A few years ago, I probably could have counted all the chefs names I knew on ten fingers or less. One hand for the “hot restaurants”. The first chef I met personally worked at a restaurant called “Jean-Georges”. I had to google him. Yes, I was that blissfully out of it in regards to food in New York City. I cooked, and baked fancy things, and I ate well, and I spent my dough on art and theatre, and a plethora of organic vegetables; not so much on fancy food.
Fast forward a few years and a hundred or so interviews later and I’m sitting in the Waverly Inn, notorious for mega-celebrity sightings, Truffle Mac and Cheese and checks that threaten the majority of my weekly income. I’m here to interview Chef Ashley Merriman, the third executive chef of the Waverly, and a protege of sorts of Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. Going in, I’m very aware of the Waverly’s history. I’ve done my research on Merriman, and have a rough idea of how her past has brought her to her current kitchen.
What I’m concerned about, mostly, is how I’m going to present this chef to the readers of Serious Eats. Food blog readers, in general, can be fickle. Last week I accidentally found myself in a comment tirade with an extremely boorish, judgmental, prick* of a reader (yup, just said that) who was going off about the whole gluten free thing on a cupcake piece. Yes, a cupcake piece. The whole thing was ridiculous. Some other writers and I joke behind the scenes that one of our guilty pleasures is going on Eater and getting lost in comment threads. Other days they make me want to stab my eyeballs with my favorite pen.
But, to bring this back to today’s interview, every time some anonymous snark calls a chef I’ve sat with a douchebag or their food a joke, a tiny part of my heart gets lost in the internet ether, and I have to go chant a mantra or walk my dog or dance around my room or go on Elephant Journal to get it back. Since I get to pick who I write about, all of “my chefs” (minus one) have been incredibly hard working, humble and passionate. There’s no way I could call their work a joke, or their intentions misdirected. Even the one chef who exhibited extreme rudeness and condescension has mad skills and works his (mean old) tail off. So I had a feeling upon meeting Merriman that I could expect the same.
And I was right. She doesn’t pretend she works in a humble little joint in the East Village or something. She knows her clients have money to burn, and that they come to her restaurant for the ambiance first and her food second. She recognizes that her employers have built something successful that has endured for almost a decade, which is not easy to say nowadays. And she still works to continually improve upon herself, and better the plates coming out of her kitchen.
Is there an antonym for douchebag? If so, that’s what I’d call her.
Chef Ashley Merriman Has Her Shit Together
Taken January, 2014
Before you interviewed at the Waverly, you were contemplating opening your own place. What would that have been like? I think so many chefs would like to have our own little pet project, a beautiful 40-seat restaurant where the service is amazing and there’s all this individual attention and you can really be at the stove every day, cooking food with your favorite cooks. We all want that, but it’s not possible for all of us. If I had my own place it would be pretty focused on the resources we have specifically here; a lot about fish, and about the water and what we have available right out there. It’s something I’m really passionate about. I’m from New Hampshire, so it’s what I grew up with. So I’d focus on that. But I took this interview, and I’m here instead.
What won out then, with the Waverly? I’d been working for Alex [Guarnaschelli] off and on for the better part of a decade. I was ready to branch out, and this is a really good first executive chef position in Manhattan. It’s nice that no one knows I’m here – or at least I feel like no one knows I’m here – and I can sort of just hide out. I’m a chef of a very well known, very busy restaurant, and it’s a good way for me to keep practicing and keep cooking. Of course being a chef isn’t just about cooking, and at this level it’s very little about the food that goes on the plate every night; it’s about meetings and phone calls, and very little about cooking food. But it’s been a good fit so far. Not to say that I’ve given up on my pipe dream, but I’ve got time.
Do you get to cook in general much lately, or is there any way you can supplement not being on the line every night? I don’t want to expedite every night, so at least two nights a week I work a station. It’s a way for me to stay connected with my guys and my team – my sous chefs are so super talented – and cooking is also a muscle memory, so if you stand and expedite or go to too many meetings you forget how to do it. I didn’t become a chef so that I could expedite. I like it, I guess, but I’d way rather work sauté and cook the fish, so I still do that a couple nights a week, for sure.
Is there a time you’ve regretted taking this job versus starting your own place? No. Everyone wishes they had their own pet project – I don’t think you’d meet many chefs that would say otherwise who are in a position of working for someone else. But I have enjoyed my time at the Waverly and, with the exception of the format of what the restaurant is, I have a lot of freedom to do what I want.
What are those confines? How do you get to make your mark when you’ll never get to take that truffle mac and cheese off the menu? I’ll never get to take that truffle mac and cheese off! There are some signature dishes and a signature sort of style and approach that the owners want and, you know, they’re the ones that sign my paycheck, they’re the ones that have opened a restaurant that’s been very successful for eight years that’s still very busy. So you have to respect that and come in knowing that’s part of the deal. I’ve changed all the signatures dishes since I got here, I think for the better. When I got here that truffle mac and cheese… we’ll forget about what it was when I got here. But I’ve changed the cheeses, I’ve incorporated some ingredients and a little more modern technique so that the cheese sauce is better. You have to take a certain amount of pride in that. If you don’t, what are you doing? Beyond those handfuls of signature dishes, I’ve changed the entire menu. You’re never going to see miso in the restaurant. It’s not going to happen. But the approach I take is that this is an American restaurant and we’re serving updated American classics. And in addition to that, every single night I run 3-5 additions and that’s a way for me to keep stretching and pushing my cooks and my sous chefs myself, still, every day.
