Step into Northern Spy Food Co., and you’ll likely spot Hadley Schmitt quietly and methodically working in his sliver of an open kitchen near the back of the space. Though he looks quite young, his demeanor outs him as a seasoned pro, the product of a long career that began when his sister landed him his first restaurant job bussing tables in a small town near Colorado Springs when he was 15.
A couple of years later, it was mere circumstance that got him into the kitchen. “When I was 17, the owner said, ‘We need help in the kitchen,'” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why not?’ Once I started working with food, I really enjoyed it.”
He decided to forsake college to keep cooking–“I didn’t have a game plan going to college,” he explains–and by 21, after a chef left suddenly, he was running the kitchen at that first establishment, a nine-month stint that he eventually gave up to get more experience.
He moved first to Denver with the goal of heading out to New York, and after a year and a half, he was east coast-bound. When he landed in the Big Apple, he spent some time in Rocco DiSpirito’s Union Pacific kitchen before that chef became a reality TV star, leaving when the restaurant closed because DiSpirito hit the airwaves and could no longer maintain his business. He moved over to Cru, and then he started thinking about how he might make the leap to a four-star dining establishment.
“Most of the impressions I was getting was that I’d have to start at the bottom or in banquets,” he says. But then he heard Gordon Ramsay was gearing up to open a new spot, and he saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. It backfired: “A month in, I was miserable,” he says of that move, and it wasn’t long before he jumped ship, ultimately hooking up with John Fraser to open Dovetail, which was, by contrast “a great experience.”
He eventually exited that kitchen for a six-month traipse through Europe, where he staged in spots like Copenhagen’s Noma and Helsinki’s Chez Dominique. When he returned to the States, Fraser was getting ready to open his Upper West Side pop-up What Happens When, a concept that stayed in the same address but changed its entire theme–including menu and décor–every month for six months. Schmitt signed on to help, undertaking what he says was an intense challenge. “You’re always evolving the menu at a seasonal, market-driven spot, but changing an entire menu every month is still the most challenging thing I’ve done,” he says. “It was great, but I needed a break.”
He took it when What Happens When fizzled out, and then Fraser put him in touch with Christophe Hille and Chris Ronis, owners of Northern Spy Food Co., who invited him to take over the kitchen. Schmitt has now been there for two years, and he’s tried to elevate the service and his game while staying within the seasonal parameters of the restaurant.
In our interview, he talks about why he doesn’t like the word “inspiration,” the versatility of vinegar, and why he won’t work with red veined sorrel.
Hit the next page for why Schmitt thinks the word “inspiration” is overused.
Describe your culinary style.
I’m constantly developing flavors and being methodical, but I’m a big believer in simplicity. I like making a cucumber taste the way it’s supposed to taste. When you’re doing market-driven food, it’s the combinations that make it more interesting. I’m also a big believer in training my cooks on proper technique. Customer doesn’t think about it, but having properly cooked and seasoned food is the most important thing.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
The first things we say every time we have a staff meeting are work cleanly and stay organized. That’s the basis. Of all the time we spend in the kitchen, the amount of time spent cooking is a small percentage. It’s more about the process than the fire. It starts with good organization. Then the owners have their vision and I need to translate that–I was hired to be the creative member of the team. So I pass that along to all the employees and make them believe in the concept and take ownership of what they’re doing.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
Being market-driven, you take cues from the season. Peaches are kind of at their peak, and we started a peach salad. It’s as simple as that. What do we do with the peaches is the deeper question. Creativity can come from anywhere. I like to have a collaborative effort with sous chefs and cooks in the kitchen. I went to Khe-Yo in Tribeca, and there was a lot of fish sauce and lime juice in the southeast Asian food. That sticks with you when you come back to work, and you draw from that. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having too much sorrel. Sorrel is finicky, and it turns brown and ugly. So we made an ice cream out of it and started serving it with peaches because we had a lot of it.
Who or what inspires you?
I think the word “inspiration” is a little overused. People go see a movie and say, “Wow that movie was really inspiring.” What is it inspiring you to do? Maybe the movie was moving. Inspiration is fleeting; it comes and goes. Writer hits writers block, and I think we get inspiration block as cooks. So it’s a little more about discipline and having a creative force. It’s about waking up and eating something healthy and getting your blood moving and following the regimen of what you do. It’s about talking to sous chefs and cooks and getting to work. That’s a great source of creativity, and it breeds more ideas. It’s about that discipline, staying positive, and having the right attitude. I’d rather be the disciplined guy rather than the inspired guy. That said, if you’re a chef and you see a great ingredient and it’s not providing inspiration, you’re probably in the wrong business.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
I think you see how anyone becomes who they are are through their parents and people they meet. Charlie Trotter’s first couple of books were influential on me. He’s moved on to a new phase in his life, but back in the day, he and Thomas Keller and those books really developed my interest in cooking. They’re big-name chefs that really pushed American food to where it is. There are a couple of chefs now that I really like because they’re answering the question of where American food goes next: Sean Brock and Dan Barber. Josh Skenes, David Kinch, and Chris Kostow out in San Francisco: All those guys are in the same region and have developed in the past five years. I really like what they’re doing. I bet a lot of people admire the people they used to work with. I kind of wish I’d worked a couple more places as a cook. I would have gotten more broad experience, which is something I’m missing. Part of that is that working with Shea Gallante [of Cru] versus John Fraser. They’re both really great chefs and cooks, but they’re totally different.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
Anybody. Mostly the customer. To some degree, you have to keep your inspirations very simple. It’s humbling and inspiring that the restaurant gets full every day. People are here to eat the food. That’s why we’re here. It’s a business. They’re the number one priority. In the kitchens I’ve worked in over the years, it’s not very often that chefs discipline themselves to eat the entire plate of food. We’re all very experienced in developing our palates, but you have to discipline yourself to eat that dish completely and make sure you got the balance right. I serve it to the front of the house and watch the reaction and how quickly they finish it.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
Togiharu. I’ve bought many a different brand, but it has the best balance. Some knives are easy to sharpen but dull quickly. Some take a lot to sharpen but don’t dull. You need to hone the Togiharu often, but it’s not dulling in the middle of service. The handle feels great in my hand, and I’m used to sharpening it. I also keep cheaper serrated knives around for vegetables.
