The Mulberry Project has gained a boozy following largely because of its bespoke cocktail program, which lets imbibers pick several favorite flavors and the bartender does the rest. Complementing the cocktails is a menu of small plates designed for sharing. And now the team behind the Mulberry Project has launched a follow-up venture in the Meatpacking District called the Vinatta Project. We called up chef Michael “Kiwi” Camplin to learn more about the restaurant and what it’s been like moving here from New Zealand.
So how’d you get the “Kiwi” moniker?
It’s just a nickname that any New Zealander gets. It just comes really quickly. I came to New York four and a half years ago. It was a bit of an accident. A friend of [former Boqueria chef] Seamus Mullen was on a yacht I was working on and asked if I wanted to be a chef in New York so I jumped off the boat and took the first flight here. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef; I just wanted to be on a yacht.
Do you miss any foods from New Zealand?
I miss everything — its being small and quiet, the countryside. That it takes two hours to drive anywhere in the country. I miss it, but I’m not sure what it would be like going back if I did. I’d be adjusting from a city of 8 million to a country of 4 million.
What’s been your tastiest meal since moving to New York?
Hands down, Daniel. Not only the food but the company. My parents came in from New Zealand and I hadn’t seen them in three years. It was beautiful, and they served us so well. My parents are simple people, and they’d never dined out with that kind of service or quality of food.
OK, so on to your cooking. What’s the concept of the Vinatta Project?
The concept we want to do is small plates and family-style dining. We have people sit at big communal tables and share the food with their friends. Coming out with the menu, I’m not into one cuisine. It’s contemporary American, but it’s a bit of everything, with some French items and Italian items. It’s just what I enjoy cooking.
You’re located in the old Florent space. Did you ever hang out there late-night when you were a chef?
No, I didn’t. It closed my first year in the city, so I was just getting acquainted. It’s a legend I’m always thinking about. Thinking I’ve got big shoes to fill. How does it differ from its sister restaurant, the Mulberry Project?
It’s what Mulberry is based on. There, you walk into the bar and say, “I like tequila and something,” and the bar makes you a tasty drink based on what you like. Here, we have our cocktail concept and also a greater beer and wine concentration. We have a vending machine for wine. You can buy a card and put it in the machine and you get a tasting sample and can have your flights.
What would be the dishes you’d recommend ordering?
The steak tartare. It’s a traditional steak tartare with shallots and capers bound with a dressing on mini toasts. The red snapper crudo, which comes as five pieces and that’s on a taro chip. And the Brussels sprouts are delicious, and the mini sliders. I think people are now really into sharing food. [When I go out] I order appetizers so I can taste as much food as possible rather than just an appetizer, main course, and dessert.
As a chef, does creating a small-plates menu pose challenges, or is it easier?
I wouldn’t say it’s easier or harder. But you have to think about more flavor profiles for the menu.
Check back in tomorrow, when Kiwi reveals his culinary guilty pleasure.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 8, 2011