A Timely and Timeless Conversation with Chef Marco Canora

I remember the day well.

The sky was a nondescript New York City gray, the air a nondescript May air, and the mood in Hearth one of quiet preparation. We sat at a corner table in the empty dining room and started talking. At some point, I realized our casual conversation had turned into interview fodder and hit record.

The discussion ambled between my prepared questions and talking points that led to new talking points: his thoughts on online reviews, consistency in the kitchen, and the city that was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Later, I whittled the long conversation into my column1,200-word count.

I emailed Marco that rereading the discussion today “makes me feel strong, content, and at peace with the world.”

Hope it brings you a little of those things, too.

A Timely and Timeless Conversation with Chef Marco Canora

Taken May, 2013

I sometimes preface that if anything I say sounds like it could be controversial, it’s not. These are friendly, casual conversations and I’m not out to start a scandal or anything…

And that’s nice!

Well, I don’t quite understand why people do that…

I think a lot of people do because that makes a good story, and that’s what’s gonna peak people’s interest. People love controversy. That’s how the TV world and journalism work, right? And I find it kind of sad. That concept rolls over into so many different things, and if you’re just doing a restaurant that’s about seasonal food, about execution and quality of ingredients and the basics and doing it well every day, it’s not like nobody cares, but it’s not a story, you know? People would rather talk about something else because that’s “boring” and done.

That’s why I feel fortunate that I’m in a fortunate little pocket, journalistically speaking. You seem to be a traditionalist, too, with your food…

Yeah, I am…

…Traditionalist in the best sense of the word.

Thank you.

Where is that rooted in your pre-chef life?

It came from home. I grew up in a very kind of Tuscan esthetic, which means things were simple and focused on ingredients. We had a garden, and it was about going to pick a zucchini flower and dipping it in a simple pastel – a batter of flour and water, real complicated, right? – and pan-frying it in olive oil and putting some salt on it. That’s the kind of food I grew up eating, and that’s what’s resonating with me today.

That’s what I strive for, that kind of simplicity. I think when you overcomplicate things, things get muddy. And there’s just beauty in simplicity; I’ve always bought into that and still today it’s enough. I’m not bored by simplicity. I totally find my challenges in other places. I don’t feel the need to be innovative. And I think there are other areas to be innovative in, right? Innovation isn’t about just coming up with coffee cream with wasabi foam. There’s innovation in all aspects of what I do: running a kitchen is a logistical jigsaw puzzle, and putting a dish on the menu and making it work in the format of a busy restaurant… I feed my desire to innovate in different ways, not through the dishes that I create.

I’m not bored by simplicity. I totally find my challenges in other places. I don’t feel the need to be innovative.

Is it harder to find young chefs who are as inspired by simplicity and consistency than it was when you opened ten years ago?

Yeah, I think it’s a huge pitfall for young cooks. They fall into that kind of trap of being turned on by innovation rather than by the execution of things. I’m constantly preaching this to my cooks – for ten years here – that it’s about the little things. Combinations and recipes, who cares about that? The real challenge is executing things on a daily basis consistently.

I will sit down with anybody and tell them exactly how I make my gnocchi. People will ask how and I’ll say, “Why don’t you come in at 3:30 and we’ll do it together?” A lot of times, people take me up on the offer. They’ll come and stand right next to me and I give them the whole tutorial on the gnocchi recipe and what it means to make gnocchi and what I look for and how I got there and stuff. It’s kind of silly to me that people feel the need to hide their recipes, because the challenge is in doing them every day and doing them well.

I think there’s a lack of patience in the world, right? Especially in the younger generation. It’s kind of unfortunate, because it takes time to become a good manager or good leader or a good sous chef. Yet it cycles so fast today. I don’t want to say the industry suffers and I don’t necessarily want to sound like an old fogey, but I look at it and I think to myself, “It’s such a shame that after two or three or four years of cooking they think they’re ready to be a sous chef or they’re ready to be a chef.” People don’t tuck in and do the time they way I believe they should, and the way I think it was for a long time; it took a while to become a “chef”. That’s a big word. And it’s just so fast today.

You talk about speed and consistency. How do you think that the media – both in terms of journalism and food blogs, but also regarding sites like Yelp – plays into that? Information is transmitted almost instantaneously to a dining experience now.

There are a lot of arenas for people to chime in. I care what people say on Open Table, and I care what they say on Yelp. I care what they say because in a lot of ways the longer you’ve been here, the more these sites allow you to do meta-analysis; you can take a lot of information and draw a conclusion from it. If there are three thousand reviews on Yelp and the overall meta-analysis is four and a half stars, I think that’s kind of a good sign.

Also, I think you only go on these types of sites if you’re to the moon or if you’re pissed off at a place – there’s no middle ground. It’s sort of funny, because you get, “This is the best ever!” “This is the best ever!” “This is the best ever!” “This is the worst ever!” “This was horrible.” “This was horrible.” “This was the best!” It’s like there’s a split personality on Yelp and Open Table.

