After Taavo Somer abruptly closed Williamsburg’s Isa to revamp the experimental concept, chefs (and couple) Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pam Yung suddenly found themselves without a kitchen. And frustrated with the current state of New York’s restaurant world, they haven’t been fast to jump back behind the professional burners.
“We’re feeling out what we’d do if we could choose,” Yung explains. “We’re trying to reinvigorate and stand up for what we believe in. You feel less able to be impactful as a chef at a bigger restaurant. The only way to affect change is by stepping out and being a model for it. We want to take a stand on the issues: Chefs are influential on how people eat. We’re not part of a machine–it’s so much more. Eating out is not just about the food, it’s about life experiences.”
Collaboration and community in New York City, they believe, has to change. “There’s a void in general in the community,” says Ramirez-Ruiz. “Something gets hot, and people copy it–it’s homogenous. People have eaten it all, and they want to find a word to define everything. We’re not in the culture of submitting to and enjoying a food experience.”
Those principles inform Chez Jose, which began as a Tuesday night pop-up at Williamsburg’s Whirlybird Café. “The idea started two and a half months before our jobs were terminated at Isa,” Ramirez-Ruiz says. “I have good friends who are foragers and farmers, and I wanted to showcase their product a little more. It’s not about Jose. Chez Jose is about bringing community together and building a restaurant on people instead of the space. We call it guerilla cooking.”
And the only label he’ll apply to the endeavor is “vegetable-forward,” which means that courses are focused on produce and diners receive what’s more like a side of protein. He asks diners to trust him, cooking up a multi-course meal culled from his many influences and then serving it himself with Yung. “You’re having our experience,” he explains. “You’re sitting here very close to each other because I’m personally seating you together. We cook, we plate, we do all the dishes, and we serve all the food. There’s no waiters– we’re not even pouring water, we’re just leaving it on the table in jugs. But it’s personal experience–and that’s what it’s about.”
“Great ingredients as a starting point,” adds Yung. “We provide an experience that is awesome, expressive, and fun.”
After the chefs left Isa, they began expanding that concept. “We’re creating community,” says Ramirez-Ruiz. “In New York, that’s been lost. Here in Williamsburg, I want to be able to support the restaurants and growers in this community. It’s extremely important to go back to that.”
So he’s entertaining offers from other restaurants and spaces to host more pop-ups, including the Identity Crisis dinner he just cooked with Calyer’s Gabriel Moya, meant to express the pair’s quintessentially American training and viewpoint rather than pay slavish homage to their Puerto Rican roots. “It was a Puerto Rican dinner, but we weren’t cooking Puerto Rican food,” Ramirez-Ruiz explains. “Rather, we were cooking Puerto Rican dishes as interpreted through the lens of childhood and how we remember them. The bottom line was: Did everything taste good?” The next Identity Crisis dinner, he promises, will be totally different.
Yung and Ramirez-Ruiz also teamed up with John Ratliff, who owns a small Greenpoint charcutier called Ends Meat, to launch pig roast Sundays in the Crown Victoria backyard, applying a similar guerrilla mindset. “We could serve pig with squash with corn with tiramisu,” he says. “If everything tastes irrefutably good, we’re good.”
So what does the future hold? “I don’t know where Chez Jose is going, but I want to go along for the ride,” says Ramirez-Ruiz. “It’s been a growing experience. Not having to pay rent gives me freedom to do a lot of things. I would love for it to expand. I want to be able to experiment with all of these variables. It makes me grow as a chef. So I’m gonna go with it. I’m developing new relationships, and I’m down for whatever.”
Yung, on the other hand, is looking for opportunities to expand her pastry experience. “I’m still trying to figure it all out,” she says. “I believe in Jose’s endeavors, and I’m joining in. But I would love to be part of a great pastry team, and to keep traveling and learning.”
Above all, says Yung, the pair is trying to create and participate in experiences that strip away some of the seriousness that surrounds dining. “We’re tying to be playful,” she says.
“Have fun,” adds Ramirez-Ruiz. “Enjoy what it is.”