You can thank Franny’s for the proliferation of the Brooklyn-themed restaurant over the last decade: The Prospect Heights pizzeria was one of the first to espouse a farm-to-table ethos in the borough, and it drew legions of fans from across the city as a result.
Danny Amend helped move it to that point; he took over the burners from owner Andrew Feinberg, who continues to be involved with the restaurant on a daily basis. Amend grew up in Santa Rosa, California, where his father owned a roofing company and his mother was an artist. The family had a big garden, and Amend became fascinated with it. His experimentation in the kitchen was a byproduct of his curiosity, and his parents agreed that if he could keep his grades up, he could work in restaurants. By the time he left for the Culinary Institute of America after high school, he had years of experience under his belt, including some time spent as a butcher.
He externed at the French Laundry, which exposed him to fine dining, and after graduation, he headed down to San Francisco, viewing it as a stepping stone out to New York City. He landed a job at Boku, and then, through a connection, a stint at Mix, which Alain Ducasse had just opened in Las Vegas. “My time in Vegas was a blur,” he says. “Not because I was partying, because I was working seven days a week. I hated it.” He asked Ducasse to transfer him, and he wound up in the Big Apple at Essex House, where he was part of the team that netted that venue three Michelin stars.
A brief period at Per Se followed, but by then, Amend was burnt out on fine dining. He’d eaten at Franny’s, and he decided he wanted to get involved. He brought Jonathan Adler, another chef at Per Se, behind the line with him, and the pair soon became co-chefs, building the restaurant into a neighborhood joint constantly thronged by hours-long lines.
Last year, Franny’s owners Feinberg and Francine Stephens moved the pizzeria to a larger location down the street, turning the original Franny’s address into Marco’s (295 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-230-0427), an Italian restaurant that Amend was left to helm (Franny’s is now under the control of Adler).
In this interview, Amend weighs in on the Franny’s legacy, his philosophy, and what comes next for New York restaurants.
Talk to me about the Franny’s legacy.
What was unique about Franny’s was that it was the first restaurant to do farm-to-table and Neapolitan pizza not just in Brooklyn but in New York. For some reason, there’s a lot of Franny’s haters out there, and I’m not sure why — it’s never gotten its due. Probably because it just has pizza. Franny and Andrew were and are still very involved. We always committed to buying the best ingredients: olive oils, produce. We cooked only in-season vegetables at their peak. Now everyone does that. There was some backlash against that a couple of years ago — against there being only one thing on a plate with drizzle of olive oil. We didn’t want to be in that blowback — we always wanted to grow and do new things. It started out simple, and it’s still simple.
What was the vision at Marco’s?
To do everything we couldn’t do at Franny’s. Franny’s is, first and foremost, pizza. You have brick ovens — and you can only do so much in a brick oven. It felt like there was a whole side of Italian food that was unavailable at Franny’s. Marco’s should complement Franny’s; it offers an alternative. They’re not foils or opposites; it’s a symbiotic restaurant relationship. Marco’s is trattoria-style cooking. We love the flavor of wood, so we’re still using wood grilling and roasting here. We wanted to keep that sensibility of cooking food over an open fire.
Do you think it’s hard to open this kind of restaurant now that farm-to-table has become the norm?
No. Marco’s is true trattoria-style. We’re doing complete plates and contorni [sides] to complement complete plates. It depends on how good you are. The restaurant community always needs restaurants like this — and there will always people who don’t really understand it; they’re just following a business model without the soul. This was a natural progression for us — we were ready for it. It’s a fine line to walk. If you do simple, you have to execute perfectly and get the best ingredients. You have to develop a relationship with the farmer so he saves the best whatever for you. But if you do it smartly and with some level of talent, you’re showcasing the simpleness. We’re making it look easy.
What’s your food philosophy?
