Cooking was a focal point in Johnathan Adler’s childhood home–“My mom always smelled of garlic, the kind of garlic that’s in your veins,” he recalls–but he entered the professional culinary world thanks, in part, to sibling rivalry. “I always thought of myself as a better cook than my sister, and I was territorial about it because she was better at everything else,” he says. “And then she, as an editor at Harper’s, started working one day a week at Prune. So I said, ‘Fine, I’m going to get a job working in a kitchen, too.'”
He landed a job at now-closed Strega in the Hudson Valley, a pit stop he meant to last four months before he started a “real job” in Washington, D.C. “It was very technical,” he says. “I hounded the chef to let me come to work three days a week.” Six weeks later, he met an Italian chef on a train who promised to let Adler work in his kitchen after the young cook had fulfilled his current commitment. At that point, Adler knew four months wasn’t going to be enough, so he called what was supposed to be his future employer and told it he wasn’t ready to jump aboard.
When his tenure was up at Strega, Adler planned his Italy trip, and right before he departed, he ate at Blue Hill Stone Barns. “I thought, ‘Wow, I have to work here,'” he recalls. So he e-mailed Dan Barber while he was abroad, who told him to come into the restaurant and chat when he returned. Adler did so, and after trailing the kitchen, Barber told him there were no jobs available. “Being a financially prudent 23-year-old, I said, ‘Great, I’ll work for free,'” says Adler.
He started working five days a week, heading into the city to train in other kitchens on his days off. It wasn’t long before he started receiving job offers elsewhere, but he held out, and just when he thought he was going to have to accept one–because he was out of money–Barber offered him a paid position.
Adler worked most of the stations at Stone Barns before he left in 2006, at which point he headed to Europe to spend some time at St. John and Arzak, introductions Barber facilitated. When he returned to the States a few months later, he had a single-minded focus on working with Thomas Keller. “My dad used to say, ‘If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly,'” he says. He began trailing in other illustrious kitchens, including Eleven Madison Park, but none of them felt right. Finally, he went to walk through Momofuku Ssam Bar, then under construction, with David Chang, who’d become a friend. “He said, ‘It looks like you should be working for Per Se,'” Adler recalls. When Adler agreed, Chang called Jonathan Benno on the spot, who was looking for cooks. A few days later, he had the job. “It was one of those moments when you walk out of a space, and you have no idea what’s going on around you. I was so excited,” he says.
Over the next two years, Adler engaged in what he says was a “philosophical lifestyle encompassed in a kitchen. It was the most encouraging, inspiring, creative time I’ve ever had.” He left, though, when he realized he was incapable of separating his personal life from work. “I couldn’t have a conversation with a friend without drifting off and thinking about work,” he explains.
At that point, Danny Amend, an old Per Se colleague, had taken over the kitchen at Franny’s, a Park Slope restaurant both men loved, and he began hounding Adler to join him as a sous chef. Adler finally agreed, and after a year and a half, he’d worked his way up to co-chef.
By the end of 2011, the chef was starting to get itchy feet, and he contemplated making 2012 his last year at Franny’s, which still had yet to move from its original location. “I didn’t want to stay in that space,” he explains. “I knew the limitations. I was tired of its quirks. I felt like we’d molded it to all the forms it could be. So it was either start a new project with Franny [Stephens] and Andrew [Feinberg], start a project with Danny, take another offer, or take some time off and do my own thing.”
He set a January 2012 deadline to decide and put in his notice, and just before he was ready to break the news to his bosses, they showed him the new space. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do that,'” he says. The new, larger Franny’s opened in March with Adler at the helm; Amend will open Marco’s, in the old Franny’s space, later this year.
In part one of this interview, Adler weighs in on vinegar good enough to sip off a spoon, his distaste for fresh bananas, and what culinary school doesn’t teach.
On the next page, Adler talks about his mother, the alpha cook.
Describe your culinary style.
