When Lisa Giffen joined the team at Maison Premiere two months ago, she was given the official title of executive chef, but she prefers to call herself the Everything Girl. “Did the linens come in? No? Well I guess I’ll deal with that,” she says. “The toilet’s backed up? I’m on it. We’re missing a shipment? My job.”
When she’s not doing janitorial duties, she’s helming the Williamsburg oyster bar’s kitchen, refining a menu of French fare that includes dishes such as pigeon with foie gras and sea urchin with daikon and ginger. She says she’s pushed furthest when challenged to teach someone new, and she culls inspiration from a journey that took her from selling Sharpies to the role of sous chef at Alain Ducasse’s now-shuttered Adour.
In our interview, Giffen weighed in on what she’s learned, talked about the New York City culinary scene, revealed an underrated kitchen tool, and listed her favorite dishes on her own menu. Get a taste of her answers here, and then check out the rest of her interview on our Fork in the Road blog.
Describe your culinary style. It’s definitely French-influenced. My style is based on seasonality, of course, and I drew a lot from my time with Alain Ducasse. The food we made there was wholesome food, but done in a way and a manner that’s very refined. All the flavors taste as if someone’s been cooking it for hours. That’s something I appreciate about cooking, and that’s what I want to present.
Who or what inspires you? The people I work with. Their dedication is inspiring, and I want to push further to help them. The farmers’ market. My mother really influenced me. Other people that I’ve worked with that now own restaurants or are head chefs: It’s fun to get in touch with them and talk about the hardships and joys of where we’re all at.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen. There was a night at Adour, and we were serving a very big private dinner. Eighty people were coming. Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller were there; each chef was doing a different course, and we were doing the first and last courses. Mr. Ducasse was in the kitchen, and all of these chefs and sous chefs were working together. We were going to send out these gougères [a type of puff pastry] at the beginning. So we made the gougères and put them in the oven, and someone burned the gougères. All of a sudden, we’re scrambling around, whipping eggs, and making a whole new batch of gougères fast-fast-fast. We were frantic: We had to whip out 80 more gougères. But I’ll never forget seeing Mr. Ducasse standing there cool as a cucumber and watching all the other chefs watch us quietly from the sidelines. There was this divide in the kitchen. That’s what it’s always like when some mishap happens. A tray of something falls down, someone burns your whatever, and you go fast to get it fixed.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool? A plastic bench scraper. I carry mine with me everywhere. I always have it in my pocket. You can use it to gather ingredients or clean your cutting board.
What’s the most underrated ingredient? All the fennel parts that most people throw away. Most people cut off the top and just use the bulb. For chilled plates, though, we’ll use fennel fronds for garnish. The rest of the fennel tastes good and is underrated, and it looks a lot better than seaweed.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City? A little jewel box on the second floor of a building in midtown called Caviar Russe. You don’t see it from the street. It’s above a sushi place, and it seats like 20 people. It has these beautiful tasting menus, and it serves really wonderful food and caviar and champagne. It’s nondescript, but not in that we’re-too-cool way. It’s a little gem.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene? It’s nonstop in so many ways. You’re not one out of 20 restaurants in a town—you’re one of a million. You go to a farmers’ market and you say, “I’m gonna get the peas!” Well, 20 other restaurants went to get the peas that day, too. You’re always competing with everyone with regard to purveyors, people’s time, and exposure. In a smaller scene, those things might be easier.
What’s your proudest culinary moment? It’s not like one single moment, but sometimes when I’m teaching another cook something, I reflect and remember when I was learning that. I remember when that skill took me forever to do. It’s a proud moment I have all the time. You see how far you come even in little day-to-day things. I remember all the trouble, and I see the other person struggling and remember when I was that person.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they’d send to the kitchen? First of all, I’d like them to thank the team; I can’t do this all by myself. But maybe pizza. We’re all hungry back there. Pizza and beer.