So having said that, whether it’s a critical review or a Yelp review, I think it’s foolhardy if you don’t listen, at least. You take what you want to take and you let go of what you want to let go. With some people you can’t win, and that’s fine, but I think there’s value there. And I think ultimately despite the fact that really annoying people with no credentials get to say whatever the fuck they want, it’s just the given about today’s world. It’s an uncontrollable. So what are you going to do?

You had Insieme, and now have Hearth and a few Terroirs. Along the lines of consistency, what is the value of “keeping small” to you as a chef?

I can have relationships with people here. I’m here five and a half days a week. The more and more our faces are in these little machines and it’s all about social networking and such, the more I hope the trend is going to go backwards towards face time.

After ten years I’m seeing that not only does it feed me and make me happy to have face time with my guests, but that they like it, too. I can’t tell you how many times people are in awe of the fact that the chef of the restaurant is here. Isn’t it a fucked up world we live in when the guest is like, “Oh my god, what are you doing here?” And it’s like, “What do you mean, what am I doing here, this is my restaurant! Why wouldn’t I be here?!”

Also, I’ve tried over the last 5-6-7 years to become less and less of a control freak; because I don’t think that’s a great management style. When I was running the kitchen at Gramercy at night, then Craft, then Insieme, then when I opened this place … my god, man, I was such the micro-managing control freak. It’s nice to be here all the time and not be that. It’s the best of both worlds. I’m here all the time and I care and I watch and I’m very invested in it, but I’m not that control freak. I found myself finally. After all these years, I think it’s a good way to be.

Where did that come from, the micromanaging? And what made that change?

That’s a good question. That came from…who knows where it ultimately came from? My mom was an interior decorator. She had a small business, and that business was totally about her vision. She was a control freak, and so maybe I learned it from her. Because when you have a small restaurant and you’re a chef, it’s all about the vision you have. It was insane; I wanted to touch everything, I wanted to control everything, and if you didn’t like it then get the fuck out of my way because I’ll do it myself.

I think it’s just a process of growing up and evolving, finding a path to that insanity is the path to being miserable. I saw myself becoming this stressed out, unhealthy, miserable guy who was never going to grow. Because being that way stifles your growth. And I don’t know… one day I was just like, this is ridiculous. I was never going to cultivate the right type of person if this was who I was going to be; the guy with his fingers in everything and “move the fuck out of my way” and “let me do it myself.” It’s just not a good management style.

And it’s funny because Tom [Colicchio] was not that, and that’s where I came from. Tom was the other end of that spectrum. And how I was that way coming from a guy who’s the master of being in the periphery… so, yeah, that’s kind of odd. I just thought of that now. I don’t know why I was the control freak that I was.

How did trusting your cooks more affect the restaurant?

The irony is that – and sometimes it’s hard for my ego to say this – but it’s better now, way better. I think that it cultivates a better team of people and then that makes your restaurant better. Restaurants are a team sport, and I think that Hearth today is the best it’s ever, ever been. I really do. It’s hard to admit that when I’m not controlling and touching and watching everything, and it’s like, “Why is it better when I’m not doing that?” But ultimately it is, because I’m more affective now than I was then in terms of seeing things, in terms of making a difference, in terms of cultivating people and creating a team for all the right reasons who want to be here.

Does mentoring and fostering cooks mean more to you now than it used to?

Yeah, it does allow you to mentor better. And trusting your chef de cuisine or sous chef kind of feeds them and makes them work harder, because now they care more, right? If I’m always like, “Get the fuck outta my way,” they’re not going to be as engaged.

The perfect example of this, which I was telling my wife the other night, was that Alice Waters was at the bar a few nights ago. I went out and chatted with her for a good thirty-five or forty minutes. We had a wonderful conversation; we have her Edible Schoolyard posters around and I’ve done a lot of work at fundraisers for that stuff. I have a monthly dinner date with a friend, and it just so happened it was the night that she was there. After our conversation she said she was going to sit at the pass for dinner with her friend and I was like, “That’s so great, but unfortunately I’m leaving.” She was completely gracious and encouraged me to go, but I think that says so much about the fact that I’m not that guy anymore. There was no way in hell – even two years ago – that I would leave if Alice Waters was sitting at the pass at Hearth. And I think that meant a lot to my chef de cuisine, George Kaden. I was like, “I’ve got this thing, and I completely trust you. You know who she is and you know that it needs to be perfect and we don’t even need to talk about it anymore.” And of course he understood that, and he totally blew her mind, and I’m sure the food was as perfect if not better than what I would have done if I were here.

And what a gift for him to get to do that.

Yeah, he was thrilled by it. And I think that sends a good message to the cooks, that I totally trust all of them to do what we do. And, god, it took me so long to learn that lesson.

I think it’s really admirable too, because I often hear from chefs expanding that it’s a challenge to keep the soul of their restaurant when they can’t literally be in the spaces all the time. And obviously it also takes a lot of stress off for you as a human being, cultivating a family in that way.

