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.”
Giffen grew up in Germany, where her parents worked as contractors for the military, and she made her way to New York in 2003. Her path to this Williamsburg spot led her through prolific restaurant kitchens, but her journey started with permanent markers. “I went to college and business school, and I ended up in New York through a job with Sharpie markers,” she says. “It taught me a lot about business and managing relationships with people. I use those skills every day. But being in New York really helps fuel your passion because you’re surrounded by food.”
So she started exploring what she initially thought was a hobby, only to realize that she had to make a professional leap. “I had this sales job and could work from home, but then I moonlighted working in restaurants,” she remembers. “Eventually, moonlighting overtook the job. It was like, ‘Why are you sending emails at 2 a.m.?’ Well, I just got out of the restaurant. I had to make a decision, and I decided to stay in the culinary world.”
She took a stage at Prune, which helped her land at Blue Hill. “That’s where I met Juan Cuevas, and I went with him when he went to Upper West Side’s [now closed] Eighty One.” Giffen made the leap then over to Daniel before landing at Alain Ducasse’s Adour, where she spent three years working her way up the ranks to sous chef.
And then during a summer stint, she heard about an opening at Maison Premiere. “I worked with Jared [Stafford-Hill, Maison Premiere’s former executive chef] at Adour–I was the sous chef, he was the fish cook–and we spent a summer in New Jersey because the kitchen closes at Adour in the summer. We bonded, and when this project came along, he asked me if I wanted to join, and I said yes.”
This is part one of our interview, in which Giffen weighs in on what she hates seeing on menus, an underrated kitchen tool, and the hidden caviar and champagne gem she loves in Midtown. For part two of our chat, check this blog again tomorrow.
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.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
I have a great team of cooks from a varying range of experience levels. I like each of the cooks to have some type of ownership over what they’re doing there, though eventually, everyone should know how to do everything. I ask a lot from my cooks, and I give them the experience they need to move on somewhere else in return. If you spend all your time in a kitchen, and I mean at least 12 hours a day, you need to get something out of it. So I try to make sure they’re learning as much as possible. I like camaraderie and ownership and people who want to learn more. The night runs smoother, it becomes our kitchen instead of my kitchen, and there’s less of a that’s-not-my-job mentality.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
A lot of it is based on going to the farmers’ market. Two weeks ago, the market just had some rhubarb and asparagus. Just one week later, there were a million peas, lambs’ quarters, and tons of lettuces. I have good relationships with fish purveyors, so I get a heads up as to what’s available. I have relationships with oyster partners who have relationships with docks and can tell me when something is coming. It’s nice to be able to take that inspiration; the menu isn’t so rigid then. We’re not feeding 500 people a night, so people who return often can appreciate the menu changes based on seasonality or availability.
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.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Alain Ducasse, of course. I learned a lot from all of his recipes. Juan Cuevas [formerly of Alain Ducasse and Blue Hill] was a big mentor for me in terms of culinary style and the appreciation of ingredients. Didier Elena taught me a lot about working with people. He just knows so much. If something’s wrong, he tells you exactly why it’s wrong and how to fix it.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
The cooks. We’ll have a tasting of what we’ve done. The waiters and the servers weigh in, and the owners have their input, too. With the cooks, though, I have to ask them every day to make this food, so having them taste it is an opportunity to explain why I want it a certain way. It goes back to that idea that I want them to take something from all of it. I don’t just want them to treat it as a job.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
Right now I have a Suisin chef’s knife, and a Misono UX10. You have to pick and choose your knives. It’s your tool that you use all the time.
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 your favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Right now, we’re just starting to get nice lambs’ quarters from the market. And the English peas are great, too.
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.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
Goat cheese or chevre. It’s a mouth feel thing. Everyone knows that about me.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Pea soup. It’s so good, but what more could you do to the pea besides the pea soup? You’re highlighting that ingredient year after year. I appreciate the ingredients and seasonality, but give it to people in a way that’s going to make it different. That’s something to look forward to.
What’s your local?
Here. I spend all my time here. No, the lobby and the rooftop at the Wythe Hotel. I hardly ever go to Manhattan anymore. I lived in Manhattan for over seven years, but now I live in Brooklyn and work in Brooklyn, and when people are like let’s meet in the city and I’m like, “The city! I can’t go to the city!”
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.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
Probably Battersby for its intimacy, locale, and food. But for something really special, it would be great to go to Le Bernardin. I went to lunch at Jean-Georges recently, and at those places, you just feel special. Everything in those environments is about you, even the lighting and silverware. I hate to use the usuals, but why not? In your lifetime, you should try it.
What do you wish would go away?
I wish there were fewer pop-ups. It’s too much to keep up with.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
A cheeseburger with fries and a Coke.