It’s not often you stumble into a restaurant and discover a star in the making. Which is why we were stoked to stumble upon Nick Curtin at the newly instated, Rosette, which opened without much fuss on the Lower East Side. No one could accuse Nick Curtin of not being original. His menu is full of truly delicious uniquities, the likes of Clam Chowder Croquettes, Ember Roasted Leeks, and A Roasted Avocado topped with Chili Yogurt and Puffed Rice.
But a killer hamburger is the last thing we’d expect to find on Nick Curtin’s menu at Rosette, too. That’s because the Jean-Georges Vongerichten protégé began his executive chef career at Compose, serving $120, 16-course tasting menus, before making his way to Acme, where he teamed up with New Nordic wunderkind Mads Refslund, experimenting with esoteric ingredients, like seabean, pickled roots and hay ash. But at the recently opened Rosette, he seems committed to making approachable fare at an accessible price point. “There are a few basic ideals that we’re trying to adhere to at Rosette, like ‘flavor is king,’” Curtin says. “Our other mantra is technique over technology. We’re not about water baths and gels and things like that. We want to make food perfect the old fashioned way.”
One of his inspirations is his Wood-Fired Oven, where he roasts everything from a crispy-skinned Half Chicken accompanied by sweet pea compote, field peas, fennel and daikon to a Vegetable Ash-Dusted Monkfish. “I’ve been able to apply a lot of the things I’d learned from Mads at Rosette, like coaxing flavor out of humble vegetables,” says Curtin. “But I can use our awesome wood-burning oven to cook them low and slow, and not a sous-vide machine.” We also spoke to the (recently married!) chef about the problem with culinary school, why Yelp is killing the art form of cooking, and why he can’t help but crave Dominos pizza at the end of the day.
Just married, like literally three weeks ago. I’m pretty pumped. I have the most incredible, beautiful and wonderful wife that any guy could ask for, and her patience knows no bounds. When you’re a chef, you have to work at relationships. You have to understand that your restaurant takes up a good deal of your life, but if you want to be with someone, you have to put just as much effort and time into making that relationship work.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
I was raised around food. My grandfather cultivated oysters at the end of his dock, and at six years old, my mom would serve me celeriac purees and all kinds of intricate meals. My sister and I both grew up cooking. I actually wound up studying politics and philosophy in college, but I wasn’t happy or engaged by school, so I started picking up cooking jobs during the summer and making friends with industry people. I lost myself down that path full force and haven’t stopped since.
What was it, exactly, that made you fall in love with cooking?
I loved knowing I could make people happy. I loved the intensity and excitement and the constant change; it always kept me engaged. I really loved the idea that I could conceptualize something, and then create it with my two hands, which is something our generation is so separated from, otherwise. We do everything on computers, and produce very little. Being able to have a craft was a very significant thing for me emotionally.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
I was very lucky to learn everything on the job, because I worked for chefs that were willing to teach me. When I stepped into my first professional kitchen it was for Matt Jennings, who runs a fantastic restaurant called Farmstead in Providence. He took a big risk taking on someone who had no idea what he was doing. I didn’t know any of the lingo or how to hold a knife properly or how to work a station.
It sounds like you pursued your cooking career the old fashioned way; through, essentially, an apprenticeship. That being said, to you think attending culinary school is a worthwhile endeavor for young, potential chefs?
Some people need the school environment to learn; they can’t step into a kitchen without the basics. And not everyone is fortunate enough to find a chef that’s willing to let them learn on the job. That being said, I think culinary school is a bit of a racket. You spend $60,000+ getting an education in something that’s always been treated as a craft; that’s supposed to be passed from one generation to the next. The apprenticeship model, similar to being a blacksmith, is what really works best, because you’re able to move past the theory and get straight to the application. We have so many people that aspire to be chefs nowadays because they see how it’s portrayed on TV or they read a book and think it sounds awesome. But they don’t know what it is to actually work in this world. They don’t understand the sacrifice, and that passion is not just an asset but a requirement. And they end up going through the system, spending all of this money, being in debt, realize they’re only making $8-10 an hour in the real working world, and drifting off into different careers. It doesn’t happen with everyone, obviously, but culinary school is not what it advertises itself to be, which is a guaranteed career maker. Which is pretty much true of higher education in general, nowadays.
Whether the depictions are realistic or not, T.V. has definitely helped glamorize chefs. But what is it about the career that you personally find the most difficult?
