Chef Patrick Connolly
Bobo | New York
In 1999, 21-year old Patrick Connolly began his culinary career, pouring pints of Irish stout at a pub in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri to pay off student loans. Intrigued by the excitement of the kitchen, Connolly asked to be moved to the back of the house. Around the same time, Connolly discovered The French Laundry Cookbook, which further persuaded him to pursue a career in the culinary arts.
In 2002, Connolly enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island where he spent evenings at the public library reading any culinary material he could get his hands on. Connolly’s preparation for real kitchen life took place concurrently at Providence Italian restaurant Empire, where he learned the art of butchery and meat preparation.
Connolly’s next step brought him to Radius, Michael Schlow’s upscale modern French restaurant in Boston where he was hired as entremetier. He gradually climbed the ranks to chef de cuisine, and eventually became executive chef, a position that he held for four years. In 2006, Connolly earned Radius a four-star review from The Boston Globe.
Connolly soon set his sights for New York City. He landed the executive position at the West Village restaurant Bobo where he brought his appreciation for market-fresh ingredients to the restaurant’s “European dinner party”-inspired menu and Bohemian ambiance. In 2008, Connolly won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Patrick Connolly: Cooking was always a hobby. I was cooking while I was in college, at St. Louis University and then Lindenwood University, where I’m from. So I reached a point where I wanted to cook for a living. There’s nothing I'd rather do day in and day out. I moved to Providence [RI] to go to culinary school. And that's pretty much it. The French Laundry Cookbook was big. I bought it when I was thinking about things and I opened it up and it was instantaneous. I've never eaten at [Thomas] Keller's place, even though I’ve been in New York since July. I've had a million opportunities, but I don't have the patience for a four hour meal.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
PC: Radius, and Empire in Providence, RI in 2002. Prior to that I was working in St. Louis at Dressel’s, a Welsh pub.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
PC: I've seen it work, but it didn't work for me. Coming from St. Louis, which at the time didn’t really have a nationally recognized culinary community, I though that a top culinary school was the first step. While at Johnson & Wales, I worked at a Starbucks in the early morning, went to school in the afternoon, and worked in a restaurant at night. I put much more into it than I got out of it. After a year I walked away from school and pursued a more apprenticeship style approach to my education. I am very fortunate that gamble worked.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
PC: Most of my education has come from people I have worked with, in terms of bringing their experience and what they've learned and picked up to the kitchen. I’ve also learned from reading cookbooks and eating out. There wasn't really ever a mentor-protégée relationship in my career.
AB: What about Michael Schlow?
PC: I came up from a cook, and there was a chef de cuisine at the time. Then I became chef de cuisine. [Michael Schlow] just wasn't in the kitchen. I certainly picked up a lot of knowledge in that kitchen working with such talented chefs like William Kovel of Au Jourd’hui in Boston and Brian Reimer of Maison Boulud in Beijing. Sometimes learning from and pushing those around you can create the most inspired environment.
AB: But there's no person who stands out in your mind? Someone who offered constructive criticism?
PC: Christopher Myers [the co-owner of Radius] did that most memorably. He sees the big picture in terms of hospitality; cooking is a just a small part of that. He teaches you to cook as if it’s no different than service or wine. He makes you look at the whole picture. And even still he has been down to visit here [in New York]. I'd say he is a mentor.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
PC: The one thing I try to do the most is consider the different elements in a dish in terms of textures, temperatures, and complimentary flavor profiles. In terms of dining, I think people should share their food, get a good buzz, then get up and dance it off.
AB: If you could have any chef cook for you, who would it be and why?
PC: Julia Child. I would love a nice home cooked meal.
AB: Did you ever do any culinary travel?
PC: Only one vacation at Radius—I went to Paris to eat.
AB: What question gives you the most insight into a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position at your restaurant? What sort of answer are you looking for?
PC: I more or less want to hear what they do when they're not working. I'm looking for a balance of athleticism and artistry. I like them to be into music, writing, or whatever they do, and be active. Cooking is a balance, not a prerequisite.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
PC: To create a work ethic that is more challenging and more difficult than what anyone else gives them. There is less drive now [and] more bitching. Really they just need to shut up and put their head down, and if it hurts keep pushing until you literally crumble. And then pick yourself up or someone else will.
AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
PC: There’s not one thing that sticks out. Pork, fresh oregano, orange, and cloves are one [combination] I really enjoy; just the way it reacts with the pork. Clove makes me think of fall, orange of winter, and oregano of spring. Cayenne would also work well in there too. Fresh oregano is similar to rosemary; it has wintery smells, yet it flourishes in the summer.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
PC: The French Laundry Cookbook and Larousse Gastronomique.
AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?
PC: Japan, for the street food and the great sushi restaurants (I haven’t actually been)..
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry?
PC: I feel that the trend I'm trying to grab a hold of is really cutting down on the distance the food travels—the “farm to table” idea. It’s about trying to lay off the fish and vegetables that are shipped in from South America and beyond. At one point that was exciting, to get mushrooms from South Africa, but in a way it’s really irresponsible. People are trying to look around the corner a little bit and see what’s there. At Bobo we are tying to develop a plan to create a roof top garden and farm to create an environment where our produce will be 60 percent self sufficient.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
PC: I try to do as many events as I can. When Franklin Becker was next door, I did an Autism Speaks event. I try to do as much as James Beard Foundation asks me to do. We participate in events to raise money for PS41’s building of a green roof.
AB: What is American cuisine to you?
PC: American Cuisine is a utilization of all techniques we are exposed to with an emphasis on regional styles and ingredients. It should come naturally.
AB: What steps have you taken to become a sustainable restaurant?
PC: We recycle, compost, filter our own water, recycle cooking oil, recycle corks, and use eco-friendly detergents. We filter our own water and want to eliminate bottled beer because we’re still shipping it in; draft is a more sustainable choice. We’re committed to sourcing locally and making sure that waste is minimal.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
PC: I'd probably go into filmmaking.
AB: What was your initial goal in your career?
PC: My initial goal in my career was to make a name for myself and learn as much as I could. I think I accomplished that pretty quickly since I started late in the game. Now I want to get rooted in New York City. I want to continue to build up my reputation and build Bobo as a young restaurant.
AB: What does success mean for you?
PC: I think it means that you did what you wanted to do, that you set out to accomplish something. That you were true to yourself and what you were shooting for—and that you actually got it. Successful people are always striving for the next thing; they keep creating new goals.
AB: What’s next for you?
PC: My next goal would be to make a restaurant that is really my baby. I have nothing specific set up for a new restaurant. Carlos, the owner at Bobo, and I have looked at some properties and are brainstorming ideas while continuing to improve Bobo.
AB: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
PC: I want to be here in New York City in five years-still feeding people and loving what I do.
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