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Q & A with RedFarm’s Ed Schoenfeld

1b80e_dec911schoenfeldHow does a local Brooklyn boy, and a Jewish one at that, become a Chinese food expert and successful restaurateur?  Ask the incomparable Ed Schoenfeld, who is currently orchestrating the build out of three exciting restaurants alongside partner, Zach Chodorow.  First, there’s the under-renovations RedFarm in the West Village, his top-rated, modern Chinese eatery that’s expanding to meet a growing demand.  There’s Decoy, a Peking Duck spot and cocktail lounge just downstairs, which is currently operating as a 28-day, pop-up Steakhouse.  And then, there’s the spacious new RedFarm on the Upper West Side, which will serve restaurant signatures like Pastrami Egg Rolls and sculptural Chicken Salad, although Chef Joe Ng’s famous Pac-Man Dumplings will probably be replaced by a new Hello Kitty version.  “The way things have worked out, fortunately or unfortunately, is that everything is coming down at the same time,” Schoenfeld shrugs.  “Red Farm UWS took longer and Decoy is coming together quicker, so we’re just rolling with the punches.”

The fact that they’re all slated to open in a manner of days, however, hasn’t kept the gregarious restaurateur from carving out time to chat with us.  With occasional breaks as he drives through the Holland Tunnel from his new home in Newark, clears out the woks that have been unceremoniously piled in front of the Hudson Street restaurant, and charms a cop out of giving him a parking ticket, we wind up covering every topic under the sun.  The central theme is RedFarm, of course, and it’s various iterations.  “There are 12 dumplings at our place downtown, which means that there are 989 other dumplings that Joe isn’t currently making.  We wanted to strut our stuff a little bit,” he explains.  “People will be able to go uptown, downtown and downstairs, and try totally different menu items.”

But Ed being Ed, he just can’t resist steering the conversation towards all manner of subjects, including where he lost his virginity, how he compares himself to Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni, how he can hold his own against Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud in the kitchen, and the landmarked mansion (with seven fireplaces) he recently purchased in Newark.

Were you always interested in food and cooking growing up?
Oh, from a very young age.  I used to spend every afternoon with my grandmother who had 19 children, and would help her make latkes or blintzes for everyone from scratch.   I decided I wanted to become a food authority or writer, like James Beard or Craig Claiborne.

So how does a good Jewish boy become an expert on Chinese food?
At 19, I started seeking out cooking classes, and found an instructor that was very famous at the time, Grace Chu.  She was an upper crust Chinese woman in her 70’s from Shanghai, who used to be married to the Chinese ambassador to Moscow.  She worked as a cook alongside him at the embassy, feeding Stalin and people like that!  But as a widow she moved to America, and made her living teaching cooking in the 1950’s.  Eventually, I started eating out at a lot of high-end Chinese restaurants in the city as well, and the difference between Grace’s home-style cooking and theirs really piqued my curiosity, and inspired me to delve deeper.

When did you transition from just being a student, to actually being a part of the local Chinese food scene?
I wanted to learn more about Chinese banquet cooking in general, which is a very big part of Chinese culture.  You know… it’s when ten or so people sit around a big round table and share food off of a Lazy Susan.  So I started setting up banquets as a hobby, in order to get myself exposed to a higher level of Chinese cooking.  I probably held 100 banquets in the course of a few years, all catered by top chefs that had came as refugees from communist China.  I learned about really good Chinese cooking from them… honestly, it gave me exposure to some of the best cooking of the 20th century.

And how did you end up working at Uncle Tai’s, New York’s first Hunan (and a New York Times four-star) Chinese restaurant?
Since I was this guy spending all this money setting up banquets in restaurants, I naturally started becoming friendly with all of the restaurateurs.  One of them was David Keh, who was very important in the Chinese food world; he opened the first Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in the United States.  So at 21, I approached him and said, “Hey if you ever want to hire a fast talking Jewish guy from Brooklyn, I’d be interested.”  I wound up becoming his assistant, as well as the face of the restaurant.

You must have been quite a sight!
Well, since I was this fast talking Jewish boy and everyone else was fresh off the boat, he made me the host.  I was a hippy dippy guy and he threw me in the tackiest blue tuxedo with a big frilly shirt and a bow tie.  I found myself at the front door of what was basically the hottest Chinese restaurant in the country without ever having actually worked at a restaurant before… I was never even a busboy.  Thrown right into the thick of the business.

Did this job cement your affinity for the hospitality side of the industry?
We had some pretty amazing clientele, so as this young guy, this white guy, this white Jewish guy, I certainly got a lot of attention.  I was the only one who recognized the famous people, first of all.  So after a period of years I became a very agile and sharp front-of-house person, not unlike Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque, learning how to please people, and who needed to sit where.  I developed a big love for the business.

Since your first passion was for cooking, do you ever regret not having become a chef yourself?
Something that’s significant to know about me is that, while I’ve never cooked a day professionally, not a day goes by in my life where I haven’t cooked.  I’ve been doing it for 40 years.  I cook for my family, and myself, and I constantly entertain and cook in my home.  You’ll find plenty of articles saying that I’m a fantastic cook, and it’s true.  I probably cook better than about 98% of the professional chefs in the city.  It sounds immodest, but my food knowledge is vast, and I can hold my own with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud.

