Chef Brendan McHale: Talking Little Rivers, Big Cities, and the Bounty of Summer

I get itchy, this time of year.

I have lived every year of my life in some northern city or town, watching the seasons change: the glow of autumn and the muted silence of deep winter, the thrill of awakening birds and crickets announcing the burst of spring, and the sweet steamy sounds of summer, when the woods behind my childhood home in Connecticut are alive with life and movement and my New York neighborhood echoes with the laughter of families playing checkers on the sidewalk, or barbecuing down by the Hudson River.

I get itchy.

I get itchy for that hometown backyard, where my hammock swings beneath my three favorite white oak trees. On that grass, I remember summers when my father would load a gigantic pot with dozens of ears of shucked corn, lobsters, and pounds of scallops and shrimp; it would take four men to heave the pot atop a wood fire, and while it steamed family and friends played soccer, grilled steak, drank beer, and then spread out amongst picnic tables to feast. In that backyard I’ve hosted friends and lovers, making giant pans of mariscada and paella; grilling whole chickens; assembling chowder with fish procured down by the Long Island Sound.

I get itchy.

I get itchy for the gypsy skirts my mother bought back in the seventies, that I now wrap around my waist over thin shirts and bathing suits, my bare feet hitting the deck as I take my dog out to play, my ankles and arms covered in mosquito bites. I get itchy for the few days every July mom and I spend together walking by the water in Rhode Island, staring out from the rocks at the setting sun before going out to our favorite restaurant for fresh wood-grilled fish.

I get itchy for rose wine, and kayaks, and mountain towns, and the Berkshires. For fireworks and quiet city evenings.

I get itchy for summer romance, when I cooked alongside a man shucking oysters, or another shaking fizzy gin cocktails, or another folding strawberries into a pie.

I get itchy this time of year.

A lot of this came out when interviewing chef Jeff Mahin last week for an upcoming piece; we both pine for barbecues and wood smoke and water. It came out when recording today’s Love Bites Radio show with my co-host Ben, us full of Big Apple Barbecue and daydreaming of summer love. And it came out with chef Brendan McHale of The Eddy here in New York; while researching his background before our talk, I got heartachingly jealous watching a Tasting Table video of him fishing up in the Catskills near Berried Treasure Farm. When he pulled sunchokes directly from the deep, dark ground, roasting them on an open fire with an Arctic Char, I got itchy to jump in my car and head to the mountains again, too.

Most of our conversation centered around where he’s at now that his restaurant has passed the two-year mark. But his excitement for the bounty of early summer produce, for late spring river fishing, and for the daydream of a more rural life ahead hit home. And so yesterday, as tears kept welling in my eyes for our loss in Orlando and the ensuing spewing of hatred, as my heart lifted with the love and unity of the Tony awards, and as I typed up the glorious weekend that was being surrounded by good folks at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, I made a strawberry pie. And a few quarts of corn stock, just in case the itch to leave town and throw an easy fish chowder to a simmer on a fire proves too strong to ignore.

Read below for the entirety of my interview with Brendan, and head to the Village Voice for the official story.

Photo ErinK estenbaum

Photo Erin Kestenbaum

Chef Brendan McHale of The Eddy:

Bringing a Little River to the Big City

What are you most enjoying about the act of cooking right now? Ingredients? Techniques? Season? Your space?

What’s exciting right now – and is always exciting, every year – is coming off a dormant season. You have this long process of using vegetables and tubers and all these different things throughout the winter, and then you jump into spring when everything is bountiful. And as the season progresses there are all these layovers where everything is ready at once, and where figuring out how to use everything is kind of cool. And fishing in spring is incredible, so that’s particularly cool for me.

It’s just been great; we just passed our two-year mark at The Eddy, and I feel like we’ve made big strides. We’ve grown a lot and kind of gotten into this new chapter for us, where we’re thinking a little differently about food; not in a way that’s not approachable, but in a way that’s more fun for our guests and more fun for us.

What does that mean, exactly? What was that chapter, and what is that chapter now?

In the past, we’ve always approached food slightly more… fundamentally, maybe is the word. Or mainstream. It was sort of recycled ideas with spins on them. And now I feel like we’re doing things that are newer to us. It’s hard to say that in New York since there’s so much talent here. But at the same time, you have to block all that out and stay focused on what’s new for you.

And we have new team members that really care about what they’re doing in the kitchen, which led us to be able to have more of an open discussion about what we’re doing and how we’re cooking things. It feels good. In the past, it was just on me and my sous chef to come up with new dishes, and now it’s more of a discussion of a dish, and that’s cool for me.

