It took Bara (58 East 1st Street, 917-639-3197) chef Ian Alvarez until he was working at Momofuku Noodle Bar to realize he’d been trained as a French chef. He’d gone to culinary school in his early twenties, then spent time in kitchens in Los Angeles and New York, working with people who’d trained at prolific restaurants like Picholine and Per Se. But he’d always favored small, personal restaurants, where training was less formal than at those gastronomic temples, and so it wasn’t until he was behind the line at Momofuku, cooking Japanese food with a serious French foundation, that he realized he was well versed in classic technique.
At his next gig, behind the burners at French Louie in Brooklyn, he began ruminating on what he’d open when the time came to run his own place. “I started to think about what my actual skill set was and how to marry that to what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be as a chef,” he says. “I realized my limitations — I’d never been a fine-dining chef. I know how to do a type of restaurant: casual, but with fine-dining-quality food with a European foundation.”
He began pondering combining Japanese and French flavors; to refine his concept, he considered the types of restaurants he’d cook at in those countries. “Wine bars, cafés, bistros, and izakayas — they all naturally correlate culturally,” he says. “These are casual settings with lots of types of food on offer. There’s a culture of drinking and eating in both places. The way that people use the restaurant is similar.”
When he and his business partner saw the address that would become Bara, it seemed like a perfect fit for the concept. Alvarez got carte blanche to write the menu, and while he’s remained true to his original vision, four months in, he’s still tinkering with it, as he refines exactly who he wants to be as an executive chef. He points to the restaurant’s whole-roasted fish as an example of where he’d like to take the whole menu: “When we first put it on the menu, I did it how I’d always done it,” he says. “I just grilled it and plated it. But then I did some research and learned that around New Year’s, salted sea bream is big in Japan. You take the fish, score it, and let it sit in salt for 24 hours. I tried it, and now I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it that way. It dries out the skin, so you get this nice sear, and the meat is super-moist. That fish is indicative of what I want the restaurant to be — more than a sum of its parts. It’s delicious.”
Alvarez fell into cooking almost by accident. After working as a busboy in the Bronx when he was a teenager, and in the front of the house in Boston and L.A., he landed a job at a country club. One day, when a cook didn’t show up, he found himself manning the grill out on the green between the ninth and tenth holes. Suddenly, he was being scheduled for more and more kitchen shifts, and before he knew it, he’d become a permanent member of the line.
His first job after culinary school was with Terri Wahl at Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock, California, where he worked alongside musicians who would float through the ranks when they needed money. “The guitarist of the Brian Jonestown Massacre was their cupcake froster,” he says. “I was like, You’re the fucking guitarist of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It was mind-blowing. The food was good — I saw that there was not just one version of what a restaurant can be.”
When he moved back to New York, he was pulled toward smaller, more unusual places, like Frankies Spuntino and Buttermilk Channel. He took a position at Momofuku Noodle Bar because he admired its soul, and craved experience with a bigger place.
Now that he has his own place, Alvarez admits he’s occasionally flying by the seat of his pants. “I’m kind of out here without a guideline,” he says. “All of the decisions are made on the fly, and I’m trying to figure out my style as a chef. I have a firm grasp on the food we are doing here, but I’m still figuring out how to manage the kitchen without anyone over you. I’m trying to walk that balance between being a friendly place and a place that takes what it does very seriously. That idea that being a little naive yields good results — I’m constantly banking on that right now.”