Not everyone can say they’ve spun out exclusive 10-course dinners in a little East Harlem bakery space after hours or worked the line at world-renowned Per Se, but those two activities fill out the resume of pastry chef Christina Lee, who runs the sweet ship at Recette (328 West 12th Street, 212-414-3000). After she worked with chef Jesse Schenker at Recette Private Dining, the two headed downtown to open Recette in January 2010, and they have since been creating sophisticated and playful American fare in the heart of the West Village. Here, we speak with Lee to learn about how she plates modern art, what to buy her at the bar, and why it would be awesome to work with her (hint: it involves freshly baked cookies every Monday).
How did you and Jesse meet and decide to form Recette Private Dining?
Jesse and I met through a friend who had a bakery up in East Harlem. Jesse was going there a lot to get coffee in the morning, and they started talking. My friend sort of got us together, and we went out for dinner and talked, and we hit it off. Jesse and my friend got this idea that we should get together and do the private dining thing. The bakery would close at a pretty early hour, and the space was available, and so just for us to have some fun on our days off, we decided to do that and try it out — and it worked out really well. We went with it for a while, and eventually we opened the restaurant.
What experience, thus far, has most deeply shaped your culinary style?
My time at Per Se. Per Se was at the beginning of my career — I learned a lot, and I also had the most well-rounded kitchen experience there. I started out by working service in the evening — just from that, I was able to understand the importance of the little details that are involved when you plate a dish, the presentation of it. I also worked production there. I learned how to make everything and how to prepare things in advance and plan in advance for a large number of people each evening.
How did you decide to focus on pastry?
Initially I was thinking that working in pastry would allow me to stay off the heat, but it depends on the kitchen, I’ve learned. I have learned to really appreciate the small, detail-oriented things that are involved in pastry as opposed to savory. In savory, sometimes it’s not as detailed, and they can mess around with recipes a little more. For me, it’s more about measuring things out and having things consistent every time.
At Recette, do you ever find yourself contributing components to the savory side of the menu?
Sometimes we use some sugar and nut brittle for savory dishes. We’ve also used different baked components for some of our dishes in the pasta — like a cornbread or biscuits — that fall under the pasty side. We work together here.
How would you describe your culinary philosophy?
I think my philosophy is always to use the best ingredients possible and also to think seasonally. Here at Recette, we want to stay within that, but we also want to be creative and try to think of things in a different way — to reinvent things. We start with something that is classic and aim to put our own spin on things.
What three ingredients could you never work without?
I would say salt. I love putting a little bit of salt in everything — it just kind of enhances the flavor. Butter probably — here at Recette, we strongly believe in fat as flavoring. And probably sugar — pastry being pastry, sugar is essential to pretty much everything.
What or who inspires you?
I actually love art — modern art, really abstract art. I think that kind of plays into some of the ideas I get for plating and color, trying to almost use the plate as a canvas. I like to think about colors and contrasting colors and shades, then play on these aspects based on different art pieces that I see.
Any visually-focused dishes you’re currently working on?
I really like to play with different colors of red — I always like to have that sort of pop. I always try to use something that’s seasonal, and right now pomegranates are just amazing. I really like just using them straight as a seed, and I also like to extract the juice and make a sauce with it. It results in several different shades of red that can paint the plate.
What’s something you could never get tired of making?
I think just a basic cookie. I really love cookies. On Monday — I call them Monday Fundays — I bake cookies for everyone on staff. It’s a cookie day, and I just experiment with different cookies and stuff like that — I just love making cookies. The last one I made was an oatmeal bacon cran-raisin cookie — it’s really basic, but it’s just something that’s fun to do on a Monday when everyone’s getting back to work. It’s a little bit of a pick-me-up.
What’s the first thing you want to eat or drink after a night at the restaurant?
I’m actually a whiskey person, so I usually go straight for the bourbon — or a scotch. I just like it on the rocks. Food-wise? Embarrassingly enough, it’s McDonald’s chicken nuggets.
Everyone who comes into the restaurant orders from the menu, but maybe not everyone gets dessert. What are your feelings on that?
Everyone has their different preferences. Some people like to finish with some cheese, and that’s cool. I personally like to finish a meal with a little bit of sweetness, so we actually offer everybody a little petit four — a little bite of my signature chocolate cake with cayenne pepper. It’s just a little tiny bite, but everyone is offered that at the end of the meal. It’s just to send them off with a little sweetness, even if they weren’t planning on having a whole dessert.
What dessert is your go-to when you dine out?
If I dine out, I usually like something custardy — or chocolate. Either one is a standard dessert at most places — a creme brûlée or a flan or creme caramel. I either go for one of those or a chocolate cake. I love chocolate cake.
Do you miss anything about the supper club experience?
I think I miss that it was pretty much always different each time with different guests, and there’s a lot of involvement in the little details of it. I miss the element of surprise — just not knowing what was going to happen every night.
Do you guys do anything similar these days at the restaurant?
Every second Monday of the month we do something called Mondays with Jesse. We do a completely different menu — it’s 10 courses, and every single time we do something different. We’ve never repeated anything we’ve ever done. For us, it’s a great way to keep things interesting and to stay creative, to keep the creative juices flowing.
What are you working on right now?
Right now it’s the end of fall going into winter, so I’m starting to think about changing certain things. I have this great pumpkin semifreddo right now, but I might be changing that after Thanksgiving. I’m not really sure where it’s going to go yet, but I’m thinking about pears and different spices that will stay seasonal as we approach winter.
What’s your signature dessert?
The s’mores is the only dessert I’ve kept on the menu since the beginning. It’s the one thing people have consistently loved and will always enjoy because its very nostalgic — it’s just such a classic flavor profile. But I try to keep it interesting between the spicy chocolate and the graham cracker ice cream.
What’s your favorite thing about being a pastry chef?
Having the customers enjoy the desserts that you’ve created is the best part of being a pastry chef. They get to leave the restaurant happy and satisfied with the dessert you made.