Chef Rebecca Weitzman didn’t start cooking until she was twenty-five. In fact, when she told her mother — the cook of the family — that she had sweet-talked her way into a job at a hotel restaurant, “the first words out of her mouth were: ‘Rebecca, you don’t know how to cook!’ Which had never occurred to me!” Weitzman tells the Voice.
Two weeks in that kitchen and the chef called her bluff. But, recognizing that she was a hard worker and obviously loved the work she was doing, he started to teach her how to cook from step one. “I saved up for culinary school by working in kitchens, and that was that,” she says. “I went to six colleges, not knowing what I wanted to do — education, psychology — and nothing stuck. Then I found cooking, and I didn’t know what else I would ever want to do again.”
Weitzman graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and ended up in Denver, working her way up the ranks until she was the Executive Chef at Café Star, where she stayed for three years. But back then, she claims, Denver didn’t yet have the strong food scene it does today, ripe with growth.
“It was the kind of big-fish-in-a-small-pond feeling,” she explains. “I wanted to really challenge myself again and, of course, the best place to do that is New York.” She returned to New York and — over the course of a few years — worked at Bar American, ‘Inoteca, Thistle Hill, and with the Forgeois Group. Finally, she landed at Chalk Point Kitchen last November, taking over from chef Joe Isidori.
Her menu focuses on seasonal and local ingredients in the way most contemporary New York restaurants are wont to do. She slowly transitioned from Isidore’s Asian-influenced dishes to her own appetite, which loosely centers around a Southern European farm-to-table mentality. As she gears up to celebrate her busy fall season and her first year at the helm, she’s focusing the menu on the same fascination with cooking food that she fell in love with in that first kitchen.
“Ingredients make sense to me,” she says. “I love textures, and different seasonings, and spices and the whole organic process of it, and seeing how things change over time, and how you cook them with different cooking processes…. I would say that I’m really obsessed with textures and vegetables. I love vegetables. I love them. Most of my food is surrounded by or based on them. It’s not like where you have a big steak, and then the vegetable is secondary. I find vegetables in season and figure what goes well with them.”
Keeping in mind her health-conscious regulars (and routine celebrity clientele), Weitzman uses those seasonal vegetables to their best advantage. She uses the textures of fried food sparingly. Her heirloom tomato and watermelon gazpacho, for example, includes almonds and a cold-smoked sea scallop on top, with a flash-fried avocado garnish for crunch.
Other vegetables get even more of a spotlight treatment. Romano beans — one of the ten offerings on the “Vegetables to Share” menu — are grilled until they reach a deep char, then served with crispy capers, finely grated Pecorino, and a vinaigrette made from summer savory herb that tastes “like thyme and rosemary together, almost. The saltiness [of the capers] goes well with the vinegar and the herbs, and you’re eating these giant grilled beans with a knife and fork like meat, but it’s healthy.”
Her Baked Zucchini Parmesan is another dish that thrills: par-roasted zucchini is layered with a light helping of ricotta, Grana Padano, herbs, basil, and fresh tomato, and then it’s all baked. “It’s super light, and it gives you that kid feeling of eating a guilty pleasure — but it’s healthy, too.”
Weitzman’s been back in New York for years now. Along with the relationships with her farmers and purveyors, she credits the city’s energy with keeping her focused and moving ahead. Then there’s the competition of up-and-coming talent, too.
“There are fifty strong cooks a day working in a place like Eleven Madison Park. They’re gonna work there for five years and come out being brilliant chefs after that environment. There are young, hungry cooks waiting to become chefs.”
So instead of focusing on new trends, resting on the laurels of what she’s accomplished since moving back to the “big pond,” or turning out the same dishes season after season — Weitzman stresses the importance of always “reinventing yourself.”
She clarifies: “Even if you have the same style, you have to push your techniques.” Once she’s hit her year mark at Chalk Point Kitchen, she’ll take stock of what’s worked really well — and what could go by the wayside. Supported by the “Just do it!” creative mentality she says her employers encourage, she’ll dream up some special tasting menus and events. Along with textures and vegetables, creativity is what — at heart — keeps her going.
“Now that I have my bearings here, how do I keep it interesting for myself and my customers? I’m looking forward to the cool things we can do to keep ourselves excited and focused.”