Photo Credit: Peter Pioppo

Gregory Brainin

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Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What, or who inspired you?
Gregory Brainin: When I was six, cooking was an acceptable way to explore fire and play with knives. Once I learned how to season food I really became hooked. A love for eating was the ultimate inspiration.

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Gregory Brainin

While attending the Culinary Institute of America, Gregory Brainin completed his externship with Chef David Burke at The Park Avenue Café. After graduation, he returned to his externship site. From there he worked with Chef Gary Robbins at Aja and was a sous chef at Alison on Dominick St. before joining Jean Georges in 1999.

Brainin has worked with Star Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten for seven years. After being hired as a line cook at Jean Georges, he was quickly promoted to sous chef there. Only nine months later, he was named chef de cuisine and fulfilled that role for almost five years. During this time he helped to develop and open 66 and Spice Market. In 2005, Brainin left Jean Georges to open Perry St., which was awarded 3 stars by The New York Times.

Seven months later, Brainin was promoted to his current position as the Director of Creative Development for Jean Georges Restaurants. As such he is responsible for the development of new recipes for Jean Georges, which was awarded 3 Michelin stars and 4 stars from The New York Times earlier this year. Brainin also oversees recipe development for Nougatine, Spice Market, 66, Perry St., Prime Steakhouse, and occasionally Mercer Kitchen, JoJo, and Vong. He creates the menus for new projects such as Lagoon, which recently opened in Bora Bora, and he works closely with Jean-Georges Vongerichten to develop new restaurant concepts around the world.

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Interview Cont'd
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to your aspiring chefs?
GB: I think it really depends on the individual. Cooking schools can give a good base of knowledge, but I have found that some people respond better to a true production atmosphere. I went to the CIA and it definitely worked for me.

AB: Who are your mentors?
GB: Jean Georges Vongerichten has taught me the value of simplicity. David Burke helped show me that there is no box.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
GB: For me, cooking should maximize the full potential of every ingredient. I try to access different nuances of flavor within ingredients and layer them in dynamic ways. Ideally, dining should be exhilarating for every sense.

AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
GB: I wouldn’t say I have any secrets, but I use many different chilies to really wake up the palate.

AB: What flavor combinations do you favor?
GB: I love spicy, sour, salty and smoky.

AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
GB: Excluding hands, knives, and my staff, I’d say my palate—it’s the only thing I definitely cannot cook without.

AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
GB: I would not say I have created any culinary techniques. This is the most difficult thing of all.
I do try to constantly rethink how things can be used and modified, like cutting noodles from tuna or using meat as a wrapper for ravioli. Sometimes you just stumble on cool things in everyday production, like making skins out of mozzarella curd. I have made some very versatile recipes for different heat stable foams, some of which can be baked and poached.

AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
GB: Why do you cook? The answer to this tells you exactly who someone will be in the kitchen, especially if they tell you something they think you want to hear, they can rarely qualify their answers when probed deeper.

AB: What tips would you offer young cooks just getting started?
GB: I’d tell them to focus, but also to relax, because when you’re too nervous you can become dysfunctional.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
GB: Simple Cuisine by Jean Georges Vongerichten is my all time favorite—it’s a bible of simplicity and explosive flavor. And the El Bulli books are amazing, but only in English—I don’t have the patience to get through the Spanish.

AB: What cities do you like to go to for culinary travel?
GB: Bangkok, and if you’ve been there then you know exactly why. They have the freshest and most beautiful ingredients brought to life in really elegant dishes. I also like Spain and Hong Kong.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in New York?
GB: La Esquina, Noodletown, and Degustation.

AB: Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
GB: Maybe in 10 years I’ll be able to open a little counter and work on exploring the nature of flavor and taste. I would like to acquire enough knowledge to someday write a book about this. I do believe that to a certain degree there are objective truths about taste. I would love to contribute to an understanding of why certain things taste so much better than others.

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   Published: September 2006