When it comes to restaurant pedigrees, it’s hard to beat Rouge Tomate. The Chef Jeremy Bearman, a guy who used to work the deli counter, quickly climbed up through the culinary ranks all the way to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Pastry chef James Distefano began his career under Richard Leach at Park Avenue Café, and eventually moved on to whimsy at davidburke & donatella. But let’s not forget Natalia Rusin, the in-house nutritionist. Rusin is anything but the granola and tofu type. In fact, she was a daytime dietician, private chef at night, so she refuses to sacrifice flavor for health’s sake.
There’s Rouge Tomate religion is an 85-page S.P.E. charter — from the Latin Sanitas Per Escam- health through food — focusing on nutritious and local ingredients. What’s on the menu, a super silky celery root and almond panna cotta with peekytoe crab and a chocolate banana tasting features a chocolate and caramelized banana napoleon, a roasted baby banana split and a teacup of hot cocoa.
First Up…Jeremy Bearman
What did you want to be when you grew up? Well my mother was in the theatre and I loved sound and lighting…special effects, and I went to a lot of Broadway shows. I also did a little bit of it in high school, so at the time I really wanted to work in that field. However, I cooked a lot when I was younger, as did my parents. I grew up in a household centered around food, lots of foodie get-togethers…so the passion shifted to wanting to be a chef.
What was your first job in food? What did you learn? I was 14 years old and asked my dad for some money – he told me to go make it myself! I worked at a local deli, where I mopped, stocked the fridge – I really learned the meaning of hard work there – but then gradually moved up. I was there through high school and into my summers off from college, and I eventually worked with catering and working behind the counter.
You traded in a degree in hospitality management for a career in the kitchen. What was the impetus for the change? I did an externship at the end of my schooling in a fine dining restaurant – at least as fine as it gets for a suburban area. I worked for just a couple of days, and then saw the kitchen and its organized chaos. I knew at that moment what I wanted to do – go from Ivy League to $8 an hour. Quite frankly I didn’t think about the change much at the time *chuckles.*
Your mentors include Daniel Boulud and Joel Robuchon. Tell us about your experience working for them. Well with Daniel I actually worked with db Bistro Moderne’s chef Jean Francois a lot more. It was definitely the hardest kitchen I worked in – we did a lot of numbers, high quality food, and we were working in an incredibly small kitchen. It was the true New York kitchen experience. It was loud and crazy, but it also taught me organization, speed, and how to deal with people. I went from being a regular line cook to sous chef, then executive sous chef, so I really learned a lot. It was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had overall. Now with Robuchon, I had been a chef at the Ritz Carlton, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work for him. Again it was a very small kitchen, and the restaurant had about 35 seats. Still, it was great because since it was an open kitchen with a bar-like area surrounding it, I was not only cooking but serving and interacting with customers. The people I worked with were actually from France. It was very different from Daniel’s kitchen, and I think what I do here reflects it more: pure, simple cuisine.
Rouge Tomate follows a nutritional charter (S.P.E) that believes in “health through food.” Do you feel your creativity is ever stifled? No – on the contrary I think it brings out my creativity more. When you’re a chef you often look back on what you’ve done in the past for inspiration. But here, you can’t rely on what you’ve done, so you’re forced to think outside the box. What we do is a lot different due to the parameters we must follow. I look for things with nutritional value, and always make sure that if I already have something with lots of omega-3’s, etc, that I don’t overload on the fat with added oil and the like. We also use a lot of artisinal flours and various grains, like farro for instance. We use it in a dish with quail, pumpkinseed oil and pomegranate seeds. So as you can tell, the creativity isn’t stifled.
Emmanuel Verstraeten is the owner of the Rouge Tomate in Brussels. Have you eaten there? How do the two of you collaborate on menu items? Yes, I have eaten there, and I trained at the restaurant for three weeks before opening in New York, spending a lot of time with the chef, Nicholas. We’re actually going to be sending someone over there, kind of like a culinary exchange program. I would say that we’ve taken some of the techniques from the original restaurant, but menu-wise the two are very different. What’s great about S.P.E is that it can basically be taken anywhere and have any cuisine applied to it. And it’s not set in stone – we’re always adding to it and asking questions on what can be used. In that sense there’s actually a lot more back and forth with the nutritionists than with the chefs. However, I will say that we’ve adapted their barley risotto.
Speaking of collaboration, how about working with your pastry chef, James Distefano? Do you two try to complement each other’s work, or are the two components static? There’s definitely a huge collaboration between the two of us – I talk to him more than anybody else. We make things and see what everyone else thinks. I run a very open kitchen – I’ll let my sous chefs experiment with a dish and then we’ll taste it and see what changes we can make. James will bring a lot of things to me, and I think SPE allows that to happen more often because we always have to consider what’s allowed. I trained with James in Belgium so we know the perameters pretty well, but you never know. Not too long ago we decided that we weren’t going to use escolar. I had worked with it a lot in California but it’s actually banned in Italy and Japan. Turns out that the oil works sort of like a laxative! It’s very interesting to find out what can be approved and what cannot. When it comes to fish, we try to use high omega, local, and sustainable ones, which certainly narrows it down. We’ve just started working with kindai, which is very expensive but very healthy and rich in good fats – kind of like our foie gras. It’s funny – foie gras is actually allowed through SPE because poultry fat has a lot of the same properties as olive oil.
