When Polo Dobkin and his wife, Stephanie Lempert, opened their restaurant Meadowsweet (149 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-384-0673) in South Williamsburg earlier this year, it was something of a homecoming: Dobkin had helped open the Dressler in the same address in 2006, building on a small Williamsburg fiefdom that also included Dumont and Dumont Burger. Those were good years — he worked with the group for a decade, and he and Stephanie met when they both worked at Dumont. Making their first foray into ownership at a place that held personal significance provided a nice, fairy tale-like twist to their journey.
Dobkin grew up in New York City, and both his paternal grandparents and his parents were avid cooks. His mother was part Spanish, and so she’d take her family to Barcelona and Southern Spain in the summer, exposing them to “incredible seafood that was simply prepared,” Dobkin says. The other half of her lineage was Austrian, which meant similar pilgrimages to that country, where the young cook gained some understanding of Eastern European technique and fare.
Still, Dobkin didn’t begin cooking professionally until he was well into his 20s; after jumping around from job to job, he began helping out at the Institute of Culinary Education (then called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School) so he could take free classes. When he’d ramped up to spending three or four nights a week in the kitchen there, he decided it was time to try working in a restaurant.
His first job was at La Lunchonette, a Chelsea restaurant his parents frequented, where, he says, he was first exposed to the workings of a French kitchen. Dobkin soon moved down to The Screening Room, an American restaurant in Tribeca, owned by Mark Spangenthal, and his experience there convinced him he was passionate enough about the career path to go to culinary school.
After graduating from the French Culinary Institute, Dobkin followed Spangenthal to his next restaurant, The Dining Room, and then landed at Gramercy Tavern, where he worked with Tom Colicchio. A short stint in catering followed, though Dobkin quickly realized he preferred restaurants. In 2002, he got a call from Cal Elliott, who asked him to come help run Dumont. He’s been in Williamsburg ever since.
What was the vision behind Meadowsweet?
We wanted to bring some of the country down to the city. While we were looking to open a restaurant, we spent a significant amount of time out of the city at my dad’s place, in Taconic. He purchased it from a woman who was a biodynamic gardener. The garden is still organic — my dad gets up at 6 a.m. and works in it every day. He’s housing heifers from neighboring dairy farms. That was very influential in what we opened. I also wanted the menu divergent from what I did at Dressler and other restaurants, so it’s Mediterranean-inspired, with smaller dishes, so we can provide people with as broad an experience as possible, focused on shareability.
What are your favorite dishes on the menu right now?
The plancha marina goes back to time I spent in Spain, in tiny shacks at the sea, where they’d serve impeccably fresh seafood over lemony garlicky aioli with sherry vinegar and olive oil. I would like to eat it every day if I could. I love pasta, and we have two wonderful pastas on the menu. One is rabbit ragu with cavatelli. The other is cuscina, hand-rolled with herbed ricotta inside. I serve it in parm broth. Also, the crispy baby artichokes, one of Mark Spangenthal’s signature dishes. It’s a spin-off of a traditional Roman recipe. And scallops are one of my favorite things to cook and eat.
Can you talk to me a bit about your food philosophy?
Mark Spangenthal and Tom Colicchio have a common sensibility on food, and that’s to use limited ingredients on the plate and let the ingredients you use shine through. There’s a simplicity to the cooking. I’m looking for bright, fresh, vibrant colors and flavors that don’t compete and reflect the season.
What about lessons learned from those two mentors?
Ethos and cooking technique that I learned from Mark and Tom are extremely solid. I learned how to approach the seasons. But when you open your own kitchen and restaurant, you begin to build on the philosophy. I take the regional American of Tom and Mark and add the influences from my childhood — so my food has a Mediterranean bent as well as German and southern Spanish. My years at the French Culinary Institute were also very important. All of the kitchens that I’ve run are based on French technique.
How has Williamsburg changed since you first came to the neighborhood?
New York City is constantly expanding — Manhattan has finite borders; it’s an island. When I came here, this was a very different neighborhood. There was not a tremendous number of restaurants. There was a large artistic community. Now, there are a lot more restaurants and a lot more people. There’s a vibrant restaurant, music, and bar scene. It’s a great place to live and operate. The area on the south side of the [Williamsburg] bridge is particularly dear to me — the neighbors have been particularly supportive. They have their own sense of community. It’s exciting to see how the restaurant scene has changed — Manhattan chefs are crossing the border. The more talent that comes across, lives, and operates here, the better for everyone.
How about the industry at large? How has that evolved?
There are more and more people moving here, and the caliber of restaurant continues to get better, which pushes everyone else to push the envelope. The more competition, the better. It keeps you thinking, keeps you young, and keeps you thinking about what you’re doing in the city, nationally, and internationally. The style of restaurant has changed incredibly. New York has always been eclectic, but now it’s more broad but also more focused. You used to have to travel to certain neighborhoods to eat certain styles of food that are now extremely well-represented here.
What would you like to see happen in the industry?
It would be nice to see the evolution that’s been taking place continue. People should concentrate on what it is that they’re doing while keeping in touch with what’s going on in the larger sense — we need to keep moving forward.
Talk to me about a pressing issue facing restaurateurs.
I think one of the most pressing issues is the relationship between tenant and landlord. When we were looking for a restaurant space, it took us about a year and a half to find a space. Rents in the city are so out of touch with what a restaurant needs in order to succeed. We saw a lot of spaces, and they all came down to the same issue: rents are way too high, and landlords were unwilling to negotiate. What they’re asking for is going to drive people out of business or make it difficult to operate. Larger groups do better, but as first time operators, it was difficult to find a reasonable landlord. And it was more difficult in Manhattan, but rents are out of touch with neighborhood even in Brooklyn.
Is there a New York cuisine?
There’s not one singular New York cuisine — it’s eclectic. It’s as broad and as wide as New York is and the people that populate it. It’s impossible to define. There are so many disparate influences and people bringing things to the table. Every corner of the world is represented.
What’s the best thing about becoming an owner?
Understanding that you’re going to work for yourself and do something you’ve dreamed about for a long time. Every day is a pleasure. Not that it wasn’t before, but it’s a little more special now. It’s great to be 100 percent responsible for everything that happens in the restaurant — it all falls on your shoulders, and that’s a really good feeling. I have great partners in Stephanie and Jeremy [Adona] — we’re working toward the same goal. And we were blessed to find a great team — it’s great being able to build the team and know the people who work for you.
Was anything surprisingly challenging?
Making the transition from construction oversight to opening. Getting my mind-set out of that day-to-day grind and more into why we opened.
Any advice for other new owners?
I’m really happy that we went into it slightly naively. We took on a rather ambitious project, and we might have thought twice had we known more. So go in with eyes wide open, and remember why you’re doing it, but keep that naiveté.
What about advice for someone just getting started?
If someone’s just getting in, and they’re possibly interested in going to school, work for a couple of tears and make sure it’s something that you want to do. People enter with a romantic view of the industry. It’s a great and rewarding industry, but it’s a tough one, and it’s not for everyone. Spend some time cooking first. There are a lot of restaurants and a lot of people looking for help.
So you’d recommend culinary school?
I would recommend it. I think it’s a huge asset for someone. It really depends on what you put into it, though, so if you’re not willing to put in 100 percent, then it’s not worth it.
What keeps you motivated?
A love for cooking. I get a huge thrill every time we open for service and I hear people in the dining room having a good time — I look forward to that every day. That provides me with a huge rush.