Northern Spy's Hadley Schmitt: "The Best Advertising and Buzz Is Word of Mouth"
Part one of my interview with Northern Spy Food Co.'s Hadley Schmitt ran yesterday. Here in part two, the chef talks about keeping his head clear amid the media buzz, why he'd like to see more cooks with grit, and the healthy food he'd happily eat every day.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene? More young cooks that I can hire. There's so much activity, and it's such a scene. It's amazing how much more attention people are paying to food. I used to think I would have to move to France for six years to keep learning. Now you just look at Instagram. But we need to get back to the basics. Every restaurant nowadays needs cooks. It's a challenging job. I hire people that have never worked in a kitchen before, and a lot of them are not up for the intensity. I'd like to see more cooks with grit.
What do you wish would go away? Getting reviewed so quickly. It gets earlier and earlier, and everything is about buzz. It's important to understand that, but I'd like to see it change--give opening restaurants a little more time. There are plenty of other ways for them to get buzz.
What's your guiltiest pleasure? This is the first time I've ever had to plate desserts. There are too many sweets to snack on. I'm not used to that. I'll be quenelling ice cream for the plate, and I'll take a little extra for myself. It's a bad habit. There are times where it's like, uh, I should not have snacked that much on the pork scraps and pastry. I wish I was more disciplined.
What's your favorite meal to cook at home? We have a small New York apartment, so it's simple: pasta and a simple, fresh sauce of some kind. I'll dice up tomatoes and add onion, garlic, and chili flake and then grate a little cheese on top. The sauce is fresh and filling.
What's the most memorable meal you've ever eaten? I have a guy moving back to California because he's homesick. I was kind of in the same boat for the first year. It took nine months to get through that hump. I have a memory of making it back to Colorado early, and my mom made me ham and cheese pie, which I love and got to request. All the kids had moved out, she was by herself, and it was just me and her at dinner. It was super satisfying.
In a restaurant? There was this sous chef from Union Pacific, Josh DeChellis, and he opened Sumile. I helped with an event on Long Island, and he said, "I owe you dinner. Come into my restaurant." I went in with another cook. The food blew me away. I was a young cook. As you get more experience, it gets tougher to get blown away. It was a very personal experience, and it's always stood out.
What do you wish you could put on your menu regardless of how well it would sell? In a different restaurant, I wouldn't hesitate as much, but local fish in a raw preparation doesn't sell very well here. People don't seem to bite on it. You want to sell a lot of it, and that's where the problem comes about. I can't sell it fast enough.
What music is best to cook to? No music. But I'm in a situation where I have to have music because of the open kitchen. It's a nice atmosphere, and the service staff changes it up. It's not like other restaurants where you have the same playlist every day. So I like something upbeat with good rhythm.
What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking? Don't be afraid of salt. And use a little vinegar to season your food. With a lot of home cooks, the seasoning is off.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self? We have a label-maker downstairs. As I was labeling our squeeze bottles, I thought, I would have looked like a bad-ass cook if I'd come in to my first job with my own label-maker. All my chefs would have loved me.
What's your favorite dish on your menu right now? If I sat down and ate today, I'd order the peach salad. It's new, it's fresh, the peaches are right, and it's nice. As an entrée, I'd order the porgy. Porgy is a little under-appreciated. I do it in a light garlic broth. For this time of year, it's nice and light and seasonal for the hot weather.
What are your favorite local purveyors? Phillips Farm in New Jersey. They have such a great range of stuff, they're super easy to work with, and they're at the market a lot. That's one of our big farms this time of year. Mountain Sweet Berry Farms. They have a lot of interesting and varied stuff. The fish stand at the market. It's run by an older guy--he might be in his seventies--who's a fisherman. He's a nice guy. We talk on the phone, and this time of year, during striped bass season, he'll say, "I'm going fishing this evening. If I catch some bass, how many do you want?" He's an old character.
What's the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene? There's such media focus on what's new that it's tough to remind yourself to keep the big picture in mind and work toward establishing the restaurant as something that's going to sustain and then keeping to those principles. A lot of places are too oriented on the buzz, and then when the buzz is dying, they work on finding new buzz. The best advertising and buzz is word of mouth and keeping customers happy.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen. I'll tell you about my biggest disaster. I had my first job, and it was New Year's Eve 1999 going into 2000. The sous chef didn't show, and several others didn't either. It was a young crew, and everyone wanted to be out because they were thinking this was the once-in-a-lifetime millennium. We were short-staffed with a very full restaurant. You can only imagine. It was a disaster for the employees that did show up. And then one other guy and I ended up staying until almost 3:30 or 4 in the morning after a miserable night. We did all the dishes and scrubbed everything down.
What's your proudest culinary moment? When friends come in here and have a great meal and a great time. When the customers unexpectedly come over and tell me how much they really enjoyed a meal. It's the unexpected moments that tell you you're doing your day-to-day job right. I take the most satisfaction out of that. What's your desert island food? I could eat broccoli every day of the year and enjoy it.
What's the most pressing food issue today? This is something I don't think about every day, but the big food industry has big influence on politics. Like any industry involved with political figures, it buys its way in. That really affects what we can do as chefs. It really affects local farmers. And it's an agenda that's hard to address because it's all about the money. But it's a huge obstacle.
What's always in your refrigerator at home? My girlfriend hates it, but kimchee. It's a healthy, ready-to-go snack.
What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten? Whale sperm in Europe.
Favorite food-related item to give as a gift? My go-to is cheese. Murray's does a great mail-order business.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making? Michel Bras. He's older and semi-retired. I want him to cook what he does. That's why I'm interested in him. I've never experienced his food.
Have a hobby that's totally unrelated to work? I'm a general sports fan. Particularly basketball. In my little spare time, I'm always watching the highlights or reading an article involving sports.
What's next for you? At this point, nothing's next. It's about continuing to improve myself and improve the food and managing people and so on. I'm working on becoming a better chef in general. That way, when I'm ready to take the next step, I'll be ready for it.
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