09/15/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Conversation With April Bloomfield


My first taste of April Bloomfield's food came when I visited the John Dory Oyster Bar with my friend Jeremiah Tower. Neither of us had been to the oyster bar before, but the atmosphere proved cool and lax, and the food clean and sophisticated.

Recently, I learned Bloomfield had spent a summer laboring at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, where she familiarized herself with American spices and herbs in preparation for the debut of her first New York City restaurant, which was to be called The Spotted Pig.

After a decade in the Big Apple, she's finally claimed a James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York City. I sat down with Bloomfield to discuss her future plans and growing culinary empire.

I first have to ask you what it was like working that first summer at Chez Panisse--there's a long line of fantastic chefs that now include you in its lineage, and I'm wondering what your experience was like in that kitchen.

Wow, that's very nice and generous of you to say. I was only there three months, but it was one of my dreams to go work at Chez Panisse. I've read Alice's cookbooks and I could connect with her cookbooks through her writings. And you know, I tried to get there with any means possible. I had a couple of options. I had a couple of people that knew somebody that worked there. So, I tried a couple of times and nothing came through and finally I did it, I did get through. Probably like a year after trying to get there to work. So basically, I wanted to take a pilgrimage to Chez Panisse.

I wanted just to learn firsthand after reading the books, exactly what it was like. So you know, not the whole experience really, I think it was just a very, very familiar and comforting environment to work in. Just having the produce that they had and seeing it, to be able to touch it and cook with it, just blew my mind. And actually, I got to cook in the line, which I never in a million years would have thought, through some unfortunate accident that one of their chefs had, through him unfortunately having this accident, I ended up cooking. Which was great for me. Fortunately, he fully recovered. But yeah, it was a mind blowing experience. I mean, I had to pinch myself every day, cooking on the line, to check to see, to figure out if it was real or not.

Coming from the River Cafe, what was that transition like for you? I could imagine different ingredients, spices, regionalities, that were in the kitchen.

I think the transition coming from the River Cafe to New York was a little easier after visiting Chez Panisse. You know, that kind of California, cool, laidback, fun feel, was kind of a good introduction to the busy, hectic New York lifestyle. I think if I'd probably not done San Francisco first and fell in love with San Francisco, I probably would have got to New York and been like, "What the hell is going on?" So I think that was a good introduction from the River Cafe, San Francisco, Chez Panisse, to New York.

Can you believe it's been so long since you first came to New York in 2003 to start The Spotted Pig?

I can't believe it at all actually. I really didn't know what I was thinking when I took the job to be chef and owner of The Spotted Pig. I probably just thought that maybe I would do like two years and see how it goes. But yeah, ten years has flown by. I mean, it just goes back to all these chefs that move around me. They only give like six months here and there. Really, I mean, ten years on and we're probably only in the adolescent stage right now. So restaurants grow with time, and you know, it's important for them to keep growing. I can't imagine where we'll be, hopefully, when we've touched twenty years' time. But if we're lucky, we'll be there to see it.

And perhaps a few more James Beard awards along the way?

My ultimate goal is to make delicious food and to be super professional in the way that I do it. I like to be organized and clean. I like to be efficient. But at the end of the day, I like to cook just really, really tasty food. And to make people happy. There's nothing that gives me more pleasure than to look at one of my restaurants and see happy diners, licking their knives and forks and plates, and be satisfied finishing a dish. Or just having fun in general really. People smiling, drinking, coming together--that really just kind of satisfies me. That's my ultimate goal: to cook food for people that really enjoy eating.

Do you find that some of the people that you cook for, whether they are in the UK or the United States, that they have a different palate? Do UK diners have a different palate than an American diner?

I don't think there's a different palate or taste in comparison to New York or US than England. I mean, I was quite surprised how open people in New York were. I think my food is simple, clean, and rustic, but people seem to think that it's quite revolutionary at the same time. Which is, you know, kind of something you don't really think about. I think that the Americans that I cook for in New York, really took like a duck to water to all the offal I was cooking. Which, you know, was fun! It's nice to be able to cook the food you like and for people to devour it, and enjoy it, and appreciate it for what it is.

I was looking through your cookbook, and I've never really had this experience with a cookbook before, where I felt like I could open the book, and want to eat every dish that was there. There was not one dish that I said that I would not try.

You're just full of compliments today, aren't you, Gary? Well, that's very nice. I wanted to make a cookbook that people would use. I give my professional tips in there. And you know, it's very much my voice, very much how I teach my cooks and my staff, and my only hope was that it would translate and that people would absorb them and enjoy them. And I think that that has been the case, so I feel very privileged that that has happened and that people are cooking from it and learning from it. That kind of inspires me to get feedback, to keep pushing and keep getting better as a chef.

