Mike Price is giving Clams their day so to speak. Price and co-owner Joey Campanaro just recently opened New York’s very first, clam-centric eatery in the West Village. But don’t even think about calling The Clam — a shellfish-centric restaurant recently opened by Market Table’s Mike Price & Joey Campanaro — a seafood shack. In theory, it may seem to have a lot in common with West Village neighbors, like Pearl Oyster Bar and Mary’s Fish Camp, but Price insists the only unifying factor between the three is a love of seafood.
“When you walk into this restaurant, you’ll know it’s not a shack. It’s actually a lot more high-end than our other restaurants,” Price says, referring to the rustic Market Table and 28-seat Italian jewel, The Little Owl, both of which he co-owns with longtime partner Joey Campanaro. “We made a conscious effort for this place not to look like a shack. The service and food is elevated far beyond Pearl and Mary’s. They’re both very good, but they are what they are. So I’d say The Clam is somewhere between them, and places like Marea or Le Bernardin. We’re unpretentious and neighborhood oriented, but with a focus on hospitality and yes, clams.”
That mission statement is clear when you walk into the intimate, elegantly appointed room, where white table cloths and black leather chairs are bathed in golden light from candles and wall sconces (or full sun from the floor-to-ceiling windows if you stop by during the day!). Lest we forget the gorgeous, mother of pearl ceiling. And it comes into even sharper focus when you catch a glimpse of the menu, which lovingly showcases Clams in both tried-and-true forms (Raw or Steamed Littlenecks, Stuffed Cherrystones, Fried Belly Sandwiches, silky Chowder), and new — be sure to try the Clam Fried Rice with Pork Belly Confit, Spaghetti and Clams topped with Salad, and chunky Clam Dip, paired with crispy, Old Bay-dusted Chips.
“When someone thinks clams, I want them to think of this place. And why shouldn’t they?” posits Price. “If you’re doing a piece on Clam Chowder, who do you call? ME!” We also spoke with the chef and owner about his perfect “marriage” with Campanaro, the persistent kitchen quirk that frustrates his wife, and the ingredients he just can’t bring himself to cook with (or eat)!
When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef?
I grew up on a farm with cows and pigs and chickens and tobacco and corn, and was 10 minutes away from the Chesapeake Bay where we had a boat, and regularly went fishing for soft-shell crabs and rockfish and oysters and clams. My grandfather was a butcher. I think my mom tried to serve us a frozen meal maybe once during our childhood. So basically, I was raised loving food. My first cooking experiment was making rice. I learned to make plain boiled rice, and then I slowly started adding sautéed onions and garlic, and eventually hamburger, which I discovered tasted even better. It was towards the end of grade school that I really decided that being a chef was something I wanted to pursue.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I took a dishwashing job when I was 13-years-old, and the guy that hired me was the one who really convinced me to go to cooking school. Another turning point was the externship I did while at culinary school, at a place called Symphony Café. I worked for an amazing cook who had a nightmare personality. I learned so much about how to cook and how not to treat people from him. And then there was my first real chef job in New York at The Mermaid Inn, where I was actually running the show.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
Keep your head down and make the best food you can. The first guy I worked for told me that.
Obviously, your mission statement is quite clear at The Clam, but what inspired the concept in the first place?
One is that we have Market Table so close by, which is seasonal, American farm-to-table fare, and The Little Owl is similar, with a Meditteranean bent. So I didn’t want to do the same thing again. And I’ve always wanted to do a seafood spot; I was actually shopping around in Brooklyn for spaces for years. I feel like clams have never had their day. There’s oyster restaurants and lobster restaurants and crab spots, and places like Flex Mussels, which was a definite motivator. I mean, if you can open a place like that, focused on an ingredient that pales in comparison to the clam in flavor and versatility, why couldn’t we be successful?
If you were to eat at your restaurant as a guest, what would you order and why?
We have a Spaghetti and Clam dish on the menu that’s out of this world. We’re doing a Clam Fried Rice that has Bottarga grated on top of it at the end, with Shiso and Cilantro, which is delicious. The Clam Chowder is really good. I’m a sucker for Raw Oysters. I also love our Mexican Shrimp Cocktail. I wrote the menu based on what I would want to eat, as many chefs do. It’s an approachable menu.
How are you currently dividing your time between Market Table and The Clam?
I preemptively hired a chef at Market Table about a year ago, David Standridge. So in terms of kitchen time, I only spend a couple of hours a week at Market Table, here and there. I’ll stop by in the morning on my way to The Clam, just to check in, and then I’m here for the rest of the day, which works out to approximately 90-100 hours per week.
What do you think has made your partnership with Joey Campanaro work so well?
We had a friendship that started long before our professional relationship. We’ve known each other for 20 years, but we’ve only been business partners for 7. In a lot of ways, it’s very much a marriage, in that both accomplishments and failures have strengthened our relationship in equal measure. And we have different personalities, so we bring different strengths and weaknesses to the fore. Joe is a more free-thinking, fly by the seat of his pants kind of guy, and I’m very grounded and skeptical, not wanting to make a decision right away. So we end up meeting somewhere in the middle; he pushes us forward and I reign us in. Foodwise, though, we kind of stay out of eachothers hair. I don’t have anything to do with the food at The Little Owl and Joe doesn’t have anything to do with the food at The Clam, and David’s doing most of the food at Market Table.
What would your wife say is your most annoying kitchen quirk, and vice versa?
I never turn off the oven. I constantly leave it on. My wife loves that, especially with two little kids in the house.
How would your line cooks describe your style as a leader in the kitchen?
Firm but fair. Hardworking. I want to get what I paid for, obviously, but if Joe and I are a marriage, the rest of the staff are very much our family. Working to build a camaraderie with your team is the difference between being a chef and an owner; just going through the motions or really being a leader.
What ingredients can you just not bring yourself to cook with or eat?
Sundried tomatoes. Those bug me. They’re so 1980’s. They made a comeback for a moment, and then people realized how bad they taste. And it’s funny, I don’t know why, but I never put artichokes on the menu. I just can’t think of anything to do with them.
What do you like to do and eat on a rare day off?
It sounds corny, but true; if I have any time off I like to be at home cooking with the kids. I have two little girls. As far as going out to eat, we live in DUMBO, so we’ll go to Vinegar Hill House once in a while. Atrium is pretty good. Juliana’s, as well, from the original Grimaldi’s owners.
What are some of your favorite spots to go to in the West Village, besides your own, of course?
I really love Anissa; I was super stoked that Anita Lo recently got three stars in the Times. I also love sitting at the bar at Blue Hill; they send me a glass of champagne before my coat hits the back of the seat. One other go-to spot is Soto for sushi. Forget about the weird piano jazz that’s playing… they make some of the most consistent food I’ve ever had in my life. It’s got two Michelin stars and yet, you never hear about it, it’s never in the press, it has no PR, no website, nothing.
What’s next for you, another restaurant, a cookbook, some food TV, perhaps?
I would love to eventually write a cookbook. We’re very early in the game, obviously, but want to position ourselves as the authority on clams. So I think it would make sense to do a cookbook down the road. And I’ve always really wanted to do a small soup and salad concept in the city. Think the Soup Nazi and Hale & Hearty but better, a chef-driven thing. And as the weather changes so do the dishes. It’ll be grab and go, but also a place where the shrimp gets added to the soup when you order it; not just left steaming inside the whole day long. I think there’s a demand; a market for that in New York.