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Q & A with Oceana’s Ben Pollinger

Chef Ben Pollinger is not another seasonal American chef boasting organic ingredients from local farmers: he’s doing his own part to provide the ingredients himself.  With a 500 square foot organic garden, Ben is as enthusiastic about his spring plants as the spring dishes on the menu at Oceana, a well-respected seafood restaurant in midtown.

His mantra: “It’s all about relationships: the relationship between the farmer and the soil, the relationship between the fresh ingredients and preparing techniques; most importantly, the relationship between the dining experience and those enjoying it.”

At Oceana, Ben creates a global cuisine melding international
flavors and techniques to create an eclectic menu of seafood dishes.
Signature dishes include the steamed grouper with lotus root, yu choy,
young coconut, wood ear mushrooms & black bean sauce, and  seared
Hawaiian opah with hearts of palm, Oakwood shitakes, water spinach and
wasabi creme fraiche.  

Status: Single/Married/Divorced
Happily married with two kids.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A lawyer.  I was always argumentative.

What was your first job in food?
I was a cook in my dormitory cafeteria while studying economics at Boston University.  My first day I cooked several hundred frozen hamburger patties.   I graduated to cooking eggs to order on Sunday morning for 750 people.

You spent time in Monte-Carlo working as a stagier for Alain Ducasse and Frank Cerutti at Le Louis XV. What did you learn most from these two important culinary figures?
Lightness, purity of flavor, organization and an incessant drive for perfection.

Do you have a desire to work again outside of the US?…
It’s always great to be immersed in another culture and learn new things about how other people live and eat. I recently cooked on a trip to Iceland and was very much inspired by the ingredients, what I ate and experienced there.

You spent time working at Tabla and Union Square Cafe, both Danny Meyer restaurants, and two very different cuisines.  Was the transference difficult from Indian cuisine to American/Italian?
No.  Both restaurants had American ingredients and classical technique at their roots,  I already had a good understanding of American and Italian flavors before coming to Tabla.

We heard you have a 500 square foot organic garden. What are you excited to grow for the spring?

In early spring I enjoy the herbs, wild arugula, broccoli rabe,
spinach and peas.  My garlic has broken through the ground and I’ve
started heirloom tomato seedlings for summer.  My kids are already
looking for the strawberries in the strawberry patch!

How do you incorporate what you’ve grown in your garden into your menu at Oceana?
bring ingredients in to experiment and play with.  The garden is a
great source of inspiration.  Ideas often just come to me while in the
garden, and I think about different ways to use an ingredient.  When
you hold something you have grown and picked, warm from the sun, feel
and smell it, well, there’s not much closer you can get to food.  I
have the same feelings when I go fishing.

What are your favorite seasonal additions to your menu?
stinging nettles, sorrel, young fronds of wild fennel and fluke.
Summer: herbs, tomatoes, fresh beans, bluefish and striped bass.  Fall:
figs, wild mushrooms, apples, Concord grapes, pumpkins, wild salmon.
Winter: Beets, citrus fruits, tropical ingredients and scallops.

Your menu boasts “global seafood.” What regions do you regularly highlight?
cooking is a reflection of my professional experiences and travels.  I
often work with Italian, Southern French and American flavors.
Sometimes a little Spanish.  I work with and incorporate Indian spices
and flavors in many things, sometimes in a traditional way, sometimes
in a very contemporary way.  I study and learn about a cuisine and then
experiment, the results on the menu have ran from Middle Eastern to
Mexican to Scandinavian.  This works at Oceana because our seafood
theme allows for many directions.

What’s your favorite dish on Oceana’s menu, and why?
pompano with baby bok choy, peanuts and coconut-cilantro curry.  It’s
the first dish I created for my menu at Oceana.  It’s got a great
contrast of textures with crispy taro, tender pompano and crunchy
peanuts, and a refreshing coconut-cilantro sauce.

What’s your least favorite dish (and yes, you must pick one)?
That’s like asking me which of my kids is my least favorite!

What is your junk food of choice?
Dark chocolate.  Our pastry chef keeps catching me with my hand in the good stuff.
But I’m from Jersey, so maybe I’d have to go with a Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwich.

Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
Woo Chon.  

The octopus pancake and preserved fish are great.

What culinary trend do you most embrace?
A turn to modern, creative ideas applied with honest classical techniques.

What trend do you wish would die already?
Cooking for shock value.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new ventures or restaurants in the works?  Spill the beans…
We’re looking for new ports of call that the good ship Oceana might sail to…

Address: 55 E. 54th St. Btwn. Madison & Park Aves.
Phone: (212)759-5941

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