Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Chef April Bloomfield

Chef April Bloomfield shares her culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.April 2012

British-born chef April Bloomfield has been credited with starting the "gastropub revolution" in New York City.

She and restaurateur Ken Friedman launched The Spotted Pig in February of 2004 and since then, the eatery has earned one star from the Michelin Guide for six consecutive years. In 2010, the duo expanded their restaurant empire inside the Ace Hotel first with The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, and later with the John Dory Oyster Bar, which earned a glowing two-star review from The New York Times.

Bloomfield accidentally fell into her career after missing an examination to begin training as a police officer. Instead, she followed in her sister's footsteps to cookery school at Birmingham College and eventually went on to cook at London's acclaimed River Café. Under the guidance of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, Bloomfield learned that good ingredients speak for themselves.

Nearly a decade after leaving her mentors, her first cookbook, A Girl and Her Pig hit shelves in April 2012. The Main Course met with Bloomfield upstairs at The Breslin to discuss her book endeavor, her thoughts on being a chef and restaurateur, and that oh-so famous burger.

How long was your cookbook in the making?
It was a whole year to write it, to test recipes, and tell the stories. It was a great experience and working with JJ [Goode] was amazing. He's such a good writer, very talented, and we worked well together.

In the Foreword to the book JJ referred to you as "vegetable savant." What do you think about that?
Did he? That's a good thing … I think. I love cooking vegetables. They're just fun to cook and they're so versatile. We're planning on doing a vegetable book together, which is very exciting.

How difficult was it to translate your restaurant's recipes for a home cook?
It took a second because I'd never done it before and I was doing a process that I thought was quite natural and then it didn't quite work out. I thought, "This is going to take forever." So what I had to do was just scratch what I'd just done then restart. I wrote the ingredients down, but without putting weights and measures in, and then I wrote the method. I used an iPad so it was really efficient. Then I created the recipes and I had time to write little notes about why I liked the recipe, and JJ did a lot of video.

What about the cover photo of you with a pig slung around your shoulders? That may be polarizing to some– was there a message behind that?
No. It's called A Girl and Her Pig and, originally, we were going to do an illustration, but myself, my editors and publishers decided that it would be a stronger book if it had a photograph on the front. I have a really great friend, Martin Schoeller who took that photograph. It was very feminine in a way but quite strong.

It also says a lot about you, it's pretty brazen.
What? To have a dead pig on the front? [Chuckling]

Well, it's very natural for me. I don't think it's weird or offensive because I work with food, and I work with farmers from the breeding to the killing to bringing it to the restaurant to the customer. We see the whole step through, so it was just very natural when we chose it. I didn't think anything of it.

Your restaurants have been known to attract celebrity clientele, how does that change what goes on inside the kitchen?
Nothing. We treat them as regular customers. I don't go to the tables. I don't do anything special.

You're not nervous?
I get more nervous when chefs come in, but they're probably more celebrities than celebrities.

What about President Bill Clinton?
That was a nice experience. I got to meet him and it was nice to have that experience of him coming to your restaurant and the restaurant being very quiet when he walked in. That was kind of exciting.

You know he's a vegan now?
That's what I heard.

I guess he wouldn't be eating the burger this time around?
No. Probably not. He has been in recently and I'm not going to disclose what he ate.

When you think back on when you first started out, did you ever imagine you'd be in New York City with three restaurants cooking for presidents and celebrities?
Not at all actually. I'm not one to look ahead and project what I might be doing in five or ten year's time. I took one restaurant a year at a time, or two years at a time, and then figured out where I wanted to go. So, that was never in my future at all.

How did you wind up at The Spotted Pig?
I was working at The River Café and I got offered this job through my friend, Jamie Oliver. Even though I loved my job, I was ready to move on. I still could've been there right now actually; I loved my job so much. But I wanted to progress and I wanted to get better and push myself and so I took the job merely to have a different life experience and to see and eat different food and to meet new people.

From where do you draw inspiration?
Oh, boy. Cookbooks, places I travel, restaurants I eat in, markets, shops, and supermarkets. When I go to a different country I like to go to their supermarket just to see what they have or go to their greenmarkets. If I happen to be in a place where I have a kitchen, then I'd obviously shop there and try to cook with their local produce.