What’s an example on your menu right now of that?

We just started this really beautiful buttermilk semifreddo with an olive oil cake. The buttermilk semifreddo starts with this long cooking session of whisking sugar, buttermilk, and eggs until it almost forms a buttermilk marshmallow that is so good I was like, should we stop there and just serve a gigantic bowl of buttermilk marshmallow!? And they were like, that’s a horrible idea. So we added whipped cream and made it into a semifreddo.

We steep strawberries in chamomile, sugar, and a little salt, and it ends up being this red, translucent consommé. And we like to work with the notion that “things that grow together go together”, like chamomile and strawberries, which bees pollinate together. Then it’s garnished with basil and lemon thyme; we’ve always done herbal or salt elements to take you away from a sweet level or, more accurately, to give you a point of reference for something sweet. Altogether, it magically became a take on strawberry shortcake in a seasonal, different rendition that we’re proud of. I feel good about that dessert – it’s a bitch to make, but it’s worth it.

How do you frame your menu? What rules do you give yourself to work within, and where do you give yourself license to play?

If you saw our kitchen you could compare it to the size of your closet: it’s small. It fits three people, a three-burner stove, a plancha, and a little salamander. It’s tight. Our downstairs prep area is like a version of Fraggle Rock. Our means of cooking are limited.

So it’s a matter of, “Oh, look, there’s one square foot in the fridge where we can fit only these specialized trays we ordered.” You come up with something you want to do that you strive to cook in a new light, or that you haven’t done in a while, and it requires reigning yourself in a bit and match the space. It’s a fine line: I don’t want to dumb the dish down and cook food that’s not exciting for us or for people to eat, but I don’t want to push ourselves to where our whole team looks like Golem. I don’t want us to kill ourselves, but I don’t want us not to push; yeah, it’s a really fine line. And it’s easier said than done, but we work on it to work out the kinks, to try a batch of something and then figure out how we can do it in our hot, little space. It’s about adapting both to our customers and for us in our space. It’s up to us to find that borderline.

Your menu has more vegetables and fish than others, and you seem to approach them personally. How do you like to treat vegetables, or how do you like them to eat?

For most things — whether fish or even just vegetables that are seasonally and locally-sourced through our people — I guess, less is more for us. Not that we’re just charring an onion that’s in season with salt and pepper; that’s cool, too, but I think we have a bit of balance that when things are growing around us, we present them simply and make them taste good. Which really boils down to salt, acid and maybe fat if you need it; but fat can just be something like olive oil. With acids, we enjoy making different vinegars or saving our pickling brine in squeeze bottles to finish things, since it’s low in acid and high in flavor, with all those months of being pickled. That’s important to us.

Also, usually they’ll be a couple of things on the menu that use raw ingredients in raw context. Like, say there’s a bounty of arugula, we’ll make an arugula puree with walnuts to go underneath something else. Or we’ll juice celery for a savory ice on oysters. Stuff like that, where you can extract flavor and not feel like you’re annihilating it. That’s a smaller percentage of what we do, but we do try to manipulate some texture without using anything odd, like stabilizers or anything. We may freeze, or use a little gelatin, or puree or pickle. Or we’ll do a light roast or sauté, like a ramp leaf poached in butter to go on fish that’s a little toothsome, with some raw garlic. That’s important – sometimes barely-cooking something means it comes out a little nicer.

What about vegetables makes them feel personal to you?

We get a lot of our stuff from Franca Tantillo at Berried Treasures Farm. In New York City, it’s difficult to have a one-on-one relationship with a farmer where you know them, what they do, can be friends with them, and have a great time personally with them. That’s Franca for us. A lot of farmers know another chef, but it’s like, get a ticket; get in line. When you form a relationship, it’s a mutual love, and it’s a cool friendship.

And that’s how we came up with the name ‘the eddy’: a calm moment surrounded by chaos. That’s the whole area of the western Catskills, where I fish a lot. Back in the 1800s, that where people went to vacation, and there were lodges all out around the river. The soil there is a thousand-year-old riverbed so it’s high in minerals, and having that level in vegetables is important. With Franca, the potatoes and sunchokes and strawberries are incredible. She’s in this gorge where it’s humid, but it gets cool quickly when the sun goes down, and the berries stay cool but get sun during the day. It looks like someone’s big yard.

