Not many chefs get the opportunity to be a Chef De Cuisine at just 22 years old. Todd Mitgang managed to graduate from the French Culinary Institute and land himself in the modern Thai kitchen at Kittichai, inside the stylish, Thompson Hotel. Mitgang has seen it all over his ten year career. His breakout success, Crave Ceviche Bar, was destroyed by a freak crane accident in 2008, forcing him to close his restaurant and start virtually from scratch.
His next move was an unexpected one, turning up at Cascabel Taqueria where he tried his hand at casual Mexican cooking, then out east in Montauk at South Edison. But after three years, Mitgang has finally revived the Crave brand with Crave Fishbar as inspired by flavors from all over the globe as ever. He’s bringing back old classics and taking risks by adding new and innovative dishes to the menu, like Clam and Kale soup, Vinegar-Fried chicken and King Salmon Sashimi with Grapefruit, Banana vinegar and white soy sauce. Combining the old with the new has helped attract a new generation of diners to Crave while keeping the faithful regulars happy. Mitgang’s experience and unrestrained creativity yields unique dishes like Lobster Curry, Vinegar Fried Chicken, and Cherrystone Clam and Dinosaur Kale Soup.
When and how did you realize that you wanted to become a chef? Do you ever regret it?
When I attended UB for my undergrad. My roommate and I would host dinner parties and our friends would freak. I thought, “I could do this.” Funny that acting as a host felt so good that I turned it into my career. Working in whites in a commercial kitchen is nothing like cooking for my friends and getting drunk at those dinner parties.
What was your biggest kitchen disaster?
I have always consulted under the radar. One gig was to open a 400-seat kosher catering hall in Little Neck. The first party was for 350 on a Saturday night. On Thursday we were running around still receiving plates, glasses, pots and pans. Friday we got in the kitchen trying to work around the madness. We had about 4 hours of crazed prep time before sundown when the mashgiah [RG note: an Orthodox rabbi] locked us out of the kitchen until sundown on Saturday night. We basically had an hour before the reception. Crisis was averted, but it was the most stressed I have ever been.
What job single-handedly shaped the rest of your career?
Two jobs shaped who I am. At 22, I was an Executive Chef of a small fine dining restaurant in Long Island. I pushed myself and taught myself everything I could; the owner didn’t know what food cost meant and neither did I. This enabled me to order and work with silly expensive ingredients. The second was working with Chef Ian through the opening of Kittichai. He was the mentor I needed at the time. Ian was very artistic and taught me how to compose a prettier plate of food. He also taught me bold flavors by way of his native Thai cuisine.
You were just 27 when you opened your first restaurant, Crave Ceviche Bar. What was that like for you?
I was so excited and I was so ready for it. It was a dream come true.
What was your initial reaction to the crane accident that destroyed Crave Ceviche Bar?
That we were blessed that we did not lose one of our own. Beyond that I don’t know that I reacted; that time was blurred and confusing. We didn’t know if we would have the opportunity to reopen.
How did the opportunity to open Cascabel Taqueria come up, and more importantly, how did you go from Thai at Kittichai to seafood at Crave to Mexican at Cascabel?
My friend at the time, David Chiong, knew that he wanted to open a taqueria and asked if I could help. I love to cook and I especially love ethnic flavors. Cooking to me is rooted in technique. You can apply these techniques to all ingredients, and the rest is trusting your palate. If you can be your own critic, you should succeed.
Then, you headed out east to Montauk to open South Edison, a gussied up fish shack of sorts, bringing urban culinary sophistication to a surf town. How did that opportunity come about and how is it different than the newly incarnated Crave?
My wife’s cousin had secured a lease and hired an Austrian chef to open what is now South Edison. I was asked to help him transition and to help design the bar and kitchen layouts. When Steven learned that my work at Cascabel was finishing up, he made me an offer to become his partner and chef.
What took so long to revive Crave and why bother after so many years? Why take a space for your restaurant directly across from the now demolished building you once occupied?
We looked aggressively for the first year after, but the economy had just bottomed out. Landlords were still unwilling to acknowledge the economy by way of reduced rents. Reviving Crave is less about Crave and more about the strong partnership we have, and our want to reopen a restaurant as a group. Once we decided that an incarnation of Crave was in order, we felt that this neighborhood was the only fit. During our time with Crave Ceviche Bar, we had extremely loyal neighborhood support. Now, at six weeks old, we have seen many of our old customers—you are one of them!
How is the Crave Fishbar different from the Crave Ceviche Bar? How have you grown as a chef since then? Thus, how has the menu evolved and why has sustainability become so important to you?
At Crave Fishbar, I am having fun with food and not feeling limited by technique. Although we are a seafood restaurant, we opened with Veal Tongue on our menu and are now serving Colorado Lamb Ribs. I have grown by my experiences. Since the last Crave, I have studied the Mexican pantry and worked with East End farmers. Every experience continues to shape me. Sustainability is important to me, because it makes sense. Why would I want product that travels from the West Coast if the same product grows in New Jersey? We make our best effort to buy locally and sustainably.
How do you come up with dishes, like Dinosaur Kale and Clam Soup with Black Garlic & Burnt Lemon Peel (delicious by the way!)?
Thank you. I’m not sure of the exact process, but it typically starts with season, then how light or rich I think the dish should be, and then flavor combinations. Each plate and every ingredient should contribute to the overall taste. Sweet or salty, bitter or spicy, etc.
Rumor has it there will soon be a hydroponic garden on the roof where you also happen to live. Kindly elaborate.
One of my partners is a roofer and is finishing up his first hydroponic garden on his own property. With success, our roof will be next.
We also hear you’re having a baby soon. Are you planning to make your own baby food?
Baby was born. When the time comes, I think we will make our own. My wife is a fantastic cook, too. Steam some veg, mash it up, what am I missing? Ha.
What’s next on the horizon? Any new restaurants in the works? Any plans to pen a cookbook or do a food show on TV?
Ha. Next? Right now my head is down, working to make Crave Fishbar the best it can be. After this, who knows? I love to cook, which is why I’m still on the line.
What is your favorite seafood restaurant (other than your own, of course)?
BLT Fish. It’s where Colleen and I were married.
What’s your favorite Mexican joint (other than your own)?
When La Superior opened in Williamsburg, I was obsessed.
You’re on your deathbed…sex or dinner? (No, you can’t have both.)
Sex. No question.
Address: 945 Second Ave., nr. 50th St.
Phone: (646) 895-9585