Michelin-starred chef Brad Farmerie has an extensive resume, both in terms of the restaurants he helms in NYC – Public, Double Crown, Madame Geneva and The Monday Room – as well as the cuisines he plays with.
What most impressed me about this multi-talented chef, however, is how much fun he has tackling it all – though he is serious about food, Brad seems to always be wearing a smile, and makes the best of every situation.
He was impressed when I first told him my list of allergies and intolerances, but then he chuckled and told me how excited he was about that kind of challenge: “Give me twenty-four hours notice,” he said, promising to blow my socks off.
When DW and I showed up at Public a few weeks later, we weren’t prepared for the tasting menu that awaited us: each dish was unique, delicious and – best of all – fun. The colours, the flavours, the way the food was served, the service and attention to detail – everything was laid-back, done without the fanfare one might expect from an award-winning restaurant, and yet nothing was less than stunning.
I think I could rave about Brad's fantastic attitude and his incredible cooking until the cows come home – but I’d rather let his interview speak for itself. And, most importantly, if you have a chance, I strongly urge you to try out his restaurants. Since that first magical visit, we have celebrated milestones and birthdays there as well as turned up on random Tuesday nights – and every meal, every bite has been a thoroughly wonderful experience.
So thank you, Brad, not only for opening up during our interview and for your attitude towards Picky Foodies, but also for serving such wonderful ambiance, food and experiences.
The Picky Foodie: Do you have a lot of people who come to your restaurants with special requests?
Brad Farmerie: I think that most NY restaurants will have seen almost everything thrown at them at some point -- people who can’t eat this, who can’t eat that. I can’t speak for other restaurants, but here we embrace that and I think we have good flexibility in the kitchen as well as pretty good knowledge of dietary restrictions. We print a sheet as to what the common food allergens are in each dish, can they be removed and also we kind of update the staff on, you know, gluten – what it is, where it comes from, what the hidden spots are for gluten, like soy sauce and things like that. Even some fish sauces. And so I think it’s the whole knowledge is power thing where the waiter is already at the table and they don’t have to rush off to the kitchen and check to see if this can be done. But also if people have a huge list of things they have an issue with, we always say if you could let us know ahead of time because we could even make something special that isn’t on the menu. I think that our style of cooking is pretty light and fresh so it’s much easier to substitute.
TPF: Is it your preference that people call ahead?
BF: I think that if we have a little bit of notice – we’ve had people that have an extensive list and it’s hard to do last minute that way. But again if we’re given 24 or 48 hours it’s much easier because that’s usually the prep time the kitchen’s working with. You’re prepping for that night and maybe the next night. People should never be punished for this – you still want to give them a great meal. I think that people are sometimes punished for being vegetarians or vegans. I think that’s a nice challenge and it’s a nice hurdle – let me jump over it! I want to give them something great. We always have vegan-friendly dishes on our menus, which also tends to help with certain allergies, so we can already steer them in the right direction.
TPF: How has that changed over the years that you’ve been cooking?
BF: Well the no-carbs thing seemed to hit like a baseball bat. I had been in England and moved back in 2003 and I was amazed. It’s not even a dietary restriction, it’s more of a preference or in some cases fads where people are moving in certain directions. The no-carbs thing was OK. You can’t lecture the table, you just have to figure out what you’re going to do. I know that in general there’s a lot more issues with gluten, with dairy, with peanuts than there have ever been before. I think the big ones, at least the ones that we see are obviously the shellfish, the peanuts, the dairy and gluten. Those are the main ones.
TPF: Has that affected how you’ve developed menus or menu items?
BF: Not Necessarily but we always have a gluten free tamari that we can substitute for the soy sauce. We always – 90% of the time – we make any nut removable so it’s not an integral part of the dish so that it can be pulled out. Some of the best information we’ve gotten has been from employees that have issues. Because they are constantly reminding you of what they can’t eat and so you start to think of how you’re cooking. Even when you’re making the staff meal, you’re thinking OK let’s make this so that it can be removed. For example, we deal with a lot of non-pork so we make sure that that’s not an integral part of the dish – unless it’s a pork chop, or bacon. Then just don’t order it! This isn’t an allergy but rather religious beliefs, but we never put pork bones into stock for instance – we would never do that. We also have a separate cutting board for pork. I think just because we’ve had so many people that work for us that don’t eat pork. We also have a litany of bowls so that one’s always for salads and we have tons of surgical gloves so if people have a severe allergy it’s plated with the gloves on and then they’re thrown away. I think, like I said, NY prepares you for everything so you have no choice but to get ready.
TPF: Other than calling ahead, are there any more tips that you would have for diners in terms of making their lives as well as you life easier?
BF: The only thing I would say is be very specific. We’ve had people say that they were vegetarian and then they’re eating their friend’s fish dish. Not a big deal but if I knew that they could have fish, I wouldn’t have removed it from this dish. To me vegetarian means that you only eat vegetables. Same thing about is it just peanuts or is it nuts in general? I think that the more specific you are, the better. You don’t really want a lack of information when you’re dealing with allergies. Other than that I would just say try to go online and read the menu and already have a look at what could possibly be your choices so it’s not this long drawn-out conversation when you’re trying to have a good time. I go online and read wine lists when I go to restaurants because I don’t want to waste my time reading it when I’m sitting there with my wife. Read ahead, you know.
TPF: What I find in restaurants is that people are usually comfortable giving me a big slab of something grilled and green vegetables, but very rare is the chef who will take on the challenge.
BF: I hate that. I find the same thing with – even when I moved to NY, I was surprised at how few vegan and vegetarian dishes might be on a menu. And they tell me they can grill me some vegetables, but that’s pretty lame, I can do that, you know? I’ll go home and do that. But that’s why I think there should be some kind of warning. If it’s Saturday night at 9 o’clock and all hell’s breaking loose in the kitchen that’s a tough time to ask them to get creative, but if they’re given 24 or 48 hours notice – I know you can’t always plan your life around where you’re going to eat, but if it’s a special occasion or you know that you’re going to the restaurant give me that 24 hours and I’ll impress you, I promise. Our light-style, a la minute style of cooking lends itself so much better to allergies. A French-style terrine-type thing that was made three days ago, there’s nothing you can do about it now. But if you’re woking or grilling or stir-frying or just quickly frying something off that’s easily changed. It is a good challenge and then we’re better prepared for the next person who comes in with similar issues. Some people have given me lists that have thrown me a little but it’s a creative thinking challenge. It forces you to think and sometimes you need to be backed into a corner to get creative, and that creativity could take you somewhere amazing.