Q&A Part 1: Chef Mark Arnao Talks Auden, Locally Sourced Food, and Maybe Having the Best Burger in NYC
Auden replaced BLT Market back in September, with chef Mark Arnao running the show. We sat down with the chef to talk about the new space, the meaning of American food, and what it's like to run a restaurant in a hotel.
Best burger in NYC?
How did you create your menu? When I do menus, I like to do what I would eat, what would interest me, and what would be fun. Then I start thinking about everyone else and what they would like to eat. Then I incorporate the two together and come up with some really great food that hopefully appeals to everybody.
The theme for Auden seems to be locally sourced food, correct? Definitely. Our cheese list consists of products that are from some point in New York. As much produce as we can, we get from New York. Proteins are a little harder to source from a New York point of view, but we do whatever we can we do. We do a community footprint with a farm in upstate New York. The management team, we go and we plant and we dig and we get our hands dirty and our knees dirty. The last time we were up there, we picked 900 pounds of potatoes. We buy plots of food, and as they pick, they divide it up weekly. Everybody who buys into it gets the same amount, and all the money that comes in goes into charity -- to different soup kitchens and stuff like that to feed the needy. So that's what we do. I'll start that back up coming in the spring because right now there's nothing growing in New York because of frost.
How did you get started with food? I started as a little kid in a mom-and-pop restaurant and it's all I know how to do. I don't know how to do anything else. At the time, my mom was working there as a waitress. My mom and I argue about this. I say I was 9; she says I was 10. Anyway, I walked up to the chef-owner and said I wanted a job. And he said, "You know, come back and we'll see what we can do." So I went back on a Saturday and I worked with him for nine years. I wound up leaving at 18 because he wound up closing the restaurant down. But by the time I was 15 years old, I was running the kitchen and doing all the kitchen stuff. It was an Italian restaurant.
What happened next? I wound up in senior year of high school thinking: What am I going to do for the rest of my life? Do I go to cooking school because that's all I know how to do, or do I try something different? I wound up trying something different. I went to a university for secondary mathematical education. Believe it or not, I did not like school. I left after about a year, and within three months of being outside of school, I was back inside a kitchen. It's where I belong, and I just continued moving along. I've been with Ritz-Carlton, Marriott company for a while. I'm going on my 17th year.
What's the difference between working in a freestanding restaurant as opposed to a hotel restaurant? They're similar but completely different. In your freestanding restaurant, I think you have a harder time trying to get the balance between keeping a consistent product. You have to worry about making a fantastic product and keeping your price in line as a business. When you're in a hotel, you have a little more freedom with your cost because there are other parts of the hotel that can help make up for it if you lose anything. It's a different focus going into it.
How would you define your food? American? New American? I don't want to say American, because American just confines it. What we're just trying to do is concept it more by using great local ingredients, and make it the best combination of flavor that we can to put it on a plate to appeal to everybody. Some people made fun of me before, but I really like the quote, "Make chicken taste like chicken and beef taste like beef." Because that's what you want. You want to know what you're eating when you sit down. How many times have you gone to a restaurant and you've gotten food put in front of you with so much sauce and seasonings on it that you're not sure what you're eating? I want to give the best quality of ingredients I can give you so that you understand that you don't need much more than that.
Oysters and beet salad
What dishes do you recommend? My big one that we're using on the menu is the Skuna salmon. For me, the quality of that salmon is unbelievable. It is one of the best salmon I've ever seen. Now I'm not a big salmon fanatic, but I put it on a pan with a little bit of salt, a little bit of oil, and I just broil it and want to go back and eat it. The coriander in there as well is going to give it a nice flavor to match the wine. The beet salad is just great. The horseradish and cheese in it is great as well. That's just a nice local piece. The oysters are just fun. They're a great little dish. It complements the flavors between the cream and the hollandaise and stuff like that. It has a lot going on. The burger has also been a big hit. I've got a couple comments that people are calling the hotel saying it's the best burger in town. I'll take whatever I can get. It's probably my mom calling.
You guys are a fairly new restaurant. What's one thing you want to tell the world? The biggest thing to try to get out there is that, although we are the restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton, you don't have to be afraid to walk into the Ritz-Carlton to come in. It's a nice, relaxed atmosphere and easy to sit in. We have people who will come in for two hours to just relax for dinner. It's a very comfortable room, but you have to get into us to experience it. A lot of people think it's inside the Ritz, it's going to be too expensive. It's going to be uppity nose. It's going to be blah. We don't want to give that perception. We want people to come and be able to be here, relax, and enjoy themselves. So they're going to have to walk through the Ritz-Carlton doors to get to us.
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