Jesse Schenker is the head chef at Recette in the West Village, NYC. Daniella Illerbrand sat down with him for a talk about inspiration.
By Daniella Illerbrand
To Jesse Schenker, inspiration is essential to cooking. I asked Jesse about how he finds inspiration and how he wants to evolve in his style of cooking and the answers I got are insightful and deep, and I also found a chef that is gentle in spirit and mind. It was refreshing to see the respect that he has for other chefs and also how level headed he is about his own cooking and the hardships that comes from owning a relatively new restaurant.
How do you find inspiration, both in your life as a successful chef and also how do you manage to evolve as a restaurant owner?
I think that maybe successful chefs that are older might have trouble finding inspiration in the everyday life; it is more instinctual when you are young. Older and more experienced chefs might plateau at a certain point, but they are not regressing – they are progressing and simplifying their style, using less ingredients and not sacrificing taste for style of presentation.
When I was younger and in culinary school, I was inspired and looked to the older chefs like David Bouley, he made this ocean herbal broth in the early 90’s with 44 different ingredients that was really amazing. But today we can maybe do the same thing with fewer ingredients, and with the same results. But I still love the old cookbooks, and find inspiration from them. Especially today when cooking is supposed to be so Avant-garde and simplified and the whole new Nordic movement, witch is super interesting. I still have to cook what inspires me. And if it is the old style sauces with my twist on them that is what I am going to do. I can’t cook by following trends; I have to stay true to what inspires me. And whatever I make, I make sure that the knife work is perfect and the ingredients is the best that I can get.
Today there is a market overflowing with food magazines and TV shows, how do you as a professional relate to that market
I do not really read food magazines for inspiration these days, the only one I can relate to is David Chang’s Lucky Peach, it is real and shows the truth about the industry these days, it opened up for a new kind of publications that relates to the restaurant professional and not so much to the home cook.
I do how ever get caught watching the food network from time to time, and as silly as it seems I can find inspiration in something that for example Ina Garten makes, even if I do not necessary relates to the show I can see something happen in the program that I can take with me and use in a dish. I stay open to all inspiration that comes my way, I live and breathe food so it is natural for me to find interesting things everywhere that relates to food. People might make fun of me for this but it is truly just a way of looking at things with an open mind, I live and breathe this. Food is everything to me. Maybe someone is making something that is supposed to be a dessert and I will look at it and think that it would make a really great foie gras garnish. The key for me is to stay open and humble.
Will that be hard for you when today a lot of chefs become rock stars?
I don’t know, I really could not tell you. We have been open for 2 years now and we have gotten a lot of accolades, but I look down and see that my feet are firmly planted on the ground. And I think that I have every reason to be a little bit cocky, I feel more confident than cocky, but then I realize that as much as I know there is so much more to learn. There is a lot of uncharted territory out there and I think that the second I think I know it all I will stop learning, and I don’t think that I am nearly near the point of knowing enough.
In the end of the day I am driven by tasty food, I do my best to make the food look the best that I can but it is not the focal point. The visual appeal of the plate is not the main thing, the flavor is. The first time the order come in is the first time the plate is complete, all the components are tasted together and separately, the fish should taste right, the garnish should be perfect. But the look of the plate is secondary to me.
I did notice that you are not shy with salt and acidity, which is wonderful because some American chef shy away from salt.
I believe that all food needs to be seasoned, acidity and salt are the two main things, pepper is not a season it is a flavor.
Salt and acidity is the best and I love it. It makes the whole dish and elevates it.
What do you take with you from other restaurants that you visit?
If I go to another restaurant that have a dish that is similar or use a protein a similar way and I don’t like something about it I can go back to my restaurant and revisit my original thoughts about said protein and say to my staff ¨do not do this to that particular produce¨ or if I had something creamy that lacked acidity I can look a little more critical on a dish that I have and maybe want to add acidity to it.
Recette has been open for 2 years and you obviously had a strong idea of what you wanted to put on the plate, how long did it take you to get here?
Well it is funny cause we talked about this at home, I have goals and things that I want, and a lot of them are of course financial. Culinary I think that I pretty quickly figured out my style, but that can also change. And I am sure that it will evolve, I know where I am now and where I was.
I moved to NY on 2006, I had worked for the substantial chefs in Florida and was kind of maxed out, so I moved to New York and I staged everywhere. Worked in all the 4 star kitchens, I wanted to see everything. And what I learned wasn’t new flavors or how to work with new produce it was how to master your kitchen, master the techniques and learn about the importance of cleanliness. All the things that make a chef a chef.
My staff might think that I am a control freak, the restaurant has 45 seats and I love that fact that I can see it all from the kitchen, I can touch every plate.
I looked into your kitchen and it is miniscule, how is it working in there, do you ever feel that if you had a bigger kitchen it would be easier to accomplice more things?
Absolutely, that is where the financial goals come in, of course I would love to have a bigger kitchen with a great stove, but do I necessarily need it? No, I think that because we are limited we push ourselves more, and that is why I created these Mondays with Jesse dinners once a month.
We clear out the dining room and we have 25 diners and only one seating and do off the cuff menus and really push ourselves. They are always experimental and everyone is a guinea pig. We have no walk in, so fish will come in, we will clean it, use it for service and then new will come in tomorrow. And therefor our mise en place is brutal but food is fresh.
It is great though; I designed every feet of it to work the way I wanted. It has evolved great.
It is a sign of a great kitchen when the kitchen works so smooth for a small place, how many seating do you do in one night?
We usually do 2 seating’s, sometimes 3 on Saturdays, typical New York style, but my rent is high.
But it is really fun. There is a great payoff that is not about money; it is meeting the people that love to eat. New Yorkers are loyal but you are only as good as your last meal.
I know that you got your start in Florida but I do not see any of Florida in your cooking?
When I grew up there was a great Floridian movement with a lot of mango salsa on top of seafood and a lot of cooked fruit, I do not like cooked fruit, and I don’t even like fruit that much!
What are your thoughts on service?
Well the whole service issue is hard in New York where a lot of people only work in the food industry because they need an easy job while trying to do something else, like acting or modeling. I have a lot of great people working for me and they are important to the restaurant, but it is always hard to inspire people that don’t love food, or do not really take their job seriously. But this is not an easy job and it takes a lot of hard work to become great at it. And also, respect your job by coming to work in a clean shirt, be clean, take the ring out of your nose and be on time. All basic stuff.
You have such high ambitions, how are you going to manage in the future with all this success for such a small restaurant?
Well this is a mom and pop restaurant that make elaborate 7 course menus, we do not have the resources to pay for a maître d’ that is of the caliber that we need, so I do everything and my wife helps out the best she can. Hopefully we can manage that way.
How do you handle yelp and the other blogs?
I handle it by not even open yelp! I look at a few of them but I can’t cater to everyone so I take it in stride. I wonder sometimes though when I group of vegans come in and want to eat here, why they chose this restaurant, I will cook vegan food for them but it is not my specialty. You just cant please everyone.
Technology have changed everything, with twitter, instagram etc. I don’t think anyone cares what I had for breakfast.
But everyone is welcome here, I don’t have any rules about photography or taking notes, if you want to take my picture, fine.
Finally, where do you go to eat on a rare night off?
Soto, its Japanese I you haven’t been you should go; Japanese food is my favorite food to eat. The pureness and the technique are amazing. And I am into rice, it is my thing now, I go to Japanese restaurants and I watch how they do the rice. You realize who knows about rice and who doesn’t.
I wont go to Masa and pay that money so I go to Soto. (http://www.sotonyc.com/)
I leave Jesse, and I feel really happy, it is inspiring to me to talk to people that really love food.