Part Two With Lisa Giffen, Executive Chef of Maison Premiere
In part one of our interview with Lisa Giffen, executive chef of Maison Premiere, we covered her French-influenced culinary style, the plastic bench scraper she keeps in her pocket at all times, and the spot where she celebrates a special night out. In part two of our chat, she reflects on her desert island food, divulges her favorite food-related item to give as a gift, and gives advice to amateur cooks looking to improve their kitchen creations.
What's your favorite meal to cook at home? Anything I can make through slow-cooking or roasting and not have to worry about it, so pernil or duck à l'orange. I like to let all the work do itself and hang out with my friends and drink wine. And then, hours later, dinner is ready.
What's the most memorable meal you've ever eaten? When I was 15 years old, I went to Paris with my mom. I grew up in Europe, and I had an opportunity to travel, but until then, I just wanted to stay home. But when I was 15, I went, and it was my first time having oysters, my first time watching French people eat and drink wine and smoke cigarettes. They had this attitude. It made me appreciate eating out and leisurely lunches.
What do you wish you could put on your menu? It's less about items and more about ingredients. I would use the very best olive oil or the very best Champagne in my sabayon. I guess I could do it if I wanted to charge people $1 million, but it's not accessible. And it's kind of snobbish to think of food like that.
What music is best to cook to? We cook to a lot of Gorillaz. And a lot of jazz when it's a stressed moment. Chef Lisa is in her stressed mode when jazz goes on, and everyone knows that.
What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking? Just try it. The idea behind cooking is trying. At home, try everything. You'll figure it out and get better. And for an amateur chef, go work at restaurants for free or for pay--the more experience, the better.
What do you wish you could tell your line-cook self? Enjoy this moment when there are no other responsibilities and you just have to focus on this day and this mise en place, versus all the other things you'll eventually take on. And try to inspire people and get inspiration from them. It can be exhausting. So just focus on cooking this food right and well.
What's your favorite dish on your menu right now? I have maybe three favorites right now. One of the items is the black cod. Another is the pigeon with foie and star anise. It's super-tender, and the turnips are cooked different ways--glazed and fresh--so they all have different textures. And finally, the sea urchin. The daikon comes raw, pickled, and braised. We combine that with the sea urchin we get flown in from California.
What are your favorite local purveyors? Anyone at the Greenmarket. D'Artagnan for meats, pigeon, and rabbit. All of the oyster purveyors: Hama Hama, Norm Bloom in Connecticut. We get so many oysters. Learning when they're harvesting and seeding is like learning about vegetables; there's such a small window. They're mailed to us and brought to us. Naked Cowboy brings them to us directly. Krystof [Zizka], the owner, helped build and maintain all that so we can have all the variety.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen. There was a night at Adour, and we were serving a very big private dinner. Eighty people were coming. Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller were there; each chef was doing a different course, and we were doing the first and last courses. Mr. Ducasse was in the kitchen, and all of these chefs and sous chefs were working together. We were going to send out these gougères [a type of puff pastry] at the beginning. So we made the gougères and put them in the oven, and someone burned the gougères. All of a sudden, we're scrambling around, whipping eggs, and making a whole new batch of gougères fast-fast-fast. We were frantic: We had to whip out 80 more gougères. But I'll never forget seeing Mr. Ducasse standing there, cool as a cucumber, and watching all the other chefs watch us quietly from the sidelines. There was this divide in the kitchen. That's what it's always like when some mishap happens. A tray of something falls down, someone burns your whatever, and you go fast to get it fixed.
What's your proudest culinary moment? It's not like one single moment, but sometimes when I'm teaching another cook something, I reflect and remember when I was learning that. I remember when that skill took me forever to do. It's a proud moment I have all the time. You see how far you come even in little day-to-day things. I remember all the trouble, and I see the other person struggling and remember when I was that person.
What's your desert island food? Pizza. I love pizza. Who doesn't love pizza?
What's the most pressing food-related issue today? Sustainability and being responsible about everything. That and making food more affordable. We talk about organics, but we leave a lot of people without money out of that picture.
What's always in your refrigerator at home? Pellegrino. That's the only thing right now.
What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten? In oysters, there are these little pea crabs. One of our cooks was making everyone eat them. And I was like, "I'm not going to, that's gross." So he fried one up and made me eat it. And it was fine. It was fried, so it was good.
What's your favorite food-related item to give as a gift? I like giving pickled items. That's always fun. And honeys. Everyone likes honey. Kitchen tools if you know the person. Then you can be like, "Here, you need a zester," or, "Here's a cast-iron pan."
What's the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene? It's nonstop in so many ways. You're not one out of 20 restaurants in a town, you're one of a million. You go to a farmers' market and you say, "I'm gonna get the peas!" Well, 20 other restaurants went to get the peas that day, too. You're always competing with everyone with regard to purveyors, people's time, and exposure. In a smaller scene, those things might be easier.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? First of all, I'd like them to thank the team. I can't do this all by myself. But maybe pizza. We're all hungry back there. Pizza and beer.
What's next for New York restaurants? Market-driven spots. That trend has been going on for a while, and it's what people want. I think we'll see more focus on the relationships people have with their purveyors. So many people are excited to talk about where food comes from. There are all these small farms, purveyors, and oyster harvesters that we want to highlight now. I also think we'll see more combination cocktail bar-restaurants or good hotel restaurants, where it's unclear which aspect is the draw and both are doing something atypical. On the same note, you'll see more obscure locations and less run-of-the-mill restaurants. Like a pizza place that also runs a farm in the back. People will forge different compelling partnerships.
What's next for you? The summer menu in a month or so.
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.