It was the night after the James Beard Awards, a time when most chefs were recovering from hangovers after partying all night with colleagues and cohorts from around the USA, and yet, in a dining room perched over the FDR Drive, there they were, working an event like it was any other day. David Chang. April Bloomfield. Tom Colicchio. Who lured these A-listers out on a night when most chefs were laying low? That'd be Sisha Ortuzar, the chef and entrepreneur, who'd assembled these big names and others on behalf of the Sustainable Seafood Shindig, a cause that's near to his heart.
Ortuzar isn't a household name like his partner, Colicchio, who he started working with back in 1997 at the Gramercy Tavern and then followed to Craft, but his accomplishments have earned him a significant place in the city's culinary scene. A Chilean who grew up in Santiago, Ortuzar came to New York City in 1996, teaming up with Colicchio and eventually helping the various Craft restaurants take off. In 2003, he created 'wichcraft, an upscale sandwich concept that now boasts 15 locations. In 2010, he oversaw the launch of Riverpark, where he serves as executive chef and also oversees a mobile urban farm, from which he sources vegetables for the restaurant.
Here, he tells us how he managed to get Chang, Bloomfield, Marco Canora, Bill Telepan, Anita Lo, Rick Moonen and others to stump for sustainable seafood the night after the Beards this past May, and discusses the creation and growth of 'wichcraft, how he built Riverpark's farm and his ongoing relationship with Mr. Top Chef himself.
You lured some impressive chefs to come to the Sustainable Seafood Shindig. What was that process like?
We wanted to have people who have some sort of commitment or interest in the subject of sustainability or seafood. I’m very surprised at all of the positive response. I thought that I would strike out a lot more with getting chefs to do this because I gotta tell you, it’s not easy to get chefs to commit to doing events. There’s just way too many of them.
And it was the day after the James Beard Awards!
Yeah. So what happened was, we had picked the dates for this event before they announced the date. And the folks at Sustainable Seafood Week, they did a very conscientious look at all the events in May. They knew every event that was happening in May, so I was like alright, this is the perfect week. And then sure, after we had invited everybody and were ready to go, the James Beard awards were announced. And then we looked as it as an opportunity, because maybe there will be some people who are in town for the awards, and they might wanna stick around and join.
I wanted to ask you about the farm at Riverpark because I came here three years ago when you were first starting it. It was in the space next door, and you wound up moving it across the street. How do you move a farm?
We knew it was going to have to move. So it was there for two full seasons, and our landlord and partner decided when it was time to build a tower [on that land], and it was like all right, we have to move it. But it had been such a successful endeavor just all around. It had been great for us as a restaurant, the ability to grow things, but also it brought a lot of people here. We do weekly tours. during the summertime we do workshops. We work with a lot of schools. So it’s a lot of community involvement, so it was really good for that. When it was time to move because of the construction, we took it down at the end of the season, so it was around November. Then, during the spring of 2013, we laid it out again. So now it’s divided in two pieces. One is on the south side of the building and one is on the north side of the building. It’s about the same amount of growing space as we had before, it’s just split up. Given that it was built on milk crates, it made it really easy to not only relocate, but also reshape. Because it’s basically like Legos: you can make it into any shape you want.
And you’re literally putting ingredients from the farm on the menu. I just ate a salad here; was that from the garden?
Yes, in that salad that you just had, a lot of that stuff is from the garden. The flowers were there, arugula flowers, mustard seed flowers, a lot of the micros, the radishes, and some of the different greens. In the middle of summer time, everything is coming from there.
How did you get so interested in all this stuff? How did you start out?
I started cooking in Chile, went to school, lived in New Orleans for a while, moved here, and I started working with Tom in ’97 at Gramercy Tavern. In the kitchen. So I was there for about 5 years, and then in 2002 moved over to the Craft part of things, and then in 2003, worked on the idea to create ‘wichcraft, that concept. And so since 2003, I’ve been working with Jeffrey Zurofsky, who is my other partner with Tom, developing that. So for about 10 years, I kind of went away from the kitchen, into building this other business.
And that’s gone really well right? How many locations do you have?
It’s gone well, yes. We have 15 locations.
All in New York City?
One in San Francisco, and then the rest in New York City.
Was 'wichcraft an idea that you came up with?
Well the exact genesis of this changes depending on who you ask, but basically what happened was, Tom and I were doing an event out of town. And we were having burgers after work and we started chatting about this idea of doing something else. And there was a Craft bar that had recently opened and there was a space next to it and the landlord had offered it. So we were talking, like well, what if we did a craft bar to go, and then came up with the idea of sandwiches. I mean right now, it seems like whatever, of course. And it’s not like we invented sandwiches, clearly. But the idea is that we were going to do sandwiches the way a cook eats sandwiches. Which is – you’re a cook, you’re in the kitchen, you don’t have time to sit down and eat. So you grab bread and whatever is on your station goes on the bread. That’s your sandwich, that’s your meal. So it started from the idea of that. We took the space and did it as an experimental thing – it was a short lease, we said let’s see if this works. So that’s when we started that business, brought Jeffrey Zurofsky on. And then from there, we worked on it a little bit, we saw that this has legs, we can grow it.
