Writing about food for the last decade, I’ve witnessed some extraordinary, independent behavior. I’ve followed a Swede who looked like Santa Claus deep into the woods to find rare plants with the intention of him selling them to Noma, one of the best restaurants in the world. I’ve climbed into the Andes, trailing a Peruvian chef, losing my breath but thrilled to see him harvesting a host of ingredients that had been forgotten by time. From a small fishing boat at a location I’ve sworn to keep secret, I’ve even helped a chef haul traps of precious shellfish from the bottom of a stormy sea. He could have just called a fish guy. Instead, he chose to redefine the supply chain.
Each of these journeys were lead by people consumed by a quest for hard to reach flavors, so much so that no normal path would do. Watching them, I’ve come to wonder: What is the relationship between breaking the rules and making things delicious?
This month, on Prince Street, we set out to explore just that. We’re always looking for food-culture stories about the adventurous, the elegant and the seemingly impossible, but for our 4th episode, we’re telling these tales through the lens of rule breakers, people whose distinct vision has helped change culture and who, in the process, have made the food on our plates all the more compelling.
Katz’s Deli, a mecca for pastrami and pickles on New York’s Lower East Side, has been strategically trailblazing—under the cover of tradition—since 1888. Our own Noah Bernamoff sits down with his “brother in deli,” Katz’s owner Jake Dell to revisit his family’s original, shocking act of insubordination and the 128 year-old rule Dell intends on smashing this fall.
About a century after Katz’s opened its doors, another unexpected rule breaker emerged. In 1987, Ruth Rogers, of London’s River Cafe (full disclosure: that’s one of my 5 favorite restaurants in the world; check back over the coming months and I’ll reveal the other 4), didn’t set out to push so firmly against the grain—she just wanted to open a place that offered the kind of family meals she ate in Italy—but that’s exactly what she ended up doing. With a good friend as her partner and, she says, “the confidence from naiveté,” Rogers, unconcerned with location, food fads or even permits, altered the course of dining in London. By training chefs like April Bloomfield and Jamie Oliver, she’s also played a role in changing how people think about food all over the world.
Chefs like Bun Lai, Elise Kornack and Mike Solomonov represent a new wave of mavericks. Lai cares deeply about the state of our oceans, which is an inconvenient concern for a 2nd generation sushi chef. He’s turning to some of the strangest ingredients I’ve ever heard of to make sushi a more sustainable cuisine. Kornack, and her wife, Anna Hieronimus are so audacious, their Brooklyn-based 12-seater, Take Root forces you to reconsider what you think of as a restaurant, and makes a radical suggestion: maybe the customers are not always right after all. And Solomonov, at his Philadelphia flagship, Zahav and other restaurants like the newly opened Dizengoff NYC, has achieved something that’s never been done: he’s made Israeli cuisine cool in America.
Each one of these stories makes the case: break the rules, and things get interesting.