Simple, rustic Italian food that’s largely, though not wholly, traditional. My training is French, as is most people’s here. But my palate trends toward Italy and the Mediterranean cuisines–it’s my favorite food.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
Very orderly, but you’re not forced to be a certain type of person. The kitchen is very intense. We focus a lot on over-communicating, and the daily workload of everyone’s station is everyone’s work–there’s no such thing as one person being set up. It’s predicated on respect and on the idea that no one’s here for themselves; we’re here first and foremost to create an experience for the guest and second to support each other. People who work for themselves weed themselves out quickly. I try to make a kitchen that people want to come in every day and have the attitude that they’re going to do better today than they did yesterday.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
The menu comes from a lot of different places. I get inspiration from the canon of classic Italian cuisine, which provides reference points. There’s a lot of classical Italian pasta on the menu like amatriciana. I also pull from my own experiences and travel. And not to sound horribly cheesy about it, but the farmer’s market. I’ll see this amazing stuff, buy it, and take it as a challenge, thinking okay, how do I make this Italian? If I taste the best shishito peppers ever, how can we make them Italian? That’s not a new concept, but it’s important that we have that flexibility. We’re not in Italy, we’re in New York, and people grow different things. We transform them into something that is recognizable.
Who or what inspires you?
My mother is the alpha cook. She wouldn’t call herself the alpha cook, but every night, there was a homecooked meal on the table, and it was fresh. She would never just open a can, though not that there’s anything wrong with that. My father was Israeli, so the reference point in my house was Mediterranean countries. Spain, Southern France, Italy–that was the food we grew up with. We lost my dad when I was 11, and I look back on that now–it was the end of sixth grade for me, the end of 10th for my sister, and my brother is seven years older–she never let up. I can’t think of a time that there wasn’t delicious food at home, and multiple varieties of it. She was my greatest inspiration as far as food goes.
Every chef I’ve ever worked for has also left a mark on me. The first sous chef I ever worked for was George Flay. I wouldn’t be cooking if it wasn’t for that guy. That was at a small restaurant in Westchester called Strega, which existed until 2004 or 2005.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Dan Barber, Michael Anthony, Thomas Keller, Jonathan Benno, Sean Brock, Christopher Kostow at Meadowwood. Sam Hayward at Fore Street in Maine. Alice Waters, obviously. And also Andrew [Feinberg] and Franny [Stephens], my bosses. They decided to do something, and despite the neighborhood not being ready for it and a lack of capital, they did it. They did it, and they worked hard at it until they could hire people to work for them. They’re very admirable and inspiring.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
My sous chefs, but it’s always collaborative. Danny Amend, my old co-chef, who’s now going to be the chef at Marco’s. Andrew, obviously. Anyone that works here. Any of the cooks’ feedback is valuable because they have to make the food. At Per Se, we had this saying: Are you behind this dish? If you said no, there was a discussion. It was a humbling dialogue and important. You want a cook to say “Yes, I’m with it,” or, ” I wish I could use a sweeter vinegar here.” It’s important that everyone is taking ownership. I want them to have input and feel excited by what they’re cooking.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
I love my slicing knife that I’ve had for seven years. I got it when I started working the meat station at Stone Barns. It’s a Misono UX10 10-inch slicer. I was slicing 100 plates of meat a night, so I needed a good knife. I also like the Togiharu petty knife.
Hit the next page for Adler’s most underrated kitchen tool.
Are you partial to any of your spoons?
Yes, I have a whole collection of spoons. I found spoons at Bob and Judi’s Coolectibles in Park Slope when I was at Per Se. I gave the cooks two of them so they wouldn’t forget me. We also have to use plastic tasting spoons for health code.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
The spoon. You can use spoons to hold meat, flip things, balance things, stir things, plate things. When I work a hot line, I have a spoon in my hand. You can also open bottles of beer with spoons. At one of the restaurants I worked at, we didn’t always get shitfaced, but if we did, I had one spoon in my drawer to open a bottle, because I didn’t mind if the tip got bent.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Frantoia olive oil. We use it as our standard olive oil even though in a lot of places, it’s a finishing oil. I love olive oil used at the right moments in the right ways. For example, we don’t make meat sauce, so you need something that will carry that luxurious mouthfeel, and this olive oil does it. Also, Kosher salt. And Maldon sea salt to finish things and sel gris for finishing meat.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Vinegar. Most people don’t understand the value of good vinegar. You can sip good vinegar off a spoon. Late-harvest vinegars from Katz have been game-changers in how we season our food–it’s a good way to add sweetness and acidity without adding sugar or too much vinegar.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
I’m not excited about the idea of eating insects. And I don’t like fresh bananas. Cooked banana over ice cream? Fine. Banana bread? Great. But fresh-peeled banana? No way.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
Adding tomato sauce to pastas that don’t have it. And changing noodles, like when someone asks if they can have the pork sausage and broccoli rabe with the spaghetti. We create the pastas very specifically, and they’re based on a noodle or sauce. We take a lot of time pairing things. Dining out is not personal cheffing. If you want a catered meal, you hire a personal chef for that. If you have dietary restrictions or a sensitive stomach, that’s fine. But you’re there and engaged in someone else’s world and work, and there’s a certain amount of respect required there.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
I love foie gras, I love eating foie gras. But I have a hard time saying that I’m someone who supports sustainability and serving it. It’s not Italian, so it wouldn’t be on the menu at Franny’s anyway. This has nothing to do with other chefs cooking foie gras, either. I cooked foie gras for years, and I love what they do with foie gras with at Per Se. They don’t let a drop of it go to waste. They let the last bits of it bake down into dog biscuits. I have a lot of respect for people who cook it thoughtfully. I saw Dan Barber do things with foie gras at Stone Barns that I was blown away by. But I’ve battled a long time with the slaughter of animals. I have slaughtered animals, and I talk to farmers about how they slaughter, and I have a hard time with raising an animal for just one purpose. I think you should raise an animal so you can use all of it.
