2008_05_RAMIREZ.jpgCesar Ramirez, the 36 year-old chef at Bar Blanc, doesn’t want to be called a chef. Taking a cue from his mentor David Bouley , he prefers the term craftsman, and insists that his food speaks for itself. Ramirez doesn’t waste a lot of bandwidth talking up his game, bragging about how often and how hard he hits the Greenmarket. In a time when it is not uncommon for chefs to spend their days with a battery of personal assistants riding in taxis from television appearances to book signings, Ramirez seems to spend a lot of time in his kitchen. Last week, he took a few minutes before service at the six month-old restaurant to talk about his menu and his style of cooking.

You moved here from Mexico when you were 4, and later racked up a lot of restaurant experience in Chicago. How’d you end up in New York? I didn't really go to cooking school. I always wanted to cook; I was always interested in food. So I went into this restaurant that I liked and asked for a job. They gave me an opportunity, and that's basically how I started cooking.

You worked at Tru in Chicago, too? I worked there around 1999 when I met David Bouley, which is how I wound up in New York. At first, I thought he was just inviting me come to New York for dinner. Then he came back to Chicago and did an event and asked me would I be interested in coming to work for him. That's how I ended up at Danube.

Were you at Danube in 2001? Yes.

I helped out at the commissary kitchen there after September 11th. At the time I was working at a restaurant uptown but I lived close to Danube. I would get off work at night, then go do the overnight at Bouley Bakery. OK, OK. I was there, doing a lot of work. There was a lot of work to do.

In the interview you did with the Village Voice, you told Nina Lalli that a lot of Mexican cooking doesn't necessarily figure into your food. I grew up eating Mexican food, and food was important in my family. It's something that brought the family together, and I have a huge family. I remember as a kid that there was all this great food and I loved it but also wanted to experience something else. And I happened to experience French cuisine by accident. I had never planned for it, and I happened to marry a French woman. So at that time, I was very young and that's how I wound up doing French cooking. I was making trips to France.

How old were you? I got married when I was 19, so I was young and stupid. We were together for about 5 years and went back and forth to France a lot.

Could you take a dish on your menu right now and talk me through it?
Sure. For example, our cod. [Seared Black Cod; Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Roast Sunchoke, Squid Ink, Saffron Mussel Sauce; $26] It's black cod. I'm very much into the simplicity of Japanese cooking, but I try not go in that direction with this dish because everyone's goes that direction with cod. I take it a little bit different, a bit more European, but it still keeps its identity. Basically, I pair it with mussels; make a saffron-mussel broth. I believe in using each ingredient entirely, so I puree the mussels with a starch and then that goes underneath with spinach, jersusalem artichokes and a saffron sauce. It's almost like a rouille, but with mussels. I emulsify the sauce with mussels and potato.

And that’s Arrowleaf spinach with the cod?
Yes. I basically wanted to do something different with black cod - no miso marinade. I wanted it to reflect my identity, which is very classic. That's who I am. I believe in the classics and bringing them into modern times, but I'm not trying to invent the wheel here.

Where do you eat in New York? I eat at home. I like very simple food, salads, very light food. I don't really go out to eat.

You don't do the whole after-hours chef thing?
I don't do any of that. I'm here in the kitchen and that's really what I do. I love what I'm doing and I choose my career, but I don't really hang out with chefs. Cooking, as you would know, takes a lot of time. I work 6 days and have one day with my child, my little girl.

Let's say tonight you could go anywhere in the world to eat—I know it's a typical question, but where would you go? I've eaten all over Europe and I was lucky enough to work with David, and lucky enough to go eat all over Japan. I have to say the most memorable meals of my life were in Japan. The focus is on the quality of their products, respect, and seasonality. So I think it would be a restaurant in Japan.

Can you talk about having Bouley as a mentor?
I have a lot of respect for him, and he gave me a real opportunity.

He's mentored a lot of chefs in the city. Bouley has so many ideas. I always tell people when I went to work for David I already had a lot of experience, knew how to cook, and had worked in some good kitchens. I knew what I was doing. Everyone you work with influences you in some way. And yes, Mr. Bouley influenced me a lot and I'm very grateful for the opportunities he gave me to travel.

Do you get stagiers here at Bar Blanc? I get a few but our kitchen is very small so there's not much room. Although I like that our kitchen is very small and we don't have a prep area because we only order what we need and keep it as fresh as possible.