How do you feel about the comments regarding your cuisine as “spa food”? I think it’s a poor label for what we do. To me, spa food is always light and always low in calories and fat. Now SPE doesn’t do that, and not everything is, you know, tofu based or anything. Rather, it’s all about balance. We look at our ingredients and say: are these poor calories? The dishes should be nutritionally dense, not necessarily low-cal. Most people don’t even realize they’re eating healthy food. Still I think it’s hardest to convince custome
rs that we’re not serving spa food.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Rouge Tomate?
My favorite dish…well I love the almond and celery root panna cotta appetizer. We serve it with peekytoe crab, and an almond oil, lemon, and chive vinaigrette. We then top it with grapefruit segments and grapefruit confit, and there’s also a layer of feiulle de bric, which originated in Tunisia. It’s like phyllo but more crisp and doesn’t get soggy. So you’ve got this really creamy panna cotta mixed with something extra crisp – it’s great. Definitely different from what I’ve seen in Europe – when it comes to adding fruit in their entrees they don’t do that at all.
Do you have a least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)? It’s not my least favorite but rather my nemesis dish: cod wrapped in rice paper. The reason being is that while many people have come in and loved it, many have written about how they don’t like it, that there’s not enough flavor or salt. It’s very controversial, and also very light. It’s made with horseradish, shiso, ginger, basil, and lemon confit, so it’s very delicate, with a lot of nuances.
Where do you like to go for a deliciously unhealthy meal in New York? Katz’s Deli. Corned beef with all the fat, giant potato pancakes…I grew up in a Jewish household so I need to have it once in awhile.
Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans… A Rouge Tomate cookbook, but I’d like to wait until we’ve gone through all the seasons and culminated more dishes – we’ve only been open for three months. So at the moment, nothing right now.
Second up…Natalia Rusin
What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a chef, or a dentist.
What was your first job in food? What did you learn? I worked on a blueberry farm. I learned a lot about seasonal produce, especially in New England.
You hold a culinary arts degree from Johnson & Wales. What made you decide
to go the nutrition route? I graduated with a two year degree, and then did a cooperative learning experience in Florida. I realized work in a restaurant wasn't really my thing. Then all of a sudden, J&W offered a culinary nutrition program for the first time ever. I jumped on it - I like when there's a food focus to nutrition.
For a time you worked at New YorkPresbyterianHospital
in their dietetic internship program. What have you taken from the experience,
and how have you applied it to your work at Rouge
Tomate? I was a registered dietician but I didn't feel knowledgable in the clinical side. I decided to broaden myself. I not only worked with diabetes, but with TPN, dialysis. At Rouge Tomate, I can apply my knowledge to situations in which a customer may have high cholesterol and needs a suggestion for what to order. Still, I constantly update myself on what's going on in the nutritional world.
Tell us about your time with CulinArt Incorporated. It's a large food service that provides for NYU Law's cafeteria, lot's of high end corporate cafes, private schools...I was their corporate dietician. I'm really into sports nutrition, so I'd often give lectures to school sports teams, as well as lectures to chefs who were cooking for these venues. We even had a whole Nutrition Awareness Day.
What’s it like working with Jeremy Bearman? Are there any disagreements about
what’s considered healthful cuisine? I can imagine this job being a lot more difficult. Jeremy understands the rules - he looks to me for support but at the same time really tries to learn. It's never stressful, and he's very committed which makes it all a lot easier.
In hard economic times, people have been known to frequently retreat to the fattening comfort foods of their youth. How do you think Rouge Tomate fits in, especially in an era of fatty pork and burgers?
In hard economic times, people have
been known to frequently retreat to the fattening comfort foods of their youth.
How do you think Rouge Tomate fits
in, especially in an era of fatty pork and burgers? When people come in here, they're getting a registered dietician, so there are no worries on, oh should I order this? Is that ok? I think it's a great urban retreat and holds up well. It's high quality food that doesn't have to rely on a lot of unhealthy fats in order to taste good.
Considering your expertise, fill us in on a day in the life of your diet. I say, pick what you think is the best. I personally eat a lot of fish, whole grains, and watch out for added fat and sugars and cooking oils. 75-80% of eating is for health. The other 25% is for pleasure. Of course that increases if you work out.
What culinary trends do you embrace? I love trying to buy locally, and to also find out what "organic" really means. Also avoiding unhealthy cooking methods and choosing the right cooking oils. All of that can really help out. I'm a personal chef in the evenings, so for me I really enjoy picking all different colored foods to get all different nutrients.
