Interview with Michael Schlow
By Merrill Maiano
Merrill Maiano: I understand you're interested
in writing a cookbook-can you tell me a little bit
about what direction you would like the cookbook to
Schlow: The cookbook is going to be broken down
by situation, rather than by cuisine or seasonality.
So, there will be a chapter on quick and easy dishes,
and a chapter on dishes you might want to make if
you had "the family" coming over for the
first time. My favorite chapter is "cooking for
therapy". My favorite time in the kitchen at
home is just before the guests come over, when everything
is sort of quiet and there are no distractions
in the restaurant kitchen. (Laughs.) I can just roll
out gnocchi and enjoy making the food and having a
glass of wine and listening to music. It's about being
in the moment. What's the rush?
I have read that Italian food is your first love,
and you have certainly cooked a lot of it! What is
it about Italian food that you find so appealing?
Some of the words that people use to describe Italian
food are "authentic", "pure" and
"honest". I feel like these are words that
people use to describe a person's soul, and Italian
food is certainly soulful. In your experience, do
you feel as though fine dining has lost sight of some
of these things?
This is a great question. Authentic? Isn't that
what we're all looking for in everything in life?
Wouldn't it be nice if politicians and advertisements
were "authentic"? (Laughs.) There has been
a great deal of bastardization in food in the United
States. Everything becomes diluted with time, and
I don't mean diluted in a negative sense
that things can't escape outside influences. It's
like a mother language and its dialects. Some of the
recipes that we use are hundreds of years old. Whoever
put tomatoes and basil together was a genius. That's
not something that needs to be changed. That's the
kind of authenticity we're trying to achieve at Via
Matta. We try to honor these classic recipes and execute
them the way they were intended, using the best products
available. Some fine dining has definitely lost sight
of this. They're thinking more about the aesthetic
and the critics, and not enough about the customers.
Looking through some of the recipes from Radius, I
noticed that the menu features a lot of highly articulated,
very labor intensive dishes. Are you moving away from
this with Via Matta?
(Laughs.) Yes! The food at Radius is very exact and
precise. It's about creating perfect circles on the
plate and presentation and eating with your eyes.
There are a lot of details on those plates. Both restaurants
reflect a real passion for and devotion to food. Yes,
the dishes at Via Matta have fewer elements. But,
in a way, that makes them just as hard or even harder
to execute because they really have to be perfect.
The ingredients have to speak for themselves.
MM: You have owned and run restaurants with
Christopher Myers for quite a while, and you obviously
have a chemistry that works for making a place successful.
What parts of Radius and Via Matta are reflections
of you, and what parts are reflections of him?
We are both crazy about trying to be the best at whatever
we do. And, we agree to disagree. We don't always
agree on everything, but we have a common goal. He's
a master of design. I would tell him what I was looking
for in the design of Via Matta, and he could sit down
with the architects and designers and articulate to
them design elements that I couldn't quite explain.
I'll give him something to taste and he'll say it
needs something else, and I'll change it a little
and it works out. So, there's a little bit of both
of us in everything at the restaurants. We're best
friends, and there's always a sort of banter going
on between us.
What do you find most rewarding about being a chef?
What do you like least?
I love what I do. I love watching my younger cooks
grow up and become true professionals and go on to
have their own places. Obviously, I enjoy the artistic
expression. But, I don't feel like I need to shove
my artistic expression down the customers' throats.
The food should be discernable. The restaurant culture
is exciting and it's definitely in my blood. The worst
part about it is that I miss my family way too much.
What are some of your favorite can't-live-without-it
things to eat? When you fix yourself "a little
something to eat", what do you make?
Teddy All Natural Crunchy Peanut Butter. Bonne Maman
Orange Marmalade on an oversized toasted English muffin
is so good late at night. Hebrew National and Nathan's
hot dogs. Lately, I've developed a thing for Hagen
Daaz chocolate gelato. And any kind of soft cookie-chocolate
chip or oatmeal raisin. Those really get me. I make
soup at home a lot, because I can just reheat it late
at night when I get home. I love good Chinese food.
And, I really miss New York city pizza.
Where do you think the food of world is headed?
In other words, what kinds of trends do you see developing
in restaurants and in American food culture in general?
I see it going in two directions. There is good/great
food that's getting even better. Daniel, The French
Laundry, JeanGeorgesin design, service and food
they're better than ever. We'd like Radius to play
on that field. The country just needs a population
to support this trend and I think that population
Then, there's the food that just represents an overabundance
of mediocrity. All people demand is that they get
a big portion and that the food is hot, and half the
time, you can't even get that. You have to seek out
the best. You have to demand the best. People have
to understand that cost does not equal quality. For
some reason, a lot of people believe in that. You
can get a great meal for five bucks, and the food
will have been made with great care. But, you have
to seek it out.
What's your philosophy when it comes to food?
If you've never tried something, don't tell me you
hate it. At lest try a bite, then you can tell me
you hate it. Simple is not synonymous with plain.
Don't over-crowd food. Don't put a ton of different
ingredients together and then claim that you want
the guest to be able to taste each one individually.
In other words, don't confuse the guest's palate.
Lately, I've been giving my servers a wine tasting
analogy. When you taste wines, you taste each one
separately so that you can appreciate its individual
characteristics. You don't put them all in a shaker
together and mix them up and then ask people to be
able to discern the best parts of them. It's the same
way with food. You can serve ingredients in a new
or interesting way, but allow them to maintain their
own recognizable identity. You want the ingredients
to elevate and enhance each other.
What sort of advice would you give to someone just
starting in the business, or thinking about having
their own restaurant?
Work for the best. Build a strong foundation. Get
as much groundwork as you possibly can. You've eaten
at restaurants where the chef has a couple of good
dishes and the rest aren't as strong. I think people
get ahead of themselves in the kitchen. That's the
kind of thing that a couple more years working for
a great chef can eliminate. If you're going to have
your own restaurant, make sure it's what you really
want. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of responsibility.
If you love it, it's in your blood. Stick with it.