Yesterday, Jesse Schenker opened the doors to Recette, a contemporary American restaurant located in the old Jarnac space on West 12th Street. The restaurant is the public manifestation of Recette Private Dining, a private dining club that Schenker previously ran out of East Harlem’s Savoy Bakery with Savoy’s owner, Brian Ghaw, and Christina Lee, a former Per Se pastry chef. Schenker, a native Floridian and former chef de partie at Gordon Ramsay at the London NYC, took a bit of time to speak with Fork in the Road about his new menu, making the leap from private to public dining, and why his former boss isn’t quite the kitchen nightmare he’s portrayed to be.
How would you describe your food?
The food is modern American. Me and my staff are all French trained, with Michelin kitchen techniques, so there’s a lot of finesse that comes through, along with playful touches on American classics. It’s kind of mix and match: there’s Mediterranean flavors with American local ingredients and techniques from France. They’re all intertwined, and very refined and delicious.
Did you and Christina Lee work together on your menus?
We definitely did. We complement each other very well; we worked in private dining for a year prior to getting this open where we did, like, 10- to 20-course menus. She would do sweet garnishes for some of my savory dishes or I’d do some salty things for her sweet dishes.
Do you have a favorite dish on the menu?
Well, one of the newer dishes I put on, which I’ve been working on for couple weeks now, is raw fluke in a caviar sabayon with watercress and shaved fennel. It’s very acidic and fresh; the caviar brings great saltiness to it, and the fennel brings crunch. The sabayon is from Italy, the caviar is from America. It’s very refined and looks very pretty on the plate. And then there’s the Berkshire pork belly, which is braised and cooked slowly in a sherry caramel sauce, with a classic Spanish romesco sauce and rock shrimp.
Can you walk me through one of your dishes, from concept to execution?
A lot of it has to do with what I read, or what I go to eat: I get inspired by things. For the pork belly with rock shrimp, I love the flavors of Spain and had an idea to do pork and seafood. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, so I asked myself, what’s the best-tasting pork? So I went to pork belly. With the sauce, instead of doing something completely sweet, I wanted a vinegar, and used sherry in the caramel sauce. When I went to Morimoto, I loved the tempura battered rock shrimp with ranch dressing. [For the pork belly] I wanted to do langoustines, but they’re soft and I didn’t want to ruin their integrity by frying them, so decided to do rock shrimp instead. And then I took some bitter local turnips and roasted them for caramelization, and liked the nutty texture of the romesco sauce, which uses Marcona almonds. The piquillo peppers gave [the romesco] a very bold flavor. So yeah, definitely, we play with things.
How’d you decide to make the leap from public to private dining?
I’ve always wanted to go public; I wanted to bring what I was doing to the masses in a casual atmosphere. In private dining, we charged an arm and a leg for our tastings – we had to because we were buying retail, not wholesale, and playing with very expensive ingredients. It took 8 to 12 hours to execute food for eight people, so they were paying for a lot of labor. I always wanted a restaurant in the West Village, and wanted to bring elevated food into a warm, casual atmosphere for moderate prices and let people create their own tastings. If they want a five-course, 10-course tasting, they can. If they want olives and piece of branzino, they can. It’s completely up to the diner. We’ve got snacks and plates: the portion sizes of the snacks and plates are the same, but the plates are composed architectural dishes and the snacks are not composed.
What was the origin of Recette’s previous incarnation?
It was funny. I lived up [in East Harlem] at the time. I was working at the London Hotel, and everyday on my way to the train I would stop at Savoy to get a cup of coffee. I have some crazy tattoos and the owner said, ‘you must be a chef.’ We got to talking and I told him I worked for Gordon Ramsay. He said, ‘oh, I love Gordon Ramsay! When do you have a day off? Let’s go and eat.’ He was friends with Christina, so we all went out to eat and decided we should do something after-hours in the bakery, like cook for our friends and do crazy tastings. We did that and it was a success, so did it one more time and got a phone number and website. We kept our jobs and did it on our day off. And then, sure enough, Daily Candy came and wrote about us and it took off. So we quit our jobs did one seating a night. Once in awhile we had bigger parties, but we weren’t really catering because we didn’t want to sacrifice quality or standards.
Have you had experience opening restaurants before?
I’ve opened restaurants in South Florida, not as the owner but as the chef. Cooking is really the easy part. Running a restaurant is a whole other deal. It’s very humbling.
How long have you been in New York?
I’ve been here a little over three years. I staged around for a bit at a few different places and worked at Gordon’s for a year and a half.
Is he as scary as he’s widely perceived to be?
You know, people ask me that. To tell you the truth, he probably doesn’t know who I am — he has so much staff, and he came in the kitchen every few weeks. He’s very serious, a perfectionist. Despite the TV shows, he’s an amazing chef, but he’s a perfectionist so he gets angry. But he hires cooks who can cook and all of his proteges are amazing. He gets rough, but he has to. He is intense. He requires perfection.
Would you consider him a mentor?
Speaking of perfection, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen?
I’ve thought sugar was salt before. That happened a couple of times, in my earlier days.
What’s in your refrigerator?
Milk and Cremora and coffee. Literally nothing.
Where do you like to eat on your day off?
If I want sushi, I go to Sushi of Gari or Sushi Yasuda, for sure. I love Hagi and Yakitori Totto and the Bar Room at the Modern. I could eat there five nights a week. Same with Craft Bar — I could eat there five nights a week. And then Ssam Bar and the street carts.
Is there anything you wish you could see more of in New York dining?
That’s tough because New York has everything. As a chef, I don’t cook Asian food but love to eat it. I think what Chang is doing is brilliant; all his restaurants are really, really good. When I first got here, I was into fine dining, and they’re all great but I think we need more hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants. They’re more in Queens and Brooklyn. Manhattan could use some more. But there’s really nothing that Manhattan doesn’t have.
What’s your earliest food memory?
Frog’s legs in England when I was a kid. And then St-Tropez when I was 12 or 13, I ordered tomato-basil creme brulee. My whole family was like, why are you getting that? But I loved it. I thought it was genius.