Chef Manuel Gonzalez Charles shops at the Union Square Greenmarket.

Market to Table with Manuel González Charles

The ICE alum and executive chef at New York City’s Society Cafe finds seasonal inspiration from the Union Square Greenmarket.

We tag along for a day in the life of an executive chef with a market-to-table menu at the Walker Hotel in Greenwich Village.

“The owner texted me that they caught these yesterday,” Chef Manuel González (Culinary, ‘11) tells me as a Long Island fishmonger bags three black sea bass. The vendor shows us clear eyes and red, rather than brown, blood inside a cleaned out carcass to demonstrate the freshness. “They knew me as a cook carrying stuff for chefs for years and years. Now I go, give them my card, and they contact me because they know I’m a chef.”

Windfall Farms' stand at the Union Square Greenmarket
Windfall Farms' stand at the Union Square Greenmarket

It’s the first or second sunny sneak peek of spring in Manhattan, and the Union Square Greenmarket is bustling with humans who are as delighted by the offerings as the many dogs in tow. Chef Manuel is no exception — he intended to be a veterinarian before falling for food while at Iowa State. He hosted parties then worked at restaurants and decided to pursue a culinary education “where the best are: New York.”

He enrolled in Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education in 2011 and still remembers the homework. “ICE prepares you for what you’re going to encounter like knife skills, working in groups and meeting deadlines,” Chef Manuel says as we stroll through the market. “It helped me with the language and helped me build confidence.”

He met then sous chef Christopher Zabita from Michelin-starred Restaurant Marc Forgione while volunteering as a student, trailed at the restaurant and earned an externship. “It was definitely a very competitive kitchen. I learned a lot from all the cooks that were there.”

Following his externship, Chef Manuel spent three weeks working prep when Chef Christopher scheduled him for tournant, which was a challenge. For a year, he proved his cooking abilities, went on to the mise station and soon enough, the pass.

“I got a feel for managing a kitchen,” Chef Manuel recalls. “I like to pride myself in the fact that I work really hard. I’m not the best chef in the world but I can out work anybody and that opens a lot of doors.” Then Marc Forgione opened the door and told him to gain experience at other restaurants and learn how to do everything more than one way.

“Diversity is crucial in the life of a young chef,” Chef Manuel emphasizes. “At ICE, every module had a different chef with a different style. That welcomed me into what a kitchen was going to be.”

He kept it in the family with the executive sous chef position at Chef Marc’s Laotian restaurant Khe-Yo in Tribeca. “It was culture shock,” he says. “I had to change how I saw things like seasoning with fish sauce instead of salt. Now my menu has some Asian influence.”

When he was ready to do something new, Chef Manuel’s career came full circle. The same chef who gave him his first opportunity at Marc Forgione became the executive chef at Society Cafe and named Manuel his chef de cuisine in 2016. Within two years, Chef Manuel was promoted to executive chef, managing three meal periods with his market-driven menu.

He showcases his spin on Khe-Yo’s sticky rice as a snack item, adding black and white sesame seeds, yuzu kosher aioli and market chiles that he ferments on-site, and he’s hired team members from his former kitchens, including ICE alum Ashton Warren (Pastry, ‘08) who was the pastry chef at Restaurant Marc Forgione. The duo's dishes are served beneath a skylight and suspended plants in Society Cafe's earth-toned dining room surrounded by teal banquettes.

Society Cafe's Market Green Salad features radish and apple cider vinaigrette.
Society Cafe's Market Green Salad features radish and apple cider vinaigrette.

Chef Manuel uses local radishes and baby carrots in a staple salad, gets paired up with farmers for events and credits suppliers on his Instagram. He dreams of a restaurant with a garden and grows dill and thyme at his apartment for cooking at home. Market purveyors share flavor profiles, advice on how to treat what they’ve grown and new products to take home and experiment with. “The more I go, the better they take care of me,” he says.

Farmers and vendors even dine at Society Cafe to see how the restaurant’s executive chef is preparing their goods. He likes to serve one ingredient multiple ways and prides himself on sauces, which diners can experience in his pan-seared snapper dish, featuring braised and confit daikon and chorizo consommé. Chef Manuel also likes texture, applied to short rib agnolotti with spiraled and fried Yukons on top.

After our morning at the farmers market, Chef Manuel serves soft shell crab, local burrata with Brussels sprouts over a sweet potato puree, beech mushrooms with the agnolotti, and red mustard greens with a vinaigrette from the outing. He continually emerges from the basement kitchen in his distinct denim chef coat with grilled Portuguese octopus, braised Colorado lamb and roasted pumpkin risotto to accompany our finds at a candlelit corner table that offers a view of the diverse meals around the room.

“Whenever spring comes around I get really excited; it’s one of my favorite seasons for menu creation,” Chef Manuel says in anticipation. “They give me a voice here.”

Find your culinary voice in ICE’s Culinary Arts program.

Submitted by Agnes L Charles-Torres on April 16, 2019 4:25pm

ICE: a great school for forming a True Chef!! All sacrifices were more than worth it.

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