I like straightforward, uncomplicated food that tastes good. I can make food look beautiful, but it’s not about pretty first and taste second. Food should taste great first. No one wants to eat something that looks gross, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Take pole beans at the end of summer — you need to find the beauty in ugly foods. How can you plate those beans so they look beautifully ugly? It’s an Italian philosophy. My responsibility in this restaurant is to maintain that Italian sensibility but in an intelligent way. And I don’t like throwing things in the garbage. We use the whole fennel bulb, stem, and fronds. How can you call yourself a chef if you can’t use all parts?
Are we in the midst of a vegetable revival?
Yes, but I live in a bubble. We get the best produce — we don’t live in Middle America.
You mentioned your responsibility to uphold the Italian philosophy at Marco’s. What is the Italian philosophy?
Simple, simple, simple — sometimes to a fault. Sometimes, it’s a little too rustic. There is such a thing. With Italian cuisine, it’s about what you have on hand — it’s not imagining a finished product and working back. With French cooking, you imagine what it’s going to look like and break it into parts. With Italian, you say, “I have this amazing eggplant — what am I going to do with it?” It starts with the product — that’s the genesis, and that’s where it flows from. That’s what Italian food is at its heart.
How did you get into this type of cooking?
I think working in fine dining kitchens was not the way I grew up cooking and eating at my house — this is the way I grew up cooking and eating at my house. I have this beautiful ingredient. What do I want to do with it? Going to Franny’s, I was tired of working in Manhattan. I’d eaten there once, and I thought, yeah, I’ll go hide out. I’d never heard of Franny’s, but I loved it, and I’d never had anything like it. It was quiet and calm, and everyone was wearing shorts and drinking beer. No one looked gaunt and overworked and underslept. I thought, I’ll give it a shot. If you’ve been cooking long enough, though, you can work in just about any kitchen. Maybe not Japanese, but French, Italian, American…it’s all kind of homogenized.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
Super upper-echelon restaurants are getting thinned out — the truly talented have staying power, and others are falling by the wayside. Blue collar restaurants are more popular now. The Per Ses and Le Bernardins will always be there, and they’ll continue to attract great talent — but if you don’t have the time and money, it’s impossible to do that style of food. People want something more affordable and approachable.
I also think we’ll see more of an awareness of where you’re getting food from. You can’t hide your head in the sand about getting fish from unsustainable practices. You need to be emotionally responsible for what you put on the plate. You can’t be supporting trawling and pollution of the oceans by purchasing fish that are overfished or fish that produce a tremendous amount of bi-catch or fish that are harvested in countries that use unsustainable practices. The same goes for GMOs — you have to be aware. You have to be smart in the kitchen about producing, and you have to be book smart. We owe that to the world.
How has the media changed the industry?
We’ve seen the emergence of the figurehead of the restaurant. It used to be about the restaurant. Now, it’s all about the chef. People ask, who’s the chef? Do you know the chef? You need a face, or no one will cover it. And if you’re not a known or established person, you don’t get any media coverage, or you get treated as if you’re the second coming. I understand it. In New York, you’ve gotta find some way to differentiate from other businesses. For me growing up, though, it was the French Laundry, not Thomas Keller. Now they elevate the chefs above the restaurants.
What do you wish you could tell diners?
I urge you to try something that you’ve never had before. People are apprehensive or stubborn about things they don’t like. If you’re going to a restaurant you know and like, put yourself in hands of the chef. It’s the same philosophy I take with my mom — she thinks she doesn’t like anything. Please just trust me. You’ll like it. It’s not going to kill you, and it’s delicious.
What are your goals?
Keep learning something new everyday. Being static is the worst — having cooking block is the worst. Here, there is no limit to the things I want to do — there’s just not enough time to do everything I want to do. I have 20 or 30 years ahead of me working, so I’ve gotta pace myself. As long as I have the respect of the people I work with, things always unfold naturally and organically.
Best place in the city for a coffee or a tea:
Sit and Wonder on Washington and St. Marks. It’s a little built-it-themselves coffeeshop. It’s quiet and nice, and they make good coffee.
