Welcome to Off the Menu, a new section of NYC Nom Nom, which will feature “behind-the-stove” interviews with the people that make it happen. I have a certain curiosity for how things operate in restaurants that we, as diners, don’t see. I spent a summer as a hostess of a popular seafood restaurant at the Jersey Shore (the nice part… no Oompa Loompas present) and that gave me my first glimpse into what happens in a busy kitchen. I found it both fascinating and terrifying. I now have a lot of respect for what happens, and am constantly curious to find out how things work from the people that live it every day.
So without further ado, here is the first installment of Off the Menu…
When I asked Chef Bill to be my first interview for my new Off the Menu series on the blog, he said “yes” without hesitation. As the chef of my new favorite neighborhood restaurant, Albert Hall Tavern, he seemed an obvious choice. One thing that immediately made me admire Albert Hall Tavern was the staff, and especially Chef Bill, due to their absolute passion for what they were doing. Bill welcomes me with warm greetings and conversation every time we enter the restaurant. Between busy orders, he will regale us with conversation about baking German chocolate cake or bring out a sample of something new he just started experimenting with to taste. We have never been disappointed with being the guinea pigs for his cooking experiments. His personality is such that I can see him (and want to see him) on a cooking show someday. You just can’t help but get swept up in his enthusiasm for food.
I came in to speak with Chef Bill for our interview during a weekday dinner at the restaurant. He was as warm and welcoming as ever, excited to sit down and chat. I had written out a number of questions for him and launched right in, asking how he went from Architectural school in Georgia to being a chef in New York City.
Where It All Began
Chef Bill started by washing dishes at Mill Bakery Eatery and Brewery on Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. He was doing a number of jobs at one point; working breakfast on River Street, taking the bus to South Street for lunch, then driving to Tybee island for dinner service. While he says he burnt out, he also said that “something clicked. There is a kinetic energy in the kitchen. Multitasking at 5 things at once.” He was hooked.
When I asked him how he came to New York, he said that it was a classic story of “someone who knew someone who knew someone.” His mom had a customer who had a catering business who connected him to a chef named Peter Johnson in Rye, NY.
Peter Johnson was opening up The Kitchen Sink and needed some hands for his 16-seat restaurant. He put Bill on the line and taught him everything he knew. Bill refers to him as an “old hippie” who was “an animal” with unconventional thoughts on cooking and flavors. Bill said it was a brutal education, but he learned quickly.
Peter Johnson was cooking Pacific Rim and Asian flavor combinations that were unconventional and well before their time, earning The Kitchen Sink a three star review in the New York Times. (This also earned Bill the bragging rights to say that they had Christmas parties with Donna Karan and all sorts of celebrities during those days).
Bill’s excitement and nostalgia was palpable as he showed me a picture of himself and Peter in the kitchen; Bill with a long pony tail (which is now gone), working in shorts and flip-flops. Bill went on to explain that there was always tequila in the freezer on this “debaucherous” line and there were no formalities in that kitchen.
It was at this point in the conversation that Bill had to get up and check on things in the kitchen. When he returned, we both noted that we had been talking for almost and hour and were only on question one.
Three Stars to NYC
Bill went on to work at Crew Restaurant in Connecticut with some high school friends. Crew received three stars from the New York Times and was the first time his name was published as chef.
While Connecticut may be the hot spot (if you’re Martha Stewart) Bill had his sights on NYC and he took a step down to become a line chef at Maamba on 13th and 7th. While at Maamba, his resume fell into the right hands at to Guastavino’s, which was under the 59th Street Bridge and was Esquire Magazine’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2000.
At Guastavino’s, Bill learned volume. He wistfully recalled a Mother’s Day where they ran 1,200 meals. Fortuitously, he also met Artan there, who would come back into Bill’s life years later to build Albert Hall Tavern (but more on that later). Bill said that every restaurant in NYC has a connection to Guastavino’s. (Even his new fish supplier recently mentioned that he knew Bill from somewhere…)
“The Ivory Coast of Manhattan”
We had a brief chat about Albert Hall’s neighborhood, which is still regarded as less than ideal, being tucked somewhere between Penn Station and Port Authority, on the lesser visited 9th Avenue. Seeing as though this is where I choose to live and work, Bill and I had a moment of mutual appreciation for a neighborhood that is changing every day. He mentioned one of his first Hell’s Kitchen memories is of his three year old picking at a stuffed quail from the Hell’s Kitchen Street Fair. “It’s full circle to own a restaurant here this year.”
Rumors abound that an offshoot of the BLT franchise is moving into the neighborhood (confirmed: Casa Nonna opened a few weeks ago) and there are even murmurings of a Trader Joes (oh heavens!) We had a good laugh when he called this little strip of New York the “Ivory Coast of Manhattan.” (There was also a great write up about this upcoming neighborhood in The Wall Street Journal recently, highlighting the new places including Albert Hall Tavern)
Albert Hall Tavern: The Beginnings
So how did Albert Hall Tavern come to be? Bill visited a restaurant for rent in his “Ivory Coast” and fell in love with the space itself on 9th Avenue that now houses Albert Hall Tavern. After a short lived run as a night club, Bill decided he wanted to create a restaurant that was all his own.
Bill quickly brought Artan (his friend from his Guastovino’s days who now runs Juliet Supper Club amongst many other projects) to visit the space and a partnership was formed. They wanted to create a place that was an upscale tavern, with solid food and a good vibe. A place like they went to when they went out. A place you could sit for hours and feel comfortable. (And we do… often)
As it turns out, Albert Hall Tavern was personally constructed at the hands of Bill and Artan themselves in just under 3 months. They started decorating before the lease was signed and Bill hasn’t taken a day off since October. The decorations are an amassed collection of flea market finds (the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market is open every weekend across the street, and there they found the pages from antique books that now decorate the walls. See photos throughout this post). They found church pews and pulpits at a closing church in Long Island and they built the tables themselves. Bill talks about a bakery sign he ripped off the walls in college that now hangs in the dining room.
They opened on New Year’s Eve and were packed until 4am. (I fortuitously stumbled in just 3 days later)
Bill described his menu as being in waves with the season and is looking forward to adding Farmer’s menu specials as a clip-in. He wants to keep it simple and comfortable. It’s a labor of love, with 14-15 hours spent in the restaurant every day. He called the restaurant “always a work in progress” and said “it will get softer and evolve naturally as the tables and chairs get warn and the locals become part of the operation.”
When asking Bill about the future, he said that he wanted to Blue Print Albert Hall Tavern and open it up in other parts of town that need this kind of vibe.
To explain Bill’s passion on paper (screen?) is like trying to contain a firecracker. It just can’t be done. He said Albert Hall Tavern is his dream come true, with years of work coming to fruition. While he wishes he could spend more time with his kids, he is living his dream. And you can taste it.
My interview with Chef Bill was actually so interesting that I would up having to split this into 2 parts… check out Part 2 to read the quick-fire part of our interview. And for more information about the food at Albert Hall Tavern, see my full review here.