Tales of out-of-this-world bread, mouthwatering salumi, and historic short ribs have been circulating the city for months since the opening of Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. To get the back-story behind this new Italian sensation, we sat down with the man behind the myths, chef Justin Smillie. A veteran of the New York restaurant scene, we discussed everything from his love of the greenmarket to his favorite places to eat during time off…when he has it.
Let’s start with a bit about your personal background. How did you first get interested in food and what inspired you to cook?
In the beginning, I guess it was just about the energy of the kitchen. I got a job as a bus boy. Hated it. Then I moved back to the dishwasher and I just loved how fast everything moved and how loud everything was. Then, little by little, I got more interested in food. This was all in New Jersey. Then I got a job working for Ed Stone at the Bernards Inn, and that was the first time I’d ever seen a serious kitchen with New York City sous chefs and people who, uh, had bad tempers. Nothing was ever good enough there. Everyday was working towards something better, and that was the first time I ever saw really amazing product. Then I went to school for a quick minute for cooking. But I was learning more in the city. So I just came back. My first gig in the city was with Jean Georges at Mercer Kitchen. I worked there for about a year…and then I moved to Washington Park with Jonathan Waxman. And I stayed there for six years.
So you worked with Jonathan Waxman for six years, also at Barbuto. Who has inspired you most that you’ve worked with?
That’s a difficult question. The two biggest people I think that helped me out were Jonathan Waxman obviously, and Dan Silverman. Dan Silverman really refined the organizational side of the kitchen for me. The Standard is an enormous house. So a lot of different moving parts, a lot of different bodies doing a lot of different things. But Dan is super-calm and super-collected. He just led by example. And then Waxman. Waxman was amazing because everyday we changed the menu at Barbuto when I was there. Farmers market every morning. Only dealing with local, committed purveyors…A lot of people grow things locally on a very large scale. But we try to source people that really love what they do.
You have a well-documented commitment to using local food and farmers markets. How have you brought that commitment to a farm-to-table approach here to Il Buco?
Il Buco’s already had a long-standing relationship with a lot of these people. So really it’s just been ins and outs–putting in people that I believe in too… It wasn’t really that big of a stretch. Donna (Lennard, the owner) believes in the farmers market. She’s been working with people like Bev Eggleston at Eco Friendly for over 12 years. It was kind of a natural progression.
How frequently do you go to the market in person?I’m there at least three or four days a week.
What’s really great right now there?
Strawberries are starting to be really good. Snap peas have been really good. Some of the later spring things. The greens are looking really pretty right now. Stuff is starting to move out of the greenhouse. But we are still a little early in New York.
How do you feel about places that are attempting to grow their own produce in the city?
More power to them. I think those tower garden systems are pretty remarkable.
Like the hydroponic towers?
Yeah, those things are pretty crazy. But that’s a whole different animal.
And hard to source year-round from.
We have one guy in California who flies basically every other week in the wintertime and brings us stuff. He’s super-connected to the local scene out there with Chez Panisse and all those guys….So we still have to buy from California to support this in some ways, but we still try to pick and choose who we are buying from.