Born in Columbia and raised in Staten Island, Bobby Hellen is a local chef at heart. And even in a city as big and blustery as New York, it shows. When he isn’t working on developing a rooftop garden or taking local elementary students to the Union Square Greenmarket, Hellen plies his trade with as much passion for the community as for the food, incorporating a deep respect for the ingredients—whether they’re animal or vegetable—into a menu designed to connect his diners to the cuisine and each other.
Hellen learned to appreciate the communal aspect of cuisine while growing up in a big Italian family, where togetherness often meant large, elaborate meals and that special kind of controlled chaos that only happens in the kitchen. And while his career would find Hellen working under several prominent chefs, he still credits his grandmother—and her many homemade pastas, sausages, and cured meats—as being his biggest influence in the kitchen.
It doesn’t hurt that Hellen has a degree from the CIA and career experience that encompasses the Jean Georges group, The Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, and L’Auberge Carmel in California, where Hellen fed his growing enthusiasm for local products. Now back in his hometown, where he became executive chef of Resto in 2008, Hellen is fusing his mutual love of community, local product, and cuisine with total creative control.
Whether he’s hosting beer dinners, educating his staff on local farmers and purveyors, or breaking down a whole animal for a “Large Format Feast,” Hellen is the consummate community chef. “We really pride ourselves in showing that food should be shared with someone,” he says. Of course, when it’s food like Hellen’s rustic charcuterie or a dish featuring his beloved off-cuts, it might not be easy to share, but we’ll try.
Interview with Chef Bobby Hellen of Resto – New York, NY
Emily Bell: How are you involved in your local culinary community? How important is community to you as a chef?
Bobby Hellen: It’s actually really important. We try to do as much as we can in this area. When we came into it being at Resto, there wasn’t much by way of food “community” here really. Nobody comes up here to eat really. Frank Bruni wrote an article a couple of months before we opened up saying the food movement was dismal in Murray Hill.
EB: So has Resto allowed you to open up the community at all?
BH: We try to educate through food. We host beer dinners, for instance. We do a lot to educate people on food and on seeing cuisine. We’re as local as we can be with food; as simple as we can be. [We work with] a couple schools around here, we take elementary schools to the greenmarket. And we support as many local farms and farmers as we can. We’ve grown relationships over the years—before local food was popular! It makes me feel old because I remember when it was like you wanted asparagus all the time and you’d get it because you wanted it and that was that. There was no sense of that not being typical. It was just “I want this product now.” Now we get everything we can from around here, and tell people and show people that it’s not as hard as it seems to keep everything local.
EB: Does this attitude pervade the restaurant—back of house and front of house?
BH: Because we’re all about educating through the dining experience, our staff is able to strike up a conversation with someone. They have the knowledge and they let people know, “Oh, this is Roman escarole, they cultivate it now in New Jersey,” or something like that. They’re empowered to do it. We try to educate through Resto as much as we can and support farmers around here.
EB: How important is charity to you?
BH: We do events like Meatopia, where half the proceeds go to charity. That’s pretty much all we do. We’re also taking part in the James Beard Foundation Greens events; they’ll do cocktails and canapé parties. Right now it’s myself, Amanda Cohen from Dirt Candy and two other people. The proceeds go to a program to teach kids about farms. All the events we do are charitable events. We hardly ever do an event to make money on it.
EB: Tell us about the large format feasts at Resto.
BH: A large format feast goes hand-in-hand with using everything, and the overall usage of the animal. Everybody here is going to appreciate and respect the animals that are grown for us because the product is pristine and the meat tastes amazing. So we try to use everything from head to tail. It’s a lot more. If I was an animal and I was going to be eaten, I wouldn’t want someone to just throw me in a pot. We do it a bunch of different ways. We educate people in the staff and my kitchen; everybody knows about it. We’ll have one or two staples on the menu that are off-cuts, like lamb neck, a confit belly of mutton or lamb, or stuffed pig trotter. There are just so many things we can do. Plus we have a chalk board so we try to utilize that as much as possible to communicate.
EB: So at the end of the day it’s about community? Food? Meat? All the above?
BH: Large format feasts are about making friends and spending time with friends. We really pride ourselves in showing that food should be shared with someone, that it’s best shared with someone. At the beer dinners and large format stuff we do, by the end of the night strangers are [often] friends.
EB: What about sustainability? Does that inform the menu and practices at Resto?
BH: We don’t serve local animals with something crazy that we could only get from somewhere far away. Everything we get, we try to keep as close as we can, from protein to vegetable. We try to keep everything really simple, like the cooking method, and we don’t use that many chemicals in the restaurant. Anything we do use is natural and we try not to affect the actual product.
EB: I heard you are in the process of building a community garden on the roof at Resto?
BH: We’re in the process. We’re trying to put something up there right now. The landlord shut it down for a while. But we’re trying to do that; trying to do as much as we can to resemble that real, “from the ground to the kitchen” mentality, so we can oversee the whole process.
EB: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
BH: If I wasn't in the restaurant industry I would have to be doing something that allows me to be moving around and creative—not in a cubical somewhere. I can picture myself being an architect.
EB: Did you go to culinary school? Would you recommend it to aspiring chefs?
BH: I went to the CIA and would recommend an aspiring chef find a culinary school that is a good fit. It gives a great foundation to build upon.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
BH: To keep working hard and try to find what interests them. Work for the person that is the best at what they want to do. Set goals and work towards them.
EB: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
BH: Opening a restaurant was the hardest thing and waiting for that first review to come out. It sucks.
EB: What does success mean to you?
BH: Success means more work. It also enables you to do whatever you want.
EB: What’s next? Where will we find you in five years?
BH: Next is making the restaurant an institution. We want Resto to be around for a long time with the same vision and passion to make good food.