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Q & A with Chef About Town Ryan Skeen

ryanskeenFor better of worse, Ryan Skeen’s reputation tends to precede him.  While his talent has never been disputed — Frank Bruni applauded his ability to dabble in many different cuisines, while Adam Platt praised his finesse with all things meat —he’s publically ping-ponged between six different restaurants (V, Resto, Irving Mill, Allen & Delancey, Fish Tag, & Pera Soho), in just as many years.  Which would make a particularly juicy bit of industry gossip if all of the stories about his crash-and-burn departures were entirely true.

“It’s been incorrectly reported that I jump around.  I actually haven’t been the chef at any restaurant since Allen & Delancey in 2009,” maintains Skeen.  “Everything else has been a consulting project.  Because the more I work towards opening my own restaurant, the more I affirm to myself that I can’t get seriously involved with places that don’t have their shit together and don’t care about what they’re doing.”

While Skeen’s reputation as a runaway chef may have been a tad overblown, he’s certainly done his bit to cultivate his legendary bad boy persona, and readily admits he can be a real son of a bitch in the kitchen.  “When I worked in California, I had at least four complaints levied against me to HR in the first few months about how I treated the staff,” Skeen interjects somewhat proudly.  “Chefs claimed they’d start having panic attacks the second they walked in the kitchen.  Just ridiculous stuff.”

We caught up with the uncensored Skeen at his current consulting gig at Los Americanos in Tribeca to get the scoop on some of his most notorious industry feuds, why he’s unimpressed with the newest crop of New York restaurants, and his plans for a restaurant of his own.

Single/Married/Divorced?
I’ve been engaged for a month.  She’s a restaurant manager.

Did you always want to be a chef when you grew up?
Pretty much since I was 16 years old.

What job would you say really kick started your career?
As silly as it sounds, it was probably when I worked at a sports bar and grill.  The chef basically let me and two other 16-year-olds run the place, so as you can imagine, there was a bong in the walk-in and things of that nature.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
It was probably from Daniel Patterson in California.  He told me that you have to know what you want to give to this industry and what you want to take from this industry, or else it’s going to eat you alive.

You mentioned in an interview that your mom was intimidating.  Can you elaborate?  Has that helped you or hurt you?
A little of both, probably.  She was a business professor.  And it wound up making me kind of emotionless most of the time when it comes to other people’s feelings.  But that’s good in the kitchen; it helps you make quick, bold decisions.  I’ve also seen the error of my ways and softened up a little bit, too. 

You’ve obviously moved around a lot in the last few years.  Why do you think that you haven’t found your “home” yet in a kitchen?
Even though I’ve only been doing consulting work since Allen & Delancey, each move I’ve made has been labeled as a chef shuffle.  And I’ve actually loved a lot of the places I worked at, like Resto.  They’re great guys and it’s a great restaurant.  I just didn’t want to get tied down in anyone else’s business, because I was already formulating ideas for my own restaurant.  And basically, that’s how it’s gone.  Irving Mill was nice; unfortunately, the owners didn’t have their shit together and the food costs were crazy.  So the idea of going in as a consultant instead, and helping struggling restaurants figure that stuff out has been very appealing to me. 

You’ve described Allen & Delancey as being “pure evil.”  Were there any warning signs for you going in?
Definitely; there were a lot of rumors floating around, especially about how the owner, Dick, had treated the first chef.  So that was a concern of mine.  But originally, in all honesty, I went in there to buy him out.  And about two months in, I found out that Dick had defaulted on the lease; he didn’t even own the space anymore.  And when my lawyer started drawing up paperwork to buy the restaurant from the original owner, Dick changed the locks on the door and kicked us out.

So what made you decide to sign on to work at Los Americanos?
A good friend of mine, Gerard, is involved with this restaurant, and he asked me to come down and take a look.  So I did, four or five weeks ago.  And we changed the menu around, fixed food costs in the back of house, stuff like that.  A lot of restaurant owners think that all you have to do to be successful is open your doors and hire a bunch of people, but if you’re not structured to be profitable in the first place, you start losing money on a regular basis.

