I’m sitting in the back of ABC Kitchen in New York City and chef Dan Kluger is telling me how not to be a prick. “You kind of need every possible strawberry there,” he says of his weekly berry hunts at the Union Square farmers market. “But you don’t want to be the neighborhood prick.” If winning awards, and the most-famous medal featuring a stoic-faced bald man, is any indication, Kluger has been a pretty good neighbor. Also, he won’t take the last berry. More on that later.
With the opening of ABC Kitchen in March 2010 in the back of the high-end furniture and home store of the same name, Kluger launched one of the most popular (and decorated) of the so-called farm-to-table restaurants to ever hit this town. (For the record, Kluger can barely utter the term.) This year alone he was both acknowledged as a Food & Wine Best New Chef and won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant 2011.
Of course all of this was a team effort, as Kluger stresses as we sip glasses of iced tea, refilled elegantly by his rosy-cheeked staff. And on this championship team, which hums all finely oiled through hundreds of breakfast, lunch, late-lunch, early-dinner, dinner, late-night covers a day, it’s Kluger’s Erik Spoelstra answering to Pat Riley, played down to the slicked hair by owner Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Just as with the Miami Heat, it’s a winning combination, that is for sure. It’s also a partnership that probably seemed unlikely for a guy who was once best known for spinning Black Moon LPs at Belmont Lounge.
Holy cow man, what a year, right? How does this all feel?
It was amazing, I didn’t expect any of it. We just set out to create a nice restaurant serving good food. I’m cooking the same kind of food that I’ve been cooking for years, just with different interpretations of it. I’ve been using farmers, most of whom I’ve had relationships with since 1997 or 1998.
But this concept, and the execution, really resonated with diners. What went right to get all this deserved recognition in one year? It’s a crazy amount of attention for one place.
It really is a crazy amount. I think there’s a lot to it: there’s somewhat the pure luck of it. Right time, right place. I also think that the space is really cool. The ABC team did a great job of designing the décor and the look of it, between day and night, are so different. That creates an exciting thing when you come back at a different time of day. It’s like a different restaurant.
I’ve said this every time I’ve dined at ABC Kitchen at night. The lighting makes everything look great. The people, the food. The people! You have a beautiful crowd, man.
The lighting is very flattering and I think in general the food is approachable and simple. It’s easy and reasonable and people know that it’s focusing on a local concept, which was the right time to do it. If you look at the [Union Square] farmers market today, versus two years ago, I think it’s increased exponentially in size.
In terms of the number of vendors, or the quality of vendors?
I think both. There are vendors here today that I had never seen before until around a year or so. I think that says a lot about how New Yorkers are viewing the local food movement and we’ve tried to make all of this less about buzzwords. We purchase a ton of stuff from these farms not for flattery, but because we believe in it and like the food that comes out of it. I think through all that it shined and people keep coming back for the food.
This appears to be the most difficult part of the interview, talking about your accolades. You seem like a very humble person and that you’d rather be at the market buying strawberries right now.
Let’s talk about some of the dishes. The mushroom pizza. I dream of that dish. You can’t take that off the menu, right? You’d better not. Why is it so popular?
I think it’s simple and delicious. Even if it is just slightly under-seasoned, or the egg is cooked a little more than it should be, it’s good. We snack on them all the time. The mushrooms, running egg, some chilies — it’s an earthy dish.
Let’s talk about the dish that you served in Aspen that I loved. You went all that way to serve corn and lime juice. [See the recipe]. That’s kind of a ballsy move. People are doing foie dishes and sous-vide and you show up with corn. Is that indicative of your style?
I think it’s indicative of the style of ABC, and I wanted to represent them while also representing myself. I wanted to go and do something that I knew I could do without jeopardizing the dish. We did Burger Bash and our burger had so many steps that it was impossible to pull off. I envisioned that and thought I should do something that’s like “scoop and serve” but that has good flavor.
Your restaurant is driven by the farmers market. Is summer your favorite season? I mean, this as good as it gets?
I think so. I like them all for different reasons. I love when fall/winter begins, but by the end I’m pretty tired of it. I love when spring begins and I can start getting asparagus and peas. Then it rolls into summer and it’s the cream of the crop because there is so much to choose from. The farmers’ market is so much fun to be in and it’s amazing to walk around in.
How often are you there?
I go Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays if I’m around.
If you show up tomorrow, what time will you be getting there?
What’s it like to go there now? Do you get your shopping done pretty quickly?
It’s a process as our quantity has increased by around 25% since we opened. Just finding enough of all those ingredients, and trying not to be the neighborhood prick that takes everything, but at the same time, you kind of need every strawberry there.