That must have been a fun time, to be in charge of testing the sandwiches.
Yeah, yeah! So it started out a lot like that, where I was just in charge of testing sandwiches. But then the whole thing was done so lean that I was doing that, but at the same time I was also managing the construction – we didn’t actually hire an architect. I did the design just on the back of a napkin. So I had to learn a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been doing. So it was very interesting and very fun, but it’s not the easiest way to start a business. It creates a lot of discipline and you create good things when you don’t have a lot of resources to do something, but at the same time, you can make things a little bit harder. It takes longer. So it’s been 11 years now. It’s been extremely rewarding and interesting. But it’s been challenging for sure.
Has Tom always been supportive of it?
Yeah, of course! Tom is a very supportive kind of guy. He’s the kind of guy that if he trusts what you’re doing, and once you get to a point where there’s a common philosophy, a common language and we think alike, he’s very trusting. And so from the get-go, we did this as a partnership.
And it must have been an interesting time because at the same time you’re doing that, his TV career started to kick off right around then. But he was always committed to all that stuff?
Yeah. So first of all, the TV thing, I think people tend to look at it like, well, he’s doing TV now. But in reality, they only film for a few weeks at a time. They air the show over a period of months, and you might get the impression that he’s doing this thing [the whole time] – but he’s not. We have a really great team, and when you think about all the things that we do, from the 15 ‘wichcrafts that we have to the nine full service restaurants that we have in the groups combined, there’s just no way that any of that could be dependent on one person.
So ‘wichcraft becomes your job for a while. And then you decided you wanted to go back in the kitchen? How did Riverpark come about?
It was one of those things that wasn’t really planned. It basically was a great opportunity to come to a place of the city that is – you can look at it as a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s in the middle of nowhere, depending on how you look at it. When someone tells you you’re gonna do a restaurant on 1st Avenue and 29th Street, the first thing you picture is just some grimy corner. But then you come to the water, and here we are, in this beautiful place on the water. In New York, we don’t have a lot of opportunity here for waterfront anything. And it’s also an opportunity to reinvent a piece of the city. I don’t know, that sounds pretentious. Not reinvent, but to do something in a place that is not overdone, overused and fight with everybody else who is there. So it was just kind of a thing that happened, and we took advantage of it. And we said, yeah, let’s just do it and try to do the best thing for this place.
What about the vision as far as the food goes?
It’s American cooking. The direction of the food has always been a collaboration between me and Bryan Hunt, who is actually the chef of this restaurant. And he’s been here from day one. When we started I was the executive chef and he was the chef de cuisine, and he’s been for a few years now the chef while I am free to pursue other things or oversee other projects. And so in the collaboration, it’s always been the things that we like to eat, and we like to think of it as American food, but that’s very vague. We think more of it as New York-driven food. It’s also very very much driven by the vegetables that we grow.
So it’s been about four years here now and you’ve got Riverpark on track. What are you looking to do next?
We’re working together now a lot more lately with our fine dining part of Tom’s endeavor, with the other restaurants and the other teams. We’re working on a couple of projects.
You’ve been down there?
And that’s gonna open this year sometime?
It’s supposed to come out later this year.
[Note: It was announced earlier this year that Colicchio will open a restaurant at 1 Hotel & Homes South Beach.]
You mentioned fine dining as being a focus. Is that because you think the economy has come back and that’s what diners want?
It’s not a focus on fine dining, more like full service. So differentiating between a full service restaurant and a limited service restaurant, which is like a counter service. We’re focusing on both, but personally, for the last 11 years it was all about limited service, now you’re all into full service. I think that there is some room for the return to fine dining. I think that what’s gonna come back strong is not necessarily the fanciness, but more of like the service and the comfort of fine dining. I think that what people want now is the approachable, fun, exciting food. But in an environment where it’s actually enjoyable to sit for a few hours where you can hear your friend and have a conversation and not have to wait three hours in line hoping that you’re gonna get a table. So kind of like bringing dining to a more civilized manner, where for a few years I think it was almost like a blood sport, with no reservations. I think that that’s getting a little old.
Do you guys have a vision to expand on some of the existing brands, or would you be creating new brands?
I think a combination. Some of ‘wichcraft, we’ve always considered going to another city, not San Francisco but something closer. And with the restaurants, it seems like it just makes more sense sometimes to create new concepts. It’s kind of case by case.
More FR Interviews on Food Republic:
- Eric Ripert On Cookbooks, Buddhism
- For Brooklyn Butcher Tom Mylan, It's Grill Big Or Go Home
- Marc Murphy Reflects On 10 Years As A Restaurateur