|Interview with Marja of the Kitchen
Club by Gretchen VanEsselstyn:
The Kitchen Club is a bright, sunny spot on Prince Street in
New York's SoHo, a convivial room where regulars meet to dine
on fine cuisine, delight in the gorgeous décor, and bask
in the glow of their favorite chef-owner-host, the scintillating
Marja, a native of the Netherlands, has brought Japanese and
European cuisines together, wedding her convictions about using
fresh seasonal produce with a keen sense of her customers' food
interests and desires. An oddity among modern chefs, Marja does
most of the cooking herself, allowing her to exercise control
over the quality and consistency of her products, and this hands-on
approach is evident in every aspect of The Kitchen Club. How
is it possible for one person to run the business of a restaurant
and still find time to cook? "I am like my dog, a terrier,"
Marja told me. "I am very tenacious. Running a business
as a woman - I can do that because I am multifaceted and I like
Marja concluded our interview by quoting
the Dalai Lama, saying, "It is not the food, but the
bringing of the food." This piece of her personal philosophy
echoes from her care in selecting ingredients, her determination
when fine-tuning recipes and her skill at creating a beautiful
place in which to partake of her delicious food. And did I
mention the dumplings?
GV: Your mushroom dumplings were called "perfect"
in Zagat's. How do you feel about that?
GV: Could you tell me something about the origin and history
of Kitchen Club?
M: Well, our dumpling was conceived in the original Kitchen
Club which was located at 500 East 11th Street and I used
to have dinners once or twice a week, prix fixe for 40 dollars
a person. I served the hors d'oeuvres and a glass of champagne
and people brought their own wine, and I had one menu for
everyone. We'd have anywhere from 14-20 people for dinner.
I also did a lot of catering and private parties, but it didn't
really make for a restaurant. At some point, the East Village
wasn't developing any further, and I started looking for another
space, and this one came up. It wasn't the neighborhood that
it is now, it was a very unwanted, quiet, neighborhoody neighborhood.
There was a cohesive group of people here that provided a
network. They lived here - they weren't yuppies, they weren't
transients - they were leftovers from the old Italian neighborhood,
or they were artists who lived here because it was so protecting.
In 1990, when I came here, people were surprised that I would
open up something here, particularly a white-tablecloth restaurant.
It's much more upscale now than when I first opened up because
I've had a chance to develop the room and the atmosphere.
I've done awnings and had windows opened up to the sidewalk,
so it really looks like a ritzy little place now. When I first
opened it, people had no idea what I was doing, but I've become
a sort of neighborhood local restaurant.
M: The mushroom dumplings have been worked on since 1986 and
that's when I started developing them as an ingredient in my
menu to include people who are not meat eaters without having
to make some kind of dorky vegetarian dish. It would have to
be tasty and not have any connotations that people would have
anything against it except if you can't eat mushrooms. They
started as a ravioli at first: flat, lying as a little triangle
on the plate with a red pepper sauce and that was my first thought.
Then, as I was already involved in cooking Japanese food and
eating a lot of Japanese food, being married to a Japanese man,
and having been there, I realized that the Japanese have a dumpling
called gyoza which is made with pork and garlic and cabbage,
depending on the chef who's making them, and I thought maybe
I can use that idea, and that's how they turned from ravioli
GV: What form does it take - is it like a gyoza, where it's
flat on the bottom, and is seared and then steamed?
GV: As I've been researching this article, I've been trying
to figure out what it is that's so appealing about dumplings.
M: Yes, exactly. When the restaurant opened, the mushroom
dumplings were on the menu, and within a short time, I couldn't
take them off, because they were so popular.
Those dumplings have spurred on another group of members of
the dumpling family to satisfy different tastes. People who
like to have something that's meat can have the duck and ginger
dumplings, made in a different shape with a different wrapper,
and the shrimp and spinach dumplings, which are made for people
who are into crustaceans, obviously, and we also have the
salmon tartare dumpling which is very popular. I'm working
on one or two other dumplings, including an apple with chocolate
dumpling with a wasabi-green tea sauce and a tofu and hijiki
We have a lunch now that's based on dumplings. I find that
people are very relieved that they don't have to order something
heavy and that are many people who say they want sandwiches.
And because I'm in a neighborhood where there are quite a
few restaurants, I am willing to lose those people for lunch.
M: Well, one of the things that is appealing is that you get
a taste of something as if it were on a spoon, so you can kind
of grab one bite and put it in your mouth, almost as if it were
a crostini, but with crostini there's a bit more interference
- you can pop it in your mouth, but you have to chew it, while
with a dumpling, because it's a very thin skin, the opening
up of the ingredients develops right on the front of your palate
and on the roof of your mouth so you get a lot of flavor in
the packaging, in one bite, and that's appealing to a lot of
GV: I think they're fun too - sort of the element of surprise.
M: Yes, and it's sort of a cultural trip too. You can make
I mean, I haven't bothered to do too outrageous,
say Mexican or Mediterranean because I want to stick to the
semi-classic mixture I'm making of Japanese and European food.
GV: The European food on your menu, what are some of the
influences you have there?
M: I try to make food that's French classically based, like
the mushroom medley has a sauce that's made with a reduction,
which usually has a French background. In the wintertime,
for example, for the main courses we have scalloped potatoes,
which are French, and other things - blanquette de veau, though
lately I've been making things that are lighter. At the beginning
I used to make boeuf flamande, which is a Flemish beef stew,
and now that customers tend to look for healthier food (or
claim they do) I'm looking for food that is a bit more straightforward,
and less "worked" and let the ingredients speak
more for themselves and I don't know whether that is true
in Europe now because I'm not cooking there, but I find that
a lot of people respond very well to it. For example, I have
a marinated tuna that is grilled very quickly and comes with
a very simple wasabi cream and some green tea soba noodles
- instead of having sautéed greens in the summertime
you have a salad, with some hijiki in it for a little Asian
flair. So it's not too overworked.
GV: It seems like you have a real seasonal influence.
M: Yes - in the wintertime I serve rice and potatoes, and
in the summertime I serve soba noodles - different kinds,
like green tea, brown, or sometimes somen noodles, which is
a thicker type that absorbs sauce well.
GV: So what's coming up for summer?
M: Well, we're working on our tenth anniversary and getting
together our mailing list for that. For summer we do a lot
of grilling, a lot of fish, at least four different kinds
of fish every day. We make our homemade ginger pickles, which
are very good in the summertime. Recently we've started serving
swordfish again. Some people have trepidation about serving
swordfish, but we haven't found any resistance from our customers.
We marinate it in mustard sauce, which tenderizes it a bit,
and it's simple and delicious. Our tuna is a sushi grade that
we marinade in sesame oil, mirin, soy, spices and garlic,
served rare, with a wasabi cream. We also have a blackfish
from Montauk with a compound of wasabi tobiko butter and a
Spanish mackerel that is marinated in miso, which is a housewife
dish in Japan. Another thing I find about cooking that's on
my mind is what Mother cooks, what she finds in the market.