Everybody complains about web 2.0; how easy and prevalent it is for everyone to post their personal critiques of restaurants. And I’m going to rag on it as well! I feel like you have to have a great deal of experience and have committed a great deal of time and effort to be able to critique food effectively. It’s entirely unfair that anyone and everyone can now publicly judge restaurants based on an uncontrolled set of personal criteria. What would have happened to the great artists thousands of years ago if Yelp had existed? What if everyone complained that the wheel was a really bad idea, and gave it two stars, and the guy that had created it was like, well fuck, and threw in the towel? What if Picasso stopped at his Blue Period, because everyone groused that blue was such a depressing color? We’d have been robbed of so much.
Compose was your first executive chef experience, and you were only 23 at the time. Was it overwhelming to have so much responsibility at such a young age?
There were a lot of things that I can only judge in hindsight. The largest of which was that I wasn’t mature enough to know when to say no, and how to say no. In the moment, I was really enjoying myself. I had an incredible team, a beautiful space, wonderful products to work with. But I hadn’t matured enough to have my own style, so the menu was a bit of a hodgepodge. There was no true philosophy that was driving the food, no conviction to translate onto the plate. I also didn’t have the maturity to say that we were going in the wrong direction. Originally we wanted to create a bar, where we’d do 10 covers once a night for a tasting menu. But it started to morph and became more about the food. Which was awesome and really launched my career, but we had a tiny space where we were doing 16 courses for 24 people a night, plus an a la carte menu, out of this teeny tiny space. And all the stresses that eventually led to my departure were a product of that. It was something that got away from us and there was no way to rein it back in.
How did you go from doing avant-garde, New Nordic food at Acme to rustic, American fare at Rosette?
I grew up on the East Coast. So I’ve always thought that ingredients that are native to the region are so sensational, from all the seafood, to what grows wild and on farms. And Mads Refslund’s original idea for Acme was to take the tenets of New Nordic cuisine, but capture the flavors of the East Coast. Of course, being from Denmark, it was difficult for him to create food that felt American but was still, at its core, ‘Mads Refslund.’ And we had to use a lot of technology to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, because we had a really small kitchen space. So my joining Rosette happened pretty organically. It came from a desire to step away from Nordic food but keep using vegetables and respecting ingredients, of wanting to capture this region, but wanting and needing to do that on a more affordable and accessible level.
Talk to me about your concept for the menu at Rosette. It’s certainly a lot more approachable and straightforward than either Acme or Compose…
As I age and mature, so does my food. And yes, Rosette is a bit of a departure for me. The price point is significantly lower than what I’ve done previously and it’s much more of a casual setting. We want people to feel like they can come here two or three nights a week, but also strike that balance where it’s still a destination spot.
What dishes do you think really represent what you’re about at Rosette?
We have a big wood-burning oven, which we use for a lot of our proteins and vegetables. We get beautiful beets from the greenmarket that we cook in the embers for three hours, which brings out such a unique flavor. Generally, you cook beets in a medium, like water or butter or oil, but when you incorporate those other flavors, you sap out the true flavor of the beet. So when we cook the beets in the oven, they’re completely dry and unwrapped, and the intense heat fuels the beet and creates this ¼-inch thick wall of charcoal. As we cool the beets, they dehydrate and shrink, and all the flavor concentrates. It’s like cooking them in their own packaging. They have an intense, meaty texture, really developed sugars, and a natural acidity. And we just serve them simply with a fish sauce vinaigrette, a bit of onion cream for fattiness, elderberry or ramp capers for a little bit of brininess and textural crunch, and young celery leaves for freshness.
What are some of your favorite guilty pleasure foods?
I’ll never say no to a really great hamburger, that’s for sure. Domino’s Pizza, definitely. We can rag on junk foods all we want, but there’s a reason those guys make millions of dollars. It’s delicious trash. Anything from the cellars at Jasper Hill Farms; I will tank any piece of cheese you put in front of me. And I’m lactose intolerant, too! Salt and vinegar potato chips. I love going out to a beautiful meal and sitting down and being challenged by food, but at the end of the day, I just want to eat a hamburger and some chips and drink a beer.
You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner? And no, you can’t say both!
I don’t see why those two have to be separate. I feel like one always follows the other. Like, if you have a blowout dinner that’s not way heavy or over-fatty, sex should ultimately follow, if you’re going to go full hedonism.