It’s no secret that New York City is full of talented people who often pop up in unexpected places. In a studio on a ho-hum block in Chelsea, in between a furniture store and wood-flooring shop, you can find 22-year-old Theo Friedman cooking up a creative storm on most Friday and Saturday nights.
Friedman tells the Voice his “Theory Kitchen” tasting menu series, priced from $70 to $90 (with optional $45 beverage pairing), “is about two basic principles — I want to cook and I want to bring together interesting people.” During his college years at Tufts University, Friedman spent summers working in NYC kitchens like Gotham Bar and Grill, wd-50, and The Musket Room. He says he’d return to school each fall “desperately needing some sort of creative outlet for all the ideas [I] had,” and so he began preparing dinners in his dorm room.
For a recent dinner, Friedman and his support team — sous chef Nick Dynan, and front-of-the-house manager Ian Russell — kick off the evening with a cucumber, apple, and dill refresher while other guests (fourteen total) arrive and mingle. The space is striking; for more than thirty years it served as a photography studio, and it features an open kitchen, floor-to-ceiling windows, and enough square footage to accommodate at least one hundred people. Friedman calls it “a big white box with potential to transform itself to fit whatever event is happening at the moment.”
At a simply set table, a succession of thirteen plates follow, each one more akin to the immaculate space than the otherwise casual ambiance suggests, more complex and unexpected than the one before. The first course, “Our bread. Our jam. Our butter,” may sound uninspired, but eating the soft, warm dough felt deeply comforting. The bread was paired with bacon jam and salted butter, a combination that proved memorable.
As the series of courses progress, a recurring theme is revealed — Friedman takes familiar ingredients and spins them into something surprising. “Butternut squash. Goat cheese” is presented as a kind of sandwich, with paper-thin butternut squash chips enclosing a creamy goat cheese mousse and purple cabbage powder, and a dessert called “Rice Crispy Treat” incorporates a pork chicharron yet is somehow still sweet. Around the table, diners are saying “I’m not sure what I’m eating, but I like it,” while their camera phones attempt to capture the artfully composed plates. Between courses the guests alternate between jovial dinner conversation and standing up to watch Friedman and Dynan plate their dishes with tweezers and eyedroppers.
Friedman describes his cooking style as “spontaneous and inspired by what is around me at the moment,” but it obviously requires focus, precision, and discipline far beyond his age. When one course incorporating chicken pâté, beets, and pickled blackberry was served, Friedman told us, “I know it’s pretty, but it’s a play on different temperatures and must be eaten quickly.” In other words, don’t spend ten minutes composing the perfect Instagram.
Despite the subtlety of the service and the sophistication of the food, Theory Kitchen doesn’t feel inaccessible. From the Justin Bieber soundtrack to the laid-back hospitality (“take your shoes off and lie on the couch if you want”), dinner here feels a lot like hanging out around the table with college friends — only with much better food.
Information about upcoming events and tickets to dinners can found on Theory Kitchen’s website, Instagram, or via email at email@example.com.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 19, 2016