Q&A, Part 1: Dan Ross-Leutwyler of Bellwether on His Culinary Background, Transitioning to Brooklyn, and the Fatty Crew
Perched at the crossroads between Union Avenue, Richardson Street, and North 11th, the mint-green, retro-decorated Bellwether is not a newcomer to the Williamsburg scene. But with the recent arrival of Chef Dan Ross-Leutwyler, the former chef de cuisine at Fatty 'Cue in the West Village, we expect to see great new things coming from this kitchen. We sat down with Dan to discuss his aspirations for the space, his straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to food, and the transition from Manhattan to Brooklyn, made with many members of the Fatty Crew who crossed the bridge with him.
Tell us a bit about your culinary background and how you got involved with cooking. It's not a long story. I graduated college in 1998 and just dicked around in different jobs, but none of them were really satisfying to me. I'm 36 now, so that was 23, 24, 25--just not having any real direction in my life. So I said, "It's time to figure this out." I'd always had a real passion for food as a child. I was a latchkey kid, so if I was hungry I had to feed myself, and I'd always had a real interest in food. I used to watch Great Chefs, Great Cities all the time...so I said, "Let me really dedicate myself to it for a few years and see if I can make a career out of this." At the time I was still in a school mentality, so I ended up going to the Institute for Culinary Education, which is a decision I regret every day of my life.
Why is that? The money would be a lot more useful to me in my pocket than having to write a check every month for a student loan. I really don't feel like it got my foot in any doors. I really don't feel like it prepared me for what life was like in real kitchens. A lot of the people I went to school with wanted to be food stylists or journalists. No one really had that hunger to be behind a stove. After I got through school, I did an externship at WD50, which was super-intense and I learned so much there. I was really hoping a job would materialize out of that. But it didn't. And that's totally cool. Then I just started working though a number of kitchens in New York City. I took a year off to go work in the Hamptons--which was really weird. Came back to New York and really went to it. That's the story.
So what prompted your most recent move to Bellwether? Well I was getting married on June 9. My last job--I don't want to say anything disparaging--but it just wasn't working out for me. I was the chef at Fatty 'Cue in Manhattan, and I learned a lot there and we did a lot of things I'm really proud of, but it was just time to move on. I was able to take some time off between that job and the wedding. In that free time I was helping a couple friends out, and I met Chris and Matt, who are the owners here, through a mutual friend, Latoya, who is the general manager here. We just started talking about food and the problems they were having and what they wanted to do and my thoughts about food--it all dovetailed really nicely. They were able to offer me a job and pay me what I wanted and so here I am. I started here June 18 or 19. It's been a month.
What is your inspiration for the new menu here and what direction are you hoping to take Bellwether in? I'm a real simple person. The things that I like to eat are really approachable--you look at it and you know what it is. You don't have to think about the technique or the quality of the ingredients, because you look at it and you know what it is. That was the primary goal for what I wanted to do here with the food. Things that are simple and accessible--done really well with attention to detail and attention to the ingredients--not any sort of overblown Brooklyn, new-Brooklyn cuisine, farm-to-table type thing. The things I have here you can find at any number of restaurants across the city. I just think I'm doing them a lot better than most other people. It's appetizing food, things that you want to keep coming back and eating. There's no mystery. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night and you want something and you wonder why you want it--that happens to me all the time. That's the kind of feeling I want to inspire with the food I do. This is a hard neighborhood. There are a lot of people who are doing interesting stuff. Allswell is up the block this way and Roebling Tea Room the other way. Those are two restaurants that I really like. And Reynard's is down the block. They've got the "farm-to-table" thing locked down. So how do you differentiate yourself? That's the question I was trying to address.
Speaking about this neighborhood in comparison to working in the West Village. What has this transition been like and how do the two neighborhoods compare? Very generally speaking: I think customers are less high maintenance in Brooklyn. They are more willing to take what you give them, and they don't have these ideas about what the experience is supposed to be like. Having said that, people are maybe a bit safer here. They want something that's a little bit more comfortable and don't necessarily want to be pushed too far out of their comfort zone...But I've lived in this neighborhood for many years. I love this neighborhood, and I think I really get this neighborhood.
I know that a lot of the Fatty Crew came here with you. What's it like working here in this new space with so many people you've worked with before? This is hard question for me to answer truthfully on the record. I'll do my best. It's nice to have a do-over in a way. Because what I enjoyed most about my last job was the quality of the people who worked for me and the people that I worked for--really truly special people. So to have the ability to do that again in a different environment is really rewarding. That people want to come and make the leap for me again is really satisfying to me as a professional.
What about the chef juice you serve on industry nights? Is that something particular to the crew? That's something I made up here. We had this party on Tuesday night, and it was a lot of industry people and my friends came and I wanted to be able to offer them a drink special that represented what I think about drinking. It just came together. It's a can of Modello over ice with pineapple juice, ginger, syrup, limejuice, Tabasco, and a shot of tequila.
On the menu? Maybe at a later date. Brunch only.
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