Best place in the city for a drink:
PDT in Manhattan — I used to go when they first opened. Here in Brooklyn, the Bearded Lady right next to Sit and Wonder. They make good cocktails.
Best special occasion restaurant:
I really like Eleven Madison Park. I’ve been there three or four times. They always show the love to Franny’s and Marco’s, too.
Best no-occasion restaurant:
Gramercy Tavern in the tavern room. Especially in the winter. They have big windows, and you sit at the bar. It’s quiet even when it’s busy. I love Mike Anthony’s food. That’s probably my favorite restaurant in the city.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Gramercy Tavern and Second Avenue Deli. And Mile End, actually — it’s more sort of Montreal in inspiration, but it’s got the New York sensibility, and that feels very New York to me.
An underrated restaurant:
Lot 2 out in Park Slope. It’s a small neighborhood restaurant, and you never hear anything about it. They’re all really nice, they do a good job, and it’s straightforward food — it would be nice if they got more props. There’s nothing around them. I keep waiting for it to blow up.
An underrated person in the industry:
Farmers. They have the hardest job, and they do it because they love it. They’re not in it to make money. They work all the time. It makes my job seem easy.
The best dish you’ve had out recently:
It’s nice going to Franny’s now because I don’t work there anymore. The shrimp croquettes that John made over the winter, the sweet potatoes with almonds and yogurt, the pepperoni pizza, and the wood-roasted scamorza cheese — those are all things I never did. And they stick in my mind.
Someone you’d really like to cook for:
Thomas Keller has never been into Franny’s or here. He’s a busy guy, but there’s no one bigger in the States. During my time at the French Laundry, he was there every day. He has such a commanding presence. I’d like to cook for him to see how I’d feel. Would I be shitting my pants? Or would it be totally great?
Someone you’d like to have cook for you:
Jacques Pepin. He’s my idol.
Who would you be most nervous about cooking for?
Dish you could eat forever:
Peanut butter and blueberry sandwiches — that was a creation of my youth, and I make them every summer when blueberries are in season. The peanut butter has to be chunky, and you put blueberries on the entire piece of bread. They’re sweet and firm, and they pop. I made them at Franny’s years ago. People made fun of me for putting out finger sandwiches, but then they said, “Oh my god, these are amazing.”
Something you love about the NYC industry:
Variety. You want sushi? There are a million amazing places. Italian. Korean. Fine dining. Not fine dining. Hole in the wall pie places. The amount of restaurants available is the best.
Something you wish you could change:
I wish we didn’t have to work so hard and long to make food — it takes so much work to get something in and pack it, clean it, prep it, and cook it. You’re working 70 to 80 hours a week for your entire life. Anyone who says they love working 80 hours a week is a liar. Or they’re 20. I’ve been working a minimum of 60 hours a week since cooking professionally. I would love to go home to my fiancee and have dinner — even a late-night dinner. I wish I had time to do more things. I understand it — I knew what got myself into.
A pressing industry issue:
The Department of Health — it’s a pain. We pride ourselves on our organization and cleanliness, and it doesn’t matter. ISomeone who has no idea what’s going on in our restaurant comes in and points out everything that’s wrong or potentially wrong. On the flip side, there are restaurants that are disgusting, so how do you weigh both? But it’s been becoming a business and it’s not really about the safety of food anymore — it’s about making money. The biggest stress in my life is always the health inspection — you live and die by it.
Any part of your story or the Franny’s story that has gone untold?
On a superficial level, Franny’s has never gotten love from James Beard — and that restaurant changed the landscape for restaurants that do get the love. We don’t need it, but I find it interesting. I worked at a lot of four-star, three-star Michelin restaurants, and were they head and shoulders better than Franny’s? No way. There are less moving parts at Franny’s, and more attention to detail and more love. We’re all here for the same reason: We love food.