Jesse Schenker: “This Is Not a Career, It’s a Livelihood”


That Jesse Schenker’s cookbook collection is more than 350 volumes deep is not so much a reflection of his use of recipes at it is a window into his utter obsession with food–he thinks about his craft constantly, even when he’s not at work, and he has since he was very young. The chef grew up in South Florida, and he relished time in the kitchen with his grandmother and great grandmother, who, he says, cooked constantly. His own mother was less culinarily inclined, but when she noticed Schenker’s enthusiasm, she began setting him up with a little mat chopping vegetables anytime she was preparing a meal.

By high school, Schenker had began to push his cooking further; he’d smoke a bunch of pot, he says, and then make up things, like “hot dogs marinated in teriyaki sauce and rolled in roast beef. I was always the guy that if you left me in the house, I would make something out of what I found in the cabinet.” His meals eventually became edible, too, and around that time, he found a job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, working his way up to the line while attending a vocational school for culinary arts and completing his GED.

After graduation, Schenker bounced around celebrated Floridian restaurants, eventually rising to a sous chef position before landing a stage and then a job at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in the London Hotel here in New York City. “That was my discovery of modern French,” he says, and it coincided with the first New York City Michelin Guide, which also opened Schenker’s eyes to what was going on in Europe.

Though he was working long hours, Schenker’s obsession with cookbooks and creative cooking never faltered, and he was soon throwing semi-underground supper club gatherings with the help of Brian Ghaw and Christina Lee, a pastry alum of Per Se and Falai. Recette Private Dining exploded–the crew catered a 1,400-person VH1 party in its first year of existence–and the chef quit his job to look for spaces. In 2010, he and his wife, Lindsay, opened Recette (328 West 12th Street, 212-414-3000) in the West Village.

He intended that space, he says, to become a neighborhood joint, with rock ‘n’ roll on the stereo and a casual vibe, but after Sam Sifton gave it a glowing pair of stars, Recette morphed into a destination dining establishment built on tasting menus. And so earlier this year, the Schenkers debuted The Gander (15 West 18th Street, 646-682-7949), a restaurant, says the chef, that’s “everything I can’t do at Recette,” including a big bar, a private dining room, and a menu meant to draw people several days a week.

In this interview, Schenker weighs in on his cookbook collection, the state of the industry, and why you should be paying attention to the wine list at The Gander.

Tell me a little about your massive cookbook collection.
I have cookbooks going back years. I walked by the Strand once and there was an old, old Escoffier. It was totally beat up, and I got it for $1. I have a lot of classic French cookbooks, and all the modern cookbooks coming out of Spain. I’m fascinated by techniques — it’s not so much about ingredients anymore, though for awhile, I was trying to discover that. Recette reflects my style, which is a mix of modern and traditional techniques — I don’t like to be too avant garde. I don’t prefer to eat that way. Modern restaurants are often technically amazing and visually beautiful, but they lack in substance and flavor. I want that happy medium where when you close your eyes and take a bite, and it’s still delicious food. I’ve always been a sponge. If Ina Gardner was on TV, I would watch. Not because I like her food, but that’s how driven to food I am. It’s a sounding board for my own creativity.

Talk to me about the experience of taking private dining to a brick-and-mortar operation.
This restaurant [The Gander] was harder than opening that one, but that was the hardest thing I’d done up until that point. Just the amount of energy, headspace, hours, and ambition you put into it, and the lack of sleep–you really have to want it and live it. This is not a career, it’s a livelihood. If I’m not physically in a restaurant, I’m working. It’s very hard. But it’s extremely rewarding. If you really believe in yourself and this is what you want, anyone can do it. A lot of young chefs are really talented, but there’s a trifecta of things that you need have to come together. Cooking is only one. You have to have the right partner and the ambition.

How has food journalism and the review cycle changed between these two openings?
At Recette, the first handful of reviews were not overly positive. Sam Sifton wrote a great review, and that kind of set everything straight. The accolades started to come in. The restaurant was sort of the first of its kind. There are more critics now–random publications I didn’t even know existed have food critics. I try not to focus so much on that–I try to focus on making the food and the restaurant the best it can be. If I just turn it over, everything’s going to work out. It’s hard waiting for Pete Wells and constantly thinking, “Is he gonna come? Is he not gonna come?” The ambivalence makes me kind of nuts. And then there’s Yelp, OpenTable, Trip Advisor–that’s the masses speaking. On CNN a couple of days ago, a woman talked about how online user reviews drive business more now than critics. More people look at those and trust them–so it’s very important to keep momentum going and make sure things are going in a positive direction. If people are disgruntled, we reply and try to make it right.

