Over the course of her two-decade-long career in New York City’s restaurants, Caroline Fidanza has both witnessed and shaped the ever-evolving conversation about the place of local sources and sustainability in food: After stints at local sourcing-focused Savoy and almost every single one of Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants, she opened Saltie (378 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-387-4777), a vegetable-forward sandwich shop, and Little Chef (600 Eleventh Avenue, 212-582-7944), a sustainability-oriented take on a lunch counter.
It was a post-college job at the MOMA that sent her scurrying into the food world (despite the fact, she says, that working in restaurants was just barely becoming a viable career path), and after graduating from the Natural Gourmet Cooking School, which was then offering a macrobiotic curriculum, she worked for a couple of weeks under Mario Batali at Po, and he helped her land her first job with Peter Hoffman at Savoy. “It was a great teaching kitchen,” she recalls. “It’s what I’d imagine Chez Panisse would be like, and Peter certainly gets compared with Alice Waters. He invested in farm-to-table before anyone else. The cooks all had days they had to go to the greenmarket. It was challenging and really fun.”
In her three-year tenure there, her philosophy on sourcing solidified, and after a respite spent working in Europe and then at the Greenmarket, she signed on with Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth to open Diner. She spent 11 years in what would become a Brooklyn empire, known for its application of a fine dining-like good ingredient mindset and nose-to-tail cooking to more casual restaurants.
She left to do some soul searching: “I wasn’t burnt on the business, but I couldn’t deal with the constant need to find good staff or work with the health department,” she says. She was also over the fetishization of meat — even well-sourced meat — she was seeing in many of New York’s restaurants, and she wanted to take some time to figure out what she was going to do next.
It wasn’t long, though, before a space dropped into her lap: An old co-worker was looking to sell the lease on her bakery so she could move out of town. Fidanza wasn’t sold — she wasn’t a baker — but another colleague, Rebecca Collerton, was bent on acquiring the address and wanted Fidanza as a partner. “I said I’d do it if Elizabeth Schula would do it since she’s the baker,” she says. Schula agreed, and the trio put together Saltie, which quickly evolved into a sandwich shop, light on meat in the beginning only because they didn’t have the refrigeration necessary for storing animal protein.
After three years, Gotham West Market approached her about opening an offshoot in Hell’s Kitchen, and she agreed, though she demurred on opening another Saltie. “Court Street Grocers is doing sandwiches here,” she explains. “It was important to give this a different name and direction.” She built the Little Chef, which she says is more of a lunch counter focused on good ingredients than it is a sandwich shop.
In this interview, Fidanza weighs in on the state of sustainability and local sourcing in the city, where the industry is headed, and what she’d like to accomplish before retiring to Mexico.
Do you have an overarching food philosophy? How has each place you’ve worked informed or been informed by that philosophy?
I suppose it’s the seasonal local thing, but the nuance of that has changed over the years. In the days of working at Savoy, it was a big driving force for my menus, decisions, and products. I was militant about it. I’m less militant now — it’s become the standard, so I don’t have to make big declarations, even if not much progress has been made. Over time, I became more interested in the other parts of the food equation. Smorgasburg-y amateurs have pointed out that there is a much broader food market out there to be satisfied. I’m now more interested in how you have a food establishment that’s relatively inexpensive, works with good ingredients, makes things in house, but is quick and easy and not about spending the night there or spending your paycheck on dinner. I am very thoughtful about what my motivations are in doing things even if it doesn’t equal an overarching philosophy. I’ve always been interested in how you make food really accessible to people. It’s always in my interest to express that this isn’t hard to do. This is easy. Your mom did it.
Talk to me a little bit more about the state of the sustainable and local conversation in New York. You mentioned progress hasn’t been made recently.
The big moment for seasonal/local peaked five or six years ago. Then, it seemed like people were getting on board, and there was a lot of consciousness about it. But New York is a fickle market, and the seasonal local trend made room for the DIY trend, which made way for other trends, and now the seasonal local thing has fallen off — it was sort of a dead-end of evolution. Everyone buys stuff at the Greenmarket, has a forager, and has systems to have good products in house and use them. But there are people who are like, “Eh, I can coast because there’s an assumption that that’s how better restaurants operate.” We’ve lost interest in this as the number one issue — diners make assumptions about how things work while chefs have gone back to being not-so-great practitioners. There’s a lot of room to get away with stuff. We didn’t do all of the work and finish the job, and now we’ve moved on.
What about the state of nose-to-tail cooking?
At some point, the food community became very fetishistic about animals, especially pork. That made me feel yucky. It was like, as long as it’s good bacon, okay to put it on your ice cream. The same behavior that got us into the industrialized meat mess got us into the overconsumption of non-industrialized meat mess. Why do we, as a culture, have to over-amplify and over-celebrate instead of just saying, “Every once in awhile I eat a pork chop, and I like it to come from a good source.” Now that trend has waned — fetishization has ended, and I don’t feel as weird.
Where is the New York City industry headed?
Well, in the spirit of Bill De Blasio — and I mean that in a totally neutral way…Food is expensive, going out is expensive, and there used to be this lower or middle caste of restaurants where you could go out, not spend a ton of money, and still eat well. I can’t afford those places anymore. Now it’s either restaurants doing cheap eats or places where you’re going to spend at least $75. So it could work out that restaurants become special occasion places again and people don’t eat out every night — and then you get places on the lower end of the scale where you can have a curated experience that isn’t going to cost you $50. That’s why things like Smorgasburg are so popular. It’s a great experience and you’re having a lot of fun, but it doesn’t cost you $50. Also, where can you go where it’s cheap to open a restaurant? It’s really expensive! This explosion of restaurants has to have an end because it doesn’t seem like it can keep going — people working in the industry don’t have the resources to open big restaurants.
