The Clam's Mike Price: Why Restaurants Celebrating One Ingredient Are Evolving Away From Fast Casual
All images by Jon Selvey
New York has seen a slew of single-item restaurants open in the past few years, but perhaps none as refined as The Clam (420 Hudson Street, 212-242-8420), a West Village spot that celebrates its namesake shellfish in a sleek dining room rather than the fast casual digs normally devoted to this type of concept. The place comes from Joey Campanaro and chef Mike Price, who also partner together on another West Village spot, Market Table (54 Carmine Street, 212-255-2100) (Campanaro also owns the Little Owl in the same neighborhood).
Price's affinity for mollusks came from a childhood spent in Maryland, where he lived 10 minutes from the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. That's also where he learned to love food and cooking; he grew up on a farm where his family grew its own food. "My mother tried to serve us Salisbury steak once, and it didn't go well," he says. "We weren't frozen meal kids."
The chef took his first restaurant job as a dishwasher at age 13, and he says he knew then that he'd be in the industry forever. In high school, he supplemented lacrosse and soccer practice with cake decorating classes, and he worked in a kitchen at a nearby Holiday Inn. The chef there went to culinary school, and he pushed Price in the same direction. Price took the advice and went to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, a move that would eventually bring him to New York City.
After graduation, Price bounced around the city for a bit before heading down to Miami, and he returned to the Big Apple three days before 9/11. He signed on with Jimmy Bradley to open the Harrison in Tribeca, which he remembers as one of the first restaurants to open after that disaster. It was there that he met Campanaro, and though they went separate ways for awhile -- Price opened the Mermaid Inn in the East Village while Campanaro built the Little Owl -- they reconvened over Market Table six and a half years ago. It took them awhile to suss out exactly what that restaurant should be; the spot started as a half-restaurant-half-market before evolving into a full eatery. Once settled, though, Price began casting around for another space, reeling in a corner spot nearby.
In this interview, he talks about the evolution of single-item restaurants, why the West Village is the best neighborhood in NYC, and the secret to a good clam chowder.
Talk to me about your vision for The Clam -- how is that playing out now that the doors are open? It's pretty close to what we imagined this place to be. We were very cognizant that we didn't want to make this place a shack, and I don't think it feels like one. I wrote the menu so people didn't have to come in and order apps, entrees, and desserts, so we're getting a lot of three- and four-course orders, which is something we planned on that's come to fruition in a good way. And we've succeeded in installing the hospitality and warmth of our other restaurants with a completely different staff. That's important to us.
Any surprises? I guess you never really expect to be as warmly accepted as you are. People come in here and are so vocal about how they feel about this place -- it's basically a single offering restaurant, even though it's embellished. We've hit a niche -- clams haven't had their day.
Single item restaurants have mostly been done in fast casual format, which is not what you're doing here. What do you think about the evolution of that trend? It seems like a natural evolution to me. It's not fast and casual; rather, it's a celebration of an ingredient and everything you associate with that ingredient. I would love to eat stuffed clams, and after, I'd love to eat a ribeye steak. That's how I wrote the menu -- I thought, what do I want to eat with my clams?
You're pretty rooted in the West Village. Talk to me about the neighborhood. I really believe it's the greatest neighborhood in New York. Everyone wants to have a restaurant in the West Village. It's a central space with really good clientele, and it's still very much a neighborhood. Across from Market Table, the same guys have sat on the corner for 15, 20, or even 30 years. They can tell me the last ten things that have been in this space. I'm just glad to be a part of it.
What's your philosophy, and how did that form? It starts as a work ethic thing -- you're either in the game or not. That was something my father bestowed upon me. My father worked a tremendous amount of hours, and I've been fortunate enough to find something I love doing. God forbid I had to work these hours doing something I hate -- that would be disastrous. Passion comes through in the way you cook, build a team, and manage a restaurant. I've always been this way -- I'm happy cooking, and I'm happy being at home with my wife and kids. I feel as at home in the kitchen as I do at home.
What do you really love about this industry? A real passion for cooking is at the base of it. But I really love being the patriarch of a family, too -- in this business, you spend so much time together that it becomes a family. If someone has a problem and I can help fix it, I do. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with that, but it's very rewarding. Thirty-five to 40 people make their living off something that I build and sustain. It feels good to provide for people in that way. And then the other aspect is immediate gratification -- I can walk out of the ktichen and see people have a good time. I see people with smiles on their faces, and I know I made all of that happen.
