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Q & A with Salvation Taco’s April Bloomfield

april bloomfieldThe term “gastropub” gets thrown around pretty freely nowadays.  (It generally refers to bars that serve food far superior to the expected beer nuts, meat pie, or run-of-the-mill burger.)  But the concept didn’t get much play outside of England until 2004, when British chef April Bloomfield burst onto the New York scene with The Spotted Pig, pioneering the concept stateside.  Overnight, the genial West Village spot became famous for its comforting, undeniably elevated fare, like Duck Egg Salad with Bacon and Anchovy Dressing, Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnudi with Brown Butter and Crispy Sage, and of course, the infamous Roquefort Cheese-topped Burger with Shoestring Fries, largely considered to be one of the best in the city.  It also kicked off Bloomfield’s longtime collaboration with business partner Ken Friedman and Bloomfield’s second, just as successful career as a cookbook author.

The pair has since opened the nose-to-tail restaurant, The Breslin, and the seafood-centric The John Dory Oyster Bar, both located in the Ace Hotel.  They even have plans to expand to the West Coast, taking over San Francisco institution, Tosca Café.  But it’s their recently opened Salvation Taco that represents Bloomfield’s greatest departure yet.  “I think New York is really influenced by Mexican culture, so I wanted to learn more about it,” Bloomfield said.  It turns out that the homey street food of Oaxaca and Puebla jives surprisingly well with Bloomfield’s down-to-earth cooking style, though don’t expect straight up versions of Tacos al Pastor or Chicharrones.  “We decided to think outside the box and do something that we could have fun with,” Bloomfield said.  The result is Kimchi Pork Belly Pozole, Roasted Pumpkin Poblano Salad, and Crispy Sweetbread and Chickpea Tacos.

You’ve said that growing up you thought you’d become a policewoman.  What put you on the path to becoming a chef?
I always wanted to be in the police force, but I missed the deadline to submit my application.  My mom sat me down and asked what I might want to do, and at the time, my sisters were in cooking school, so I thought I’d give that a go.  I originally thought I would do that for a couple of years then reapply for the police force.  I ended up liking cooking very much and wanted to keep learning more.

Who do you consider to be your culinary mentors?
Rose Gray, who passed away in 2010, and Ruth Rogers from the River Café have been huge inspirations to me.  I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work alongside them.  They had the most refined palates and taught me how to cook in a way that brings out the best qualities of every ingredient.  They were so passionate about food that it was hard not to be inspired by them.

You and Ken Friedman have been business partners since opening The Spotted Pig together back in 2004.  What makes your partnership so successful?
Ken focuses on the front of house and I focus on the back of house.  We never really interfere with each other’s roles, but we’re both supportive of each other and provide feedback to create the best restaurants possible.  I think we really balance each other because he’s full of energy and constantly moving and socializing.  I’m also always moving, but I’m a little bit more reserved.  We both love the restaurant industry and opening restaurants.  We also like to preserve the history of the spaces we work in.  For example, The Breslin is named after the Ace’s past life, The Breslin Hotel.  Salvation Taco is named for the Salvation Army that used to occupy the building.  We always work together to ensure that the decor and service reflect the food, and vice versa.  He’s a great partner to have.

Since leaving London, you’ve become the consummate New York chef and restaurateur, opening four highly successful restaurants.  What about NYC’s food culture excites you?
The NYC dining scene is incredibly diverse, which is very exciting.  There are so many opportunities to try something new, which helps me get inspired.  I love all of the different food shops in the city, too.  I’m a big fan of Kalustyan’s on 28th Street and Lexington Avenue, which has a huge selection of Indian spices and grains.  I could spend hours in there.  NYC is ever-evolving. It helps keep you on your toes.

Salvation Taco is a real departure for you in terms of food (and, to be honest, price point!)  How did you arrive at the concept?
Ken and I talked about how fun it would be to have a bar that served a selection of nibbles and different kinds of tacos.  Roberto Santibañez from Fonda and I collaborated on the menu.  I met Roberto through his first book release.  I loved all his tacos and sauces.  We talked and really hit it off.  I took Ken to Fonda where he met Roberto and we told him about our idea.  He was all for it, and the concept of Salvation Taco was born.

Did you have any prior experience or interest in Mexican cooking and cuisine prior to opening Salvation Taco?
I visited Mexico a few years ago and went to Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico City.  I had such an amazing time.  I had the opportunity to spend time in a Mexican family’s home while I was traveling, which was a lot of fun.  We made authentic Tamales and I got to see a young girl turn Cacao Beans into smooth chocolate.  It was incredible to experience and a privilege to be able to be so hands-on.  I would love to go back and visit different areas of Mexico.

How have you gone about putting your own stamp on traditional Mexican flavors, ingredients, dishes and techniques at Salvation Taco?
We wanted to keep the essence and foundation of the tacos Mexican, but we didn’t want to say the restaurant is authentically Mexican.  We have an Indian-influenced taco with Curried Cauliflower, and a Moroccan Lamb taco with Crema.  We also have an Italian-influenced taco with Sweetbreads cooked in Chickpea Flour with grilled Red Onion and Pomegranate Molasses.

How do you balance your time between all of your various restaurants and obligations, especially now that you have a project to tend to all the way on the West Coast? 
I try to check in and visit each restaurant at least once a day.  I meet with the chefs of each restaurant, and I might work in the kitchen alongside them to sort through what works and what doesn’t.  We’ll come up with new dishes and organize tastings or check-ups for certain days.  I love talking to the chefs about what’s in season, new dishes, what’s coming up at the restaurants, and new suppliers for us to work with.

If you had to pick just one dish at one of your restaurants that really encompasses who you are as a chef and restaurateur, which would it be and why?
It’s hard to pick one dish as my favorite because every dish has my stamp of approval.  Every dish is created in a way that has an essence of what I like to eat.  I don’t ever put anything on my menu that I wouldn’t want to eat.  All of the items on the menus are things I would love to sink my teeth into. 

From cooking shows to reality shows, it’s become commonplace to see chefs on television.  Do you have any interest in doing food TV?  Or have you made a conscious decision to stay away from it?
I like doing TV.  It makes you think in a different way and it’s very fun.  TV is a good platform to teach, which I really enjoy doing.  It helps me learn and grow in a different way.  I’m open to the idea of TV, but it would have to be the right kind of concept for me.

Any new restaurants or projects on the imminent horizon?
Yes, I’m really excited about my new cookbook.  It’s a vegetable book, but it’s not a vegan book.  There are some recipes with just vegetables, and some vegetables are cooked with the thinnest bit of cheese or chicken stock.  There aren’t recipes with big chunks of meat in them, just vegetables fortified by a little bit of meat. 

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