In an Italian home, there is almost no more important culinary art than making “sauce”. It is an art, because in reality there is no set standard for what goes in it. Ask any Italian grandmother, “What’s in the sauce?” and the answer will range from ingredients, to technique, to process, and even to the cultural or personal history that led to the recipe. ”What’s in the Sauce?” is a deeper question then it seems on the surface. When looking for a name for our restaurant/eatery profile series, we quickly realized we didn’t want to just write your standard review. We wanted to be able to discuss whatever attributes of a particular venue made it special, from the design, to the atmosphere, to the story behind it all, to, most obviously, the food. “What’s in the Sauce?” is our way of exploring some of our favorite restaurants, bars, and eateries and uncovering what about them makes them not just great, but unique. No two profiles will be done the same, because each venue’s story isn’t the same. However, just like making sauce, there is no one way to make it, the important part is what makes yours just a little bit different.
What’s in the Sauce with Dan Kluger: ABC’s of Cooking
Going into my interview with Dan Kluger, I was a bit nervous, to say the least. While we have done a few of these interviews with top NYC chefs prior, something about this felt different – it felt more prestigious. Dan Kluger isn’t just the chef of a cool restaurant; he’s the Executive Chef of Jean Georges’ ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina! I had heard he was cool and down-to-earth, but I still just had this expectation that he would dive into complex cooking techniques that would sound like a foreign language to me. I expected to feel like I was in over my head. However, Chef Dan didn’t let that happen, because that’s not really how he approaches cooking.
For the first 15 minutes of my time with Chef Dan, our entire conversation revolved around ABC Kitchen’s butternut squash dish. At the moment, this wasn’t just Dan’s favorite dish, but also the dish he felt most embodied what ABC Kitchen was all about. Butternut squash is a simple ingredient that through excellent sourcing and great foundational cooking skill, Dan is able to elicit the most amazing flavor and texture. Like great minimalist design, there is a level of simplicity to Dan’s cooking that gives it it’s elegance. There are no excess flavors or ingredients that feel too obscure or forced. Every dish, like the butternut squash, is elegantly simple but technically perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there is a flare and a creativity to the cuisine, but it’s just rooted in simplicity. It’s actually very a traditionally French culinary trait; to want to find the best ingredients and then do as little as possible to bring out the essence of their flavors. It’s almost as though Chef Dan didn’t learn cooking in an academic way, but rather in a more organic way; oh wait… that’s pretty much how he did learn to cook.
Even though Dan grew up around food, learning to bake the croissants at a family friend’s bakery by the age of 8, for some reason culinary school was never part of Dan’s plan. He went to Syracuse and studied nutrition and hospitality, and while he took internships at Danny Meyer’s restaurant group, it was always in the front of the house. However, Dan’s love for food and cooking always led him to hang around the kitchen. At first he was just watching and listening – out of a personal interest and passion – but eventually Dan asked if he could take a job on the line. Over the next few years Dan, whether he knew he was doing it or not, was becoming a chef through the art of apprenticeship. From Union Square Café, to Floyd Cordoz’s Tabla, to Tom Collichio’s Core Club, Dan kept taking small steps and absorbing the detail and importance of every step along the way. In a weird way, his lack of formal education, in my opinion, actually helped his development.
In the culinary world, many chefs graduate from culinary school feeling ready to run a kitchen, but begrudgingly accept a position on the line because, “that’s what you have to do.” Most of these chefs see their time on the line as purely a stepping stone, rather than a learning experience. Because their eyes are already focused on the next step, they don’t really perfect the details of the stage they are in at that moment. Dan, on the other hand, was aware of all that he didn’t know and took advantage of that. Every moment Dan was in the kitchen he appreciated, and he saw that time as an opportunity to learn. Whether it was prepping vegetables or running the expo line, Dan was going to learn how to do something perfectly and then repeat it. In fact, Dan more than likely broke through Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours barrier before he ever left to work at Tabla, but that never dulled his drive to learn. It’s this combination of work ethic, humility, and passion that comes across so vividly in his cooking. You can’t get away with simple elegance if it’s not executed perfectly and consistently.
Every detail of ABC Kitchen, down to the place settings, have been picked and prepared with the utmost attention. The interiors are simple, reminiscent of an outdoor café you might find at a vineyard in the south of France; but with subtle flairs like the tree that grows through the atrium bar area. The service staff provide all the traits you’d expect from a 5-Star dining experience but in a cool, casual very easy going way. The atmosphere seems to mimic this effortless coolness. From tables of families, to girls out for a brunch, to Kanye & Kim coming in for a late lunch, the restaurant blends crowds amazingly well and without ever creating a “scene”. I think in this simple perfection or humble elegance lies the reason that ABC Kitchen hasn’t ever and won’t ever become one of those “scene” restaurants that fades away after a few years. It never feels like anything is “trying too hard” to be cool, or chic, or classy. Everything just is!
One of the founding principles of just being great or cool, is a grounded understanding of where you came from to get someplace. In a metaphoric kind of way, it makes sense that Chef Dan takes such pride in the sourcing of his menu. A market to table restaurant, ABC Kitchen’s attention to detail starts way before the kitchen gets a hold of it. Dan Kluger learned about the value of small farm sourcing by walking the markets with Floyd Cordoz during his years at Tabla. He learned not how to shop for ingredients to make a meal, but how to let the selection of ingredients available dictate what the menu might be. It’s a subtle but important difference that allows for the quality of the ingredients never to be sacrificed. It’s really a simple equation: Great fresh products + An understanding of flavor combinations + Perfect Preparation = An Amazing Meal.
It was an amazing experience getting to meet Chef Dan Kluger, and learn so much about what goes into creating and running one of New York’s best restaurants. The thing that I walked away feeling the most was a sense of ownership and potential. That if you enjoy something, and take pride in mastering the art of the craft, you can achieve the highest levels of success. It is a simple belief but an important one. ABC Kitchen isn’t a great restaurant because it’s doing never before done things in the art of cooking. It’s a great restaurant because it has brought fine dining back to the basic mastery of cooking and bringing the most flavor out of the products we have at our resource. All respect in the world to the legend, Chef Jean George, but I think that ABC Kitchen has become the wonderful entity that it is, because it exudes the qualities and personality that Chef Dan Kluger brought with him. A humble elegance.
After tasting a few of the dishes at ABC Kitchen, one of my favorites was the squash on toast. I loved it so much I decided to try making it at home. Head on over to Pretty in Pistachio if you want to see how it came out!