What are some specific changes you made?
Actually, the first time I ate here, I thought the food was good for what it needs to be.  We’re not trying to reinvent the taco.  But there were some problems with execution.  A major misconception about Latin food is that no technique goes into it.

What are some dishes that you’re particularly excited about?
The Ceviches, especially the Bass and Red Snapper Ceviches.  I like the Spiced Beef Ribs.  The Peruvian Roast Chicken.

Do you have any prior experience with Latin American cuisine?
Absolutely zero.  I’ve done a lot of cuisines; all I need now is to sign on at a cheap Chinese restaurant to complete the circle.  But I had no Belgian experience when I helped open Resto.  I just did a lot of research and studied.  And honestly, there’s not one restaurant in this city that serves authentic cuisine.  Not even Daniel serves authentic French cuisine.  It’s all Manhattan-influenced cuisine.  And you can’t do traditional Brazilian dishes in Tribeca.  You have to modernize everything; make it more approachable to the Manhattan palate.

Ever think of moving to the West Coast and starting with a clean slate?  What keeps you in New York?
I’m from the West Coast originally, and I love it.  When I was 25, after working for Jean-Georges, I moved back to Napa.  I worked at a restaurant there for eight months, and then at a place in Carmel for another year, in a 20-seat chateau.  It’s definitely a different pace of life.  But I was pulling my hair out.  I was bored.  And coming out of Daniel Boulud and Jean-George’s kitchens, the laid back mentality you find in California was a lot to get used to. They work differently.  It’s more “stop and smell the roses, look how beautiful this pea plant is,” whereas in New York, it’s more “shut the fuck up and get on line.”  But on the flipside, when I moved to New York from San Francisco early on in my career, I’d get torn a new asshole if I sent back a case of less than great fava beans, whereas in California, Dan Patterson would have slapped me upside the head for accepting them.  And when I came here I had serious wine knowledge, because in California you had to.  And not a single chef I worked with in New York drank wine or knew a single thing about it.  It’s just two different learning patterns and styles, being an East or West Coast chef.  But at this point, I couldn’t imagine living or working anywhere else but in New York.

It sounds like you were disappointed with your experience at Jean-Georges’s V.  Why?  What went wrong there?
No comment.  I have nothing good to say about him or that restaurant.

What neighborhood do you live in and what are some of your favorite neighborhood spots? 
Harlem.  But it’s so sad.  I worked with a place once that was doing really nice food, but it didn’t last.  The community just isn’t supporting higher quality restaurants.  It’s a strange dynamic there right now; you have luxury apartment complexes going up right next to soup kitchens.

What are some of your favorite new restaurants in the city in general? 
I wish I could say I was excited about the new restaurants I’ve eaten in.  Goat Town is an amazing restaurant, because it’s always consistent and they have great staff.  I like Mighty Quinn’s.  But I think the problem with a lot of these new restaurants is the young chefs are essentially running a test kitchen with customers.  I’ve been to two restaurants in this neighborhood that got two stars from Pete Wells in the Times, and I wanted to leave after my second course.  The menus are an interesting read, listing odd ingredients from all over the place, but the dishes just don’t work.  Although I will say that the wine programs at both of those places were exceptional.

So forget about new places, what tried-and-true restaurants keep you coming back?
Anissa, Lupa, Aldea and Goat Town.

Are you still actively looking to open your own restaurant?  If so, can you tell us more about it?
It’ll be an American Brasserie, somewhere in SoHo.  It will have French and European accents to it.  Hopefully, it will be open by the fall.  We were shooting for May, but ended up having some issues with leases.  The business plan has been in the works for about five years.

You’re on your deathbed, would you pick food or sex?  And no you can’t have both.
What about one of those naked women with sushi on them?  Does that work?  If not, provided Sushi Yasuda could come over, and I could have an omakase meal made by Yasuda himself, I’d go with dinner.

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