tired of how things are run and need an outlet to show what the are because they're tired of yelling and tired of doing things that they're not interested in doing.
What does this represent for the industry? It's still in an embryo phase, but I hope that embryo becomes a baby and then a person. I hope laws change and people can do that in a more open way. And then we build up from there. There are good ideas, bad ideas, gimmicks, and legit people doing this -- as with everything. I see it as an opportunity -- now restaurateurs are twisting the concept to monetize it. It's a promising thing. I hope it explodes.
On the next page, Valbuena talks about overcoming cancer while working the burners.
Why Fort Greene? I love Fort Greene. I used to work at Greene Grape Provisions. I was the head butcher. Regulars here are people I used to sell meat over there -- they recognized me because I was super chatty with them, and they came over to check this out. It's a very amazing neighborhood, and very neighborhood-y -- there are not many neighborhoods are like that.
Freestyle on the state of the New York restaurant industry. There are a lot of interesting things happening all over. A lot of young people are trying to break through established elites, and some people have been able to crack the shell. That for me is super amazing. From the perspective of a business owner, I'm learning about how competitive and crazy it is -- I never feel sorry for myself because it's competitive; I like a good fight. I love that I'm in a city that I can go to Jackson Heights and eat Tibetan food cooked by Tibetan people who barely speak English and the place is not fancy -- it looks like a nail salon. The food is amazing, the flavors are amazing, the people are amazing. You don't need to go to a fancy renowned place to discover gems. You kick the sand and five diamonds roll out. And that's in every step.
Thoughts on the media cycle? Some of it I love and some I hate. I thought Pete Wells on Guy Fieri was a joke. You have the power to reach so many people on so many levels. Give that shot to someone else. You gave it to someone who has way more media power than you -- you can give bad or good review, and it won't matter. Give a bad review to me, and it will change my life to bad. I don't think Guy Fieri was trying to do something more than Chili's with his name. So why don't you go review Chili's if you're going to go that route?
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to working in this industry? Every day is a big challenge. The dishwasher doesn't show up, and I roll up my sleeves. Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with cancer. Thank God I'm good right now, but I came to work just out of surgery because it was a crazy busy dinner service. But you always get a challenge from one thing or another -- that is this business. It's so fast-paced. Every day there's something new, and you need to tackle it. If you sleep on it, it becomes a little monster.
What are your goals? I want to make this business grow in an organic way. I want to, at some point, open a small butcher shop or grocery store kind of thing so I can support even more the people I want to support. I want to buy whole animals -- I don't have the space or clientele to break down the whole animal, but I want to be able to do those things. Next year I want to go travel Asia for eight months and really learn about the culture -- the human part and their cuisine. I want to do bastardized Asian food but with more legitimacy.
Up next, Valbuena divulges favorite spots.
Best place for a coffee: Bittersweet, but I'm not a coffee drinker. I'm not a morning eating person. I feel a little bit sick.
Best place for a beer or a drink: Hot Bird for a beer; Dick and Jane's for cocktails.
Special occasion restaurant: Pok Pok. I love it.
Neighborhood joint: Walter's. They are very nice people over there.
Best neighborhood in the city for food: Flushing.
Person you'd most like to cook for: Melissa (my wife)
Person you'd most like to cook for you: Melissa. She's a wonderful cook -- she makes amazing simple food. Or David Chang. If Melissa is not around, he can come and cook for me.
Person you'd be most nervous about cooking for: Thomas Keller. I had a guy come over here and say he's friends with him, and they were going to Barclay's Center and were going to come here after. I was like a 15-year-old. I was a wreck. Any of my mentors. I'd be freaking out about cooking for them. Or Barack Obama.
Dish you could eat forever: M. Shanghai's pork soup dumplings. Feed me like that, and I'll be a happy foie gras duck. You can put them in my mouth with a hose.
Weirdest thing you've eaten: Tapir. Back in my country -- it was delicious. It had the most crazy flavor. Or, when I was a kid, my dad took me to the Amazon, and the people gave me a tarantula charred in flame. It tasted like crab.
Favorite Asian restaurant: I tried Biang in Flushing -- it was awesome. The lamb opened a world for me.
Place without enough credit: This Dominican place in Crown Heights, Puerto Viejo. The food is amazing, people is amazing, cheap as hell.
Pressing industry issue: The lack of good cooks. I'm very lucky right now. I know how the game goes. I know the rotation of employees -- especially good employees -- is high. It's lucky to recognize that you need to treat people like people.
Something that surprised you about owning a restaurant: How people follow trends. Certain people say certain things, and it will change thousands of people's minds in a second.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.