Interview with Chef Dan Kluger of ABC Kitchen - New York, New York

August 2010

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Dan Kluger: It was kind of just luck. I got involved with restaurant management and did an internship at Union Square Café, and went back after I graduated from college. I was working as a host, hoping to do something different. On my days off, I'd hang out in the kitchen just to see what it was like. The chef offered me a job in the kitchen as a prep cook, and I kind of fell in love with it, and I've been doing it ever since.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
DK: I'll hire with or without. I didn't go to school for it so my sort of bias is toward the school of hard knocks. Just because somebody has a degree, I don't just hire them. It's really more about the attitude. A lot of times, I realize that people who didn't go to school are hungry to learn. You can just start them off at a beginner level and really work with them, train them and teach them.

AB: What advice do you offer young chefs just getting started?
DK: Be patient. Take the job you have and give 110 percent, but be patient. Too many people come in and they're already looking to work five different stations. Learn as you go and really immerse yourself in the world, reading and keeping current with things.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
DK: I've been a huge proponent of local food for 10 years now. I got a lot of it from Floyd Cardoz [of Tabla]. He gave me a lot of free rein to work with farmers, to foster those relationships. Being here now, I feel like it is part of the community. We're so focused on these farmers and local products. I just feel like we play a big part in the local food movement. I feel like now a lot of what we're doing, in terms of being sustainable and being green, will really make us a big part of the culinary world, both locally and globally.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
DK: In terms of the overall picture, I think it's about making great tasting food that's accessible and that people want. I think in terms of creating food, it's a lot about creating food that you believe in, not just putting things together for the sake of putting things together. The scallop dish was something you tasted that just works; we don't have to do a whole lot to it. It's just amazing. I think there's certainly a place for molecular gastronomy and really high end cuisine. But for me, making great tasting food is why I'm here.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
DK: It's product driven. Take the cavatelli, for example.  If you look at something like the pasta, it was what's coming out now, what's ‘spring’. All those things go really well together, so it's like 'what else is going to work with that?' Something like the guanciale, I love. I think it works really well as a textural gamey component; it has some black pepper. It just kind of morphs into a dish, I hope.

AB: There’s been a lot of press concerning the effort you’ve made to be eco-friendly.  What goes into that?
DK: So many places reincarnate themselves with a total gut renovation. To me it's no different than a $5 million condo, where a person walks in and puts down a new floor. We just refurbished. Tables [are made of] fallen Oregon wood, essentially a green, sustainable product. The flooring was just refurbished. The lighting is low voltage, energy efficient. We didn't do a lot; you don't see tons of stuff in the dining room that was brought from far away. All the plates, all the service ware, were refurbished antique items or handmade locally. The cake stands and the trays, again, refurbished antique items. The menu paper and placemats are all recycled paper. The ink is a food dye ink. A lot of the liquors we use are local, supporting places like the Hudson whiskey guys [Tuthilltown Spirits]. We use green-cleaning chemicals, soy-based candles, and we compost as much as we can.

AB: What other steps are you taking to be more sustainable?
DK: I think for one, just the build-out of the restaurant and the opening supplies. The kitchen's definitely a little different. We really researched [energy efficient equipment]. But for 300 covers on a Friday night, we need a Jade range, something that can really work.

AB: Does this same emphasis translate to the menu?
DK: It would be great to say everything here is 100% local all the time, but it's not realistic—we couldn’t do it. But we have fought to really push for the local movement and be smart about the products we use in the kitchen. We try to find a product that is local and base everything around that. If we can't get it locally, like lemons and limes, then they're organic. Let’s say you look at the pizza, the only item that's not local would be the olive oil, which is sustainable, and the Parmesan, which is organic from Italy. The ricotta we make using local milk. The fontina is Consider Bardwell which is relatively local.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
DK: Sweet, spicy, sour, bitter. I love for a dish to have as many of those different elements in it, without them competing against each other. For the dish we’re tasting now, you have the Serrano chili peppers with the soft shell crab, and you get a little mint, a little cilantro cools you down, plus the sweetness and acidity. All those things balance out and keep you excited. I want to keep eating them.

AB: What’s your approach to using spice?
DK: I learned about spice from Floyd. Something that we did a lot was sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter and then textural components. It's carried over into everything I've done. I try and apply that to where I am right now. Something like the scallop you tasted doesn't need too much. You get a little of that spicy bitter horseradish, then you get the lemon, the sour; the scallop itself is sweet, and a little crunch from the salt. You don't need to do a lot. I think Floyd is amazing when it comes to his handle on spice. Jean-Georges, as well.

AB: How has your past experience prepared you for your current job?
DK: When I signed on to work with Jean Georges almost two years ago, I was hired to be the chef of The Mark, which was taking forever, so I did five other openings around the country with Jean-Georges. When I wasn't doing openings, I was at the Spice Market or at Jean-Georges, doing development for The Mark, or a little bit at Perry Street. I had time to adapt to some of Jean-Georges’ philosophies, techniques, and systems and add my personality. And then coming here and having a little bit of room to change things a little bit was amazing. I opened The Mark for room service and it was an amazing experience. Coming here was kind of easy, my sixth restaurant in however many years. It gave me a lot more confidence.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do at your job?
DK: Be patient. My advice to young cooks is to be patient. It's something I've had to tell myself the whole time, whether as a cook or becoming a manager, going through the uphill battle of being a manager and doing the right thing, and wanting to do more. Learn to be patient.

AB: If you had one thing you could do over, what would it be?
DK: I don't think I would necessarily go to school, but I would force myself to take a lot of classes and try and go and do a stage at different places. I think most importantly, as much as I valued spending seven years at Tabla, I think it kind of hurt me a little bit, sort of stunted my growth, so to speak. [I] spent seven years seeing the same things over and over again, and constantly learning from it, but not seeing different cuisines. I developed as a manager and developed as a chef. But I think if I had been able to go and be a line cook at Jean Georges, that would have been a good experience.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
DK: I had no formal training. I went to the school of hard knocks and worked my way up. I've worked in some really good restaurants. I feel proud of where I've gotten to, this restaurant especially. It feels very good to be here.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we see you in five years?
DK: I want to do more of what we're doing here, hopefully in other parts of the country, in other parts of the world. The only place I want to do specifically is Brooklyn, because I live there. There's something great about the idea that a lot of the community would appreciate this, and get behind it, and it would be just one more place for me to do something. I'm hoping that this relationship that I've created with Phil [Suarez] and Jean-Georges is something that outlasts all of us and we can do more together.