Doug Psaltis wants to cook dinner for you at Country, especially if you happen to be dining by yourself. “The minimum for a chef’s tasting menu is one person,” he says. “If you come in here, I will cook for you.” It sounds like a threat. Psaltis explains: “It happens once or twice a week. I’m excited for single diners; they’re not here for the company, they come here for the food and wine.” He leans back and thumbs the collar on his chef’s jacket. “The first thing we do is approach them and ask how they’d like to eat,” Psaltis says. “From there it goes anywhere from three to thirteen courses.”
Gothamist has arrived at the Café at Country and is promptly assaulted with horns --caterwauling jazz that plays in surround from hidden speakers. Upstairs, like a pinball, Doug Psaltis bounces from a meeting with Country’s Chef/Owner Geoffrey Zakarian to one with a manager, over to the maitre d’ for a few words, then through each of the cook’s stations in Country’s open kitchen. Finally, the chef walks over to a corner lounge area with an Ottoman and black laquered tree stumps/cocktail drink tables where we conduct our interview, talking about tasting menus for one, and some other things.
The upstairs dining room at Country has been open for almost one year now, but looks brand new. As we conduct our interview, various front of the house staffers in service jackets set up for the night: votive wicks are trimmed, sea salt is spooned into tiny porcelain bowls, and dustless furniture is dusted for good measure. There’s even an anti-skid mat being vacuumed in the glass-tiled kitchen. Then again, this is a kitchen that sports two chandeliers, an arsenal of handcrafted copper saucepans, and a large showpiece, wick-lit rotisserie.
Psaltis tells me about the menu. Today he is offering sea urchin with Meyer Lemon, pasta, and truffle; he has also prepared a torchon of foie gras with red currnts, frisee, and more truffle. On the upstairs menu Doug Psaltis is billed as Executive Chef, and three dining options are currently offered: A four-course Prix Fixe ($105), six-course Chef’s Tasting ($135), and a special black truffle menu ($225). Many items change on a daily basis, meaning that people eating tonight, likely having made reservations in December, will pretty much have no idea what they’re in for until they sit down. The downstairs Café at Country requires a little less trust, as its menu turns more slowly with the seasons. Some things are always offered, such as the whiskey-spiked dessert Pithivier, Country’s jumbo-sized riff on the traditional Galette des Rois.
Psaltis constantly thinks about food. He typically arrives at Country around 9 AM, managing a total kitchen staff totaling more than fifty cooks in five departments. His crew hails from the five boroughs, but also from Pennsylvania, Iowa, Missouri, Jamaica, France, and Israel. That said, he has a personal relationship with everybody who works at the restaurant, including the dishwashers, one of whom he tells me he’s promoted to upstairs kitchen duties. Psaltis shuns reviews, especially major ones. “I never read it,” he says about the three-star review that came in late last April from The New York Times. “But I heard there were some good things in there.” Instead, Psaltis looks to old cookbooks for the news. “I read Escoffier quite often,” he says. (Later, we saw an old, beat-up, jacketless copy of the book in his office). Psaltis works the pass of his kitchen every night, finally leaving around “12:30 or 1,” the same time the Café kitchen is winding down. A few hours later, the overnight bakers move into action, mixing and proofing the bread for both the Café and the dining room. Country is one of the last restaurants in New York that follows Escoffier’s brigade system, which makes it something of a restaurant anomaly. The maneuvers of the cooks are choreographed more for the benefit of the food, and less to save money. So at around 3 AM, work resumes again for the following day, including the first deliveries and butchering. It is usually around this time that Psaltis calls his seafood purveyors and places his orders for that day, and the last thing he does before going to sleep every night. Then he wakes up and does it all over again. Psaltis has one day off a week.
The 32 year-old chef is probably known best for his 2005 memoir, The Seasoning of a Chef, which depicts some of America’s most venerated chefs in negative terms. After the book was released, a few other culinary legends who blurbed for it actually retracted their back-jacket praise: Jacques Pepin told The New York Times that he hadn’t actually finished the book, but like the parts he had read. (If you want to read up on the controversy, and have a few hours to kill, this is a good place to start.) Even as some critics ignored the flame wars and gently applied the bildungsroman tag to “Seasoning,” Psaltis and Zakarian set out to work on opening Country. Psaltis’ advice to young chefs these days has also boiled down considerably: “Know what you’re getting into, and work hard; understand what you’re committing to. The rewards come 30 years later.”
In the meantime, Doug Psaltis is also working hard, putting in hours that are almost impossibly difficult to imagine. Gothamist would not be surprised if he dreams in hanger steaks and cardoons. Psaltis names squid as a cherished ingredient, says his ideal lunch would take place in “Monaco with Mr. Ducasse,” and considers his recently purchased black and white truffle slicers (handmade in France, with two different cutting thicknesses) to be his favorite pieces of kitchen equipment. On the rush to emphasize innovative techniques and presentations over flavor, a cooking trend Psaltis considers to be overworked in some American restaurants, he notes, “to me it’s odd to be on the phone with the farm trying to get the best chicken, and then going to GNC to find some chemical that’s a derivative from another chemical to put in your food.”
But after all, New York is a paradoxical restaurant town. Its fine dining venues are famously busier in late autumn and the winter, just when the greenmarkets are winding down, and giant, frostbitten cauliflower is all the rage. “I go the greenmarket," says Psaltis. “It’s fantastic in the three harvest months of the year.” He says this with all seriousness. Then, doing the opposite of what most people have come to expect from chefs, some including Psaltis himself, he heads back into the kitchen and stays there, sets up for dinner service, and makes a few calls to find some good squid.
While visiting Country, Gothamist also learned that Pastry Chef Hsing Chen has replaced opening Pastry Chef Craig Harzewski; expect an official announcement sometime next week. Chen arrived at Country last July via The French Laundry and Masa’s in San Francisco; she is also a writer who has done pieces for Cocoaroma, a magazine dedicated exclusively to chocolate. “My focus is more on light, fruit based desserts, with different textures, and temperatures,” says Chen. Regarding the dearth of truly seasonal winter fruits in New York, she comments, “We’ve been running a quince tarte tatin at the chef’s table.” Since this is that oracular time of the year when magazines and websites offer up restaurant predictions and upcoming food trends, Gothamist asked Chen about big ingredients and ingredient combinations for the new year. For example, it was hard to go a city block in 2006 and not pass a restaurant with a salted caramel dessert, or some kind of gnudi. Gothamist wants to know about the next big thing. Jello macaroons? Miracle Fruit? But Chen shrugs her shoulders. “Big thing? For which season?” she asks, not budging from her belief that a chef’s designs come second to the purity of the ingredients, and never the other way around. “I don’t know,” she offers finally. “For 2007 I’d like to have a dessert cart for the end of the meal in the dining room.”