What are some of your favorite things to cook?
Throughout my entire life, I’ve usually spent a year or two working on one theme.  It’s my own personal study.  Three years ago, if you came to my house, chances are you’d get something made with white bread.  I spent years trying to make awesome food with white bread, from canapés to stuffing to sandwiches.  And the last year or two, I’ve been exploring cooking Asian food with Italian ingredients and Italian food with Asian ingredients.  And in the last six months, I’ve moved on to taking stuff left over in my refrigerator and repurposing it completely.  For example, two nights ago I made a roasted salmon.  And last night, I had a little piece of salmon and corn on the cob and vegetables left over from the restaurant.  So today, I made eggs with salmon, corn, bok choy and hon shimeji mushrooms.

How closely do you collaborate with chef Joe Ng on the menu at RedFarm?
Everything in our restaurant is under my scrutiny.  Joe is a fantastic chef with fantastic technique, and what he does is totally different than what I do.  He’s a dim sum chef; he can make a thousand different dumplings.  I don’t make dumplings.  But if it came down to shopping for melons and you wanted to find the sweetest melon in the store, I could beat the pants off of him.

So why have a restaurant that’s famous for dim sum and dumplings?  Why not integrate more of your own cooking style at RedFarm?
Joe has a fabulous talent and I was interested in working with and cultivating his talent.  But even though he’s a fantastic chef, he doesn’t necessarily know what the public wants.  It’s the ambience, it’s the style, it’s the hospitality, and it’s all the details that go into putting the place together.  That’s what I’ve chosen to do, and it might be at some point that the cooking reflects my style more than Joe’s.  Like, I had a terrific tuna dish in Hawaii that I cooked for him, and he put it on the Steakhouse menu and now he’s thinking of doing it at RedFarm.  I’m kind of like an impresario, creating a stage that he can star on.  And I conduct.  He’s at the piano and I have the baton.

You already had plans to open a new RedFarm on the Upper West Side.  What made you decide to rework the original RedFarm as well?
It’s in a 180-year-old tenement building that was probably meant to support 10 people, and we’ve had 100,000 people in this tiny place in the last 12 months.  But we’re not entirely reconfiguring the restaurant… clearly, our customers want RedFarm food.  So it would be foolish to throw out everything we have and start from scratch.  But you need to keep things fresh and new, and we’re a market driven place to begin with, so we always want to change.

How did the idea for Decoy come about?
There was an old laundromat under the RedFarm space, which we purchased a year ago with the intention of expanding the restaurant. But halfway through the alteration, we just decided it would be more interesting to turn it into a different concept entirely.  I came up with the idea for a modern duck house, that also serves great cocktails.  We even had a special oven installed specifically for cooking Peking Ducks.  It’s one of the very few you’ll find in this country.

And what about the RedFarm Steak pop-up?
We needed to close our kitchen in RedFarm for about three weeks so we could expand.  We wanted to be able to keep serving our customers, though, and while the Decoy space downstairs was ready, the kitchen just didn’t support the regular RedFarm menu.  We literally couldn’t cook the same things.  So rather than just cut our menu in half, we thought it would be more fun to create something new that made sense for the kitchen we had. We already had this great Rib Steak dish on our menu, so it gave us the idea.

Besides those Hello Kitty Dumplings, what new dishes can we expect at each space?
Even through we’re only a week out, I couldn’t even tell you what dishes are going where.  Joe does his best work under pressure and at the last moment.  But he’s going to have to come clean momentarily!  I have a lot of faith that when he starts popping out the food, though, it will be really fantastic.  And I will be there scrutinizing, to make sure that it is.

What would you say makes your relationship with Joe work so well?
We fight like an old married couple.  He takes a good deal of pride in what he does.  Some people are good at taking constructive criticism and others lose their shit.  He’s the kind of person that doesn’t like to hear criticism, but the next day, responds to it.  And I know that about him.  I understand how he works.

You recently moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey.  Do you miss living in New York City?
I’ve been here a long time.  I lived in Brooklyn till I was seventeen, moved to Manhattan until I was 27, and then moved back to Brooklyn.  And then I moved to Newark in January.  But I’m in Brooklyn every week.  My son and grandson live in Brooklyn, so we go to Brooklyn Chinatown together and eat chicken feet.  And I still go to my same barber in Brooklyn, so I don’t miss anything at all.

Any other exciting projects on the horizon?  A cookbook?  Food T.V?  RedFarm 3.0?
The original idea for RedFarm was to actually be a new paradigm for Chinese delivery and takeout in NYC.  We would have a central commissary bringing food to 20 little takeout shops around the city.  NYC spends 700 million dollars a year on takeout, you know. So I thought that if we could get even a small percent of that business, that would be fantastic.  We’d have a website like Fresh Direct, and develop a whole line of food products around it.  We haven’t really moved forward because the original space on Hudson, which I had intended to be a takeout shop, turned out to be the highest rated Chinese restaurant in the city.  And now we’re opening a second and third place.  But I still have aspirations of RedFarm having a whole product line and being a brand.  I can see it doing well in any city in the world.

You’ve said that you still work 365 days a year.  Do you plan on slowing down any time soon?
I’m 60 years old and I want to enjoy my life, it’s true.  But it’s not exactly painful work that I’m doing now.  For instance, sometimes my work includes being interviewed by a bright young Brooklyn girl.  Most people my age are retiring and moving to Florida, and I’m still flirting with 32-year-old women, wondering if I’m going to sleep with them.  I’m just having fun.  I get kisses from Julianne Moore.  I was hungry last night, and I got to take home the best Chinese food in town!

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