It’s a slippery slope though. I feel the reason why I can be affective at that concept is because I am present a lot. I feel as soon as you become kind of the absentee guy who really just pops in briefly, you don’t cultivate that kind of energy around you. It’s important for me to be here as much as I am: not being a control freak, but being here and noticing and calling people out when I see something wrong. I think it just sends a really good message and when you send that message the people around you feel more inclined to keep pushing. Whereas if I were here twice a month I’m not sure I’d cultivate that kind of effort in my employees.

Yeah, it would be someone else’s kitchen.

Yeah. It would be up to that person to do that.

You are expanding with Terroir locations, though, which are easier to execute as a chef since the menus are small and simple. Does exploring new communities give you a bit of a jolt?

Totally. The process of raising money and finding real estate and watching the build out and creating the menu… it’s like dating. The courtship is great, and I’m really fortunate and happy to have the growth we’ve had with the Terroirs. That totally feeds a side of me that wants to create more things.

I’m starting to feel like I’m ready to engage in another kind of a restaurant. I’m still relatively young and I feel I have a few more concepts in me that won’t be more Terroirs. That creation of a thing is really cool, and I definitely want it, I just want to be careful about how I do it. Insieme was so great, but I fell for it: it was in a hotel, and it was union, and they dangled the carrot of having capital. It was supported because it was in a hotel. And I bit. And ultimately I’m better for it and I’m glad I did it, but looking back it wasn’t the greatest move for me strategically. So I’ll be more careful next time.

You are a part of the New York City Food Flood, which you started with a few other chefs. Why is connecting with the community other than your patrons important to you?

That stuff was born at my time at Gramercy Tavern: one of Danny Meyer’s tenets is being involved in the community, and those tenants have been with us since we opened Hearth. Paul Grieco and I believe in and have always been supportive of taking advantage of opportunities to raise money for organizations. We go to so many events, my god. So when George Mendes called after Hurricane Sandy and asked if I’d do a dinner, there was no question. And we did and it was great and we raised a lot of money, and…

And fittingly it was pouring that night.

It was pouring that night! But everyone showed up, and it was a great group of guys, and we kind of… I don’t know. It’s like we collectively kind of had a light bulb moment of how it’s kind of amazing that there aren’t more chef-driven food charities out there. We have this ability to raise funds so easily, and we all have places where we can produce food and have these kinds of events. We all said, “Why are we doing these big walk-around events when we could do something that’s more intimate and more personal?”

So we took that money and we made big pots of soup. I bought two of these “fry turkey at home” kits at Home Depot for like $48 each. And we have a truck that we load up with these two burners and two pots with paper cups and spoons, and we start handing hot soup to people. And it was really kinda cool. It wasn’t like, “let’s do 600 portions for a lot of rich people who are going to donate to City Harvest.” It’s always a couple of steps removed, when you do that service that all the chefs do. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s good to raise money and they’re all great charities and it’s all meaningful and I support them. But there’s something really cool about making soup and handing it to a person who’s hungry.

And that’s what NYC Food Flood was. We cut out the middleman and it felt really good. And in the beginning everyone donated everything: my produce guy donated all the vegetables, and my dry goods guy gave me all the cups, spoons and napkins, and Sam Tell, the guy we buy small wares from, bought more burners and gave them to me. There’s so much generosity surrounding big dramatic events like that. And it just felt really good.

What’s the next step with NYC Food Flood?

We’re still trying to establish a non-profit, and what an enlightening experience that has been, man! It is no joke. The hoops you jump through! One of the things I realized was just to file the damned thing and get the government stamp you need to start a non-profit, you’re talking many, many hours of lawyers who you need to fill out this paperwork, which is like tens of thousands of dollars. It was easy to go and create NYC Food Flood; all of a sudden you have a piece of paper and you’re something. But in order to do business and be tax exempt you need to do so much, and that’s where the money comes in.

Fortunately the husband of the woman who wrote my cookbook, Cathy Young, is a big time lawyer – one of those $500 an hour lawyer dudes – and the company he works for requires them to do some pro bono work, so he’s taken us on. So it’s been a long story and we have a lot of work to do, but eventually we’re going to make something out of it. Who knows where it’s going, but the beauty of it for us is that we can control it and can do as much or as little as we want with it.

But it’s pretty remarkable how the ability for us to raise money is very easy, because we do things that people love; great food and great wine and great dining out. And it’s like, my god, Andrew did something in Miami and raised X amount of dollar, George and I each did something here and raised X amount of dollars, and all of a sudden we’d raised a lot of money. We can make an incredible amount of soup with the money we made.

Props to you. All of the chefs involved have restaurants that are very personal, and I think that translates to your clients who want to come back and support you.

Yeah, they’re incredibly supportive. We’ve built that customer base and I think that we could do two three, four events a year to raise money for NYC Food Flood. But it becomes a job in of itself, and that’s the nut to crack. It becomes all about time.

That’s why there is the NYC Food Bank and City Harvest and all those.

Exactly. Because we haven’t been as focused as I’d like to be on it. Because we’re all very busy.

Well, give it time. Great, that’s all I have for you!

Cool.

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