Yesterday we chatted with chef Justin Smillie about his commitment to the farmers market and the thrills of an open kitchen. Today, he reveals what a chef who spends eighty hours a week cooking Italian food eats in his free time. He also lets us in on his pantry essentials.
Tell me about the open kitchen here at Il Buco. It gives all the guests the possibility to look in on you working. But what does it mean for you to be cooking while people are watching?
You have to make it a part of the meal. It definitely forces everybody to be on their toes a bit more. What you say, how you dress, and how you carry yourself. How clean everything is. So the movements are a little slower and a little more methodic.
I’m sure you have a lot of people getting excited about the food when it comes out. Especially those ribs. What do you like to serve the most? To watch people experience?
I like seeing their faces when they see the short ribs come out, especially when they order it for one. I think that’s hysterical. Speaking of commitment again, that’s a big undertaking. I like when people get involved with the entire meal. When they touch many different parts of the menu. I guess that’s the best for me.
What do you like to cook for your friends and family at home in your free time, if you have any free time?
Some of it is spent eating out, not too crazy. But I just cook really simple meals.
What’s your go-to 10-minute meal to prepare?
I love making yakitori. That’s probably my favorite thing.
You mentioned that you also like to eat out. What’s your favorite restaurant in New York?
I love Yakitori Toto. I love Txikito. Pizza Co is delicious. I still go to Barbuto. Then in Jersey, I eat a lot of Asian on my day off. After smelling Italian food six, seven days a week, 80 hours, I want a change. And that kind of helps cleanse the palate and start fresh again.
What do you find most exciting about the New York food scene?
The flexibility. And I like that there’s enough space for us all to do our own thing. In smaller markets, you might get pigeonholed a little bit. In all big cities that’s the advantage–what you can actually get in the door every day.
What’s the last great meal you had out, in New York, or elsewhere if it wasn’t in New York?
My favorite place to eat in the world is still Cal Pep in Barcelona. We were in Barcelona and I ate there probably seven times in that month. I just love the ambiance. I love how it’s quick and how fresh it is. There’s no menu. You just kind of line up behind a bar stool and wait to be seen.
What are five essential things that you always keep in your fridge or pantry? Things you cannot live without.
I always have really good vinegar, always some kind of fish sauce, chilies for sure, Kewpie mayo–guilty pleasure–and fresh vegetables.
Are there any foods that you absolutely will not eat and try to stay away from?
In terms of preparation, are there things you do not like to cook?
I love to cook everything, but I think in a restaurant certain things become time and space prohibitive. But that’s just logistical. I like it all…but it’s hard for us to talk about ourselves, too. The thing about our process here is not like…I don’t sit at home for hours and hours. I mean, I do read a lot and I do think a lot about it. But usually it’s whatever I see in the market–how can I put that together here. That creates the final dish.