What is your favorite dish on Rouge
Tomate’s menu? The sea bass with cauliflower and raisins - I love that dish. I also love the foraged mushrooms with whole grains. As far as cocktails go, the Green Tornado is excellent. It's made with butter lettuce and spinach juice, lemon, basil, mint and tarragon. Truly delicious.
What junk food can’t you resist? I like salt more than sweets, so I love cheese and occasionally some potato chips.
Any new projects on the horizon? Do tell…. I've been a personal chef for 6 years, so I'd like to write a cookbook featuring healthy, easy recipes that are well-accepted. I put a lot of thought into the food I create. You an either eat poorly and get sick, or eat well.
For Dessert...James Distefano
Single/Married/Divorced? I have a girlfriend. She's amazing.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Ironically I wanted to be a chef back in grade school. When I was 13-14 I played the guitar and had aspirations for a music career. However, my mother taught at a vocational school and suggested cooking. The lightbulb went on. I ended up going to Hudson County Community College which had a great culinary program, instructors, and was only an hour away from where I lived. It worked out well.
What was your first job in food? What did you learn? A place called Company B's, which was a brew pub in New York state along the NJ border. It was 1992 when microbreweries were becoming a huge hit. We were very busy and organizational - it was all about numbers. I wasn't doing pastry either. I was working on pantry, garde manger, and learned all about working quickly and efficiently.
We have to ask: how in the world do you manage to create such delicious
desserts in such a healthful restaurant? We have champion Sunkist juicers. The fall is great for that - we juice a lot of apples. We allow fruit to ripen, and use their natural sweetness to enhance flavors. Because we're using so little fat, there's more clarity of flavor. Furthermore, a pacojet allows for even less sugar in our sorbets. I really enjoy finding alternate ways to flavor a dessert.
Perhaps you can give us home bakers a few tips on pastry-making. What are some suggestions
for healthier sweet options? Replacing butter with olive oil, particularly a fruity one. For some contrast, try a peppery oil. Using medjool dates to supplement sugar. Applesauce is also great - cook it down to add nutrients and more flavor and sweetness to a dessert. Pear puree works just as well for that.
Tell us about your work at Park Avenue
Café under Richard Leach. That was your big break – anything you’d do
differently? I don't think so. It's been great for me. I definitely learned a lot, especially with techniques, efficiency in daily activities and managing a team. Your technique is always developing. If you want to do well, you're going to find the stronger people to work with - getting questions answered and discussing things not only with the chef but with the sous chefs. I talk a lot with my sous chef Robert. I think it's important to surround yourself with people who are better than you, so you can constantly improve.
How about Devin Tavern? How did you
tackle your newfound power as executive pastry chef? It was good in the sense that I only had one other person to manage, and it was my first job in New York in three years. But I would have liked to be busier, to sell more, and I could have easily done both. But hey, it's good to take past experiences and improve upon them.
You were the executive pastry chef at davidburke
& donatella. That restaurant is known for its decadent desserts. What
was it like to then come to Rouge Tomate
and work under S.P.E? It's a good dichotomy. Dave is so bold and that's what defines him. It was awesome to be around him when he was coming up with new ideas. However, working at Rouge Tomate really helped my personal diet. I don't particularly love cream sauces and like to feel good after a meal. When I came here I thought to myself: "Let me design a fruit-based menu," and I was up for the challenge. I saw it as a new way to approach things, and find out what else is out there. I don't want to work with primary and secondary colors - I want to expand my palate.
What is your favorite dessert on the menu at Rouge Tomate? It's a tie. I like acidity and brightness. There's the Golden Pineapple, which is a mango, pineapple, and turmeric timable with sliced pineapple carpaccio, coconut tapioca, shiso, basil oil, and pineapple sorbet. At the table, we pour a frosted pineapple consomme which illuminates the bright green beads of basil oil. Then we have the Meyer lemon and olive oil cake, served with a tarragon, fennel, and blood orange salad, and a Meyer lemon yogurt parfait.
Do you have a least favorite (and yes you must pick one)? Well, a particularly difficult ingredient to work with is chocolate - I don't think all fruit is compatible with it. We primarily use 60-61 %, so you have to think, for instance, that raspberries would go better with milk chocolate than dark. Valhrona dark chocolate is also pretty acidic. I'd say that's the most challenging.
Who are some pastry chefs you really like right now? Why? Michael Laiskonis - I like his blog, his philosophy, and his style. I like Johnny Iuzzini, and all those who've come before me. Richard Leach of course had a huge influence on me...Oriole Belaguere in Spain. I don't like things that are too experimental. I like Michael Bras too - he isn't a pastry chef but I enjoy his ideas.
Any new projects on the horizon?
Spill the beans. Teaching pastry one day, as well as opening up an ice cream shop. Those are the two main things. The shop would include ice cream but not be limited to it - it would have frozen desserts from around the world. A lot of good music playing in the background too - I was raised on classic rock, heavy metal...I really love Pink Floyd and Neil Young. The shop would be a place to hang out and socialize.
Address: 10 E. 60th St. (btwn. Madison & 5th Aves) Phone: (646) 237-8977