Photo: Maggie Hoffman at Serious Eats
Do or Dine isn’t your typical restaurant. For one, chefs Justin Warner and George McNeese, both 27 years old, never worked in a restaurant kitchen before setting up shop in Bed-Stuy. More impressively, the restaurant’s unorthodox menu, including gyoza smothered in nacho toppings and tempura-battered deviled eggs, has received a big thumbs-up from the food media, including The New York Times and our very own Lauren Shockey. We talked with Justin Warner about the restaurant’s foie gras doughnut controversy, cooking without culinary experience, and why you can divide all food into nachos and sandwiches.
You guys were all working as waiters at the Modern before joining up to open Do or Die. How does that lack of a traditional cooking background affect your cooking style?
We don’t really know how to cook anything that traditional. We only know what we’ve done. We’ve worked in restaurants forever, so we’ve seen all kinds of food, but we’ve never really assembled it. I think that lets us be a little more creative. We just feel more free to do what we want. We don’t feel weighed down by tradition.
How did you learn to cook?
George and I just kind of hung around drunk and cooked whatever we wanted. If there was something we liked but couldn’t afford, we’d try to make it. We just kind of dick around, I guess, and ask the right people for the right advice.
How do you come up with new dishes?
We think of a joke first. We think of what sounds funny or creative or try to make a pun, and then we work backwards from there.
Like the nachos?
My partner George has a theory that all food either follows the rule of the sandwich, which is shit between two pieces of shit, or nachos, which is shit piled on top of shit. Well, we thought, “What would accomplish both?” So we took dumplings, which follows the sandwich rule, and then we piled stuff on top of it, with the ingredients on top just as vital as what’s underneath. So it is both sandwich and nacho. Does that make sense?
Indeed it does. How about the foie gras doughnuts? Did you expect the kind of conflict that arose over them?
Here’s the thing: I know foie gras is controversial, but I’ve worked in places where we’ve served that shit by the truckload. I worked in one of the most foie gras-heavy restaurants in New York and nobody came by and called us crazy or anything. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that activists would focus their efforts on what I considered to be a very small-time operation. I think it was just a result of the publicity we were getting; we were doing something novel that people were talking about. So we got notoriety for being novel and then notoriety for being cruel.
Are you keeping it on the menu?
Yeah, it’s not going anywhere. We get people coming here from Jersey for that shit. How often do you come up with new stuff?
We try to think of something new every week that we’ll put on the menu as a special. The problem we’ve encountered is that often when we put something on the menu, people will come back week after week for it, like the fish and chips or the nachos. It’s hard because our dishes are hard to find in our neighborhood, so people can’t really go anywhere else for them. We initially wanted to change our menu every day like Diner or something, but we just found that people would get pissed. It’s just fun that our first venture into the culinary world would get such a good response from people.
Why did you end up opening in Bed-Stuy?
Well, we all lived here and we were tired of eating shitty food. Not that we were the first ones here. SCRATCHbread was here before we were; also Sweet Revenge, which is now One Last Shag, and Black Swan. We were really just part of the trend, you know. We were just one of the first ones to get known off the block, partly because of things like our foie gras doughnut bullshit and the tricycle theft. We’re wacky, you know, it’s a nuthouse.
How does your restaurant fit into the broader Brooklyn food scene?
In Bed-Stuy, anything that isn’t Kennedy Fried Chicken is different or wild. I just thought it would be fun to offer something that’s low-cost and creative, where you felt like you were really having a new experience, instead of just serving a burger and fries with some fancy aioli or something on it and calling it “New American.” I just get tired eating salads with goat cheese after a while.
Check back in tomorrow, when Justin discusses how much brunch sucks and how they came up with their wacky décor.