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I ran part one of my interview with Johnathan Adler, chef at storied Park Slope restaurant Franny’s, yesterday. Today I’m back with part two, where in Adler discusses the street cart that’s his guiltiest pleasure, the pig testicles he once ate, and why it annoys him when people say they’re “doing” a restaurant rather than dining there.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
Simplicity. Honesty. You don’t have to have anything on your menu. I wish that more people would say, “I don’t need to have this, and I’m going to cook the food that I love.” Marco Canora is awesome at that. When he talks about the menu at Hearth, he says, “That’s the food I like to eat, and that’s what I like to create.” There’s something to be said for cooking the food that you like. That place has been around for 10 years.
What do you wish would go away?
What makes New York New York is that there’s room for everything. But I guess complacency. I would like there to be a general attitude of “we can do it better.” And fast food. If fast food boiled down to falafel shops, Shake Shack, and Bark Hot Dogs, great. But if I never saw another Wendy’s, McDonald’s, or Burger King, I’d be happy. Chipotle is excused; Steve Ells has made an effort to make a model that’s sustainable.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
The Halal cart on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue. And I like peanut butter a lot. If I could have a peanut butter and blueberry sandwich every morning all summer, I’d be happy.
What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
My wife’s favorite food is Mexican food (and Franny’s), so either a taco night or super-simple roasted chicken and boiled vegetables with aioli.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten?
A meal I had in Italy. I spent a summer cooking there, and I went to a restaurant that had oilcloth tablecloths and plastic chairs. This beautiful Italian woman poured us prosecco and then walked out and serves us platters of salumi. Then the chef came out and asked, “Are you hungry?” We said, “Sure.” So he said, “Cool, I’ll make you dinner. Wine?” He pointed to a list and said “Il Maestro.” It was a Quintarelli Valpo or Amarone. I have the whole meal written down; it was everything you could dream of when dining in Italy. It was warm and breezy, and you could smell the flowers. To drink Quintarelli in the Veneto while eating the food of the Veneto–it was the best. That and the one time I ate at Jean Georges, because that changed food for me.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
Tripe. People don’t like it, but I love it. It’s also hard to source. I can’t find sustainably raised tripe, and I don’t want to use tripe from grain-fed beef. Most slaughterhouses that process grass-fed beef can’t process offal. I love cooking offal. It’s a challenge.
What music is best to cook to?
For prep, good old-fashioned ’80s metal or Rage Against the Machine. No, I’m kidding. Beastie Boys. It’s fun and it keeps you moving. I could listen to Beastie Boys all day long. During service, nothing loud because you need to talk. But I like it when we have old Motown. It’s familiar, it has that nice beat, people bob their head to it if they hear it, but it’s not distracting.
On the next page, Adler rants about the second-by-second news cycle.
What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking?
Make the same recipe over and over with the same ingredients, but don’t feel beholden to what you’ve done each time. Keep your repertoire limited. Start subbing things in and out. Don’t be beholden to recipes, but use them as a guide. Repeat them so you get better.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self?
Slow down. That’s what I tell my line cooks now: Slow down and focus. Not because I didn’t do that, but it took me a long time to learn the value of moving a little slower and paying attention to what’s happening right in front of me. Slow down, and don’t get angry at anyone else. Only be angry at yourself.
What’s your favorite dish on your menu right now?
The antipasto plate. It’s everything that Franny’s does on one plate. It’s a very well-cured salami, perfect cheese that we import, peas and favas stewed in a way that I’ve never seen in another New York restaurant, pickled vegetables, and a super-traditional caponata that incorporates chocolate. It looks very much like what you’d get if you ordered an antipasto plate in Italy, only they put it in the microwave in Italy and we don’t.
What are your favorite local purveyors?
Bill Maxwell from Maxwell’s Farm. I like bread from Orwashers and Bien Cuit. All farmers at the market. They make our restaurant better. Salvatore BKLYN, Anne Saxelby; Bradley Bay at Food Matters provides us with amazing cheese. I’m really excited about the Gotham Project and the wine we have on tap.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene?