What is something that you’re executing now at a level you want that you maybe couldn’t do a year ago? I worked with Alex for a long time, and then at other places I worked my way up from a sous chef, so I knew my team. Then I walked into this restaurant with ten new guys staring at me, all with different backgrounds and who had been taught different things. I was like, that’s not how I want you to cut a shallot or roast bones or butcher fish. Now I’ve got a room full of guys who know how I want things; we’ve developed a team and a skillset to get things done exactly how I want, so now it’s like, “Well, what’s next?” I have a room full of people who stuck it out and have a lot of loyalty. They all want more now. When I got here my sauté guy was standing in the corner peeling potatoes, and worked his way up. That’s what you do.
That’s a beautiful testament to longevity, in a time when so many do a six month stint and jump ship to do another six month stint. That’s so true. In my own career – I’m 37, and I’ve been cooking for a very long time – I’ve worked for three chefs, that’s it. I’ve worked for incredible people. So it’s kind of how I feel. Of course there’s a certain moment when you have to leave the nest, and when that happens I have total respect for that.
Waverly is such a high profile place in a time when there are a lot of super-critical eaters out there, those who like to jump especially at celebrity hubs. Was that in any way on your mind when taking the job? Stepping into a very successful place with a particular reputation? Of course. It’s impossible to not thinking of the history of the Waverly Inn, impossible to not take that into account. Yes, this has a specific price point. Yes, it’s an expensive restaurant, and it’s still sometimes hard to get a reservation. But still anyone can pick up the phone and call and make a reservation. And it is a neighborhood restaurant. The neighborhood happens to have a lot of high profile residents in it, but it’s a neighborhood restaurant. There’s people who come here every single Tuesday night, and have for the past few years, who live two doors down. But that’s beside the point. The idea of it being an expensive restaurant, I’ve really taken into consideration. There are a couple of things I really want to meet when people leave here; the expectations are going to be really high, so of course I want to meet them. Sometimes they’re impossible to meet, because that’s the nature of it. But no one’s ever going to leave here and be hungry; that’s something I’m really conscious of. We aren’t cheap with the amount of food we’re giving people. I never want people to say, “My god, I’m paying twenty-five dollars for this bowl of pasta and it’s tiny, it’s two bites of food.” That’s not how we work here at all. And the other thing is, I want it to be done properly. I’ve worked for chefs and developed my own sense of style and cooking technique that, if it’s not right, it’s not going to leave the kitchen. That’s the best I can do on my end. I can season food properly, cook food properly, present it nicely, and buy the best products. That’s the expectation when I go out to eat, and obviously you hope it’s delicious.
You work within this amazing space. How does the dining room affect how you work? We have one plate. Two, actually; a pasta bowl and a plate that weighs, like, a pound. It’s a really heavy plate. And for a lot of chefs I think that would be really limiting. I try not to look at it as limiting for myself, instead, like, “This is it. This is what the owners want.” It can be a little challenging sometimes, but it’s also a very dark dining room, so the stuff that I’m doing in the back that looks so beautiful or I’m really proud of, by the time it comes out here it’s really dark and no one can really see it. Which is okay – you’re not plating for the guests; it’s more about what’s right and proper.
Does the dark ambiance make you have to season more aggressively than if you had a fully open, lit garden? I’d never thought about that before, but if you can’t see the food as clearly do you need other sense to come more into play? No, I’ve never really thought about that. We just season food properly for what it’s supposed to be. Hmm, I’ve never thought about that.
It’s interesting to hear chefs on both sides talk about how they treat VIPs, including high-profile celebrities. But here you have so many big names. How do VIPs work here? Every single night of the week there are people who I consider VIPS – my own particular VIPS who I’m super-excited to cook for, that have particular meaning to me or one of my cooks. It’s impossible to not be extra careful. And then there are friends and family of the restaurant. Everyone says that “everyone is an important guest”, and that’s the approach here, but of course there’s going to be a time when someone comes in and we’ll send a round of champagne because they’re so-and-so; that’s going to happen. But it’s also going to happen when a friend of a waiter comes in, and has never been to the Waverly before; we’ll send a round to that table, too. It’s impossible to not have feelings about certain guests – personal heroes or mentors or whatever – but you can’t change everything for everyone.
Is there anyone who’s so up there for you that they’ve thrown you off your game a bit? About nine months after I started here Anita Lo, Elizabeth Falkner, Amanda Cohen, and Charlotte Druckman came in for dinner. Together. I was like, “You better get your shit together, chef! Get your shit together.” You’ve got to be on point when that table comes in. It was so exciting, and I felt really honored. Chefs don’t get many nights off, and it was right around the time Elizabeth got a great review in Brooklyn, and I felt really honored that they came here. Like I said to you when you came here and had never been here before, when the dining room’s going right, it’s a pretty tough dining room to beat. And hopefully the food’s on point.
End of the day, what’s the most important thing you want translate to the diner about you as a chef? Here, for better or for worse, I don’t think most of our guests are coming for the food. I think many of our guests have been here from John [DeLucie] through Eric through me. I hope they’re surprised by the food, and that they think it’s really good. I hope that people think that it’s seasoned properly, cooked properly, and that it makes sense for what the restaurant is. That’s really it. I just want it to be delicious.