Thoughts on where the New York industry is headed? I think credit cards are going to become an issue -- that's coming down the pipe. There is no other industry when someone walks away from the table does business with your credit card and brings it back. As far as the food trends go, I try not to get into that. I'm not a big foamy kind of guy -- that's just not what I do. I appreciate the cutting edge, but there's a select market for that. It's just not really what people want to eat every day, and the market proves that.
How has Market Table evolved since it opened six and a half years ago? Market Table has evolved tremendously. When we opened, half the space was a market. That was a great concept in theory, but we're not grocery guys. It didn't take long to figure out that it should be a restaurant. Because of that, we didn't get reviewed right out of the gate. It took more than a year -- it took us awhile to get that notoriety. And then there were partnership issues in the beginning, but we made it through it. Then we had this period of doing it -- we got a review with two stars. But then you hit that two year mark, and it's like, I gotta find another fuckin' space. What am I doing? I looked in Brooklyn for awhile and then found this space [for the Clam] and I knew that I was going to be the face on the space, the figurehead in the kitchen -- I was going to run the space. Joe [Campanaro] is so busy with so many other things that I knew I needed to lock down the kitchen at Market Table. I hired David Standridge about a year ago, and the menu is now 70 percent his. He's doing a great job. I help focus it, and my name's still on the menu, but he's definitely the chef de cuisine. The more and better he does, the more and better I feel. I spend very little time there right now because I'm spending 100 hours a week at the Clam.
Any lessons learned? You'd think I'd learn, but those old problems don't bite you in the ass and new things do. At Market Table, that market concept totally didn't work. But here at the Clam, I don't know what that problem is going to be yet. I'm just trying to make the best food I can.
You've seen so many different faces of the press -- how has the media evolved, and what is its role now? Everyone is a critic, and everyone is a foodie. We try to make sure no one leaves here unhappy. Being a chef has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years -- there's some celebrityism that never was there before. Media has taken a hold of that, and deservedly so -- food is in everyone's lives every single day, especially in this city, where so many people eat out.
What about the review cycle? Our concept remains the same -- we try to cook the same food for everyone. The swordfish is the swordfish. The swordfish sauce is the swordfish sauce. We're serving the best food we can to everyone. I can only do what I can do, and they're going to let me know what they think about it. I do feel like there are so many reviewers now -- it used to be a handful. I get lots of reviews every day, and with a lot of them, I don't even know what the fuck they are. Yelp is a review! OpenTable is a review!
What about the rise of sites like that? I treat them as a tool. I look for trends, and I feel like over the course of time, it has some bearing on how good of job you're doing. But I don't treat it like the end-all be-all, either. I'm the one here every day, and I'm here enough that I have a sense of it. You can really inundate yourself with that shit.
What do you wish you could tell diners? Come, try some different things, judge it for what it is, and have a good time.
Any goals? Open more restaurants. Write a clam or seafood cookbook. Postition ourselves as the authority on clams. Keep making better deals. Find better spaces.
What's the secret to a great clam chowder? It has to do with the clam stock and what you're thickening with, and the rest is about ingredients. I use onions, celery, thyme, clam stock, Yukon gold potatoes, and heavy cream. There's no flour, no roux, no butter, and it's not thickened with anything.
Special occasion restaurant: Per Se is that restaurant.
Neighborhood joint: I feel like I'm a regular at Annisa, but I wouldn't call that a neighborhood restaurant. I sit at Blue Hill at the bar.
Quintessential New York City restaurant: I feel like for the last few years, Gotham Bar and Grill has been that place. Or Gramercy. Gramercy is the benchmark of the way restaurants should be built.
Something you love about the industry: Diversity. Especially in New York where you can find any kind of restaurant. The options are endless.
Something you with you could change: I wish they didn't make it so hard to do business in New York.
What's the hardest thing about doing business in New York? Dealing with the bureaucracy. I want to be the guy who employs 40 people -- don't you want me to be that guy? Don't you want me to pay sales tax? I want to, because that means I'm making money. Are we on the same team here? Because I don't feel like we are. My experience with opening restaurants in other cities is nil, but I have to imagine it's easier.
Person who doesn't get enough credit: I feel like David Standridge doesn't get enough credit for what he's doing at Market Table.
Place that doesn't get enough credit: EN Japanese Brasserie. It does a great job, and you never see them anywhere.
Person you'd like to have cook for you: Escoffier.
Person you'd like to cook for: Right now, Pete Wells.
Someone you'd be nervous about cooking for: Pete fuckin' Wells.
Dish you could eat forever: Crabcakes.
Pressing industry issue: Credit cards. And rents. In this city, rents.
What have we missed? I feel like our hospitality doesn't get enough credit. Joe's and my professional career together hasn't gotten enough credit.
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.