Is there a core ethos or mantra you repeat to help focus your restaurant? Something that pertains to the menu, the service, the ambiance? What do you want to make sure you’re sharing with your clientele more than anything?

I guess what we’ve always talked about since day one is making sure the place has a soul – that it feels like it’s something, that it doesn’t feel empty or have a bad vibe or is just another restaurant trying to make a transaction between you eating and paying. Hopefully, it’s something a bit more. When it comes down to it, we’d get there by making all these details nice and at a great level. Whether it’s a prep cook who likes cooking here and loves to create food, or someone up front who cares just a bit more. Those things are very important to us, having someone tuned into the love and the nature of it. It makes the broth better, so to speak.

How do you feel about cooking in NYC in general? Triumphs? Challenges?

There’s definitely an incredible financial wave that’s more and more difficult… the world’s changing, and we need to as well. Nothing’s getting cheaper. Everything is getting more expensive – rent, cost of food, wages going up year to year. They’re all difficulties for a small restaurant. Everything. Our margins are so small, so it’s important to try to get ahead of it. Truthfully, I don’t know where it’s going to go. The “gratuity included” thing; people are realizing it isn’t worth it.

At the end of the day, you can focus on that stuff — I run a tight kitchen, and Jay takes care of the business — but it’s important for me to stay focused on the creativity, and us staying happy in the kitchen, and riding it as long as we can. I don’t know what five years will do for a small restaurant like us. So many guys say it’s impossible to do this – it’s little guys like us that might get eaten up. We try to stay as current and prolific as possible. It’s kind of depressing, but everyone’s going through it. We just started a little restaurant collective group, with Huertas and Pouring Ribbons and Virginias: we all share our notepads, talk about what our Mondays are like, what we’re doing. It’s good to power our numbers as a team.

How do you keep it together personally? Especially being so far away from that river?

I think it took me a little while to figure that out in my life. But being stressed out makes all the reactivity and happiness go away for a little bit. And so I try to set myself up for success so that I’m not overly stressed out. I think staffing is the big one – when you lose staff – so you try to stay ahead of that and get the right people. I’m at a new thing where if I don’t really agree with the person, if they don’t want to cook and it’s not a right fit, I’d rather work seven days a week until I find a right match. It’s about finding the quality of worker; if that person likes what they do, they’ll get a job with us. But that definitely stresses me out, and I try to steer clear of it, and it’s a challenge. It’s vitamin D, lots of vegetables, and exercise.

How do you bring some of that New England / quiet space into the dining room of The Eddy?

The big thing was, when we started with the design with Michael Groth, he brought this really cool relaxed setting with minimal amounts of reclaimed wood beams and slightly contemporary but very minimalistic lighting that was very ambient and golden. We did some exposed brick but we didn’t want to go overboard with that, so there’s no fireplace and it’s not super rustic. The space feels a little different – it feels slightly like a more modern tavern. At the end of the day, we want people to feel comfortable and like they’re well taken care of, with service that makes them feel like they’re not in NYC. We put fifteen or fourteen sound panels in there that have this cool burlap on it but are thick to absorb sound, since we had issues when we opened. So that helped, when people are talking you can still hear each other and not everyone around you.

At the end of the day, we want people to feel special and like they’re not in Manhattan; making people feel comfortable, and doing the steps of service and providing food, wine and cocktail service. And trying to acknowledge our customers – recognizing our regulars and trying to get to know new people without being weird or intrusive.

Do you think that’s translating successfully?

After we opened, about a year and a half into it, we got consistent reviews that overall equated to what we were hoping for, and that were unsolicited. We wanted people to be slightly… to feel that the menu and the whole place is approachable, but it was still something a bit new so that they feel slightly challenged. And, unsolicited, they said that to us. So it was working, and that’s cool. All that stuff’s important to us. Every day is different. There can be so many inconsistencies, so it may feel to our staff like we’re micro-managing, which is why it’s important to explain why we‘re going over things again, and keeping our eye on the prize, and communicating with our customers and workers to have the right attitudes, and execute what we want.

At the end of the day, why are you a chef?

At the end of the day, I love to cook. And I like to take care of people. So it comes with that nourishing, hospitable drive to want to do this. I’ve been in NYC for eleven years now, and this is my first restaurant with ownership. It feels great, and it’s helping me mold what I want to do next in life. I think it’s a great challenge, it’s rewarding. It just feels like when I was young, cooking for my parents; that drive that kind of inspires me to keep at it. And I think in the East Village it’s a great spot to do that, it has cool pockets of interesting stuff going on. I feel good.

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