Speaking of travel, do you have any plans to do any restaurants outside of New York?
I'd love to do one in San Francisco or Montreal. I'd also love to go back to London. But no, no plans yet. It would be hard to juggle all that.

Even now that you have three restaurants, how are you able to be in the kitchen?
I try and be in the kitchen every day. Obviously, it's hard because I've started to do a few more interviews for my book. I can't obviously be in different ones at the same time, but I try and touch on them all at least once a day.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing chefs today?
Keeping on top of things, persevering and sourcing. Sourcing is really a challenge sometimes. Do you have an in-house forager? We used to, now my chefs have started to go to the market a little bit more.

What's your number one priority in the kitchen?
I have many. To be professional all the time. To taste. That's really important–it's number one. To be clean, organized, efficient, and to communicate. All those are priorities. If you don't have those, then it's not a smooth machine. And treat the food well.

What is important for you when you are hiring your staff?
Firstly, that they know what we're about. And to hire people that are like-minded. That's why trails are so good, because you really get to see who they are and they get to see who you are as well. It's less about the interview process; it's more about the connection– whether they fit into your kitchen, whether the other people work well with them.

When you look back to when you were a young cook in England, what were the most important lessons you learned?
To work hard and stand behind what you're doing and have integrity. Not wavering in that. Having standards. Never settle for anything less. Always try to be better. To better the food. Rose and Ruth had a great knack for eating something in Italy and then bringing it back and trying to make it better. Which made them very unique and refreshing because there weren't a lot of people in England, or London, who had standards of that caliber. It's really refreshing two women who didn't really have professional cooking could open a restaurant with so much passion and just great taste.

You're one of the top female chefs, what struggles do think women in the industry may experience different than men?
I'd like to think they wouldn't have any or they would be the same. I had my head down and I did the stuff that I wanted to do. I didn't have anybody standing in my way. If I wanted to work a section, somehow I managed to do it and get on that section. I didn't feel any restrictions. I had goals. I started on the cold appetizers and was always thinking, "Okay, I'm going to do this," but I'm looking over there thinking, "I want to do hots now." And then you'd be on hots and you'd master that and you'd work really hard and put in the hours and time and then you'd say, "Okay, I want to do sauté and grill." I think the only thing I didn't do was pastry because I didn't want to get stuck there, so I didn't really pay attention to that until I was cooking for at least seven years.

What advice would you give a young cook just starting out their career?
Be prepared to work hard. Be a sponge. Absorb as much information as you can. Ask a lot of questions. I think a lot of chefs, especially young chefs that come in now, don't ask questions. They never ask, "Why are you doing that?" or, "Why did you use that?" or, "Why should it taste like this?" Just touch the food, taste the food, smell the food, get to know it, cook it in different styles. Eat out if you can afford it even if it's somewhere in your price range. Try and buy some books even if they're secondhand.

The burger was what put The Spotted Pig on the map. How much thought went into that one menu item?
When I opened The Pig I didn't want to open just a regular gastropub that had become the norm in England, and I didn't want to have the gastropub classics like penne pasta with tomato sauce. I wanted to make restaurant quality food to a high standard and have it be consistently tasty. I put dishes on the menu that I really like to cook and eat, and secretly had my fingers crossed hoping that people would like it and appreciate it as much as I do. But when I was making the menu, I did think, "Okay, it is America and they do like burgers," so put the burger on with that in mind.

Do you think it's important that a restaurant has a signature dish?
It's nice to be able to go to a restaurant and have something because it's your favorite and have it stay on as long as it's seasonal. I did that burger because I could make it all year round. It's nice to be able to get some choice but have some set things that you want to go back for and say, "I want to go eat the gnudi or the burger."

Did you toil over the burger to get it just right?
When we were opening, everybody helped with everything. We all had input on the menu and we exchanged techniques, so it was a nice collaboration. To get a great, tasty burger, it was trying to get the blend right. It was constant communication with the butcher, Pat La Frieda. We came to recipe that that we both agreed on.

He's going to be on television.
I know, I can't wait to see it. It's called Meat Men and they are two perfect guys for that.

Is television something you're interested in?
I like to learn. That's the thing about me. I like to learn about different things. I've done a little TV and it's fun to do. I think if it helps keep my restaurants busy and successful, then I might contemplate doing something in the future, but nothing right now.

— Kiri Tannenbaum