When Kevin Chojnowski was 10 years old, he worked on a local farm, picking strawberries, beans, and peas. It was his first dip into the food world, but it made a lasting impression — by 15, he was waiting tables and helping in the kitchen, prepping and washing dishes, at a nearby restaurant. When he enrolled in a vocational center for high school, he decided to try the culinary program, forsaking the engineering classes he’d thought he wanted.
That led to a placement in the kitchen of New England Culinary Institute in Burlington, Vermont, where he learned about New England’s cuisine. Chojnowski was eventually persuaded to enroll there, and an internship took him to an old-school French restaurant — “not something I wanted to do all the time,” he says — before he made his way to New York City via Riverdale, where he worked in a restaurant anchored on seasonal American menus.
Chojnowski’s break came when he was hired by Todd English to join Olives, and he spent seven years working his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine. “That was a great environment,” he says. “We worked across from the Greenmarket. A sous and I would throw dishes together on the way into work. It was a great opportunity to work off each other.”
When he left, Chojnowski joined the team at Public, where, he says, the Asian ingredients really interested and inspired him. He was exposed to markets in Chinatown and Flushing, and learned what it meant to weave Southeast Asian flavor into cuisine in a Michelin-starred kitchen. “I learned how important consistency is,” he says of his time there, though he acknowledges that it was a very hard kitchen to work in.
After a short break from the industry, Chojnowski landed the executive chef role at Willow Road (85 Tenth Avenue, 646-484-6566), where he’s implementing a menu of seasonally driven and locally sourced American food. He’s been there for just less than three months.
In this interview, he talks about making the transition to the executive chef role, New York cuisine, and how he deals with Yelp reviews.
Tell me about your food philosophy.
Food should be fresh and seasonally driven — if it’s in season and great, I’m all about it. I like doing as little as possible to an ingredient at the end of the day. That’s the influence from Todd English: simple, good food.
What’s your vision for Willow Road?
It’s an American restaurant and seasonally driven; we’re sourcing out great ingredients from the farmers market and co-op vendors from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate, and Vermont. And it’s small bite-driven. I’m all about sharing. That makes the whole experience. Eating is a form of nourishment, but it’s also nourishment for the soul. To go out with a group and share is a beautiful thing that brings people together. This is very simple, straightforward, honest food.
What’s the greatest challenge that comes with becoming an executive chef?
Trying to settle in. You have to come in and figure everything out. This place has been open for a while but not too long. When I worked at Olives or Public, the restaurants had been open for 10 years — you could see things that are set in place, not because they work but because that’s how they’ve been done. And staffing — it’s harder to get people. I’m lucky to have an eager group of people, so that hasn’t been an obstacle.
Tell me a little bit about lessons you learned from Olives.
It was a great opportunity that I would not take back. I got to work with such a talented group of people. The people who opened and ran that restaurant were Todd [English]’s people from back in the day. They were close to him. So you got to see that bit of genius despite all the nonsense out in the press. He’d get behind the line and throw something together, and he was still good. And he understands the experience of a meal as good or better than anyone I’ve ever met. It was very nurturing.
What about Public? What did you learn there?
The biggest thing was consistency — Public was a much more intense, busy restaurant with a small kitchen. But we maintained consistency throughout, and I got to work with quality product, including Australian and New Zealand ingredients, and Asian ingredients. After my time there, I wanted to do simpler food. Public was a big place for tasting menus. That’s great when you’re younger, when you want to do that. After awhile, you want to do something more straightforward. Brad [Farmerie] gave me a lot of opportunity — I got to travel around, do events, and learn how to run a business. I didn’t learn financials at Olives. Olives was about food knowledge, Public was about how to run a business.
What’s the most pressing issue facing the industry right now?
