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Q&A with Chef Mathieu Palombino

What will Mathieu Palombino — the chef behind Motorino and the new Bowery Diner — be doing in ten years?  “Farming oysters in Long Island,” he tells us.  But for now, he’s busy building an eclectic restaurant empire and perfecting his reuben sandwich.  

Palombino has some pretty strong opinions on all things food.  On the subject of molecular gastronomy, he says, “I mean, are they really serious about this? I just see all of this energy and passion channeled into unnatural food experiments.  It was an attempt to make the world more food-forward, but I don’t think it worked.  Also, people eating strange animal parts.  I just don’t get it.”  

You have to admire this dogmatic, Belgium-born chef for following his passions.  It’s not often you see a chef who trained with Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller and Laurent Tourondel bravely veer off his fine dining tracke to open a Neapolitan-style pizza joint and a diner. 
First things first, congratulations on your new restaurant, the Bowery Diner! What inspired you to open a diner and what New York diners served as your inspiration? 

Inspiration comes from here and there…Blue and Gold, Florent and a certain idea I’ve always had of “the golden age of diners.”

What’s the most difficult part about opening a restaurant?

The building was nerve racking.  Construction is a horrible part and when you’re done, you’re pretty beat up.  Then you’re ready to go through the opening, which is another animal.

What’s your ideal meal at The Bowery Diner. 

Six oysters, a Reuben and a glass of house red.

Certain dishes on the Bowery Diner’s menu, such as a cheeseburger deluxe and pancakes, are about twice the price as they would be on a typical diner’s menu. What makes The Bowery Diner’s dishes worth the extra cost?

We are actually cheaper than many diners in Jersey, Queens and other places, which do not pay Manhattan rent and choose to serve different labels of meat, produce and dairy than the ones we use.  The aim is to be as affordable as possible always, but we have to face certain realities. This diner serves an all-natural, Creekstone Reuben sandwich made by an employee who gets paid vacation and an envelope for Christmas. While the Reuben sandwich is $18 at night, it’s discounted to $8.75 at lunch during the week and a hamburger is served for $8.

What has been your biggest kitchen flub?

Dropping a full rack of about 80 lobster salads as I was pulling it out for a banquet. 

For a classically trained chef, you certainly have not followed a typical career path. First you opened a pizzeria, and now a classic New York diner. Why have you opted to elevate classic comfort food instead of running a more traditional, high-end restaurant? 

I’m not elevating diner food really; just cooking diner food without taking short cuts. It takes a certain type of person to run “high end cuisine” and I do not want to be one of them. I don’t even know if I could. It’s just not my thing. I very much enjoy the types of restaurants that The Bowery Diner and Motorino are. 

Whom do you consider your culinary mentor?

I have had a few people that have inspired me as a young cook, like Mr. Paul Bocuse. I also like Thomas Keller a lot, Mario Batali, but it’s Laurent Tourondel who is my true mentor. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

Farming oysters in Long Island.

What neighborhood do you live in and where are some of your favorite places to dine there? 

I live in Williamsburg, across from Marlow & Sons, down the block from Peter Luger. It’s a great neighborhood, and I also love Pies ‘n Thighs.

Other than The Bowery Diner, what’s your favorite pastrami in New York?

Katz’s and Mile End’s, for sure. 

What’s your ultimate guilty pleasure food? 

Charcuterie and oysters. 

What culinary trend do you wish would just die already? 

Molecular gastronomy. I mean, are they really serious about this? I just see all this energy and passion channeled into unnatural food experiments. It was an attempt to make the world more food-forward, but I don’t think it worked. Also, people eating strange animal parts. I just don’t get it. 

Motorino East Village is great, but any plans to reopen a branch in Brooklyn?

Yes, I’m working on it. 

You’re on your deathbed… Sex or dinner?

Sex of course! 

Bowery Diner

Address: 241 Bowery bet. Stanton and Prince St.

Phone: (212) 388-0052

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