Interview with Sustainability Chef John Mooney of Bell Book & Candle - New York, NY

September 2011

Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
John Mooney: Actually I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was about 12 or 13. [I was a] part-time bus boy, you know, and a dishwasher. Then I got into cooking. I just kind of clicked with the environment with the people. And I had foresight. It came to me that I could make a living doing it. I could really enjoy it. And I love food. I grew up in Chicago, with lot of different kinds of foods and neighborhoods and family-owned restaurants.

EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
JM: No. absolutely not. Actually I don’t think it’s required. I think it’s all practical application. Some people feel they need the piece of paper, they need credentials from some sort of academic body. For me though, the industry at that level doesn’t compensate you for the education. On-the-job training, travel—all these things would benefit you just as much without spending the amount of money it takes to go to go culinary school to get the degree.

EB: Tell me about the hyroponic garden.
JM: I owned a restaurant before this in Orlando. I had a good amount of land to make my property self-sustaining. I had bigger plans but unfortunately the economy was not great, and worse in Florida than most parts of the States. I was trying to make a better labor model. Chef-ing and farming don’t mix. I was trying to make it a viable business. So I looked for technology. Florida soil is not good for anything but corn and citrus basically. I looked for an alternative, and I found the technology I use here on my roof [at Bell Book & Candle] by chance. The building couldn’t handle the weight load of growing conventionally, and growing vertically maximizes my space.

EB: How did you become so passionate about the practices you put into place at Bell Book & Candle?
JM: Before, as a chef, I didn’t come across this [farming technique] in Orlando. I worked for Drew Nieporent for 12 years, at an ingredient-focused restaurant in the W Hotel. That’s when I started to see how important individual ingredients and relationships [to farmers] were. I moved to India and opened two restaurants for Michel Michan. I had a 120 acre farm there.

EB: So is it about control of the final product?
JM: Yeah, but also there’s more pride involved if you care for your ingredients from start to finish. What I do here is find great ingredients and use them closest to their natural form.

EB: How much of your restaurant’s produce can you supply with the hydroponic garden?
JM: On location, in August, say, I get like 70 percent easily. Across the board it’s probably like 60. I can’t manipulate Mother Nature. We had a long winter. I was still growing into December last year.

I have a farm in Lancaster, PA, that uses the same technology, so I supplement from the greenhouse in Lancaster. We also use conventional farms for beets, potatoes, corn, etc. And also local producers here. I walk to Union Square on the regular.  

EB: What about protein sourcing?  
JM: I try to keep it as close to home as I can: Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. On occasion my lamb might come from Colorado. For seafood I go a little bit further, because I like to support certain sustainable fish suppliers.

EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JM: I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m settled in and I like straightforward, good food with a little bit of flair. It has to translate to the guest that the food has been cared for—that somebody cares back there. It’s not fussy, but it should have some sort of home element, some sort of comforting feeling, some sort of “I’m at home” type of thing. That’s what this place is to me.

EB: What goes into creating a dish?
JM: The dish almost creates itself, based on what I find. Though there are certain combinations I love. A gin and tonic salmon. Gin and tonic is like tomatoes and basil, some things naturally love each other. Also I have deep roots in Southwestern foods. I worked for Dean Fearing for years. I love chilies, I love the diversity of chilies. And of course I lived in India for three years. I’m good with spices. I’m not doing that all here. This is very straightforward kind of my take on American food: domestic ingredients, some contemporary, others straightforward. I try to limit myself. I’m pretty minimalist in a lot of respects. Most of my entrées will be like five ingredients to a dish. I try not to get to get too crazy.

EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JM: Honestly I’m very, very happy with the forward movement, the execution of the staff, the soul of the place.

EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
JM: The only thing I would do differently is add wood-burning equipment if I could. Originally that’s what I was trying to do, but it’s not feasible where we are. The only thing I wanted, the cream would be if I could have a wood-burning oven and grill.

EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
JM: I’m not the kind of person who’s selective. I do a bunch of events every year, some I’ve done for more than a decade. I’m pretty much non-partisan when it comes to where [charity] goes. But I love [events like] the Relay for Japan—something chefs can do. Every year you might be able to contribute to one thing that’s great, but if there’s a time like 9/11 or the Japan earthquake, you can bring people together for an awesome cause. I love that kind of stuff.

EB: What does success mean for you?
JM: I guess the ability to be a little more free. I designed my life in a way where I pretty much can do whatever I want. I’ve been able to travel. Take three-year, two-year stints here and there. So for me I’d like to settle in maybe, like find a home base I know I’m not gonna move from at this stage. To have the comfort to know that everything’s taken care of. I don’t want to get crazy, be a TV chef or anything. I believe in being here. I believe it’s a personality-driven business. I like to reach everybody who comes in here. And I like people coming in knowing me and my business partner are here on the ground.

EB: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
JM: In the next five years I want to be able to sell what I know, create what I want to create. I’ll be happy with that.