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Q & A with The Gander’s Jesse Schenker

RECETTE_20130606_277To use a movie term, the charming, unassuming West Village restaurant, recette, would probably be referred to as a sleeper hit.  After all, it’s chugged along successfully for four years, in a sleepy neighborhood, but yet rarely lacking in customers to fill the intimate room of 30-something seats, and admired by critics, yet infrequently discussed.  That’s because chef and owner Jesse Schenker doesn’t waste much energy on fine dining trappings (despite being a product of Gordon Ramsey at the London), or on purposely creating buzz.  “My goal is not Michelin stars,” he insists.  “My goal is to make people happy with good food.”

And in April, Schenker brought his appealing brand of approachable yet sophisticated fare to the Flatiron District, with his newest spot, The Gander — a comfy, 64-seat bar room serving highly inventive American dishes, such as “Buffalo” Sweetbreads, Sea Trout Tartare, Orzo Risotto with Uni, and French Fries with Beef Aioli. “I’ve always wanted to build a restaurant in a very high foot traffic, mixed demographic area that could be used by people daily, whether it was for a burger at lunch, or a really good salad or steak at dinner, and have a global wine list and a great cocktail program,” says Schenker.  “You can’t be everything to everyone, but I want to do my best to try.”

We also spoke with the chef about his massive cookbook collection, his series of fun, private dinner parties called “Mondays with Jesse,” and the culinary trends he truly embraces (and which he wishes would just die already)!

Single/Married Divorced? 

What do you think you would have become in life, if not a chef? 
A drummer.

What set you on the path to pursuing a culinary career? 
It was never not an option… it was instinctual.  It was the driving force when I woke up every day.  Researching food, cooking food, eating food.  I couldn’t help it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor? 
It’s all or nothing.

And what advice would you give to chefs, just starting out?
Honestly, the best thing for a young chef would be to just shut your mouth, look and listen to everything, observe and take it all in.  Become well developed, well versed and well rounded in a kitchen.  Continue to listen and read as much as possible.  As soon as you think you know it all, you stop learning.

You have a serious cookbook collection.  What intrigues you so much about cookbooks (do you ever actually cook from them?) and what are the most prized additions to your collection? 
I’ve always collected them from what I can remember.  And I constantly reference them for inspiration.  My favorites are:

1. Culinary Artistry – It’s a great tool for flavor combinations and seasonal ingredients.  It always helps spark my creative process.

2. Escoffier, Art of Modern Cookery – I love reinterpreting some of his recipes.

3. Jacques Pepin, La Technique – Nobody should ever go to culinary school.  Just buy this book and do what he says cover to cover, again and again.

How would you best describe your culinary style and point of view?
I would say recette is the perfect example of my personality in food and dining.  I like refined flavors.  Ultimately, I would say good technique, fresh ingredients, and just making scrumptious food is my focus for both of my restaurants.  I cook for the people, not for myself.  I want people to come into The Gander and recette and say, “Wow he’s a skilled chef, he’s using great techniques, everything is artfully presented, but everything is really, really scrumptious.”  A lot of great chefs may use too many techniques that look beautiful but are dull in terms of flavor.  Others may have super flavorful food but lack technique.  Trying to find that balance is the ultimate goal for my cuisine.

Your career was really catapulted after you started doing a series of private dinner parties, and you continue that tradition with “Monday’s with Jesse.”  What ‘creative culinary itch’ do dinner parties scratch for you, that isn’t satisfied by working at a traditional restaurant?
“Mondays with Jesse” was created for two reasons.  First was to break up the monotony for recette staff, keeping things fresh and interesting.  Second was to give myself a chance to express more high end, creative fare that I wouldn’t normally be able to execute at recette.  MWJ is basically a completely different restaurant within a restaurant, one day a month.

How would you say recette and The Gander work together, as an expression of you and your culinary values, and how are they entirely individual and unique?
Both restaurants highlight fresh, seasonal ingredients and great technique.  The Gander was conceptualized to juxtapose recette.  It’s a big American, familiar, approachable restaurant where you can have really scrumptious food.

How are you currently dividing your time between the two restaurants? 
I am at both frequently; The Gander for lunch and dinner and then recette because I live within walking distance.  I don’t sleep much!

If you were to dine at The Gander as a guest, what would you order and why? 
Crispy Calamari Salad, which has grapes for sweetness, cashews for crunch and saltiness, and snap peas for brightness, served with my version of a Ranch dressing.  It’s satisfying and familiar and one of those salads you could eat four times a week and not get sick of it.  Also, the Tête de Cochon (head cheese made from suckling pig), house-made Spaghetti with three different kinds of clams (Littleneck, Geoduck and Razor) and the Lobster Roll.

What current culinary trends do you really embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
I fully embrace sustainability; I wish loud shitty music in restaurants wouldn’t exist anymore.

In your opinion, what are some of the most overrated and underrated ingredients?
Overrated:  Ramps.  Underrated: Black Garlic.

Where are some of your favorite places to dine out in the city, besides your own restaurants, of course?
Soto and Marea.

What do you consider to be the single greatest accomplishment in your career?
My family.

You’re on your deathbed.  Sex or dinner (and no, you can’t say both!)
Sex then dinner.

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