Staffing is always a struggle — we’re in an over-saturated environment. There are plenty of new restaurants, and hot spots will draw line cooks. And there are not as many talented line cooks as there used to be. They have the upper hand, and they hold out for best place with best pay. When I came up, it was harder to find a great spot, so you hung on. Now, people leave at the one-year mark because they think that’s where they stop learning, but that’s really when trust is set and we really start to teach. Also, landmark establishments struggle because of rent. The same goes for line cooks. They can’t live on $10 an hour, even in the outer boroughs.
What would you like to see happen in the industry?
I would love to see the media be less of the trend setter. You can’t just be a great restaurant and have a little exposure now, so it’s hard to be that good, honest place. If you pay attention to the food media, it’s in your face and so intense, so cutting edge — and if you skip a beat for one second, things change a lot.
How has the media changed since you started in the game?
A couple of chefs really beat into my head that if you’re not reading the Times food section each week, you’re not doing your job. That was the biggest piece of media out there when I was a line cook. Now, it’s not as big as it used to be. It’s much more online media-based. Yelp carries more weight — owners should pay more attention to that nowadays. Diners take what’s on there to heart, and if there’s a common trend, it’s an issue. Yelp is a big thing to deal with.
How do you deal with Yelp?
At Public, we’d sit down and look at a couple of months worth of reviews, and if there was a common trend — price point, seasoning — we’d pay attention to it. It’s a great tool.
How has the industry changed over your years in it?
It’s gotten better. There’s great, great food out there, and a lot more good restaurants out there than there used to be. Restaurants are a little more casual and straightforward. People are looking for something more affordable, somewhere they can go three or four nights a week. Cocktail culture has become very, very big. Depending on the establishment, the cocktail list is just as important as the wine list.
What do you really love about doing this?
Restaurant people, especially chefs, aren’t the most sane people — you work long hours in a hot room, but you adapt to that environment. We’re in the middle of switching over the menu, and it’s kind of like playing around every day. Everything you’re working on you get to taste. I love experimenting and playing with the food. I don’t look at it like work. I’m here until 1:30 a.m., and it’s fine — I enjoy what I do.
What’s your favorite ingredient right now?
The tomatoes are beautiful. So are the fresh peaches. The produce — we’re in the middle of summer; this is the best time. And the striped bass and a lot of local fish.
Do you think there’s a New York cuisine?
Where I grew up, in Vermont, you don’t have people with very adventurous palates, so you get low-salt, strict, New England cuisine. In the city, there are lots of influences. In the kitchen, you get Mexican culture, and the camaraderie that goes with it. There are a lot more adventurous, knowledgeable, intelligent diners, too. People are willing to try things, and they’re more knowledgeable about what they’re trying. So a lot of Asian influences end up in everything. Same with Spanish and Mediterranean. Elsewhere, that would be fusion but not here. The Greenmarkets are also such a great thing, and people are very conscious about what they’re eating nowadays. People are more aware of what the meat and seafood industries are like. Farm-to-table is still very relevant. Most chefs are very inspired by all the ingredients that are so readily available.
Any advice for chefs who might be stepping into their first executive chef roles?
Ask more questions. There are always things you don’t know. Be humble. Learn from past people’s mistakes. As a supervisor, you have to be much more personable — you have to be understanding and work with your employees. They’re looking for stability, and no one wants to work for a screamer. Find out who you want to keep, and teach them — keep them growing and interested, and they’ll grow with you.
What about for people just getting started?
Be humble. Don’t be afraid of working extra hours. Have a sharp knife, and be a sponge. Soak it in. If you’re in the city, it’s an amazing place. You have Chinatown, Koreatown, so many places where there’s so much amazing food and technique. Don’t be afraid to put some time in — that’s when you’re going to learn the most. Find a place you enjoy and are interested in — and don’t settle for the money. Look for the place you’re going to learn the most.
What are your goals?
To eventually end up opening a small fish shack on a beach somewhere. My fiancee and I keep talking about that. I’d love to have a small place. As a chef, you want things your way — you want final say and control. At this place, I’ve had a lot of say and influence — that’s what drew me here. But eventually, I would love to do my own thing.