“I like to think I’m one of the better kept secrets in New York,” asserts chef Josh Eden, who’s headed up the kitchen at romantic West Village favorite, August, since 2011, and recently helped facilitate its move to a larger space on the Upper East Side. “I haven’t gone out there to seek recognition from the press. I enjoy getting it from customers instead.”
And to be sure, the inarguably talented, nose to the grindstone Eden — whom many would describe as a real chef’s chef — has been quietly winning over customers and colleagues for the last 23 years, earning his stripes in fine dining meccas like Daniel and Jean-Georges, opening (and eventually closing) his own duo of ventures, Shorty’s.32 in Soho and Ten Ten in Kips Bay, and taking on the executive chef position four years ago at August, delighting diners with seriously delicious but totally approachable fare, such as Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with sunchoke chips, Roasted Chicken with black truffles and porcini oil, and Black Sea Bass with honey and soy beans. “I work hard,” he acknowledges. “So at some point, I’d like to make a buck.”
We also chatted with Eden about his contempt for the term “molecular gastronomy,” his passion for fermentation, and the changes he’s made to the Upper East Side iteration of August.
What was your aha moment, when you realized that you wanted to become a chef?
When I was a kid, my mom was a Phys Ed teacher during the day, and coached gymnastics at night. She used to fill our freezer at home with veal chops, lamb chops, pork chops, etc., and as early as 9 or 10, I would come home from school, take something out of the freezer, defrost it and start cooking it. So I started experimenting with food at a really young age. I also asked my mom for an allowance when I was about 15 years old, and she said, “I put a roof over your head and clothes on your back, so if you want more than that, go get a job.” So I took a job at Sidewalk Café as a dishwasher, then started working as a barback at nightclubs when I was 16 or 17. By the time I got to college, it was natural for me to start working in restaurants and kitchens. Food was my calling.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
Between college and culinary school, I took a job at Daniel as a busboy, because I knew he wouldn’t hire me as a cook. And that was my real first serious taste of what true fine dining was. It became an obsession with me to find out more about every great chef and every great restaurant. So after working there for about a year, I took a job working for Tom Valenti at Cascabel, and then hooked up with Jean-Georges after that for about 12 years.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
You cook for your customers, not yourself.
You recently moved from your longtime West Village location to the Upper East Side. Can you talk about some of your reasons for the move, and what were some of the major changes you made to your décor and menu?
The reason we moved was because the lease came up and the landlord wanted to raise the rent almost 200%. So we started looking for spaces and this one popped up, which was a little bit bigger; we have 80 seats as opposed to 40. And while I wouldn’t say the rent was affordable, it was doable. As far as changes to the décor, downtown we had a garden, which was romantic and European in feel. That’s very difficult to recreate without outdoor space, so we didn’t even try. We went ahead and redesigned the restaurant, which is elegant and clean but still very comfortable, like being inside someone else’s living room. As far as the menu is concerned, we’ve always tried to have an approachable, neighborhood-focused menu. But on the UES you need to have a few more selections and options, something for everyone, so the menu is bigger. There’s extra soups, extra salads. We want people to come here more than once a week, and find something new to eat each time.
How would you describe your current clientele in the Upper East Side, as opposed to your former clientele in the Village?
The UES is all over the place as far as age is concerned, and everyone in the neighborhood eats out. It’s an interesting evolution, because many of us started at restaurants that were uptown, got priced out and moved downtown, and then got priced out of there once it became hot, and moved uptown again.
If you were to eat at August as a guest, what would you order and why?
I’d probably have the Beets and Burrata, because the two of them together are delicious. For the second course, probably the Short Ribs with the crispy brussels sprouts and sriracha.
What current dining trends can you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I like the whole idea of fermented food. In the US in general, we have a huge issue with over-purifying and pasteurizing everything, so none of us get any natural bacteria in our body through food. And we need those bacteria in order to fight off various illnesses and stomach issues. The Department of Health is ready to shut places down over the use of fermentation, and we aren’t messing around too much with it on the menu due to DOH concerns, but I like that more and more places are willing to experiment with it. When I can at home, I get raw milk from dairy farmers and make my own yogurt, and I seldom get sick. The trend I’d love to see go away is actually the use of two terms; comfort food and molecular gastronomy. They’re both stigmatas…one makes you think of homely stew in a pot and the other one is dismissed as a science experiment. But food scientists have been using these kinds of techniques since they created the candy bar.
What are some of your favorite spots to dine in the city when you’re really looking to treat yourself, and what are some of your favorite, casual no-frills spots?
If I want to go out for an epically fantastic dinner, I would still go to Jean-Georges. I’m actually due for a visit. But I’m just as happy to grab a great slice of pizza. My feelings is that if you go to a four-star restaurant you should have a great four-star experience, and if you go to a one-star restaurant, you should have a great one-star experience. I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, so I’m also a sucker for Chinese food. Pings on Mott Street is my number 1 go-to. I love Joe Ng’s food at RedFarm. If I want a great burger, there’s a stack of different places I’d go to, and I have no problem with traveling for great food. I love Lupa for Italian, too.
What do you consider to be your single greatest achievement in your career thus far?
I would say my longevity in this industry. I’ve been going at it pretty hard in NYC for over 23 years now, starting at the bottom and working my way up to being a chef. But I think that for different reasons, a lot of things haven’t happened for me yet.
And what’s your ultimate career goal as a chef?
I think we set various goals as our careers unfold. And I tend to be more of a realist, so if you asked me that question in my 20’s, I’d have said that I’d like to be a Chef de Cuisine by the time I was 30. And I was. And in my 30’s, my goal was to have my own restaurant before I was 40. And I did that, and then closed it, which was a heartbreaker. And now in my 40’s, I would like to create a restaurant with great longevity, that embodies everything I’ve learned over the years.