What a difference five years have made in the life of Jared Stafford-Hill. When we last checked in with him back in 2008, he had just come on as the executive chef at Bobo in the West Village, charged with revitalizing a floundering menu of seasonal French classics. When he was let go shortly afterwards, however, Stafford-Hill was devastated. “It was pretty hard. It was all very surprising,” he said. “I was really cautious afterwards, because that experience was kind of demoralizing.” So much so, that the mild-mannered chef elected to stay off-the-radar and out of kitchens until just four months ago.
Happily, he’s currently finding his mojo again as chef at the stylish Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, helping it evolve beyond oysters and absinthe into a full-blown, high-end eatery. His series of seafood small plates, which includes Sea Urchin with White Gazpacho, Black Bass Crudo with Gooseberries and Fennel Pollen, and Sea Scallop served on the shell with Foie Gras Mousse and Cauliflower, have consistently drawn raves, and have even beckoned back the same well-heeled Manhattan clientele he served all those years ago. With the New Year fast approaching, we thought we’d touch base with Stafford-Hill about being back behind the burners, his move to Brooklyn, and what he hopes to accomplish in 2013.
Still happily in a relationship with the same woman.
You’ve admitted that being unexpectedly fired from Bobo sent you into a self-imposed exile, one that you’ve found it hard to recover from. How were you eventually able to move forward?
This is the first chef’s job I’ve taken since then. It’s a hard job to have, because you’re putting yourself out there…your hard work and tastes and sensibilities, and you just hope people like it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.
You’ve worked at quite a few high-end Manhattan restaurants, like Adour, Craft, and Hearth. What led to your pilgrimage to Brooklyn?
There wasn’t any real decision behind moving to Brooklyn, I just believed in this project. And as Manhattan gets more expensive, it takes the fun and creativity out of restaurants in general. Everything is a lot more approachable in Brooklyn.
What do you consider to be the main differences between the Brooklyn and Manhattan restaurant scenes?
People in Brooklyn do eat a bit differently. They don’t spend the same amount of money as they do in Manhattan on food and wine. Most places in our neighborhood specialize in hamburgers and stuff like that. But we just do the kind of food that makes us happy and know, in the long hall, that people will come for it. On the weekends we have almost an entirely Manhattan-based clientele.
Maison Premiere is known primarily for two things, oysters and absinthe. How did you go about sculpting a full menu that would both complement and expand on that?
It was actually really easy, because they have more oysters than anyone else in the country and more absinthe, so all I had to do was step in and make a menu of more seafood than they have anywhere else! I put every single fish and shellfish I could find on the menu.
What is your favorite dish in the menu right now?
We always have a lot scraps and fish bones left over, so we started to put them in stock for a really intense boullabaise. It’s fun, chock full of turbot, lobster, langoustine, crawfish and crab.
Your least favorite dish? (You have to choose!)
I’m really not trying to avoid the question, but the thing about being in Brooklyn is that we don’t have to cater to a bunch of different tastes. We’re not trying to serve 400 people a night, so we can trim away all of those unnecessary items. I’m really happy with everything we have.
Do you ever feel limited as a chef by working primarily with seafood?
It’s actually really fun, because there are fewer rules. If you work with beef, it already has such a big flavor, so there’s less you can do with it, as opposed to clams, where you can do just about anything.
Oysters and champagne are a must when it comes to celebrating New Years Eve in NYC. Do you have any other easy but elegant appetizer ideas that people can make for their at-home celebrations?
Something we do here is just put caviar on top of raw oysters. That’s really a treat and just takes a couple of seconds. Another dish you can effectively pull off at home are bay scallops on the half shell with a few drops of cucumber and lemongrass juice and pickled jalapeno. There’s also a lot of nice fish out there now which is really great raw, like tuna. And New Years Eve is a time when both white and black truffles are available. They’re nice to put in risotto.
How do you plan to celebrate New Years Eve this year?
I’ll be stuck in the restaurant.
What do you predict you’ll be doing the second the ball drops?
Probably finishing cleaning up, because our last seating is at 9 pm. It’s going to be a long day because we’re doing a very high-end tasting menu, so at that point, I’ll just want to clean up and go home.
If you weren’t working, what would your ultimate New Years Eve entail?
In a perfect world I would be at home. Maybe have a little champagne or red burgundy, take a bath, and call it a night. My average days are really busy so I go to great lengths to unwind and relax.
What are your New Years resolutions for 2013?
My resolution last year was to run the NYC marathon and I haven’t done it yet, so I guess that will roll over!