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In the nearly six years since Harold Moore opened Commerce (50 Commerce Street, 212-524-2301) on a secluded street in the West Village, he’s amassed a cadre of regulars, and his restaurant has become a destination dining spot, even if the address is somewhat hidden.
And in doing so, he’s accomplished his original vision: “The idea of Commerce was to have this place be more than a once-a-year restaurant,” he explains. “I wanted interaction. A chef’s life is super lonely. It’s nice with the customers–they don’t cook, or serve, or do this craziness for a living. Not all of them become your best buddies, but some of them do, and I feel very fortunate to have become friends with the regulars.”
In the time since he first made his debut, he says he’s “gotten better at casual,” something that took work given his background: Moore worked at Daniel for the formative part of his career, beginning as an extern and working his way up to sous chef. In between stints in that kitchen, he also worked at Jean Georges–“That was controversial at the time,” he recalls. “Daniel was a little angry.”–and when he made his final exit from underneath Boulud, he landed at Montrachet and then Marche. It was in that final restaurant, though, that he began to start contemplating striking out on his own. “I had lots of stuff for the scrapbook,” he says. “But I realized I needed to do something different. I wanted customers that identified with me. I wanted people more my own age. I wanted to be in a restaurant that I wanted to eat in.”
His old boss from Montrachet Tony Zazula fronted him the money, and he was on his way, the culmination of a restaurant journey that almost didn’t happen at all. Before his fine dining experience, a teenage Moore worked in “really, really, really bad restaurants in Jersey. That led me to say, ‘I’m never working in a restaurant again.'”
It wasn’t until he hated his internships with lawyers and stockbrokers during college that he reconsidered, and a mentor pointed him toward the Culinary Institute of America to jumpstart his career.
Seated in his dark den-like dining room, Moore weighed in on the story behind his knife, who he blames for the culture of entitlement in dining, and the restaurants he has coming out next.
Up next, Moore talks about the crazy way he acquired his knife.
Describe your culinary style.
Everybody asks that, and I don’t have a great sound bite-y answer. My style is American, but being an American chef allows you to pursue many interests. Some stuff we do is really French. Some, at the base, is really Italian. We do a good job with Chinese food here. It’s not fusion; it’s not “we’re going to French this up” or dumb it down. How do you describe that? That’s America. It’s a melting pot.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
I don’t do it in a conventional way. I work on things in my head. Most of the time, when there’s a new dish that’s coming, it lives in my brain for months as a partially formed idea.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
On the big level–the sound bite-y level–I think that Daniel Boulud is so fucking dynamic. He changed my life. I thought I was good when I went there, and he took this rough person that I was at the time and really focused it. He taught me there was no amount of work I couldn’t do and no amount of challenge I couldn’t handle. He also kicked my fucking ass. On the other side of that, he was incredibly warm and nurturing, and he’s such a generous spirit.
On an everyday level, my number two guy Carsten Johannsen (CJ) is amazing. I want everyone who works here to feel welcome and respected. And if we can’t do that in the kitchen, that guy has to go, or we have to change. He embodies that willingly with me. He’s also super talented. His execution is perfect, and he’s really organized. He’s a constant source of inspiration.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
My business partner is here eating all the time and giving me his unsolicited opinion. He’s also the one who recognizes when something is a real winner. I also have a daughter. She’s really rough on me. I crave that approval. She’s nine. She’s had a refined palate since she was a baby.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
I used to have an amazing Lamsen knife that I had forever, and it was sharpened all the way to the edge. I lost it at a food festival, and I went years to replace it. I bought another, but it didn’t feel right. I bought a Japanese knife, but it didn’t feel right. I had this knife in my box. It belonged to another chef, Nicolas Jongleux. He’s chef from Montreal mentioned in the Joe Beef cookbook who eventually killed himself. He came here to cook and didn’t speak English, and he needed help. He left his knife. I was going to Montreal a few weeks later. I said, should I send it back or bring it? He said bring it. I get there and the guy is dead. So it’s like, what do I do? I sat on it for years. One day, I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to use the suicide knife.” And it’s been my knife ever since. I spent a weekend cooking with him in New York, and he was a great guy. It still has the N stamped on it.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
There are things I won’t eat again. I can’t eat fertilized eggs–life is too short. I’m not a huge fan of mold in things like huitlacoche. But I eat blue cheese and stuff.
On the next page, Moore talks about the culture of entitlement in dining.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
I dislike them all. I have food allergies, and I just don’t order shit that has the things in it I can’t eat. It has a little bit to do with my ego, I suppose, but it’s also disruptive to the kitchen. What people don’t understand is that every change causes a delay. When you go out to eat, you’re paying for the experience. You’re paying for the expertise of whoever to bring you some sort of pleasure. I blame Danny Meyer. He’s a super nice guy, his organization is amazing, and everything he does works really well for him. But he created this thing where everyone who comes to a restaurant is super demanding and entitled. You go to a Union Square restaurant, they’re set up to do it, and they’ll do it. You come here, and there are three guys cooking for 300 people. It’s become such a big deal here that if you want to change something I charge you $5–that’s printed on the menu.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
The superfluous mixed green salad with grape tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette. I know whoever designed the menu is just going through the motions with that dish. I fucking hate that.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
You’re going to see a lot of very trimmed-down restaurants because of the labor situation and how expensive things have become. Chefs are going to be more focused, the service staff is going to be more streamlined, and in an effort to maintain some level of profitability, you’ll see greater casualization and highly specialized concepts.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
More women chefs. The business is dominated by men. Women chefs bring a different energy; they bring a different perspective. You eat Anita Lo’s food, and it’s just different. Traci Des Jardins is amazing. Jody [Willliams’] food at Buvette, that food is fucking good. Alex Guarnaschelli struggles for respect. I know the lifestyle is hard, especially if you want children, but New York needs that. The whole industry would benefit.
What do you wish would go away?
Gluten allergies. They’re fucking bull shit.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I really love caviar. The old-fashioned way with the blinis, toast, and egg. It’s the ultimate sort of luxury snack.
Page through for Moore’s big plans for future restaurants.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self?
I would tell myself to be more patient and enjoy the ride. I was so in a hurry to get where I was going in my career that I didn’t savor the moment as much as I wish I had.
What’s your proudest culinary moment?
This couple lives in Texas, and they come to New York once every two years or so, and they always come here. That level of dedication: It’s not easy to get here, it’s not a quiet romantic place, but they make that effort. The validation that you get from those moments–that’s what it’s about.
What’s your desert island food?
Popcorn. I love popcorn. Brown the butter, put the kernels in it, and pop it like that. And put the salt in in the beginning if you want it done right. On a desert island, I would have to be drying sea salt to make my popcorn and using coconut oil.
What’s the most pressing food issue today?
We live in the United States, one of the most abundant countries on earth, and there are still people hungry here.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
Sara Woods, my girlfriend. She makes unbelievable beef stew in many variations. Those moments of true affection when it’s just you and someone you really care about and food is made with a lot of care–that’s more spectacular than any Michelin-starred restaurant.
Have a hobby that’s totally unrelated to work?
Bruce Springsteen and the Yankees even though this year has been a complete disaster.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a quick-casual concept that’s being built as we speak. I want to do another restaurant. I want to do something like this but a little bit more ingredient-driven versus idea-driven. Commerce is about ideas, feel like this next one is going to be more rustic with more emphasis on table service and more focus on ingredients.