Why an Octopus is Chef Greg Proechel's Spirit Animal
There are several good reasons why Greg Proechel (Culinary Arts ’10), Executive Chef of Ferris, has an octopus tattooed on his right arm. For starters, the former college football player has an octopus-like dexterity in the kitchen, a skill that earned him the nickname “pulpo,” — that’s “octopus” in Spanish — from famed Spanish chef Jesus Nuñez, whom he accompanied on Iron Chef in, coincidentally, the octopus battle.
The eight-armed mollusk, which can grow an arm if it loses one, is a symbol of regeneration, a theme that resonates with Greg. Less than a decade ago, he was working a desk job as a financial analyst. Today, he’s leading a new restaurant that’s already garnered praise from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and was named one of Eater’s Hottest Restaurants in Manhattan. His career path 180 began with his decision to enroll in ICE’s Culinary Arts program, where he began with zero professional kitchen experience and ended with a paid position at one of the best restaurants in the world — Eleven Madison Park. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of regeneration. And Greg continues to grow and make waves with his honest cooking and cheeky presentations of serious food.
Culinary school may have seemed an unlikely destination for a Wesleyan graduate who majored in economics. But to Greg, it was clear that a desk job wasn’t for him. “I need to do stuff with my hands. I always have,” says Greg. “I was a very avid drawer and I was always building stuff. I think I built every piece of furniture in my parents’ house. I knew I’d have to do something tactile.” So, college athlete, artist, carpenter — when did cooking enter the picture? “Cooking was always a big part of my life. All memories of my family revolve around food,” explains Greg. “I really wanted to go to culinary school as soon as I graduated.” To appease his parents, however, Greg worked as an analyst for a couple of years after college, all the while planning his next move. “I kept researching culinary programs, and when I got home from work, I’d practice my kitchen skills.” In 2009, just after ICE won its second IACP award, Greg applied to ICE’s Culinary Arts program — his first turn toward the professional life he truly wanted.
As the restaurant’s website will tell you, “Ferris is an amalgamation of everything Proechel has done in his New York restaurant career.” Greg laid the foundation for that career with his first externship during culinary school. Acting on the advice of ICE Chef Ted Siegel, Greg applied for an externship at Eleven Madison Park, which had just received its four-star rating from the Times. Despite the steep learning curve and inevitable slip-ups out of the gate, the learning experience was well worth it. “In the beginning, I messed up every single day,” says Greg, “but towards the end, I started doing well. And then I was hired.” It was during this time that Greg learned not necessarily what to cook, but how to work. Explains Greg, “To this day, I still use the methods I learned from my sous chef at EMP.” With the methods of a well-oiled Michelin-star machine under his belt, Greg was ready to start innovating in the kitchen.
From Eleven Madison Park, Greg went on to Graffit, a modern Spanish restaurant led by Chef Jesus Nuñez, where he delved into molecular gastronomy. For a fledgling chef in the heyday of El Bulli, it was an exciting place to be. It was also the first place where Greg was given free reign to experiment in the kitchen. “That’s why I picked this career,” says Greg, “because you get to express yourself through food — and that was the first chance I got to do that all the time.” Four months into his stint at Graffit, Greg joined Chef Nuñez on Iron Chef, where they went head to head with Chef Michael Symon in the octopus battle. “That was just 16 months into my cooking career, so it was insane,” says Greg, “but the chef really believed in me.”
Then, with a reinforced sense of kitchen creativity and confidence, Greg joined the team at Blanca, the pioneer of extravagant tasting menus in the then up-and-coming Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Working alongside chef-owner Carlo Mirarchi, Greg found a warm welcome for his values, like carefully chosen, immaculately prepared products, and his inventive cooking. Together, these experiences prepared him for his ascent to executive chef at Le Turtle, where Greg created a menu of food described as “regularly excellent and at the very worst, interesting,” and set the restaurant world abuzz with his Sasso chicken — the chicken — served in its glorious, crispy skin entirety on a bed of hay. Advancing with a seemingly blind sense of determination, the young chef was already making a name for himself in New York City.
Once the world caught wind that Greg was taking the helm of a new restaurant venture, Ferris, diners eagerly awaited what promised to be a bold menu. Judging by reviews, he has delivered on that promise, with “insistently innovative dishes” emerging from the tiny, five-person kitchen. Greg seems to have taken no small amount of pleasure in channeling his experience and his favorite things into every item on the menu. Take, for example, the cote de boeuf served with “all the fixings” — various iterations of the onion — inspired in part by Eastbound & Down (Danny McBride fans will recall his character’s affinity for feeeexins), and also a nod to the standard procession of plates that come with any meal in nearby Koreatown.
“When I go to Miss Korea in K-Town, they bring all of these different plates and sauces — that’s how I love to eat.”
In other dishes, like the infamous roasted Sasso chicken, which isn’t on the menu but is served based on availability, you’ll find Greg’s childhood memories of farms in New Jersey, his home state, and his grandparents’ farm in Vermont. In terms of the theatrical element to Greg’s cooking, like the cote de boeuf presentation that brings the entire dining room to a hush as fellow diners look on enviously, it’s impossible to ignore the wink to the restaurant that wrote the book on theatrical dining — Eleven Madison Park.
Asked about the restaurant’s name, Ferris, Greg says it doesn’t have one origin, but rather, evokes a certain kind of feeling: the excitement of a kid on a Ferris wheel; the joie de vivre of the protagonist of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Greg, no doubt, is excited about food, and that excitement is contagious in his small, subterranean dining room. There’s also the idea of coming full circle, like a Ferris wheel, as Greg has done — from the days of being an analyst with a pipe dream of breaking into the culinary industry to today, an octopus-tatted chef who’s creating delicious dishes that are a joy to eat. It’s a story of hard work, tenacity and regeneration, and it began with a decision to change his life’s course.
As the precocious Ferris Bueller once said — Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Greg isn’t missing it.