Do you find that there are other chefs--because you've gotten the chance to work with a lot of different people--do you find that there are particular types of chefs that are most complimentary to your styles?

Yeah, I have my people and my friends that I like to cook with on a regular basis. You know, like Nancy Silverton, Mary Sue Milliken, Suzanne Goin, we do a lot of charities for Alex's Lemonade, so it's always fun to kind of just be in that environment and share that moment with them. But you know, I've also managed to cook alongside Daniel Humm and Paul Liebrandt, and that's quite different because of their technique and their style, which is on the other side of the coin to mine. But it's nice to kind of be outside your comfort zone sometimes, and feel uncomfortable. And I think when you feel uncomfortable, that's when you're really out of your element and you know that you're absorbing something new and you're learning.

Paul Liebrandt: a very modernist type approach to French cuisine.

But it's nice that it is quite modernist and a little bit molecular and probably not as much as Wylie but kind of nice because it helps me think outside the box. And then I'll probably do something that I wouldn't normally do. So that gives me a chance to experiment and to just have fun and play around with it. Sometimes things work, and sometimes things don't work, and that just excels you a little bit more to try and figure it out until there is something super delicious and works.

Speaking of them, will you go to an Alder, one of Wylie's restaurants, or to The Elm, Paul Liebrandt? Is there a particular type of food that you like to eat the most or would say is sort of the pinnacle of restaurants in New York?

I just love just rustic, soulful food. And if I find a place that I really like or I particularly like the vibrancy, and the clean flavors--it's got to be a restaurant that really hits my soul to keep going back. It's really got to grab some kind of, something inside me, and shake me a little bit. But yeah, I appreciate all restaurants. I like local, kind of down home-y places that really kind of satisfy my soul and my palate.

I'm granted one wacky question per interview. And I usually ask all of the chefs and cooks that I interview this one question--you're at a dinner party, a huge food fight breaks out, what is your weapon of choice?

Probably some cream. Anything that's super messy. If I was to daydream a little bit, and think about how I would like to dispense the cream, if I could have this imaginary machine like a big vacuum cleaner that would suck up the cream and spray it all over them, that would be even better, wouldn't it? A bit smelly after a while, that cream too.

What kind of advice would you give to somebody who is growing up in the food industry now and aspires to blaze a trail like yours?

I would give the advice: just keep your head down. Work really, really hard. Absorb, be a sponge. Listen, be quiet. Push every day, even when the going gets tough. Sometimes when the going gets tough, you might feel like you can't cope or you're not doing a great job, but it's the getting through that kind of painful part that makes you grow. And just taste, taste, taste. It's the only way that you're going to become a great chef--is if you taste and adjust and then you taste again.

So you've had those breaking moments in the kitchen before?

I think I've probably had many. It's not easy cooking. You go through many emotions. You'll probably go through emotions like, "I'm not good enough" or "Gosh, how am I ever going to get food out of this massive kick? I'm going to go down," but it's the pushing and just getting through it, and every time you get through those difficult moments, you're building up this muscle, this memory muscle, and things get easier. And it just alleviates all the stress. If you're the type of person to give up and not push through the pain, with whatever it might be, if your boss is yelling at you, you're just going to come out stronger in the end instead of just giving up. That's how I see it.

There's nothing more satisfying than getting through a busy service, you're sweating, and you've probably burnt yourself a couple of times but wow, how amazing it is to work hard and feel satisfied at the end of the day. I'd rather work hard than be somebody lazy, you know, that's doesn't have any motivation. Keep persevering and the hard work will pay off.

I'm sure everybody asks you whether you will open another restaurant in the future but where do you see yourself in maybe five to ten years, do you think?

You know, I've never really been one to plan my life. I think things have just worked out the way they worked out. I've never really been one to have a five year plan or a ten year plan, so I'm not quite sure as to what the future has to hold. I do have a couple of concepts that I have in my mind that I would like to work on, whether they come to fruition, I'm not sure. What I am doing right now is concentrating on all my restaurants that I have you know, make sure that my employees are happy and comfortable, that my customers are enjoying delicious food every day, and you know, hopefully they can come back and that it's going to be the same every time they come back. And you know, I've got a new cookbook, A Girl and Her Greens, coming out next March, so that's all done, and I'm going to concentrate on promoting and pushing that.

(Photo courtesy Melanie Dunea)