How do you not be that prick?
Part of it is first come, first serve. Farmers don’t give many discounts, so if it comes to a situation where they are tight on strawberries and I’m begging to take them all, I will pay the retail value — versus the maybe $4 flat discount they would have given because I understand that they could have sold them at retail value and sold out. Other than that, it’s about trying to be respectful. Someone might be like, “I can’t believe there are no more strawberries, I’m so pissed,” and so I’ll give him a pint of our strawberries on the house from us.
When you go to the market tomorrow, what will you be looking for?
Strawberries [laughs]. And raspberries, wild blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, corn, peas, favas, snow peas. Whatever is there, really.
Did you go to culinary school?
No, I did not.
Do you think you missed something in culinary school?
Yeah. I feel like I missed some of the classics. I’m not classically trained in say, French food. I don’t know about the mother sauces and all that. I know what I know from reading and teaching myself but it was never really part of my world. I started cooking at Union Square Café, where it’s simple seasonal American/Italian and I went from there to Tabla. There’s definitely stuff I missed in culinary school but at the same time, compared to people that I know of my time and around my age, that did go to school…I don’t think we’re incredibly different.
But you must have gotten your moves somewhere…
I’m self-taught in the sense that I started from the bottom up and spent all my time off reading books and going to Barnes and Noble before work. I’d go to Barnes and Noble, find a couple recipes that I liked and make them for family meal for the staff. It’s things like that that really taught me a lot.
What was your interview like with Danny [Meyer]?
I met Danny through a lecture series at Syracuse, where I went to school. We hit it off there and I didn’t really have a true interview process with him. I met with his managing partner Paul Bolles-Beaven to do an internship from college there over the summer, and that’s how I got started with Danny.
You’ve worked with both Jean-Georges and Danny. Are they more alike than different? Or more different than alike?
They’re pretty different. My relationship with each of them is different. Danny has always been a close friend, but from a workers’ relationship. He was at my wedding and has always been a friend and confidant. Jean-Georges is one of the boys. We’ll go out to dinner, hang out, talk and shoot the shit.
What is the main thing that you learned from each?
I think with both of them I learned general, big picture things. Danny is very much about what he refers to as “enlightened hospitality.” I think everybody asks things like, “what’s the special sauce?” and I don’t think it’s much about that. It’s about him being a really good and charitable person, and an incredible hirer.
You look at people that worked for him like Floyd [Cordoz], [Tom] Colicchio, Mike Romano. Danny did a great job at hiring all these amazing people and I learned a lot from that. I think his team always brought this very interesting “enlightened hospitality” and I try and apply that on a daily basis, in terms of the crew that I have and hopefully they feel respected and understand that they’re a big part of something.
And from J.G…
From Jean-Georges, I’ve learned a ton about food, a lot about business and running these restaurants. He’s got 30-something restaurants worldwide and that’s very hard.
Does he come to the restaurant often?
He’s typically here one or two times a week.
What’s that like?
Sometimes we set up specific tastings if I’m changing the menu, and other times he’ll come to just check on things and say hello to some people.
Do you guys meet weekly?
No. We’ll talk a couple times per week about things that are going on, like “I want to change these two things, can you come by on such and such date?”
During this interview I’ve heard songs from a couple of my favorite bands—Cut Copy and Hot Chip. Do you have something to do with the music here?
Do you like it?
Most of the time, yes [laughs]. I only have something to do with the New Years Eve mix, which sometimes rolls into play on other nights of the week.
I read on Eater that you were a DJ at Belmont Lounge? I want to hear more about this!
I was DJ from 1995 to probably 2000 or so.
What music were you playing there?
Everything. Hip-hop, old school R&B, disco, soul. All vinyls. I used to lug around all those fucking crates…
How did you find time when you were in the kitchen to DJ?
I DJd every Saturday night. I started work at about 10 a.m. and didn’t get there until 11 p.m., sometimes in the nick of time. I would run down the street from work. I’d DJ until four or so, get home around five, then back to work at 10 a.m.
Do you have good memories of those five years?
It was fun. It wasn’t a rave every night, but it was a cool place and people liked the music. It got a little more rowdy than I think they wanted it to get sometimes. And it was good money.
Give me some reference points for the songs you played..
Tons of A Tribe Called Quest. Some early Jay-Z, L.L., Biggie, Black Moon. There was a lot of disco, soul, R&B type of stuff, like The Emotions, Cheryl Lynn.
I thought you would be more into rock music for some reason.
Very little rock, and I can’t do the whole trance thing. It was fun party music.
It must have been exhausting to work all day and then to have to stay up.
I’ve always been tired but energetic.
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