It’s clear that Brooklyn’s food scene is burgeoning, but lately
our chefs are being recognized outside the borough for their
artistry in the kitchen.
While there are success stories like Alan Harding, who has
been deemed the pioneering hero of Smith Street, and Neil Ganic,
who was recently recognized by a national organization for his
culinary prowess at La Bouillabaisse, there are lessons to be
learned from Sterling Smith’s story. Recruited from one of Manhattan’s
top restaurants, Smith lost both his job and the original recipes
he created for Montague Street’s La Bouchee, after the owner
decided his creations were too pricey.
Read on for more news from inside Brooklyn’s kitchens.
Chef Alan Harding, the man credited with sparking the Smith
Street restaurant revolution, will be one of the featured contestants
on the cable Food Network’s "Ready Set Cook!," to be
aired Thursday, April 5 at 6 pm.
Harding, who arrived on Smith Street in 1997, is co-owner
of Uncle Pho and Patois of Smith Street and Red Rail of Henry
Street. The chef is a worthy contestant to represent our borough
on the popular food game show hosted by British chef-comic Ainsley
The TV program challenges two professional chefs to create
a meal in 18 minutes using ingredients revealed at the beginning
of the show. The chefs each receive a volunteer sous chef from
the audience to assist in their battle for the coveted "Golden
Toque" medal. (The toque is a chef’s hat.)
"This show is like the ultimate Culinary Olympics,"
explains the garrulous Harriott, "Combining all the best
elements of a sporting event with creativity of cooking – with
only one champion coming out on top."
"It was great fun. You never really get a chance to compete
with another chef – like other sporting events," said Harding
of the taping. "When you’re in a restaurant and busy and
serving a lot of meals to your customers, the only challenge
is new and interesting ways to cook food."
On the show, you "do that and make sure it’s going to
be better than the person you’re competing against."
The episode that Harding took part in is called "Scream
Cuisine." When the secret ingredients are revealed to the
chefs – just before the clock begins ticking – they’re looking
at a platter full of ugly, unusual foods: spiny lobster, leeks,
seaweed, Israeli cous cous and rambutan – a southeast Asian fruit
with soft spines.
As the clock winds down, Harriott continuously interrupts
the chefs and invites them to chat about themselves while they’re
desperately trying to prepare tasty, complicated sauces.
"[The show] allows a chef to get out of the kitchen and
get in front of the camera," said Harding. "A lot of
people don’t know who the chef is cooking their food – don’t
know anything about the chef."
GO Brooklyn won’t tell you who wins, but the show does fan
the flames of audience anxiety – becoming edge-of-your-seat entertainment
after just a few minutes.
"They were worthy adversaries," Harding said of
his competitors, chef Amy Chamberlain of The Perfect Wife in
Manchester, Vt., and her audience member sous chef Ronald Hughes.
After the time has elapsed, the chefs must present their dishes
to a panel of tasters.
"It all boils down to not what you like and what would
sell, but what would the tasters like?" explained Harding.
"My greatest compliment for the show is [the focus is] not
how the food looks but how it tastes that’s really important."
"Ready Set Cook" airs daily on the Food Network
at 6 pm. For more information, visit www.foodtv.com on the Web.
Heights chef canned
When chef Sterling Smith left his post at 1 CPS in Manhattan
to be the head chef of Bruce Mendez’s Tin Room restaurant in
December, he thought it would be a long-term association that
would enable him to one day open a restaurant of his own.
Smith brought all of his experience earned at Manhattan’s
top restaurants – Lespinasse, 1 CPS and Tocqueville – to bear
on his new Brooklyn position. At the Tin Room, he scrapped the
Italian menu and invented a French one.
To reflect Smith’s new cuisine, the Tin Room, at 136 Montague St. in
Brooklyn Heights, changed its name to La Bouchee, "the mouthful,"
two weeks ago. The critics, including GO
Brooklyn, arrived and reviewed Smith’s new menu.
On Sunday, Mendez called Smith at his home and fired him.
"We had very good reviews," Smith told GO Brooklyn
Monday. "The plates were always coming back [to the kitchen]
clean." Despite this, he said, Mendez told him he could
no longer afford to pay him.
"I turned the whole place around into a sophisticated
restaurant with a wonderful clientele," said Smith. "They’ve
never had anything – just a simple Italian restaurant knowledge."
