Cesar Ramirez shocked the city’s fine dining industry when he turned up — of all places — at a grocery store. Ramirez, who has helmed the kitchens of Bouley and Bar Blanc, can now be found cooking at Brooklyn Fare, a gourmet food shop in Brooklyn.
He sat down with Fork in the Road to talk about what inspires him, what it’s like to cook for a live audience, and his plans for his own chef’s table-inspired restaurant.
How is cooking in the prep kitchen at Brooklyn Fare different from working at a restaurant?
Doing the chef’s table [has meant] constantly evolving, which is part of the reason I wanted to do it. It’s different and it’s special.
It’s challenging because we don’t sell wine and we’re not charging a lot of money. Also, at a restaurant you have a menu, you know what to do everyday. Here, I cook what is fresh and available. For example, yesterday I had rabbit. Today, I have no rabbit.
How is it cooking for a live audience?
The nice thing about this is that I get to see people’s reactions. I get to interact with the customer. I never did that before. The customer gets to see the process from beginning to end, from preparation to plating. I like to see people happy. Food makes people happy.
Is it a big change to work without a set menu?
Not really. In Bouley, I had customers who didn’t want to see a menu. It’s a beautiful way to cook. It’s a bit tricky, but when people don’t want to eat the same thing all the time, it allows you to be creative. You can try different things, see what works and what doesn’t.
How is the fine dining scene in New York changing?
The media makes the economy out to be worse than it is. It looks bad, but it’s also made people more aware of money, so they’re not splurging like they used to. Fine dining, in terms of service, has improved. People want to have a great meal but without having to wear a jacket or [adhere to] a dress code. You can come to our kitchen in shorts if you want.
What is Brooklyn bringing to the table?
I love Brooklyn! I never thought [our chef’s table] was going to get so much attention. I’m cooking the food I wasn’t able to cook at Bar Blanc. I can take food to a higher level here. I never thought in a million years it would work this well, especially in Brooklyn.
A lot of people don’t leave Manhattan or go above 14th Street. But a lot of our customers are coming from far away — even Long Island and Greenwich, Connecticut. I would say 70 percent of our customers are from outside Brooklyn.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I go to a lot of museums. I’m inspired by the arts and by serious craftspeople — not by chefs.
Any plans to return to a restaurant kitchen?
The owner [of Brooklyn Fare] and I spoke about getting a 140 or 150-square-foot space in the neighborhood to do a restaurant with a similar concept. It would be a chef’s table with a great wine list — not necessarily expensive, just good quality wines at reasonable prices. We would do 12 or 13 items that change weekly. (There is no time frame as yet.)
I don’t believe in signature dishes. I don’t want to keep one thing on the menu because then I get tired or bored. It has to keep evolving. You don’t wear the same clothes everyday, right?