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As we talk about what it means to have a restaurant like Recette (328 West 12th Street, 212-414-3000) turn five years old, one theme comes up over and over again — Jesse Schenker is very, very grateful. “It’s a dream for a chef to have a place like Recette,” he says. “There are 32 seats and no boundaries. I can really cook. And that’s really what I wanted to do — to build a restaurant that I would love to eat at.”
When Schenker and his wife, Lindsay, first dreamed up their restaurant, which operated as a Harlem supper club before moving in to its permanent West Village digs, they envisioned a menu of plates that sort of followed Thomas Keller’s law of diminishing returns — that each dish would be small enough to leave you wanting one more bite, so you never tired of what you were eating. “When we went out to eat, we’d always order three or four appetizers and then one entree,” says Schenker. “So we said, let’s put together a menu where you can construct your own meal — there would be just plates, ten or fifteen of them, and they would range in richness.”
That carried them through the early months, through a glowing review from Sam Sifton at the New York Times. (“I looked at my wife and cried,” Schenker says of the night that came out.) But as Recette settled into its unique place in the New York restaurant world, the chef noticed that more and more people were surrendering control to the kitchen, asking for a tasting menu even though there was no tasting menu offered.
And so Recette evolved, and soon Schenker was offering a five-course menu, a seven-course menu, and then a ten-course menu. Today, he says, there’s even an unprinted fifteen-course menu available, which is two or three bites of just about everything the kitchen makes. “Danny Meyer says that a restaurant takes on a personality of its own; that diners create what it becomes,” says Schenker. “That’s why Recette turned into more of a tasting menu. It’s fun and experimental.”
Besides that Times review, Schenker says his favorite memories of Recette over the years include opening night. “People were coming in and checking it out, and we couldn’t figure out how to set up the tables then — I was the GM, chef, and electrician, and there were a lot of things I didn’t know,” he says. “But at 9:30, every seat was full. It was cold out, and I was just in my chef coat, shivering outside, looking in. And I thought, holy shit, I fucking did it. This is crazy.”
Lindsay also told him she was pregnant with their first child at the restaurant (they now have two kids). “All the good memories in the past five years, all of them happened at Recette,” says the chef. “It’s all-consuming. To make it in this city and in this industry, it has to be.”
He also says it’s been rewarding to watch his staff develop here — many of his employees have been with him for more than four years, some since the beginning. “We’re a tight little family; it’s an orchestra in there,” he says. “Everyone knows what they have to do. The muscle memory is ingrained.” He tips his hat to chef de cuisine Audrey Villegas, who he says “has really got Recette down.”
In celebration of the milestone, Recette is running an $80 eight-course Greatest Hits menu this week, offering a tasting of some of the most popular dishes from over the years. Look for the onion soup with oxtail, spaghetti with uni, foie gras with chicken skin, and, of course, Lee’s s’mores, among other dishes. “People always say things like, ‘The onion soup was amazing, will you make it again?’ and I say, ‘Nope, I don’t look back,’ ” says Schenker. “This is a way to get some of those old favorites.”
The restaurant is also launching the Sunday Supper Series, extending a special it offers in the summer to the whole year. Guests can choose four courses from the menu for $40.
“I’m so thankful for all the people who believe in me,” says Schenker. “Here’s to five more years.”