Restaurant concepts in New York City have become personal, as chefs and restaurateurs plumb the deepest reaches of their creativity. We hear about fewer and fewer joints that are Italian or Thai or even that old catchall, New American; instead, it’s Italian-Korean, or Chinese–New American, or Isaan, or Icelandic. King Bee (424 East 9th Street, 646-755-8088), which opened last year, trumps all of those with what has to be one of the most cerebral concepts out there. The garden-level East Village spot draws its inspiration from the Acadian migration. “What?” you ask. Exactly.
The Acadian people migrated from France to Canada and then down to Louisiana, where they’re now known as Cajun. King Bee is not a Cajun restaurant, though. Instead, it offers dishes from across that migratory canon, from Nova Scotia–style fish and chips to pork cracklings you might encounter at a roadside stand near New Orleans. “We’re trying to grow into our own cuisine as well,” says King Bee chef Jeremie Tomczak. “We don’t follow any set rules. It’s about making people happy.”
Adding another challenge, the menu changes on a weekly basis to account for seasonality, and come spring, more of the produce served will come from the restaurant’s farm in upstate New York. “I’ve never tasted better beets” than those from that farm, says Tomczak. “I can’t wait until we plant again.”
Ambitious as all that might seem, Tomczak jumped at the chance to join Eben Klemm and Ken Jackson for this project; he and Klemm met when the former was a chef at the French Culinary Institute, and got to know each other when Tomczak was behind the burners at Ginny’s Supper Club (Klemm consulted on the beverage menu).
The chef started working in the industry as a dishwasher when he was thirteen; at fifteen, his parents’ friends bought an Arby’s, and he went to work for them. “Within a year, I was a shift manager,” he says. “That was my first delve into the ‘culinary arts.'” It wasn’t exactly the type of job that would set him up for a career in the kitchen, and in high school, he was more focused on construction — he decided he’d become an architect to build log homes. Once in college, though, he flamed out quickly. “I’m more of a hands-on person,” he says. “Sitting at a desk didn’t suit me.”
He dropped out and enrolled in culinary school in Madison, Wisconsin, where he’d discover that one of his instructors had worked at the Upper West Side’s Picholine. “He changed the whole program, and that’s when I really started getting excited,” says Tomczak. “He was Italian, and he did what he was comfortable with. So I loved Italian and French. I did some trips to Italy — it really opened my eyes.” When Tomczak graduated, he and a few other students were invited by that instructor to come out to New York City and intern. Tomczak landed at Cello. “To this day, I’m blown away by what I saw there,” he says.
He would return to Madison to save some money, but he came back to the city permanently in 1999, building a career under Marcus Samuelsson, who hired him at Aquavit after a couple days of staging. “Every person in there was so good,” says Tomczak. “It was more of a setting where I could really put my foot down and work.” He’d go on to help Samuelsson with other projects, including a catering gig on a yacht, and then with Red Rooster and Ginny’s, with the stop at the French Culinary Institute in the interim. Tomczak had stepped out into consulting when King Bee began to come together in earnest, and after Klemm and Jackson signed the lease, he devoted himself to the kitchen there. The food, as it turned out, would draw on what he’d learned at Aquavit — dumplings, fish, and curing are all major components of King Bee.
Tomczak thinks restaurants like King Bee are becoming more common — and that that’s a good thing for aspiring toques. “Young cooks today are very fortunate,” he says. “A lot of cooks at the FCI wanted to work at Le Bernardin or Daniel. There’s nothing wrong with that; you’re going to learn a ton. But you’re also going to learn a ton from an up-and-coming chef with a small restaurant, because that chef is working day in and day out. So you get to work closely with a chef who’s really trying to strive for something — and they’re standing right next to you.”
Small restaurants also provide ample opportunity to observe one of Tomczak’s favorite parts of the industry: “I always found it a big joy to cook for someone and see the joy on their face when they eat,” he says. “That makes up for all the sleepless nights. You make people happy and you want them to come back. That’s a really great feeling.”