It’s been quite a year for chef Justin Smillie, whose cooking at Il Buco Alimentari E Vineria has garnered plenty of attention and packed tables night after night. This NoHo market-cum-restaurant-cum-wine-bar manages to be everything to everyone. From the crusty, Italian breads baked in house, to the salumi dried and aged in the basement, and pastas, made impeccably fresh daily.
Though Il Buco Alimentari is Smillie’s official “coming out party,” he’s been working diligently on New York’s restaurant scene for close to a decade. His formative years were spent training under Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto and Dan Silverman at The Standard Grill. Smillie’s seasonal Italian cooking pivots around the wood-fired oven and the Greenmarket. And one of his favorite dishes, seared octopus with pickled kumquat, radish and black garlic sauce, is on the menu right now. So what does he do in his free time? Newly obsessed with chicken parts, Smillie’s dabbles in making yakitori at home.
What was your first food-related job and what did you learn from that experience?
My first job was as a dishwasher, and I learned that there are no jobs too big or too small. And I learned about kitchen hustle.
You’ve said your love for cooking was inspired by the meals your mother created from your family’s back garden. How do you draw upon that inspiration in your kitchen today?
The smells and sights at the green market, time spent on farms, and remembering crisp and sharp flavors from childhood. I’m always chasing the freshest, least disturbed flavor.
You spent six years working under Jonathan Waxman – what was it like working with him? What was the most valuable lesson that he taught you?
There was never a dull moment working with Jonathan. I was always challenged to be more, eat more and think more.
What did you learn from your time transitioning between the kitchens at The Standard in the winter to Sunset Beach in the summers?
I learned to be flexible in my style and how to adapt to new situations.
If you could go back and work in any of the kitchens that you’ve been a part of, where would you go and why?
Barbuto, because of the restaurant’s commitment to seasonality.
You’ve worked with many great chefs (Jonathan Waxman, Jimmy Bradley, Dan Silverman), whom do you consider your culinary mentor? Do you ever find yourself cooking for the chefs you’ve worked with in the past?
They all mentored and nurtured me in a lot of ways. I spent the most time with Waxman, so it stands to reason that he would have had the deepest impact on me. And, I still cook for them all.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Il Buco Alimentari right now?
The new octopus with black garlic sauce, shishito peppers and pickled kumquats.
Your least favorite dish? (you have to choose!)
Whatever is not at its freshest.
You are known for using seasonal ingredients with an emphasis on wood-fired cooking, where does that inspiration come from?
I’ve always been interested in traditional cooking methods, and wood-fired cooking is one of the most primal. Simple, fresh ingredients from the market lend themselves to that kind of cooking.
Il Buco is a restaurant-meets-market concept, what are some of your favorite items available in the grocery? Do you use any in your own kitchen at home?
I love the busiate pasta from Campo and all of the Scalia anchovy products. I also love the breads that Kamel Saci, our baker, prepares everyday.
In your opinion, what sets the menu at Il Buco Alimentari apart?
A love and respect for simple, delicious things. What we source from abroad, and what we find in the market locally everyday.
On any given day off, what can we find you doing?
Spending time with my wife and two boys, cycling, and cooking simple meals.
What is your favorite dish to make right now at home in your own kitchen?
Yakitori. I am truly obsessed with grilling small chicken parts.
What neighborhood do you live in and what are your favorite places to dine there?
Hoboken. I love the Korean food in Fort Lee, and in Hoboken, I love Zafra, or La Isla.
What are some culinary trends right now that you just can’t stand?
Anything that detracts from natural, fresh flavors. Sometimes the less you do, the more you end up with.
Your sons come to you one day and tell you they want to be chefs, are you terrified or thrilled?
Thrilled for the prospects… terrified for the journey.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Hopefully still manning a wood-fired grill, and rifling through bins in the farmers market.
Il Buco Alimentari
Address: 53 Great Jones Street