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Q & A with Cafe Clover’s David Standridge

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David Standridge, the former chef at the West Village’s Market Table, might not have been the obvious choice to head up the kitchen at the new, health and wellness-focused Café Clover, which features dishes like Ivory Lentil Risotto, Cauliflower “Steak” Romesco, and Quinoa Tagliatelle with beet greens.  “At Market Table, I was bringing in 300-pound pigs a week,” he laughs.

But in addition to always being up for a challenge, Standridge was essentially looking to finally spread his wings, after years of working under industry veterans, Joe Campanaro and Mike Price.  “I truly loved working for Mikey and Joey; my time at Market Table was great,” he maintains.  “But when you’re part of a group that already has two well-known chefs, you’re always going to be that other guy.  So I wanted to be able to be the opening chef at a restaurant; when the press writes about Café Clover, I finally get the opportunity to be up front.”

We also spoke with Standridge about the process of developing recipes in collaboration with a nutritionist, his favorite guilty pleasure foods (when he’s not preparing Kale with blood orange and watermelon radish and Sweet Gem Wedges with chia seeds, that is), and the culinary trends he wishes would just die already  —let’s just say, he’s not a believer that everything’s better with bacon!

Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
No; I had a lot of different careers before I started cooking professionally.  Before that I worked in publishing, I was into writing, I operated machinery.  I eventually got pulled into restaurants at the front of house, and then finally went into the kitchen in my mid-20’s.

What job would you say really jumpstarted your career?
Definitely working with Joel Robuchon.  I helped open his New York L’Atelier in 2006, and worked with him for 6 years; the whole time the restaurant was open.  It was at such a different level than anywhere I’d worked before.  It was all about perfection and getting a little better every day; getting closer to that perfect plate.  And there was an intensity, as well as a quality of ingredients, that I’d never seen before.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
Basically Joel’s philosophy, which is that every day you try to make everything perfect.  But what I like even more was that he also said that you can never be perfect.  It’s like a losing proposition.  But still, it’s about striving to be better today than you were yesterday.

Why do you think the Café Clover team specifically approached you to join onto the project?
I don’t really know.  I think the fact that I was local in the neighborhood helped.  We really clicked during our first meeting, and they appreciated my interest in the concept.  It’s not always easy to get chefs to want to work under limitations or try to be healthy.  And I like limitations, as well as a challenge where there’s some sort of focus — not just “New American do-what-you-want.”  So I liked the idea of how can we make delicious food and then how can we make it better for you?  This isn’t a health food restaurant, but I love that when people walk out the door after a good meal they’re like “Oh, and it was healthy!”  Bonus.

How do you toe the line between creating food that genuinely tastes great, but is still great for you?
It’s tricky; I think it was smart of the team to find a chef that wasn’t a health food chef.  Because I don’t come at dishes from a perspective of trying to make something healthy and then trying to make it taste good.  It’s more of wanting to make a risotto, and then figuring out what I can omit or substitute in order to make it healthier, like our Lentil Risotto, which eats almost exactly the same way, except it’s made with great lentils instead of rice.

Can you describe the process of creating and then fine tuning dishes along with Mike Roussell; a nutritionist?
Once I come up with dishes and everyone tastes and likes them, I turn the actual recipes over to Mike, and he runs a full nutrional analysis, then gives recommendations of what he would tweak.  But I was lucky with my first menu; there was very little tweaking.  His recommendations mostly concern total calorie count in a meal, and less about what’s on the plate.  Obviously we want to have more vegetables and less empty calories, carbohydrates and fats.  He’ll sometimes recommend reducing portions, or occasionally even tell me that certain dishes have room for me to sneak even more calories in there!

How would you characterize your customer base at Cafe Clover?
I think in the initial phase of opening we got a lot of customers that were driven by press coverage, and the press was very focused on our concept.  But we’re still a a neighborhood restaurant, focusing on neighborhood walk-ins.  And I think most people who come here appreciate that it’s the kind of restaurant you can eat in every day.  What I’ve heard from some of my old Market Table regulars is that they love that it’s not health food, but that they don’t leave with a food hangover, or feel like they have to double their workouts.

If you were to eat at Café Clover as a guest, what would you order and why?
I think I would order a Salad, then the Octopus a la Plancha with cauliflower, new potatoes and smoked chili, and then I would probably have the Green Valley Farm Striploin with brussels sprouts and olive oil potato puree.

How has working at Café Clover affected your own lifestyle, in regards to how you approach health and nutrition?
I exercise a lot and I like to be healthy.  So the only difference is that I’m around healthy food so much now, that on my days off, I generally go the other way!  Which is nice, because it gives me room to splurge.  And it fits right into the lifestyle I wanted to have; not having to compensate for enjoying food with extra workouts.

What current culinary trends can you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I really like the heirloom and local grains trend.  Even just a couple of years ago at Market Table, when I thought about getting grains, the go-to places would be Anson Mills in South Carolina, or somewhere out West.  I don’t know if these New York farmers just started working with grains or that their grains just started getting attention, but they have a very unique character.  Trends that I’d like to see die out?  As much as I love pork, I’m tired of people covering things with it.  If I’m eating fish, I want to taste fish, I don’t want to taste the bacon that you slathered it in.  Everyone loves it, which is a reality, but it’s also a crutch.  At Market Table, I used to limit myself to one fish dish with a pork product in it.

What do you consider to be the most overrated and underrated ingredients?
I guess I’ll have to go with bacon, which will probably be an unpopular response.  Underrated, I would say chicken, to be honest with you.  If you get a beautiful bird that’s prepared nicely, it’s wonderful.  At Café Clover, we prepare a really simple Paillard; pounded chicken breast from a Jersey farm which has a super flavor.  After we pull it off the grill we put a mixture of herbs and shallots and lemon juice on it, and then top it with a local vegetable salad.

Obviously, Café Clover is all about health.  But what are your greatest guilty pleasure foods?
The fried chicken at Root & Bone is currently my go-to guilty pleasure.  Beyond that, pasta.  Pasta is the killer.  I do a lot of late-night pasta eating in the East Village, because I almost never cook at home.  I would like to, but I have a New York apartment with a New York kitchen, where there’s no guy washing the dishes for me.  Not like I’m ever home.  My refrigerator has literally zero food in it.

What do you do, and eat, on a rare day off?
I usually don’t eat breakfast.  I’ll have a normal lunch and then I’ll go out for dinner somewhere.  I’m very lazy; I have that New York neighborhood laziness where I don’t want to go farther than five blocks from my house, so I have a couple of local places I frequent in the East Village.  Lavagna is a one; they have a Rabbit Pappardelle that’s insane.  And I eat at Supper a couple of times a week.

What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment in your career thus far?
My greatest accomplishment is probably running a kitchen every day; that’s all that I really aspire to.  Running a successful business and making people happy.

And what’s your ultimate career goal?  What are you shooting for?
I just like to focus on where I am at the moment and I’m really happy at this level.  My primary goal was always to be an executive chef at a successful restaurant in New York.  There’s always that temptation to go elsewhere because it’s easier to succeed outside of the city, but I’m kind of where I always wanted to be and where it goes from here, I don’t really know!

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