How does the media factor in?
I think the media creates everything. The media is the boss. I don’t think that the food system in New York is a meritocracy at all. There are tons of places that are awesome that never get any press — and then there are the same places that get the same press over and over. There’s so little creativity and curiosity. Certain food writers and bloggers are doing the outer borough thing, but those are about the exotic. There are a lot of people making food out there who are never mentioned. There are so many places to eat, and I’m always surprised at the people who are mentioned are mentioned over and over again. I love David Chang — he’s done an amazing job. But he’s established. And I realize we’re always looking for the next David Chang — that’s what keeps the machine moving forward.
What’s going on in Brooklyn right now? Is there any more room for growth?
It does feel like the pioneering is over — you can’t beat the players at their game. We had many years of doing our own thing, but now those days are over. Why would anyone stop at Williamsburg when they can go straight to Bushwick and wait for the money to pour in? It will be interesting to see who opens in Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, and what happens in the next handful of years.
How does the industry there compare with Manhattan?
There are distinct personalities between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The spirit of Brooklyn is still something unto itself — Brooklyn pride. That makes for a different experience. Manhattan restaurants are more staid and formal. In Brooklyn, clientele has proprietorial feelings toward places — it is invested in the business in ways I don’t see in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, it seems like the average resident in Williamsburg is younger and works in the service industry. It’s easy to serve people who work in the service industry. I take care of you, you take care of me — we’re keeping each other’s economy going. In Manhattan, it’s much more of a mixed bag of tourists and business people — there’s nothing precious about the experience. It’s much more work-a-day and much more anonymous.
Is Gotham West vastly different than what has been done before? What do spots like this accomplish?
There are other markets that this market aspires to be like — Eataly and Chelsea Market, for example. They’re different variations on the theme. What this market aspires to do — and is doing successfully — is bring in good vendors with complementary offerings. It’s not an Eataly and so all Italian (which I love), and it’s not Chelsea Market, where everyone is doing something different. This is a collaborative market, but people have distinct personalities. You can come here and eat Seamus Mullen’s food and Ivan [Orkin]’s food — it would take you three months to go to all those restaurants.
In this neighborhood, this market is ahead of its time — in two years, Eleventh Avenue will be packed with stuff. It’s aways nice to be the first. It’s an exciting moment to see what happens, to be at the forefront, to be part of defining the neighborhood — like breeds like. It’s also close to the water, and as the weather gets nice, how nice will it be to come up the river and pop over here and have a nice place to stop off?
What are your goals?
One of the goals of opening the Little Chef was to see if I have a business model that can be replicated — it’s not my intention to open Salties or Little Chefs all over the world, but for myself, it’s interesting to answer the question of whether I can do it. It’s also a personal challenge and personal goal to open two businesses and succeed. When you’re a mom-and-pop — which Saltie is — you love being the mom-and-pop and you curse it. I needed to unbecome the mom-and-pop, so I needed to open a second business. To have the two businesses succeed and run themselves without me having to be on-site constantly would be a fine goal. And I’m excited about juice. I’m excited to build on that. At Saltie, sandwiches were a way of becoming more interested in vegetarianism and eggs. Juice is a way to become interested in what we eat and how we eat — it’s a curious extension of what I’ve been doing, and it’s another preparation that I’ve never done before. Also, retirement and moving to Mexico.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
I still like coffee truck coffee, but I will plug Blue Bottle — I love their New Orleans iced coffee.
Best place for a drink or a beer:
Achilles Heel is my new drink place. The Cannibal has an amazing beer selection.
Best place for a special occasion:
Reynard in the Wythe or Roman’s — they’re part of my family. On the grand scale, I’d be interested in going to Tertulia. I love Seamus’s food — it’s fantastic. Del Posto was really extraordinary.
Best place for no occasion at all:
The Commodore. The Roebling Tea Room. Any of the Tarlow restaurants. I really like Calliope in the East Village — there’s always something there that wows me.
A place that doesn’t get enough enough credit:
The Roebling Tea Room and River Styx. And Roman’s.
A person that doesn’t get enough credit:
Dennis Spina [of the Roebling Tea Room and River Styx] and Dave Gould [of Roman’s]. Dave is very much in the vein of Andrew Feinberg at Franny’s.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Grand Central Oyster Bar. Momofuku is not to be missed. Prune. A Mario Batali restaurant is always worth the trip.
Pressing industry issue:
The sheer expense of running a restaurant in NYC is staggering, between taxes and the health department. It’s a real shocker.
Person you’d most like to cook for:
I’m terrified to cook for anyone — so anyone who would really appreciate it. I really like when writers write about food — and in a couple of those Murakami books, he talks about food, and he seems to really like it. So he’d probably be a good dinner guest.
Person you’d most like to have cook for you:
My mother. That makes me so happy. Steven Tanner is my ultimate — he’s the chef at the Commodore, and he started Pies and Thighs.
Person you’d be most nervous about cooking for:
Anybody. Even my mother makes me nervous.
Dish you could eat forever:
Pasta. With clam sauce or red sauce. Or olive oil, garlic, and parsley. And pizza.
Something you love about the NYC restaurant industry:
Camaraderie — chefs are welcoming, and when people recognize you as one of their own, they provide incredible hospitality.
Something you wish you could change:
It’s really hard to pay people enough. That’s the worst.