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Q & A with Rebelle’s Chef Daniel Eddy

eye-rebelle01NYC is home to many of the very best French chefs in the world, from Eric Ripert to Daniel Boulud to Jean-Georges Vongerichten.  So who would have thought that a Nicaraguan New Yorker — and a former actor, no less — would currently be serving some of the best, modern French fare in the city?

Inspired by his time at Spring in Paris, well known for offering affordable, Michelin-quality food in a laid-back environment, chef Daniel Eddy has brought that selfsame aesthetic to the charming Rebelle, located in the rough-around-the-edges Bowery.  There’s no doubt that any Michelin inspector would be duly won over by his cooking, from shimmering planks of translucent Fluke, swiped with brown butter and strewn with crispy capers, to creamy, dreamy Sweetbreads, enveloped in a foam-capped lobster sauce, to the exceedingly clever “Beet” Bourguignon; an uncanny approximation of the classic, wine-soused dish, wooing both vegetarians and carnivores with deeply-flavored diamonds of smoky, scarlet beets.

And yet, Eddy is much more concerned with meeting the needs of the neighborhood — affably chatting with customers while peeling potatoes from his post in the open kitchen, sending out gratis coils of fresh-from-the-greenmarket fiddleheads to curious guests, and making sure that none of his delightful dishes exceed $24.  “Rebelle is a restaurant where you can relax and enjoy the company of friends with thoughtfully prepared, delicious food that’s more than just an ego on a plate,” Eddy insists.  “It’s based on the love of French cuisine and wine, yes, but also around making fine dining inclusive instead of exclusive.”

We chatted with Eddy about his early forays into theatre, his professed ignorance of trends, and how he ended up in Paris — as cliche as it sounds –with only a dollar and a dream.

Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
I grew up in the kitchen.  My mom is from Nicaragua, we have a big family there, and all of them always congregated around the table.  So food was always very present in my life as a way of bringing friends and family together.  I never once thought about making it my career, though.  I studied theatre and literature throughout high school and university, but realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life going to auditions or struggling to get something published.  It was my mom’s idea for me to go to culinary school, which I thought was so random.  And after two expensive years already spent in college, I didn’t want to spend any more time and money stuck in a classroom.  So I thought I’d get some hands-on experience first, and realized pretty immediately that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  Everything clicked into place.

What attracted you to a life in the kitchen as opposed to a life spent on stage?
I appreciated the security and surety.  My first day on the job, the chef was like, this is the end of your life.  Forget girls, forget family.  But I woke up in the morning with a sense of purpose, because I knew I’d see results by the end of the night.  It was tangible; laboring and laboring and then being able to put a finished product in front of people.

What job would you say really kick-started your career in food?
I think the very first restaurant that I was a stage at, which was Michael Psilakis’ Onera.  It was his first restaurant, and he was the first person to open his doors to me.  It’s where I learned that dedication and hard work will get you far in this business.  Because he was tough.  We had long days — we’d show up at seven in the morning and leave at one in the morning, but he was at the restaurant for hours before and after that.  That set the tone.  It’s always been about mentorship for me; during the course of my ten-year career, I’ve only really worked under three chefs.  There was Mike at Onera and Dona, I spent two summers out on Martha’s Vineyard with Dan Sauer, who came up at Craft, and then I worked for Daniel Rose at Spring in Paris.

How exactly did you end up in Paris?
Alain Ducasse came into Onera one night, and after that, Dona, and Mike totally freaked out both times.  I had no idea who Alain Ducasse was at the time because I was so green, but I figured he must be a pretty big deal.  And I figured, hey, maybe once I’m done working for Mike, I’ll go to Paris for awhile and work for this Alain Ducasse.  So after about four years, I bought my ticket to Paris without a visa, without knowing how to speak the language, without a place to stay, without any contacts — just a dollar and a dream.  I spent the next six months going into restaurant after restaurant, handing them my CV and being turned away.  But after awhile, someone mentioned that I should go visit Daniel Rose, another American, who owned a restaurant called Spring.  I wound up working with him for over two years.

And how did you end up connecting with the Rebelle team?
I had moved out to Martha’s Vineyard for a little family time, since I had neglected them for about three years, with the intention of eventually looking into opening a restaurant in NYC.  And at the same time, Pearl & Ash’s Branden McRill and Patrick Cappiello were looking to open another place.  We both had a mutual friend, a wine supplier, that I worked with in Paris and they worked with here, and he put us in touch.

Paris and New York are equally well known for their tremendous dining scenes.  What would you say are the primary similarities and differences between the two?
NYC is home, so it’s ingrained in me.  It’s who I am.  One of the things I began to appreciate while I was in Paris, though, was the pacing.  In Paris, people will sit at a bistro table for hour after hour without a care, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  People really take time out for themselves.  NYC is go-go-go, and we struggle sometimes to take a minute and reflect and meditate on what’s going on around us.  So there’s a balance between the two that I’ve tried to achieve here… taking the time to reflect over dishes and make them better, and make the whole dining experience better and easier, for both the customers and staff.

If you were to eat at Rebelle as a guest, what would you order, and why?
The Leek Vinaigrette because it’s nice and light and easy to eat for spring.  It’s a play on something super classic and rustic and bistro.  It’s bright and approachable and simple.  I love the Sweetbread dish with favas and artichokes and lobster sauce, which pushes the envelope just a bit — not everyone is gung-ho about sweetbreads, but we’ve spun it into a surf and turf.  There’s still a bit of warmth there; it’s a marriage between winter and spring.

What current culinary trends can you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I’m not really hip to trends.  I still visit the post office and get hand-me-down phones.  But I can speak to a cultural shift in Paris that really inspired me, which was that all of these chefs from three Michelin-starred houses decided that they didn’t want to work in those kind of environments anymore.  They wanted to take all of their techniques and skills, and translate them to relaxed, affordable places.  It’s something I really appreciated; I’m more than willing to sacrifice a $100 plate for a $10 plate, as long as the food on that plate is as good as it can be.  You don’t need carpeted floors and big armchairs, as long as you devote your energy and time to your ingredients and your customers.

What’s your number one goal as a chef?  What’s the brass ring you keep striving for — Michelin stars?  A James Beard award?
Opening up this restaurant was the endgame of my ten-year plan.  Because to have people come in and entrust in me to give them a fun time is an immense responsibility, that’s also incredibly rewarding.  When it comes down to it, happy guests are my ultimate goal.  If people aren’t happy, where does that take me?  The ten-year plan was easy to formulate, but the next part of the journey needs to come day by day, guest by guest, and everything will work itself out from there.

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