Vinegar Hill’s Brian Leth on Le Fooding, Restaurants’ Lack of Staying Power, and Turnips


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, the second half of our weekly chef Q&A, Leth talks about Le Fooding, underrated ingredients and restaurants, New York’s increasingly brutal restaurant turn-over, and turnip love.

In yesterday’s first installment of the interview, Leth mused on the new Brooklyn food aesthetic, meeting Brooklyn-basher Jeffrey Steingarten, and cooking eggs.

What was your experience like at Le Fooding?

Pretty positive. People tended to really like what we were doing. It’s different because it’s a catered event…it’s challenging and I think we were happy with the way it ended up going. We would have liked to have a little more food, but we made it through the evening. I wish people didn’t have to wait so long on line.

There are so many food events now–if you have to supply food, is that a big burden and how do you decide if the publicity of being part of the event is worth the cost?

With regards to Le Fooding, they buy all the food. If we had had to purchase that much food, the restaurant wouldn’t do it. We had 350 pounds of octopus, that’s pretty substantial, that would be a very substantial outlay of money. Very few places could afford to do that.

We did Le Fooding’s chef dinner last year and it went well, so it was a pretty easy call. We have to be choosy because we’re a small kitchen with a small walk-in and when all that food came in, it was like: where are we going to put all this?

So events like that are more of a logistical challenge for you.

Yeah, the biggest thing is where to store and process all the product when you’re also preparing for a week of service at the restaurant . And people from San Francisco needed places to cook, so some restaurants were not only preparing for the weekend, preparing themselves for the event, but also making space for San Francisco chefs. I imagine some kitchens were prepping around the clock.

What would you like to see more of in New York restaurants?

I really like Mexican food, I’d like to see more Mexican restaurants that make their own tortillas…I went out to the tortilla factory in Corona [Tortilleria Nixtamal] and it’s actually pretty cool, I saw their whole set up, the kitchen, it’s pretty bad ass.

What would you like to see less of in New York restaurants?

I guess just the lack of staying power. The constant turnover and desire for novelty, which you know, can be helpful and hurtful, and obviously when you benefit from that it’s great, but it seems like a lot of places come and are forgotten quickly, not because the food isn’t good, but there’s something new elbowing them out of the way. Like I used to work at Allen & Delancey, which had its share of troubles, but it was really beautiful inside, and now they’re going to gut it. That bothered me a little bit. That room was designed to look very old and authentic in some way, and it was here for maybe two years and now it’s gone. It’s kind of funny. It’s like a sound stage.

Is there a restaurant like that, one that’s several years old, that you wish would get more attention?

There’s a place not far from where I live called Umi Nom that I really like. I think they do okay with PR, but I think he’s a really good cook, and it’s a restaurant that’s never mentioned as part of the new Brooklyn food scene, but it’s definitely part of it. It’s not mentioned in the same breath as the other places we were talking about. The garlic rice is fantastic.


What’s your favorite underrated ingredient?

I really like turnips. When I worked for Neil Ferguson, I learned an appreciation for them. I don’t know if it’s an English trait or a Neil trait, but I learned new respect for turnips and I definitely use them more now than I did before.

How would you suggest a home cook prepare them?

They’re really good glazed. Just peel them and put them in the oven in a covered pan until they’re mostly cooked and they’ve exuded a lot of liquid. Then put them on the stove top uncovered and the juices cook down pretty quickly. Roll the turnips around in it–they’re sort of the right shape for glazing. I use the turnip juices rather than stock or butter, it seems like a more complete approach. They get really nice and turnip-y.

How about an overrated ingredient?

Not a great lover of lobster in general.

Favorite Halloween candy?

Maybe…Nerds, do they still make them?

Yes! What restaurants or bars do you like on your day off?

I like Aldea in Manhattan, I think it’s really good. [George Mendes] does really nice things with food, and sitting at that counter [overlooking the kitchen] is cool. It’s a really nice kitchen and they always seem to be working in a nice rhythm.

And in my neighborhood, I like to go to a bar called Weather Up.