“Right now, what I crave the most is being able to reconnect with our past,” chef Will Horowitz begins. “How can we use old methods and techniques to solve a lot of sustainability issues while creating food that’s really decadent, whether served on a tasting menu or chopped in a butcher shop?”
It’s a big question for the young chef, who’s slightly over thirty and already with two successful businesses under his belt, Ducks Eatery and Harry & Ida’s Meat and Supply Co., both in the East Village.
Horowitz was on a small island between Burma and Thailand, meditating and cooking food he had fished, foraged, or hunted, when he was called home to New York to open the kitchen services at Susan Sarandon’s Spin club (a teenage ping-pong champion himself, the call wasn’t as random as it sounds). Pulling his sister Julie in to manage it for him — she’d been off teaching on an island herself — they opened as Ducks Eatery, later relocating to a permanent home on East 12th Street.
There, Horowitz played with dishes like crispy pigs’ ears served in lettuce cups with pickled onion and microgreens; shrimp ceviche teeming with applewood smoke; a brisket that won him the title of Brisket King of New York; and a goat neck curry that started out as a special and ended up becoming a signature dish.
Without realizing it at the time, that goat neck dish was a part of his bigger desire to help create a more sustainable system for farmers. “That’s what it’s all about for me,” Horowitz says. “If a farmer is having trouble selling their goat necks — selling them for dog food or fertilizer — how can we have the conversation to find a better use for them, like smoking or preserving to make them something special? I can turn them around and sell them for more money, giving my business financial stability and paying the farmer more so that they’re not losing on their scraps.”
While focusing on Ducks, Horowitz started experimenting at length with other forms of preservation, like aging and curing meats, turning excess garlic into black garlic, and pickling vegetables for an extended shelf life. But city laws on preservation are brutal, and so he had his work cut out for him when opening Harry & Ida’s, where he smokes eels, ages charcuterie, and explores these heritage techniques.
“Our main challenge now is that we want to do all of this stuff legally,” he says. “Either we do it legally or it has nominal value.” He’s invested in testing his techniques and learning the political game, from having one person on his staff who specializes in cellular structure to spending time at Penn State’s meat and agriculture department working with scientists to working with Nicole Day of AgriForaging to make sure they’re doing everything by the book. He stocks his shelves with items made in house and specialty products brought in locally that work within his philosophy, like kimchis, dried mushrooms, and preserved fish.
He hopes this obsessive focus will translate to customers while continuing a shift toward a more natural, sustainable diet. “I don’t want people to look at these old heritage techniques as if they’re giving up the convenience of being able to microwave or cook something à la minute,” he says. “In truth, these old techniques and scraps have the ability to make your life easier and cut down cooking time altogether. Plus they have the power to connect small farms that are barely making money to small restaurants that are barely making money to a community that’s barely making money.”
He recognizes the trouble with that last statement, as restaurants that practice sustainability often have high check tabs, making their food unaffordable for most working-class New Yorkers. His own pastrami sandwich comes in at $17. But he understands that, for now, the price tag reflects the fact that only larger restaurants with high volume can sustain certain practices, like bringing in and breaking down a whole heritage pig on a weekly basis. (That sandwich, by the by, comes smothered in buttermilk-fermented cucumbers, cracked rye berry, and anchovy mustard.)
Horowitz hopes that stronger relationships with farmers will help advance sustainability on all financial levels: “Cooking seasonally, working with farmers, and the understanding that things should be grown to taste good and not look good is just the first step. We have to get to the point where we’re going to the farmers’ market for something that’s going to pair with the monkfish loins that we preserved a month ago.” He wants eating naturally to be a big-picture, full-circle practice.
To that end, Horowitz is setting up the structure of his business so that he can eventually start a farm upstate to supply his city ventures, plus maybe have a small tasting-menu restaurant devoted purely to what’s grown on site. But until then, he’s staying put in the Village, practicing new sciences with age-old techniques and a bit of sentimentality.
“The thing that I love most right now,” he says, “besides foraging and being outside, is really learning people’s stories. We have so many antique cookbooks, and we have our own test space where we can apply them and create our own products and figure out how they all work together. Being able to be creative based on telling this story…yeah, that’s what I love most right now.”