“Do you mind if we talk in here?” Jimmy Carbone gestures to his narrow basement kitchen at Jimmy’s 43, outfitted with hot plates, metal racks holding dishes, and wooden chopping boards. Carbone already has the onions out, waiting to be diced for a peperonata he’s making for this evening’s Hot Bread Kitchen fundraiser. It’s early afternoon and the bar is officially open, but the only people who pop in are purveyors– one carrying in a loaf of bread from Tom Cat Bakery in Queens, another wanting to chat with Jimmy about his seafood company in light of the Local Oysters, Local Beer nights that happen at the bar every Thursday. It seemed like a good segue into discussing Carbone’s growing presence in the locavore movement, so Fork in the Road joined him in the kitchen to talk local providers, good beer, and the bar’s increasing role as a venue for foodie events.
When did you start focusing on local ingredients?
Back in 2002 we opened a place called Patio with a great chef, Sara Jenkins. She wanted to do a market menu, and she literally shopped the market every day. We were way ahead of the curve–there really weren’t that many places in New York that were doing that. We opened Jimmy’s No. 43 in 2005, and things were just changing then. It seemed that there was more awareness about food. Around that time, there were all these great people starting up. Rick’s Picks had just started. Sixpoint Brewery was just starting. And Anne Saxelby had just opened her cheese shop. We started having cheese and pickle and beer tastings. And when we opened we always had a full menu. I was making it.
Is the kitchen setup the same as when you started? Just a few hot plates and no oven?
There are still hot plates. We have an oven. We had an oven when we first started, but we didn’t have it plugged in. It’s pretty much the same setup. A basement space tends to be prohibitive to putting in a real venting system and gas and all that.
You received some buzz when you had your first chef a couple of years ago, Phillip Kirschen-Clark. How did that relationship come about?
A lot of chefs come here for beers. They have since we opened. Our kitchen’s open till 12, and then sometimes we still have the snacks later. He asked me if I wanted help. He actually started moonlighting on his night off while he was working at wd~50. He really helped develop the menu. He didn’t do a daily menu like Sara Jenkins, but parts of the menu were changing every day. Definitely with him, that’s when we went to number 11 on the volume–in terms of buying local–to get a little more exposure. He really was interacting with the farmers. That’s the year we got the Slow Food Seal of Approval. We decided that we wanted to have more focus on the fact that we were supporters of local food. And he made up a lot of dishes, some of which we still do. One of them was called the slab. It was basically this really good Parma bacon–usually Benton’s from Tennessee. Just cutting it really thick and cooking it in a skillet like a steak.
That was 2007 and ’08. Now he’s at Corton, which is a three-star restaurant–that’s really where he belongs, that’s his training. At this place–after six months, we could never keep him. He needs to work on a higher level. This isn’t fine dining, we can’t charge $35 for an entree–but that’s kind of the thing he was doing.
How does your kitchen operate now compared to when Phillip was here?
It’s about the same. At the end of the day, we’re buying good ingredients, we’ve got the same equipment. We always have a couple different cooks–we don’t have one chef, that’s the difference. Each one has their strength. They’re just cool guys, they’re young, artsy. Sometimes as much as every two months they change. I do a lot of the cooking, or purchasing–I’m spending time in the kitchen every day. I like making things like pastas, I make fish stews, I make pretty good braises.
How did you learn to cook?
I learned on my own. Back in ’94, I opened this little restaurant called Mugsy’s Chow Chow. I was in it for the wine and beer. I took a sommelier class, I read some books – that was really my interest. I was young–I was making like, $300 a week and I was spending all my extra money on wine. So I felt like I wanted to get a wine license to buy wholesale. But I wasn’t interested in fine wine and fine dining, I just wanted to buy good wines and keep learning. That was really my true vision and true passion; to go along with that, I started cooking. I felt that at the time, at this simple place, I couldn’t afford good cooks. I knew a little bit, but I learned how to cook. I had Mark Bittman’s fish book. It was a different time then–rent was really cheap. It was doable and fun. That’s the first time I cooked.
How did Jimmy’s become a venue for food events–local honey swaps, cassoulet cook-offs, okonomiyaki nights?
Most restaurants and bars, they only have a certain amount of space for their customers–we have this back room. I kind of had wanted a place where we could do performances and things, but I don’t know what it was–music wasn’t going to work here: noise issues. What’s been really satisfying is using this as a community space, and that’s really what it’s evolved to. If we didn’t have the room, it never would have happened. We donate the space, but then people buy drinks. And they become our circle. The New Amsterdam Market–they’re going to be holding their volunteer party here. We can’t donate money to the cause, but we can donate the room. And we do private parties here as well.
I understand you helped found something called the Good Beer Seal.
My neighbors at d.b.a. and Burp Castle, upstairs, we thought we needed something more about us, so we founded the Good Beer Seal. We even got a mayoral proclamation. We weren’t trying to compete with Craft Beer Week or anything, we just wanted to have some recognition of small beer bars that are independently owned. Right now there’s 15 places. In February, we’re going to have an event to announce the new Good Beer Seal bars. We might have some beer awards, too–the Sustainable Beer Award. Craft beer is such a big thing. It’s going to be citywide–all five boroughs.
And tell me about 1 Dominick, the restaurant you helped open last year in the Here Arts Center in Soho. How much are you involved in that?
I am involved, but it’s really more of a theater concession. I opened that because my friends approached me, the directors of the arts center. They were going to renovate and they wanted to build a café, so I got them set up. We still run it, but we’re trying to sell it. It’s a lot of work. We got some really good coffee systems, and we have Gorilla Coffee from Brooklyn, and put in a simple menu–some sandwiches and snacks–we got the wine list installed. But Jimmy’s No. 43, this is really the baby.
Tomorrow, Jimmy Carbone talks beer, bacon, and his favorite New York meal.