Bobo’s always been a looker. But there’s more to a restaurant than a glittery chandelier and well-dressed dining room. Especially when you’re hungry for dinner. This West Village restaurant has had its share of chef shuffles. But Patrick Connolly is hoping to change bobo’s reputation. Connolly may have won round 1 of Eater’s Hottest Chef Competition, but he doesn’t intend to coast on his good looks either.
Connolly got his start working at a family-run pub to pay back his student loans. After dropping out from Johnson & Wales, he went on to work at several restaurants in Providence and Boston. He quickly rose to Executive Chef at Radius in Boston—a modern French restaurant—where he has spent the last four years. This past summer, he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast.
Just recently, the young chef moved to New York to run bobo’s kitchen. Connolly puts his own stamp on the menu with dishes like crispy veal sweetbreads, sea trout with long beans, and Muscovy duck with date puree, parsnip, and chorizo.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was really wanted to be a fighter pilot like in top gun. In college I wanted to be a writer, but it really hit me when I was 22 and still in school. I was a cook at a restaurant, and it was then that it became clear: I wanted to be a chef.
What was your first job in food, and what did you learn?
I got a job at Cafe Beignets, which of course, was known for its beignets. I was going to work in the kitchen the first day, but they liked my smile so they put me in the front making coffee. When I was 21 I became a server, but after a day I knew I really wanted to be in the kitchen.
You are a self-taught chef. If you had to do it again, would you go to school first?
Well, I did go to Johnson & Wales for a bit, but I dropped out. The instructors seemed uninspired, and most of the students around me acted like it was a burden. Also, Johnson & Wales trained people more for corporate catering, and I wanted to work in a restaurant. If I had to do it again, no, I would not have gone to school. I would have saved up so I could work for free for the best chefs.
What was the biggest mistake you made at Empire in Rhode Island?
I wasn’t there very long, and the restaurant closed three months after I left. But I guess the most horrible mistake was when I got branded. I was cooking meat and got branded by the oven. I had the letters “LOD” on my arm for awhile afterwards.
At Radius in Boston, you went from entremetier to executive chef. That’s a lot of rungs to jump up on the ladder so to speak? How did you achieve that and what skills were most essential?
I think I achieved it because there was nothing else I wanted more than to pursue my career. I didn’t take vacations or days off — I worked non-stop. I wasn’t technically above and beyond in terms of ability, but I did have an ability to lead, which is why I jumped to management so quickly. Really it was mostly an obsession.
How did the opportunity to move to Bobo in New York arise?
I was kind of at a loss. I had given my six months notice at Radius. Now, Christopher Myers at Radius used to actually work here at Bobo when it was called Tom Clancey’s, so I always kept track of the restaurant. Therefore, I knew about the opening of Bobo, talked to the current hostess Erin, whom I also knew at Radius, and was able to meet Carlos, the owner of Bobo. We had dinner at Lupa and the rest is history.
Considering their chef track record, weren’t you a little worried about inheriting a bad reputation (and kitchen) just by taking the position?
I had eaten here before and thought the food was solid. I wasn’t worried. I had enough confidence in my team, and also knew there would be fewer people. I was excited for the opportunity and knew I could stop the trend.
You’re the third chef at Bobo within a year. What do you try to bring to the restaurant that other chefs haven’t? Would you consider yourself successful?
I try to open the doors to the kitchen, in a figurative sense. I believe the kitchen needs to work hand in hand with the front of the house to be successful. Everything must be in tune, and we need to create consistency. I don’t want the restaurant to be just about the food, or just about the decor. I want all of them to work together.
What was your first order of business?
To create some order with the menu. It wasn’t a style I was fond of, and there were no standardized recipes to work off of. Usually when chefs enter a new kitchen they just go with the flow. But I changed the menu within a week and a half. I made sure to get the recipes on paper, work on schedules and inventory (basically from scratch.)
How much of the old menu is left intact and how much is yours?
All of it is mine. My background is a la carte with off the menu tastings. When I got here there were a lot of sides, Spanish and Italian influences — I still go with the format but have changed the items.
At Bobo, your cuisine is described as French with Asian influences. Do elaborate on your inspirations.
Well, Radius was near Chinatown, and I lived there as well. I would buy geoduck clams, lily buds, and just fooled around with ingredients. At Masa in Manhattan, the meal was amazing, and it influenced my work with raw fish. I started working with miso and other similar ingredients. My basis is still more or less French — my technique involves a lot of crusts and toppings. I love to mess around with textures, as well as emulsifications (like mayo made with foie gras and butter in the soup.) Funny story actually – the Fat Baby Mayo is our version of Japan’s Kewpie mayo. And, you know, there’s a picture of this fat baby doll on the bottle, so after awhile we started calling our’s “Fat Baby” mayo.
Who are your role models, chefs you look up to, cookbooks you read?
Susur Lee’s cookbook — he’s from Toronto. There are also a lot of Daniel Boulud cookbooks I use.
What’s your take on the latest round of reviews and critiques of your work in Bobo’s Kitchen? Are you motivated to make changes, or do you stick with what you know?
So the two reviews were from the New York Times and New York Magazine. From a food perspective, these reviews were snapshots of our development — I hadn’t even hired a sous chef at that point. Also, when Frank Bruni came we were in the middle of getting a new menu off the ground. However, the reviews were definitely motivating, and accurate. I’m looking forward to the next review.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu at Bobo?
I’d have to say the bay scallop dish. It’s made with meyer lemon, sliced celery, celery root, and chestnuts. It’s a great balance of sweet and acid — it’s a very clean dish.
What’s your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
I really don’t think I can!
What culinary trends do you embrace?
People are taking to offal! It was no secret beforehand that chefs love it, but now the consumer is taking it on. I also love all of these simple places coming out right now. Like Porchetta for instance — it’s just roast pork sandwiches. I love it.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
The foie gras controversy was irritating, and I love the stuff. Of course everyone’s going to go after the foie gras producers because they’re the little guys. You don’t see anyone trying to take down a huge chicken producer.
You were a strong contender running for NYC’s Hottest Chef on Eater. Are you disappointed or was it an honor just to be nominated?
*Laughs.* No, I’m not disappointed. Actually, it fueled people in my kitchen to make fun of me. It definitely was funny, and hey, I hope it helped the restaurant in some way.
Any new projects on the horizon? Do tell….
I’ve been very busy here, but there are other projects Carlos and I want to get after, specifically for Bobo. We’re developing a new option for private dining, and I’d definitely like to write a book at some point. For right now though, I’m content.
Address: 181 W. 10th St. (btwn. 4th St. & 7th Ave. South
Phone: (212) 488-2626