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Q & A with Skal’s Chef Ben Spiegel

skalbenspiegelOn the surface, five-month-old Skal might just seem like just another trendy, New Nordic restaurant in New York.  And yes, it’s named after a Northern drinking toast, the owner is from Iceland, and there’s a decidedly Scandinavian slant to former Noma apprentice, Ben Spiegel’s menu.  But the young, Toronto-born chef insists that more than anything, this sunny neighborhood spot (improbably situated in Chinatown, skirting the border of the Lower East Side), simply embodies a fresh approach towards eating and dining out.

“First of all, I’m not sure if you can describe modern Nordic cuisine as ‘new’ anymore!” Spiegel laughs.  “But I think what everyone is embracing about this kind of cuisine is that there’s clarity to the flavors and lightness to the food.  You order a vegetable and it tastes like that vegetable.  The style is about eschewing fats and wines and all of these cloying flavors for juices and herbs and very light sauces.  And yes, some of the ingredients we use at Skal are native to Iceland, but what we’re doing is in no way traditional.”

We’d keep coming back for the Heirloom Carrot Salad with Burnt Honey and Sunflower Seeds, and the off-the-charts delicious Confit Duck Wings draped in Pickled Seaweed and dipped in a Mussel Emulsion — once Spiegel reinstates them in the menu, that is.  “It’s so funny, those wings appear to have caused quite a stir in such a short time,” grins Spiegel.  “I guess we’ll have to bring them back soon.”  And don’t expect to find a burger on his menu.  “So whereas bacon and hamburgers were trendy just a few years ago, carrots and kale are the shit.  People are mindful of what they’re eating and how they feel after their dining experience,” Spiegel says.

We also spoke with the chef about other culinary trends he gets behind (and ones he wishes would just die already), the incredibly basic ingredient he hardly ever uses, and why he left his last restaurant on bucolic Lummi Island (part of the San Juan archipelago) for the noisy and crowded bustle of New York’s Chinatown.

I have a girlfriend.

When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef?
Pretty young actually, because I was quite an anxious 12-year-old, and figured that I needed to make a decision about my life’s direction pretty quickly.  I enjoyed cooking and eating, so it seemed like a logical career.  Also, when I was 15, I went to France with my father, and met a chef in his early 20’s who had bought a very small restaurant and was doing traditional food from Lyon.  He would take me to the markets at three in the morning and show me all of the products, and I would see these other professional chefs gathered there too, and when I came back home to Toronto I was like, yeah, this is what I want to do.

What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I was 17, in high school, and attempting to get a course credit through a program where you worked in a certain field.  Through a connection, I got an interview with chef David Lee at Splendido in Toronto, which was one of the top-rated restaurants in the country at the time.  I showed up with my resume, which basically had one or two restaurants and my lifeguard certification listed on it, and he threw it in the trash and said, “When can you start?”  I remember that, even though it was a very high-end restaurant, everyone that worked there was young, and pushing, and there was an intensity, passion, and desire to improve.  David has remained a really fantastic mentor throughout my career.

Why did you make the move from your former restaurant on Lummi Island to NYC?  Talk about night and day!
Even though my last restaurant was really off the beaten path, it was really exciting to work there because the island had all of these natural resources.  People had their own fisheries and farms right on the island, and the beaches were plentiful with herbs and seaweed.  There were berries in the mountains as well as mushrooms.  It was quite an amazing life, but also kind of lonely.  So what eventually drew me to NYC was a girl I met on the island, who decided to move there.  And I decided to follow her.  We currently live two blocks away from the restaurant.

Chinatown is a pretty unexpected place to open an Icelandic joint.  Why there?
This is a really beautiful neighborhood; not aesthetically, mind you, but it has a ton of texture and a ton of culture.  It’s a place where new immigrants came and built their lives.  In fact, we live in a building that has been in my girlfriend’s family since the 1950’s, when they came over from Germany.  The owner also has a wine bar down the street from where Skal is now, so the neighborhood just made sense to us. 

If you were to come into your restaurant as a customer, what would you order and why?
I’d probably start with a cocktail, because I think our cocktails are super delicious and just as creative as what we do in the kitchen.  As for favorite dishes, I like the Beef Tartare with Littleneck Clams and Wild Onions.  It’s delicate and yet vulgar at the same time.   We use a heavily worked piece of meat, which is known for its kidney-like, rich flavor.  It’s a type of cut where, when you eat it, it’s really clear that you’re eating meat.  And I think that’s the point.  Because the way I see it, if you’re going to order raw meat, it’s gotta taste like raw meat. 

Tasting menus are such a big thing right now, have you thought about doing one at Skal?
There’s a trajectory of growth here; we’re still so new and figuring out ourselves and the neighborhood.   I’d rather have people feel comfortable about dining here several times a month than make it a rarified experience.  For me, it’s more exciting for people to be able to come by often and try new things.  There is a draw, of course, to do a tasting menu model (in part for my own ego), but we’re only five months old, and the time will come.  We also have a very small kitchen, so I’m mindful about being able to properly execute everything.  If you’re charging a lot for a tasting menu, you better be doing a really good job.

Have you considered launching a vodka program?  
We’re doing some pretty funky infusions.  Just as we’re exploring our food program, it’s important to explore our beverage program as well.  Building them both together is definitely a direction we’re looking to go.

Most importantly, how did you come up with those genius Duck Wings with Mussel & Squid Ink Emulsion?
It started with wanting to pair duck and a type of seaweed called dulse.  It’s noted for having a strong, almost fennel-like flavor, which compliments the duck really nicely.  We confit the ducks slowly in duck fat first, and then smoke them on the grill, which creates parts that are crispy, unctuous and delicious, and other parts that are soft and gelatinous and super flavorful.  The mussel emulsion is essentially a mayonnaise, where we swap out the egg yolks for raw mussels.  The salinity and savoriness contrasts really well, and brings forward the maritime flavor of the seaweed, which we pickle as well as powder, and sprinkle over the top.

Do you cover the pastry department at Skal as well?
We don’t have a pastry chef, so it’s basically me feeling around in the dark.  We also have a bunch of other talented chefs here, and an atmosphere of real creativity, where everyone is interested in everything, and have a desire to learn and grow.

Where are some other places you like to eat around the neighborhood, besides Skal, of course?
I really like Contra.  They offer a very light and nimble and focused tasting menu; every time I go there I learn something new.  And I like dumplings quite a lot, so Lam Zhou.  They also hand-pull noodles for every order, and even though everything is outrageously cheap, they put such a value on craftsmanship.

What culinary trends do you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I like people eating healthier and smaller portions.  I like dishes that aren’t protein-centric.  I feel terrible after eating, like, 8-ounces of beef.  I also think affordable and approachable tasting menus are exciting; they’re both entertaining and didactic.  I think bacon is dead. I’m so over the burger and fries paradigm.  People say, “Hey,  you should do a burger at Skal!”  But if we did a burger, that’s all that would sell.  And there’s a limit to how creative you can be with hamburgers.

What do you make of the current obsession with new Nordic cooking?
I think it’s particularly relevant in NY because New Yorkers are very savvy diners and becoming more and more health conscious.  So whereas bacon and hamburgers were trendy just a few years ago, carrots and kale are the shit.  People are mindful of what they’re eating and how they feel after their dining experience.

What ingredients can you just not bring yourself to cook with, or eat?
I don’t cook with a lot of black pepper, oddly enough.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
A lot fatter and with a lot less hair.

You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner?  And no, you can’t say both!
Bottom line: food.  Because I can always go back for seconds.

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