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 take?

Michael 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…unlike 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?

MM: 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?

MS: 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…just 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.

MM: 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?

MS: (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?

MS: 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.

MM: What do you find most rewarding about being a chef? What do you like least?

MS: 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.

MM: 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?

MS: 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.

MM: 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?

MS: I see it going in two directions. There is good/great food that's getting even better. Daniel, The French Laundry, JeanGeorges—in 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 is growing.
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.

MM: What's your philosophy when it comes to food?

MS: 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.

MM: What sort of advice would you give to someone just starting in the business, or thinking about having their own restaurant?

MS: 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.