Smith claims that despite his dismissal, Mendez told him he
would continue to use his recipes and menu.
Mendez told GO Brooklyn he would "transition" Smith’s
menu over time to be "classic French instead of French-American."
But Smith said he doesn’t want Mendez to use his original
recipes, and continue to bank on his good name, now that he’s
"Because of me they changed the name, made it more formal
– all of the improvements were made at my suggestion," said
Smith. But it’s the loss of his original recipes that have the
Smith is particularly proud of his coffee-glazed Long Island
duck with sweet potato gratin, haricots vert and coffee-duck
"The duck is one of my complete signature dishes. I worked
on it – the ingredients and the preparation," said Smith.
"With a background such as I have, you do it over and over
and over, always checking everything." Smith explained that
he had his recipes written down at the restaurant and he fears
another cook is preparing the same dishes to his specifications
while he’s home and out of work.
Smith’s firing raises the question of just what right a restaurateur
has to a chef’s original recipes.
According to local legal experts, without a contract, the
chef has no rights and the restaurant owner has them all.
Brooklyn Heights attorney Richard Klass explains, "Whatever
work an employee does on behalf of the employer, unless they
had an agreement that they were his, all this work belongs to
the employer." The only protection a "key person or
higher-paid person" has is to sign "a specific employment
contract with their employer to protect each side," Klass
Currently, Smith is seeking legal counsel, which he points
out is exorbitantly expensive. Besides, Smith said, if he had
that kind of money in the first place, he would have opened his
own restaurant and not accepted the head chef position under
someone else’s employ.
Mendez said he was in the process of hiring a new chef. He
terminated Smith’s employment, he said, because, "I didn’t
like some of the food. And the pricing was too high also – wrong
for the market."
According to Joe Chirico, founder and president of the Brooklyn
Restaurant Association, in this biz it’s common for recipes to
be passed down.
"Everybody has got his own recipe," said Chirico,
doubting that if another chef is hired at La Bouchee they would
want to use Smith’s recipes, preferring to use or create their
own. "And anybody who trains with a great chef can take
a recipe with them when they leave – maybe change the name or
an ingredient here or there."
"Sometimes, the chef thinks they’re Michelangelo,"
said Chirico, who owns both Gage & Tollner Downtown and Marco
Polo in Carroll Gardens.
"The cook can never do the same recipe as the chef,"
Chirico conceded, adding that although Smith can’t take his menu
with him, he can continue to use his own recipes in another kitchen.
Smith Street chef and owner Alan Harding (Uncle Pho, Patois),
agreed with Klass that unless Smith had a legal document protecting
him from untimely dismissal and specifying his ownership of the
recipes, he did not have any rights to his work.
"But if the owner hired the chef, did the changeover
to get a review and then disposed of him, to me, that’s scurrilous,"
"Who knows what the story is there? On the other hand,
if the owner entered into an agreement that he believed was mutually
equitable and the chef insists on five cooks in the kitchen when
three cooks used to do the job and the salmon is priced at $12.50
and it costs $11.95 to put it on the plate, there’s a problem.
"You are dealing with art and commerce here," said
Harding. "Unfortunately they have to coexist."
Ganic gets the gold
Chef-owner Neil Ganic of La Bouillabaisse restaurant on Atlantic
Avenue received the "American Tasting Award of Culinary
Excellence" as part of the Awards of the Americas’ 15th
annual American Gold Medal Food and Beverage Awards last month.
The weekend-long celebration featured events at Carnegie Hall
and the Jacob Javits Center from March 5 through March 7.
Ganic opened La Bouillabaisse at 145 Atlantic Ave. between
Henry and Clinton streets in 1993 with his wife, Amanda Green.
According to Awards of the Americas (AOTA) spokeswoman Corene
Oustad, Ganic won the 2001 American Culinary Award because he
was "nominated by chefs in the area either for his reputation
as a restaurant or as a chef."
"I am the only chef in Brooklyn to win the award, and
one of six in New York," explained Ganic. "It’s actually
like winning a trophy – like winning the Oscar."
The AOTA is a San Francisco-based organization overseen by
master taster Jesse Sartain. The private organization is "devoted
to benefiting consumers and commercial buyers by merchandising
America’s best products."
For more information visit www.awardsamericas.com on the Web.
For more information about La Bouillabaisse, call (718) 522-8275.