Brian Leth has helmed the kitchen at Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill House since April of 2009, when the restaurant had been open for about six months.
After getting his start cooking professionally in New Mexico, he moved back to New York, where he worked under Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune and Neil Ferguson at Allen & Delancey.
In this first half of our weekly chef Q&A, Leth talks about how to describe Brooklyn’s new restaurant scene, meeting noted Brooklyn-basher Jeffrey Steingarten, and the most important thing he learned at Prune.
Tune in tomorrow for the second half of the interview, in which Leth chats about Le Fooding, underrated ingredients and restaurants, and turnips.
What’s your first food memory?
As a child, I remember hating pizza, which I think is a little odd. I just found it unacceptably gooey.
Do you like it now?
Yeah, of course.
How did you decide to become a chef?
I kind of started late. I worked at a company after college, JB Prince that sells very specific, professional, high-end chef stuff [equipment]. I didn’t find it particularly fulfilling, but at the same time I was learning a lot about food culture from the outside and seeing how things work from the inside a little bit. It got me interested, and I ended up leaving New York City and going to New Mexico, where I started cooking in restaurants, and managed to learn enough that Gabrielle Hamilton [chef of Prune] was kind enough to hire me and that was my first real professional kitchen job.
Do you still cook with any ingredients or techniques that are particular to New Mexico or the Southwest?
I can’t say that I do. I like that food, but the real cuisine of the area is based on a very few ingredients. It’s good but a little limited.
Is there a New Mexican dish you miss in particular?
They have this fried ice cream dish at Guadalajara Grill that’s pretty special. It’s in Taos.
So you worked at Prune–what’s the most important or relevant skill or technique you learned from Gabrielle Hamilton?
I think I was lucky to work for her because she has a different take on conceptualizing dishes. She’s a smart woman in general, and she’s really educated about food. All her dishes make sense in a fundamental way. Some people can fix it on technique or fix it to look a certain way, and the end result can be impressive but ultimately unbalanced or silly. Her dishes are fundamentally soundly conceived.
I was fortunate to be close to that as a young cook. In terms of technique, I learned how to cook eggs there, although I don’t do that much anymore. The eggs there [at Prune] are perfect and very beautiful…
I feel like eggs are one of those things that people think are simple but are actually easy to screw up.
A lot of it is just practice, when you cook them over and over you learn what’s going to work and what’s not. People ask about poaching eggs, which some people see as a mystery, but from a cook’s perspective, it’s the easiest. You can have ten of them swimming around while you’re doing something else.
For an omelet, you want eggs at room temperature, so they don’t have to come up from cold. Just from experience, it’s easier to predict when the omelet will come together so you can pull it off the heat…Cold eggs are more likely to get over-worked, while room temperature eggs, you put them in the pan, agitate them a little, and they immediately come up and start to coagulate. It yields a more consistent product. Though I’m not sure people at home want to wait for 30 minutes for their eggs to come to temperature.
Vinegar Hill House is part of the new American, farm-to-table Brooklyn restaurant movement, though neither of those terms seem totally right. How would you define the Brooklyn food aesthetic?
When people ask me what kind of a restaurant I work in it’s hard to say something that makes sense. New American could mean anything. Farm-to-table is more accurate, but it’s embarrassing to say.
I was just talking to a friend about it: Brooklyn food is nice because it’s sort of simple. The places you’re going to are charming in their own way but not put together the way a Manhattan eatery would be. The food is the same way. You see a lot of quality food, people doing things right, but it’s more restrained. There’s not as much ambition as far as making the food crazy or dazzling…
How would you like to see it evolve? What do you think it will look like in 10 years?
Well, it’s certainly going in the direction of being more and more expensive sorts of restaurants, more high end. I have to imagine there are going to be more different kinds of restaurants, that the scene will expand beyond the farm-to-table that we’re speaking about. I don’t know if we’re going to have a wd-50-type place out here anytime soon, but there may be more of that. It depends on how things go because of course restaurants depend on lots of different factors.
Jeffrey Steingarten was quoted in New York Magazine saying that food writers are too uncritical of Brooklyn restaurants, that there’s a kind of boosterism going on that’s not necessarily warranted.
…I haven’t eaten everywhere, but I think it’s definitely very possible to be charmed by the idea of it, the difference from Manhattan, the quaint aspect, the laid-back aspect. I’ve had really good meals, and I’ve had disappointing meals at places I’d heard a lot about. I don’t know, that’s my two cents.
I actually met Jeffrey Steingarten at Le Fooding. I really like the way he writes, and I used to live in a household with a Vogue subscription so I’d read him. He seemed a little nonplussed. I don’t know if it was the whole Brooklyn thing. His writing is just really good, and the Iron Chef episodes I’ve seen him on are hysterical, so I don’t hold it against him.