Describe your creative process.
It’s very random and very arbitrary–I usually come with up an idea based on a protein and a season. It’s very specific to, okay, I want to put branzino on the menu, and it’s summer. So what do I do? Then I’ll get a shell of an idea–tomato curd, corn pudding, escabeche. I always want some sort of umami-flavored puree, some sort of crunch factor, and some earthy vegetation. So I play with those. Then I pass it on to my team to experiment with and taste. I’m into textures, and I’m big into acid. But other than that, it’s very arbitrary and organic. I could be eating somewhere, reading something, talking to someone, reading people’s menus…I read all the reviews; I have to get informed.

We’ve seen a lot of high profile closings this year thanks to rent hikes, and you’ve just dealt with finding a space for a new restaurant. Talk to me about the state of affairs when it comes to rent in this city.
It’s quite shitty. Everything in the city, whether it’s taxes or rent or insurance — everything continues to grow, but your customer base might not. Or your check average might not. Small businesses help the economy and grow the economy, but things get in the way. But the market is the market. We’re losing these institutions that helped pave the way — or gentrified neighborhoods and helped landlords raise the rents, and now the landlords want to go back and triple the rent on the spaces. Landlords are in a position where they can sit on property. Knock on wood, we signed a long lease in the West Village, but other restaurants are closing left and right, and we’re going to lose the quintessential restaurants and be left with more retail and vacant storefronts. That takes away from the charm of what the Village is supposed to be. It’s a shame.

I’ve heard a lot of chefs talk about the shrinking talent pool recently. Can you talk to me a bit about that?
The talent pool is limited right now. Anyone younger than 30 goes to culinary school and wants to be Bobby Flay. Cooks come in here to stage and they either don’t show, or they come and have to leave. I don’t get it. I’ve worked 70 hours a week for my whole life. I think it has a lot to do with food TV, social media, and technology in general. And we have this over-saturation of restaurants. There are so many restaurants. There are a lot of talented people out there, and most of them have a home, but I think it’s discouraging for them. Look to the right and left, and you have people that aren’t performing at the same level. You get people who are changing careers, and they spend $40,000 a year on culinary school, trail, work in the industry for a year, and then go back to school to become a photographer. 10 years ago, we were just cooking — that’s what we do. We took the mats out, took the trash out, scrubbed down the floors, and there was no bitching about it. It’s what we did. Everyone wants to be rich, be on TV, be a celebrity, or own a restaurant now.

What are your goals from here?
To continue to strive to make each restaurant the best they can be on a daily basis.

What do you wish the press talked about more?
The Gander’s wine list — no one’s talked about that list. Rick Pitcher has put together a sick fucking list. It has 600 selections, and 100 wines under 100 bucks. And all the big trophy shit.

Rick, can you tell us about your list?
Rick Pitcher: It’s an aspect of what we do that got overlooked. We represent what we consider to be benchmark producers, whether that’s classic grape producers or people on the cutting edge. We’re very focused on vintage wine, and we have a very deep selection dating back to the ’50s. Lastly, we want people to be able to drink very well at whatever price point they’re comfortable, and that means anything from $35 to $4,000. We’re not buying a $50 Cabernet just to have a $50 Cabernet. We also have a huge wines-by-the-glass list; including sparkling, we’re at over 25 selections. And we have this Enomatic wine system, so we have a rotating selection of eight wines by the glass from great vintages and producers. Wines in there date back to ’83 — we’re pouring Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, things that are impossible to get. We acquire a lot from private cellars, and we try to share the gems via that. And our mark-ups are insanely low, particularly on the great wines — they’re about half of what you’d find elsewhere. We wanted this to be a wine-drinking destination.

An underrated chef:
Mark Ladner and Marco Canora. Those guys are bad ass. Tien Ho. Dave Pasternack. Gabe Thompson. Cedric Vongerichten.

Quintessential New York City restaurant:
Gramercy Tavern.

A great no-occasion restaurant:
Marea, Sotto

A great special occasion restaurant:
Marea, Per Se