After shuffling through three chefs since opening about a year ago, ridiculously good looking restaurant Bobo seems to have hit its stride with James Beard award-winning chef Patrick Connolly at the helm. Writing for the Times last month, restaurant critic Frank Bruni praised his "fine sense of balance when it comes to flavors and textures...The cooking during my visits was often impressive."
Occupying two floors of a century-old Greenwich Village townhouse, the candlelit restaurant can sometimes prove tough to secure a reservation at, and the upstairs space is not for budget diners, either. But tables are available for walk-ins only in the first floor bar area, where Connolly has introduced a very affordable "den menu" with such tasty items as the Trout Sandwich with quince, horseradish & almond butter ($13) and the $11 Bobu Burger with gruyere & leeks, which Andrew Knowlton at Bon Appetit deems "the finest burger I've eaten in a long time. It's sophisticated without being snooty, inventive but not ridiculous."
So I see your pretty face on the Eater website today. How closely are you following the hottest chef competition? I follow it when I talk to my mother on Sundays and she updates me. I haven't heard anything today, though.
How does your girlfriend feel about all this? She's pretty cool about it, actually. She thinks it's funny; she calls her friends and tells them to vote in the poll and stuff.
What's your opinion on the increasing popularity of food blogs and sites like Yelp, which are putting chefs under more of a microscope? I think chefs are just pretty hard-nosed people by nature, and it's the sort of occupation that can take that kind of microscope. I think chefs are up to the task of dealing with a public that's well educated and so critical—or they can be at least—so critical of things. Chefs can take it pretty well; it actually sort of forces you to keep yourself and your product at a high standard. I mean, some of it is complete and utter crap, of course, but I think for the most part it's great for people, it's great for the restaurant business that people get so involved in food and drinks and all that.
You took over the kitchen at Bobo in August, the third chef to be hired in about a year. How would you describe conditions at the restaurant when you took over? I think that they were definitely open to having me in there. I don't think that anyone was expecting it, but everybody took to me very, very well. The conditions of the kitchen were completely different than I was used to; it was just so small and certainly had a bit of a Mediterranean twist to it. The cooks were very enthusiastic and open to having me here. They all stayed, which was phenomenal just because I came from Boston; I didn't bring a whole kitchen staff with me or even a sous-chef.
What are the biggest changes you've made? Well, the menu, certainly. There was a big change in terms of the former chef's style to my style. And with that came a lot of equipment changes; I had to get rid of a pasta machine because obviously it was a little bit more Italian and Mediterranean influence. Mostly I just wanted to try to build this staff, to get them to be more accountable and really teach them how to taste, how to plate, how to butcher and all that kind of thing. But the menu was the biggest change.
Thomas Keller is a big influence for you, right? Have you had a chance to cook for him? He hasn't come in to Bobo, but I cooked for him once at Radius and once dessert was served he was out the door. So I haven't met him, but yeah it was certainly a big thrill. It wasn't too long ago when I bought that book, The French Laundry Cookbook, for like sixty bucks. I bought it and opened it up at the bar of this pub I was working at; I was running a kitchen at a pub. And after lunch in the middle of the day I opened it up on the bar and I saw pictures of braising artichokes and of foie gras hanging and read about the mushroom foragers and stuff like that. I never realized being a chef could be something like that. It was just underexposure, being in St. Louis at this pub. For that to happen, for me to be able to cook for him one day... And since then I've gotten really nice congratulatory letters from him in regards to James Beard stuff. For that whole thing to kind of come full circle was thrilling.
I've heard something about an item you are working on called octopus oreo. Can you tell me about that? It was developed in a few days, a few weeks ago. It's a savory cracker with squid ink in it and a smoked octopus mousse to go on the inside. And I just sort of fashioned it to look like an oreo cookie. It was kind of fun.
What is your impression of New York vs. Boston as restaurant towns? In New York there's more room for doing very specific styles of restaurants or more esoteric styles of restaurants. It's a little bit numbed at the current moment with the economy, though. It's a much broader community but it seems to have the same kind of relationships and respect for each other and every one seems to be for building a community. I don't see too much ego, and it's just a lot of really talented people. The talent pool is pretty incredible. And people always sort of said, when I said I was moving to NY, "You're gonna be lost there, you're gonna be a small fish in a big pond!" But you know, who cares? It's cooking in New York, there's nothing better than that. There's no place better in the world that you can cook. At least for me now.
I assume you read the reviews. What do you make of Frank Bruni calling the gnocchi entree, "arrestingly large in portion, arrestingly bland in taste, its claims of sage and Parmesan notwithstanding." Do you think he just got a bad sample or is he missing the point of the dish? I think the gnocchi compared to the rest of the entrees—because it was an entree at the time—is probably less flavorful by comparison. Every other entree has got maybe six different flavors going on in each bite, where the gnocchi has three in its perfect form, or in its ideal form. But then he didn't even get any of the sage, which means it was poorly executed. So I mean whatever, I'm not going to fight it, I'm sure it was that the cook just didn't put enough sage in it and it was a huge portion and it was just sort of like every bite was just the same three flavors. So I think it was probably an accurate description. Unfortunate, but accurate.
The fried pickles are a big hit; where did you get that dish from? There's a steakhouse in Memphis that I went to a number of years ago called Folk's Folly. It's kind of a classic steak and sides place. But it seems like they are most known for these fried pickles. It's more of a southern thing. I messed around with it with the sous-chef in Boston. It's served with Fat Baby mayo. That's my nickname for Kewpie Mayo, which is Lebanese style mayonnaise that has a drawing of a fat baby on the lid, so I think it's more fun to say Fat Baby Mayo. But we make it here, I don't buy it. We shave tarragon on the top so it's kind of salty and creamy and smokey all at the same time.
Down in the den there's now a good inexpensive menu; if you had to pick one dish to recommend on that what would you suggest? The pork sandwich. It's not for everybody but it's kind of a cook's sandwich, something that cooks go for. Something that's central, but it's got chicken liver pate and pickles; there could be cauliflower in there and asparagus and whatever really, pickled whatever. It's got a foie gras rouille that is essentially an aioli, which is made with 50% canola and 50% clarified foie gras fat. And I finish it with chili paste. It's spicy, foie gras flavor canola and a bunch of cilantro leaves. It has a lot of components of Vietnamese banh mi, but we just tried to make it fitting to the room and fitting to what we are trying to do here. If I was coming in tonight eating in the den, that's what I would get.
Have you noticed a drop off in business given the economy? I think business numbers-wise remains consistent; people are just opting for more moderately priced bottles of wine, maybe passing on desserts. For the most part numbers are right there but I think people are just going easy on the extras.
What about kitchen scars? What is your worst kitchen scar? You know when you're in school and you're in a music class and there's wood with five wires on it, which you put chalk on to draw music lines on the board? Whatever that's called. I've got this terrific Irish skin, so every burn stays for a year or two. So I've got these three lines down my left forearm, that looks like one of those music lines, from an oven rack. I think that's the worst one I've got going right now. I did have a burn that busted open while I was in bed last night and gushed blood all over the seats.
When you're not working, where do you like to go out to eat? Do you have time to go out to eat anywhere else? Not too much, but I really love to go to Mary's Fish Camp. I'm meeting a couple people there in a little bit, actually.
Neil Manacle, the chef from Apiary was also raving about that. Oh, yeah. It's amazing. There's a sardine sandwich there that I crave. It's perfect for the middle of the day. At night sometimes I love going over to David Chang's place; I'm always open to anything new. But usually when I have a night off I generally just cook at home.