Interview with Chef Joseph Ogrodnek

April 2013

Dan Catinella: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?

Joseph Ogrodnek: I guess it was something I always wanted to do. It was like food and then cooking were part of my daily lives. My mom cooked every dinner and made lunch every day. It was a great time when the family would be together, and I always liked eating. When I was in high school, I started having interest in cooking for a living, and some family friends gave me a foot in the door at restaurant.

DC: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?

JO: Opus 251 in Philadelphia, Table, Tigalle, Union Square Café, Essex House, and Gramercy Tavern. I was executive chef first at Anella in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Walker [Stern] and I started working on Battersby at the end of 2011.

DC: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?

JO: Culinary school has its pros and cons. One certain fact is that real restaurant experience is 100 percent necessary to move forward, more so than maybe any other career. Cooking requires a lot of experience. Any kind of trade where you are working with your hands eight to 10 years, experience is 100 percent necessary to be successful. School is a great way to start and educate yourself on the options and determine which directions you want to go and it’s a great tool for networking. I don’t think it’s completely necessary but it’s definitely helpful. These days it's very expensive, and being a chef is not a high paying job. B it definitely helped me with contacts and building a network at the start of my career.

DC: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?

JO: When I first started cooking Guy Fileo at Opus251 was the executive chef. He kind of taught me about how to use everything in the restaurant and make sure there was no waste. There is an answer and a solution to every problem you come across and there is a use for everything. Really how to make the kitchen run like clock work. Ben Polinger at Table was the sous chef. He taught me a lot about how to always do the right thing and not cut corners. Basically having a really great standard on how to work and how to stick to it. Cooking is the sum of making a lot of little decisions, and if you chose every one wisely, you get an amazing product. Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern taught me how to build a team and treat your employees like people and get people to believe in you and have them follow you. When you have a larger business, you can’t do everything yourself.

 DC: How is it being a chef partnership instead of a single leader?

JO: We’ve found that it’s been great. I wouldn’t go back and change a thing. It’s so invaluable to me to have a partner that is considered my contemporary with the same skill set that can not only challenge my ideas and help me brainstorm but look back at the big picture in ways I wouldn’t otherwise see. I don’t think we could have accomplished what we did as quickly as we did had it not been that way. Because it’s both of us, we can do new and exciting stuff all the time.

DC: What advice would you offer young cooks just getting started?

JO: Experience is the most important thing. Put your head down and keep working; just put yourself in an environment where you feel everyone is better than you. The only way to get better is by challenging yourself.

DC: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?

JO: Something I always talk about at the restaurant, we really like foods that work off of how your tongue tastes. I love foods that barely touch all those things at once. Like if you think of a really awesome Thai salad, it would be that sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and a little bitter too. When you have something that hits all five of those things, it’s very exciting.

DC: What are your favorite food resources?

JO: We always read all the major outlets like The New York Times and Eater and New York Magazine and all that. We do try to keep up with current events in the industry. It’s important and we go out to eat a lot to see what other people are doing.

DC: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?

JO: I love Southeast Asia, Thailand, and Vietnam. I think it’s some of the greatest food.

DC: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?

JO: I think the way restaurants are going right now, you are starting to see trends kind of emerging and getting out of the picture a lot faster these days. I think we see a lot more chefs doing smaller restaurants and smaller places that are a little more casual, off the fine-dining turf, and people are doing this to have more of a connection to the customer and the food they are making.

DC: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

JO: I think our style is more about being hands-on. We do a lot of the work ourselves and it’s kind of a sum of all the places we’ve worked at. I try to lean on keeping the ingredients pure and not manipulating things and choose the right simple combinations.

DC: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant? What are those steps?

JO: Absolutely, we recycle our grease that the restaurant uses. We source our food as locally as possible for as many ingredients as we can and we try to support a lot of the smaller farms and people we have a relationship with.

DC: How are you involved in your local culinary community?

JO: We did a fundraiser for a local public school and we tried to do stuff for Hurricane Sandy.

DC: What does success mean for you?

JO: I certainly don’t have in my mind an end to where I’ll be. I think a lot of chefs have a similar perspective; you just want to keep moving. In five years I hope to have another restaurant. Battersby was Walker’s and my way to get established and get things moving. We did it on such a small budget, and we wanted to have a restaurant where the owner was the chef. Now that we have a place that’s doing well, we are looking for places to grow and get more people and more talent behind us. I would love to have a fine-dining place next with more space where we are confined to do the food we want to do.