If you had someone just starting out who came in who wanted to work-
I give everyone a chance; I don't care where they've worked before. To me, people come in, if they have the heart to do it then they can do it, they're going to be able to do it. I was lucky enough that someone gave me the opportunity and I want to be able to do the same. I've taken people off the street—this has happened a few times. They've said, you know, I'm interested in what you're doing and I think I can do this. So I've said, OK, when can you start? Right away I put them to work. Some of them haven't been to school and to be honest, I'm not an advocate of people going to school. Maybe some people need to study food that way but I always say that cooking is 70% common sense and 30% knowledge and if you have a little common sense that you're going to get really far in life, I think. And of course, you have to have a heart.

Do you run your cheese program here? Yes. We have a very small cheese program, a few nice things from Italy.

And I saw you feature a sheep's milk ricotta? That's on the rabbit dish. From Italy. One thing I learned at Bouley – we were able to order from so many purveyors so I knew where to get things from, to get connections.

The menu online, is that your menu?
No. Believe me, I like to change the menu a lot. One day I like a dish and the next day I want to do something completely different with it. I don't like it anymore.

So a bit like Bouley... Ha. You know what? After a while, you just tend to do the same things. I'm like that. One day I like something and then my idea completely changes.

But you've never changed the entire menu in one day? I have. Yes. Unfortunately, I have. It's not a good thing, I know, but I'm like that.

How many people in your kitchen? We have a meat cook, a fish cook, 2 veg cooks, pastry chef, garde manger and myself.

When Frank Bruni reviewed your restaurant he said something about the lasagna on your menu- "Lasagna should unfurl and unravel and ooze: that's the whole point of being lasagna." What do you think about that? I have to tell you, my philosophy is that recipes are meant to be broken. And that's that. I sometimes like something Japanese so I go in that direction but I never want to bastardize food. I try to keep it original as possible. I always do research and keep things true to themselves.

I know you don't do the chef hanging out stuff, but are there any chefs or restaurants you think are particularly underrated? Honestly, I don't go out. I was very surprised when Mr. Ducasse came here. I was very honored.

Every time he comes to town he has a small office of people here who ask around where he should eat. Well, I was very flattered. I mean, I haven't worked for him, but I have so much respect for what he has done.

When a young cook asks you for advice, what do you say?
I think if they really want to be in this business, they should really try to first find out as much as they can and work in a kitchen to see the reality. The reality is that not everyone can be a Daniel or a Ducasse. It's just not glamorous—it’s 15-hour days. And if you still want it there's a lot to sacrifice. Even when you reach the executive chef position, you're still going to have to sacrifice.

Do you have a favorite cookbook? Mikuni, from Japan. I had it with me yesterday, a black book, only in Japanese and all photos. It's both ahead of its time and timeless.

Is there any restaurant opening soon here that you're excited about?
Honestly, I really stay out of the scene, I don't know what's going on. And I know some people take that the wrong way some people may take it the right way but I like to be true to what I do and it is what it is. I really love what I do and I try to focus on that. I'm not trying to shock people, just to do good food and that's it.

I'm not into signature dishes - I think menus should constantly change and evolve. A cook, or a chef - I don't like to be called a chef. I feel the word is used very loosely. Everyone wants to be a movie star. But the reality is we are people practicing our craft. Japanese cooks call themselves craftsmen. It's just not for me. I never got into this business to be a millionaire or be in a magazine. On our menu, we’ve have kept the cod. They twisted my arm to keep it. But I believe in change, in changing things.

I notice that you have pureed morels on the menu. That's the first time I've ever seen that. I very much respect the product. But you always have scraps that you might not use and it's another way to use the product. We had chanterelles puree a few months ago too.

You make the pastas? We make some and buy some dry that Mr. Ducasse uses in Monaco.

The candele pasta? Yes. I like to buy the best available - by which I don't mean things like foie gras or luxury ingredients. I mean buying what's in season, what's good. The best of what you can get. So I've been very lucky.

Any ingredient you're looking forward to for the summer?
Sure. Tomatoes.

Any particular one, heirloom, whatever?
Sure we use heirlooms, but just a good tomato. A really good tomato.

photo courtesy Cesar Ramirez. By Thomas Schauer