Chef Sam Hazen has a history of proving people wrong. When he was first starting out at Le Gavroche in London, the French chefs dubbed him “Chef McDonald” because they didn’t think the lone American in the kitchen could cook. Six months later, he was their boss. And twenty years later, Hazen proved naysayers wrong again by successfully transitioning from the trendy, super-sized Tao in midtown to the intimate setting of Veritas in Gramercy. “People were skeptical in the beginning,” Hazen said. “But nothing is impossible and Veritas is testimony to that.”
Hazen re-opened and revitalized the 11-year-old Veritas this year, creating a new menu of indulgent dishes, like brioche-crusted lobster with roasted bone marrow and the newly acclaimed roast chicken. But just like the Veritas that rose to prominence under Chef Scott Bryan, Hazen’s restaurant focuses on pairing food with picks from the wine cellar – a collection that’s the envy of restaurants all over the city.
When he’s not cooking or working on wine and food pairings with Veritas‘s sommelier Rubén Sanz Ramiro, Hazen is focused on his company, LDV Hospitality, which oversees Veritas and offers consulting services to other restaurants. “One of the reasons I wanted to work with Veritas was because I wanted to make this a jewel box of a restaurant group,” Hazen said. “My hope is to open more Veritas restaurants in the future.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a chef. I remember when I was in third grade and we were asked to write down what career we wanted, I wrote down “chief.” The teacher asked me why I wanted to be a chief and so I explained to her that, “no, no I mean chef.”
What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
I grew up in the restaurant business, so the first job I had was at my father’s restaurant when I was ten. I worked as a dishwasher in the morning and helped as much as I could in the kitchen in the afternoon, wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil, cutting the core out of iceberg lettuce, etc. I still think of those days when I see a head of iceberg lettuce.
Whom do you consider your culinary influences?
I would name two: Jean-Jacques Rachou from La Côte Basque in New York and Albert Roux from Le Gavroche in London. I can remember the days when French chefs only wanted to surround themselves with other French chefs. I think Rachou was the first French chef to allow American chefs in the kitchen. So many great talents emerged from that kitchen, like Charlie Palmer, Rick Moonen and Waldy Malouf. At Le Gavroche, I had the honor of being the second American to ever work there. It was an amazing environment and Albert Roux was an inspiration to work under.
After heading Tao for nine years, why did you decide to accept a position at a smaller, neighborh
ood restaurant rather than a clubhouse-like restaurant?
I wanted to come back to my cooking roots, pay a little more attention to detail, and to show the world that I can still cook.
As a CIA professor, what is the most important piece of advice you’ve passed on to your students?
Be incredibly organized and think carefully before you do something. Also, work with the best possible ingredients you have the opportunity to use, because cheap is expensive.
You’ve worked in kitchens all over the world, but what has been your most difficult gig?
Le Gavroche was pretty difficult. It was very demanding, working with a kitchen of English and French chefs who called me chef McDonald, because they didn’t think I could cook. But then six months later, I’m training them! It’s all about expectations: what people expect from you and what you expect from yourself. Expectations were also a huge factor with Veritas. I went from feeding 6,000 to 7,000 people a week at Tao New York to doing 400 to 500 covers a week at Veritas. People were skeptical in the beginning because of their expectations. But nothing is impossible, and Veritas is testimony to that.
Did you ever eat at Veritas when Scott Bryan was head chef?
No, unfortunately not. I knew about it and I always wanted to, but I never made it.
Why did you decide to re-open the restaurant?
Working with the wine list was certainly an incentive. But it was really my wanting to get back into the kitchen, slowing down a bit and showing the world I could cook.
How do you keep 11-year-old Veritas relevant in New York City’s fickle dining scene?
By keeping it fresh and vibrant. Seasonality is very important, so it helps being a few blocks from the Union Square Greenmarket.
What’s your favorite food-and-wine pairing at Veritas?
A Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the bone-in sirloin steak for two.
Tell us more about Veritas’s sommelier and the process you two take to craft the menu.
Our head sommelier Rubén Sanz Ramiro and I have an incredibly trusting relationship. We work together on the menu all the time. He’s walked me through his thoughts on how to match the menu with the cellar, such as having the starters work better with white wines, and main dishes for our red wine collection. I learn a lot from him. He’s incredibly talented with pairings.
What qualities do you look for in potential kitchen staffers?
I like working with staffers who have worked with me in the past because they know my style and they know how I like the kitchen to operate. But outside of that, I look for people who want to train hard, learn hard and work hard. I always tell them “You’re as good as your last plate.” I want them to believe that.
Diners are raving about the roast chicken served at Veritas. What’s the key to this terrific dish?
Like every dish, it’s what you start out with, having the right technique, and the proper equipment. In the case of our roast chicken, I buy the best possible chicken I can get my hands on, which is the Belle Rouge chicken from Debragga & Spitler. We fill the cavity with garlic and duck fat, roast it to perfection and then the skin is crisped in duck fat.
What neighborhood do you live in and what are some of your favorite restaurants there?
I live on the Upper West Side. I like Tom Valenti’s Ouest for a refined dinner and Community, which is owned by the Clinton Bakery folks, for something more casual.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you plan on opening any more restaurants?
I’ve always said I wanted to go back to where I learned, so I think I would like to go back to teaching. As far as opening new restaurants, the answer is yes. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Veritas was because I wanted to make this a jewel box of a restaurant group. My hope is to open more Veritas restaurants in the future.
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