Everyone’s a critic. The news cycle. You open your door now, and there is no grace period. Eater puts up the “Early Word” six days in. You want the early word? Go there once a week for six months. No one should get reviewed for six months. Restaurant critics have fangs. They’re like starving dogs. Ruth Reichl might be the only restaurant critic that knows how hard a restaurant works. And no restaurant gets it right on day one. I remember when Hearth got reviewed–the guy was open four or five weeks and the review came out. Wylie Dufresne opens a new spot, and I know people want to know what it’s like. But do you think that a review that will stand for five years should be done in the first three months the restaurant’s open? Stone Barns was reviewed in 2004, and it’s now a totally different restaurant.
It’s nothing against critics; they’re doing their jobs. My problem with it is our desire to label something–a two-star, three-star, one-star–instead of getting a holistic picture, like, “I went to x once a week; the food was consistent, but the menu didn’t change, and there were two seasons.” That’s something I want to know. This phrase kills me: “Have you ‘done’ this place yet?” I’m not DOING a restaurant. Do you mean have I eaten there? What a crazy phrase! Have you done a tasting menu? That’s an experience. That phrase feeds into that need for immediate feedback. It becomes, “Is it worth doing?” You’re not “doing” a restaurant, you’re dining there. I’m on Twitter. I understand what it’s like to be part of the second-by-second news cycle. But restaurants are not things that live second by second, and yet their success is measured second by second.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen.
We lost power at a restaurant I was working at when a very well-heeled person was coming in, and the restaurant didn’t want to close. We had to cook with candles and headlamps in July. It was 140 degrees in the kitchen, and there was no air conditioning in the dining room, so the check was discounted.
On the next page, Adler talks about the two people he’d have trouble serving.
What’s your proudest culinary moment?
There are two that really stand out. I made this sauce that I’d not been asked to make, I just took the time to make it. A chef asked for it to send to a VIP table. Then at Per Se, Thomas Keller came up to me and shook my hand and said, “You’re doing very impressive work.” I almost started crying. I feel really proud of what we put out here every day. I’m very proud of the cooks here.
What’s your desert island food?
Probably a falafel sandwich from a particular falafel stand on King George Street in Jerusalem. It’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever had.
What’s the most pressing food issue today?
The availability of healthy food for lower income communities and children. My wife’s a teacher. I see what the Department of Education calls a healthy lunch, and it’s embarrassing. We need to get them delicious healthy food. It needs to be in the schools. When a kid signs up for free lunch, that shouldn’t be a tradeoff for bad, unhealthy food and an unhealthy future. And we need to stop subsidizing corn and soy, and stop buying corn- and soy-based products and feeding them to people. And Monsanto, because they’re going to destroy this world. I don’t think I’ve refused service to anyone, but I’d have a hard time cooking for the CEO of Monsanto and [National Rifle Association CEO] Wayne LaPierre.
What’s always in your refrigerator at home?
Pickles of some sort. Mayonnaise. Often preserved lemons, capers, and anchovies.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Testicles that came off pigs hours before. They were brought into the kitchen, bloody, in a Ziploc bag. I braised them. One popped in the pan, and that was uncomfortable.
Favorite food-related item to give as a gift?
Really good olive oil, because it’s not scary to people.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
I want Thomas Keller to cook me a full French meal. He’s masterful. Either him or my sister. My sister’s an amazing cook. I want her to make me whatever’s in her fridge and what she got at the farmers’ market that day, and I’ll leave happy, full, and a little drunk.
What’s next for you?
Start a family. I just opened a new restaurant, so that’s the biggest thing I have on my horizon. Democratize the menu a bit to my sous chefs and expand what we do. Make more fresh pasta. Explore pickles. Explore butchery. Start making more cheeses in-house. That’s what’s next for Franny’s.
Hungry for more? We post a new chef interview in this space every Tuesday and Wednesday.