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Q & A with Bar Blanc Bistro's Sebastiaan Zjip

Sebastiaan40.jpgSome restaurants just need a little time to grow up.  That was certainly the case with Bar Blanc Bistro.  When it first opened, the restaurant was called Bar Blanc and the chef was Cesare Ramirez.  The space was stunning, but the food proved inconsistent and overpriced.

Now, it’s called Bar Blanc Bistro and the chef is Sebastiaan Zjip, who’s determined to reinvent the cooking’s reputation and lower the prices.  Chef Zjip, a Bouley protege, got his start washing dishes and peeling potatoes at a friend’s bistro in Toronto.  After graduating from culinary school, he literally had no choice but to leave Canada for New York.   Luckily, he ended up in David Bouley’s kitchens, working at Bouley,  as well as the chef de cuisine at Upstairs at Bouley.  He’s already received recognition for his refined, but rustic cooking at Bar Blanc Bistro where he serves  grilled baby octopus with grapefruit slaw, and yuzu, black truffle macaroni & cheese au gratin, and smoked salmon candy.

I’m neither married nor single, but I am in a relationship.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I get this question a lot, and I don’t think I knew what I wanted to be when I was young.  I actually didn’t figure it out until I was 19, the day I decided to make cooking my life.

What was your first job in food?  What did you learn?
My first job in food was when I was 19 and living in Toronto, during my first semester at culinary school. I had some friends who had just opened a small bistro in the Kensington Market neighborhood, and they needed a dishwasher.  So I jumped on that and washed dishes, without a machine, for a couple of months, during which time I took on more responsibility; peeling potatoes and the like.  I learned a lot those first couple of months, about food, restaurants, service cooking, but the most important thing I learned was that I loved every minute of it.

You were born in Africa to Dutch parents, but moved to Washington D.C. early on in your childhood.  Do you have any memories of the home cooking growing up?  How has that carried on into your cooking?
I used to cook with my dad from a very young age, I would be sitting on the counter with my mini-apron that matched his, and we would chat and talk and cook together.  My father did all of the cooking for a long time, and then my mom took over after we moved to the states, but I still continued to hang out and help.  I still do to this day whenever I am home, or my mom comes and helps me in my home kitchen.

 If you could do it all over again, would you still go to culinary school?  Or do you believe in more on-the-job training?
I would definitely do it again.  I think you meet a lot of good people that are there for the same reason that you are.  It’s great to bounce ideas off them and to push yourself as hard as you can.  In school, you can make mistakes. You can try to be as wacky and unique with your food as you dare to be, without upsetting your customers or your food cost, and this will be the only time when you have so much freedom to learn and experiment.  I remember leaving class and going back to my apartment with a group of friends and cooking all night, practicing the things we learned, and breaking them down to see what else was possible, and we did this three times a week!  It was great, great fun.

Why leave Canada when you have a great externship at a celebrated seafood spot called Restaurant C?
I wanted to stay in Canada, I loved Vancouver and C is a fabulous restaurant, but I had visa problems, so I couldn’t stay.  After some serious thought I realized that the only real option would be to move to New York, so I did.

Your ties to David Bouley are quite strong.  What did you learn from him during your time at Bouley and as the chef de cuisine of Upstairs?
I learned to keep things simple, to respect each ingredient that I use for what it is and to not destroy its integrity.  I learned to cook with depth and complexity while making it seem effortless and playful.  This seems like a very simple lesson, but I am still trying to apply this to everything I do here at the restaurant – it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

How would you describe your cooking style?  Bar Blanc Bistro has a wider price range and yet, your dishes are anything but simple.
I think my answer above describes my cooking style perfectly: elegantly rustic.

Where do you come up with dishes like “salmon candy?” 
Salmon candy is something I learned about while living in Vancouver.  It is a Native American snack.  I take salmon, cut it into one-inch strips and brine it in maple syrup, brown sugar, salt, water and a little chili for two days.  I then let it dry in the fridge for one day and then smoke it with apple wood chips for 8 hours, basting with more maple syrup.  The end result is a sweet and smoky salmon “jerky.”   It’s pretty darnn delicious.

What is your favorite item on the menu at Bar Blanc Bistro?
Tonight, my favorite dish on the menu is the halibut special we have: Scottish halibut with a house made bacon and oyst
er stew, a touch of cream, a
nd crispy potatoes, but it always changes.  I do a different special every couple of days, so tomorrow my favorite dish will probably be the Rhode Island sardine escabeche.

What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
Least favorite?  I would have to say the risotto.  It’s a great dish, but I would personally never order it, only within context of all the other amazing dishes on the menu.

Where do you like to go for a great meal in New York City (other than your own restaurant, of course)?
Eleven Madison Park, for sure.  And I have never been to a real New York steak house, so that’s on the list as well.  And Masa, of course.

What is your biggest kitchen mishap?
When I was cooking lunch at Gramercy Tavern a couple of years back, we used to make honeyed onion petals.  They were onions cooked in honey until glazed and then dried until soft and tacky — ike onion/honey jerky, if you will.  Well, the process of making these involved reducing a gallon of honey by about two thirds. I had done this many times without incident until one fateful day, when I guess the heat was a little higher than usual, and all the honey boiled over onto the unimaginably hot flat-top.  Thick, thick yellow/green smoke filled the entire kitchen within seconds…no flames, just endless amounts of dense, acrid smoke – so thick I couldn’t see the rest of the cooks around me.  Through the smoke came the yells from the Chef and the GM: “What the hell is the matter with you?!?”  “Sorry chef, sorry chef,” came my pathetic and useless response.  Twenty minutes later, there were still clouds of smoke hanging onto the corners of the kitchen, just rubbing it in.  I didn’t live that one down for a while.  Pretty sure you could still smell it in the dining room once dinner service rolled around.

Any new projects on the horizon, or aspirations for the future?  Spill the beans….
Well, there’s always the dream of my own place, with lots of house-made charcuterie and a weekly changing menu of great, local meats and vegetables, but we’ll see.

Address: 142 W 10th St., between Greenwich Ave. & Waverly Pl.
Phone: (212) 255-2330

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