On the next page, Adler talks about NYC’s underrated restaurants.
What’s your take on culinary school?
I never went, but I would have if someone had told me that the only way to get ahead is to go. My take is that it’s case-by-case, and you need a full year of working in a restaurant before you go. You need a year of telling friends you can’t be at their birthday parties. Otherwise, I see people make the $40,000 to $50,000 investment and get out and say they don’t want to be in the kitchen; they want to be a waiter or write about the industry. When people ask me if they should go to culinary school, I say no. I say get a job, and on your days off, go work for free. Work as if you’re owed nothing, because you’re not. I don’t care what your chef in culinary school taught you. That’s one thing you learned in one setting, and this is the way we do it. I’ve learned many ways to do things in a lot of settings, and if you only use your culinary school background as basis, you have no place in this industry. A year in culinary school doesn’t necessarily teach work ethic, and that’s what makes people succeed in this industry.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen?
I would like them to come up and say, “Thank you chefs” to everyone. That thank you belongs to everyone. Cooks never get tipped, and they don’t expect to, so it’s very nice when people send a round. But the only thing you can send back in the middle of service is Gatorade. Or a quarter of a watermelon from a bodega. Oh man.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
There is a higher standard of accountability that’s being established: You can’t charge someone $50 for something unless you make the entire experience worth it. You can’t charge someone $40 for asparagus in the winter because people will look at you and say, “It’s not asparagus season.” I think you’ll also find people moving away from needing to open a big restaurant. People are looking for soul and connection. I hope that moves to a place where people no longer ask, “How many stars does a place have?” but instead ask, “Is the food delicious? Do you feel good?”
What’s your local bar or restaurant?
We’re across the street from Sharlene’s, so it’s a great place to go after work. Fourth Avenue Pub: I became a regular there when I moved to Brooklyn, and their popcorn with old bay is a guilty pleasure. Lulu and Po. Battersby. They’re doing what people in Manhattan want to be doing. Dram Shop on Ninth Street is my favorite burger in the city.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
I might say Lulu and Po because no one’s paid attention to it. It’s acessible and very delicious. Maybe it is packed every night, but I think there should be a line out the door. I love going to Terroir because the wine list is amazing, and Paul Grieco’s palate is amazing. Maybe I Sodi. I don’t think most people get it. It’s like walking into a ristorante–you found the side street and walked in and the negronis are perfect and wine list is perfect and olive oil is full and delicious and you’re like, “I’m so happy I’m here right now.”
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
He’s recently gotten more attention at Gramercy Tavern and with the James Beard Award, but I think Michael Anthony is one of the greatest chefs I’ve ever encountered. I got to work with him and Dan Barber at the same time, and it was like playing with the Bulls with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Dan Barber gets more attention because of Stone Barns, but I don’t know if anyone–even I–understands the enormous talent and force of Michael Anthony in the kitchen. He’s incredibly graceful in the kitchen and very gracious.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
Blue Hill. Gramercy Tavern. I’m going to I Sodi for my anniversary. The Lincoln. I go back to the chefs I worked for because I respect them so much. When I worked for them, we did special things for people, and we made people feel special, and I know they can do that.
Check this space tomorrow for part two of this chat.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 30, 2013