On the next page, Schmitt talks about an ingredient he detests.
Are you partial to any of your spoons?
Yes. I’m not super insane, but part of the routine is to show up and collect the different range of spoons I want for the day so when we open for business, they’re all in the right place. When you’re busy, you really need to shave seconds off what you’re doing. It’s not just the mechanics. The confidence of having the right tool in your hand helps you do things more efficiently.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
An apple corer. We use that to punch out a lot of different things. I also have this peeler specifically designed for corn. The handle is like a corn cob. If you give it to cooks, they’re like, “This is awesome, I love this thing.”
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Cool vinegars that are local and interesting. I have to teach young cooks that with vinegar, a couple of drops is a seasoning. But it’s super important to balancing out the food.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Vinegar. It’s seasonless, and it’s always around and always important. This follows suit, though they’re more seasonal in the summer, but tomatoes are underappreciated for the versatility. Tomato water or puree can work similarly to a vinegar.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
I’ll try pretty much anything once, but there are certain things I don’t want to try again. I ate whale sperm in Europe, for instance, and it wasn’t anything I’d want to do again.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
Our policy is you can take something off a dish if you have allergies or other dietary restrictions, but we don’t really do substitutions. You can’t build your own food. We’ve taken time to pair food the way we want. If you want a personal chef, don’t come here for that. But it’s a case-by-case basis. We want to make you happy when you’re here, but we have a roomful of customers we also want to make happy.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
Yes, but that’s a little more dictated by the type of restaurant we are and what the owners want to do. We’ll do anything, but you’re not going to see pineapple on our menu because it doesn’t follow suit. And red vein sorrel–it’s very pretty looking, but while I love the flavor of sorrel, but I think red vein sorrel tastes disgusting. It’s super astringent, and it can be distracting.
Up next, Schmitt talks about a salad he loves on the Upper West Side.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Kale salads. Partially because I see them all the time, and I’m making them all time. The kale salad is our most famous item here. Everyone’s doing kale salad now, and as a Northern Spy employee, I take pride in the fact that we were one of the first. I like our kale salad. I like a kale salad. But it’s a personal overexposure thing at this point.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen?
Nothing. The best is just a verbal compliment about how much they enjoyed it. Certain industry friends come in, and if it’s a certain week, they’ll bring six-packs of beer. But it’s a small space and it gets in the way. At the end of my day, I find myself collecting notes, compiling, and organizing, so I’m not a shift drink guy unless I’m actually completely done.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
If I knew really long-term, then I would be getting ahead of the curve. But I think there are some cues–the neo bistro and the shorter tasting menu. I’m intrigued by and interested in Contra. I think you’re going to see a couple more places like that.
What’s your local restaurant or watering hole?
There are so many restaurants in New York that I really don’t frequent anywhere. I really try to go out and have a list and get there, and the list is always growing, and I can’t keep up with it, and there’s places I’m never going to make it to. I live on the Upper West Side. Land Thai is an excellent take-out spot. And Salumeria Rosi. I order Cesare’s house salad every time. It’s just wilted bitter greens with scrambled eggs and dressing. I love it.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
I feel like a jerk, but I feel a little bit like Northern Spy is off the radar. And Dovetail. If Dovetail weren’t on the Upper West Side and were downtown, it would get a little more attention.
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
Galen Zamarra at Mas and Mas Farmhouse. I’ve known people who’ve worked for him, and they have a lot of respect for him. The meals I’ve eaten there have been great. Christophe here. Not to take away from Chris, but Christophe used to be the chef at A-16 in San Francisco. He has great food knowledge and restaurant knowledge. Every once in a while I’ll be talking to him about something, and he’ll open my eyes to something new lik Heston Blumenthal’s tempura batter.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
If I’m out with friends, we look for somewhere we can have a real experience and enjoy ourselves and the food. I’m trying to visit as many places as possible. But one place I’ve been back to a few times because it has a fun atmosphere, interesting wine, and solid food is Il Buco.