Q & A with Ryan Skeen
Ryan Skeen made quite an entrance with his lamb burger at Resto. Admittedly, some chefs are one-hit wonders. Not Skeen. This chef transformed Irving Mill — a restaurant that opened to universally negative reviews — into a respectable house of offal. The young chef first honed his skills at Cafe Boulud under Andrew Carmellini. But Resto’s Belgian menu gave us just a glimpse at Skeen’s potential.
Irving Mill is a bigger stage stage and a much more formidable undertaking. Here, Skeen has done away with most of the menu, replacing it with an army of porcine plates. The charcroute plate comes with housemade sausages and crispy pigs’ feet or a crispy pig’s ear salad with raddichio, escarole and a poached egg. And it wouldn’t be a Skeen menu without a burger — the Irving Mill patty is a mix of flap meat, beef cheek, and fat back, all topped with cheddar.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I don’t know if I wanted to be anything really. I thought I wanted to be a chef since I was 13-14.
What was your first job in food?
Dishwasher & prep cook at a small Italian restaurant in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Hundreds of restaurants open every year, what do you think distinguished Resto from the rest of the crop?
This industry can be very tricky, especially opening a restaurant in NYC, between all the red tape, permits & the insane prices of rent. I think we just went into Resto not trying to pull any punches and just trying to do honest food, we had an amazing amount of support from fellow chefs and the industry. I think that’s always good from the start, and we tried to do food that was a little different, not for the sake of being different but, to create our own experience & identity. With the massive amount of restaurants in NYC I think it is very important for a chef and a restaurant to have a very clear grasp of their vision and abilities.
When did you first notice your fondness for all things offal?
I feel a lot of the more unusual cuts & especially offal, just have so much more character in flavor. I also believe in total utilization of our products, and in turn I think it makes you a better cook to force yourself to think outside the box and to find a new way to cook. Consider it a fetish? Seriously…More of a religion or philosophy, at least as far as the offal goes, the pork thing is just an all consuming addiction which I have happily learned to embrace.
From the outside, it seemed like all was good in Resto? What compelled your departure from their kitchen just last year?
Resto was a great experience, I learned a lot there, unfortunately it became obvious very early on that it was not going to be the place I was going to stay at. There were too many differences in personalities, egos, & just general miscommunication. I just tried to give Resto an identity, and to cook good honest food. I think the owners are all great people, I was just growing in a different direction as a chef and there were things I wanted to do that I knew I would never be able to accomplish inside the walls of Resto.
You consulted briefly on The General Greene, do you still create dishes and work with them at present?
I’ve known Nick for a very long time, we talk a lot about the restaurant and menus, and I am always available to General Greene whenever they need me, but I have pretty much phased myself out of that project to concentrate all my energies on Irving Mill.
It’s no secret that the food disappointed most when Irving Mill first launched, how have you rehauled the menu there?
First we changed the overall format of the menu to make it less boring and restricting. We have several small sections so you have more choices, and I believe eating should be an enjoyable free form event, I don’t like trapping diners into the same old “app/entrée/dessert” format. Of course we added a little more pork here and there. A very important part of the menu to myself and the owners was the addition of a pasta section & the charcroute plate. Two very simple peasant like styles of cuisine, which require a massive amount of technique and soul behind the preparation and execution.
Do you worry about taking on jobs with built-in reputations, slightly soiled in the case of Irving Mill?
I think that is something you always have to consider, and of course that was a large concern on the owners of Irving Mills part considering this was our last chance to turn this restaurant around. But the great thing about Irving Mill is that there was a great chemistry between the owners & myself from the beginning, and we all have put a lot of trust in each other to get this far. I felt from the second I got here, and met my supporting management team that we could do some really exciting things at Irving Mill. It had all the right pieces it just seemed like they weren’t being utilized properly.
Have the customers embraced your new concept and offerings?
So far I feel we have been successful in translating our vision to the customers and they have seemed receptive.
Your menus at both Resto and now at Irving Mill are very pig-centric. What is it you love so damn much about pork?
The pig is just an amazing animal and very versatile – I will keep it simple. If you want a full description about my love of pork we would most likely need to work on a book.
What important lessons have you taken from your time at Café Boulud?
Hands down working for Andrew Carmellini was the privilege of my career, besides the technique, Andrew really went out of his way to train his cooks to think like chefs not line cooks, so I learned a lot about how to organize, run and motivate a kitchen as a chef.
Where do you like to go for a good burger (other than your own) in New York City?
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Irving Mill?
Which is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
What culinary trends do you embrace?
I don’t really embrace culinary trends, I try to embrace more technique and theory.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
Anything the media dubs a culinary trend. I think if cooks spent more time working on their technique and studying their history of food the industry would be in a much better place.
Any new projects on the horizon? Do tell…
If I were to work on another project, and I am not confirming that I am, I would like to do an old school butcher shop with a soda fountain and lunch counter.
Address: 115 E 16th St. (nr. Irving Place)
Phone: (212) 254-1600