Industry Insiders: Chef Ed Cotton, Running the Market

Laurent Tourondel has passed a gastronomically reputable torch to Chef Ed Cotton to run BLT Market, Tourondel’s kitchen of the Upper West Side’s Ritz-Carlton-based restaurant. A fresh blend of market-inspired delights is what this Boston-bred chef brings to the table. After years creating delectable dishes at Daniel and Veritas, as well as working the ovens of the lightening fast-paced Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef America, Chef Ed’s dishes brings new meaning to your average food shopping at the market.

What do you do as chef de cuisine at BLT Market? I’m in charge of running a kitchen with a crew of 12 people. I do all of the ordering and purchasing. I try to find the freshest ingredients and produce. I run service and control the pass. The pass is where the tickets come in, so I can call out the orders, orchestrate them, and then assemble everything on the plates.

How do you go about designing the menu? Laurent and I meet every season and go over what foods are in their peak for that time of year, their availability, and what’s cool. One of us will have gone out to dinner, and we’ll say, “I tasted this great cheese, and it’s from Hudson Valley, and I want you to try it.” We try to find local farmers who are really passionate about their products. We go over the menus and discuss every detail together. I listen to him and he listens to me until we come up with something.

Describe the cuisine of BLT Market. French/American bistro. The name of the restaurant is BLT Market, so it’s definitely market-driven.

What is your favorite dish on the menu at the moment? Right now, I’m doing a house-made spicy lamb sausage with broccoli rabe, pomodoro sauce, and rigatoni. I like making pastas. That dish is brand new, so I’m really excited about it.

What sort of clientele frequents BLT Market? Tony Bennett comes in here a lot. We have a large amount of the Ritz-Carlton hotel guests who come down from their rooms too. Mainly, it’s the Upper East Siders.

How’d you get your start in the restaurant business? I’m a second-generation chef. My father graduated from same culinary school as I did, the Culinary Institute of America. He was an executive chef outside of Boston while I was growing up. So, I basically grew up in the kitchen.

What was the first restaurant you worked in, in New York City? I worked for a lady named Patricia Yo who owned two restaurants, AZ and Pazzo. It’s ironic because now those two restaurants are BLT Fish and BLT Steak.

How’d you get your position as sous chef to Cat Cora on Iron Chef America? When I was cooking at Daniel years ago, a good friend of mine who was working for Iron Chef told me Cat was looking for a replacement. I emailed my resume to Cat’s assistant, and literally 15 minutes later, they called and said, “It looks great. Do you want to meet Cat?” I met with her and have been on the show now for three years

What’s it like cooking on television? After watching the show for such a long time, to actually be in Kitchen Stadium was kind of weird. I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually here.” I was super nervous the first time, but then you get used to these guys running around with cameras while you’re cooking, and cables all over the place. I’m really comfortable with it now.

Favorite restaurants in New York? After work, I like to go to Landmarc in the Time Warner building because it turns into an industry hangout after my working hours. There are so many people that work late that go there. They have a great wine list. I also like going to Nougatine at Jean Georges for lunch. It’s a great deal, and the food is super tasty and awesome.

Who do you admire in the industry? Guy Savoy. He’s a very well-known chef, and he is super-talented. I had the privilege of eating at Guy Savoy in Las Vegas with my old boss Daniel Boulud, and it was a really memorable meal.

What are some positive trends that you’ve seen recently in the hospitality industry? The food styles keep changing. The way food styles keep evolving is the reason why I moved to New York from Boston. There are so many different restaurants. I don’t know if that even answers your question, but it’s true.

Any negative trends? Everybody is doing molecular gastronomy. I do respect it, and I’ll even use a little of it. But as far as using powders and chemicals, I’m not a fan of it.

What is something that people might not know about that goes on in the kitchen of a restaurant? Before service we always get together to talk and brief each other about what is going on that night, like how many reservations there are and how many are VIPs coming in. Here at BLT, between the front of the house and the back of the house, we always have a little pre-meal staff meeting to try and let everyone in on what’s going on.

What do you do for fun when you aren’t in the kitchen? When the weather is beautiful, I’ve been going to Central Park for the whole day and just hanging out and relaxing. Also, I obviously like to go out to dinner a lot.

What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs? I’d say you have to really, really love it. You can’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I want to be a chef.” It really has to come from the heart. You were born with this feeling that cooking is what you want to do. Young aspiring chefs should understand you’ve got to work a lot of long hours, and it’s hot in the kitchen. But you know what? If you really want it, absorb all of that and just do it. Have fun and don’t get discouraged. Keep asking questions and always listen to people with experience. Be a sponge.

What’s your dream spot for a project? I’m torn between NYC and Boston because I really love to be challenged, and New York is definitely a challenging city. Restaurants open and they close, they open and they close. But I could go back home to Boston where it’s a smaller scene, so it might be a bit easier to have a successful restaurant. I just want a cool, funky, straightforward restaurant that serves well-executed food. I want it to be fun and not pretentious with a great wine list. I’d say French/Italian food with handmade pastas. A very industrial-looking place instead of soft seats and plush leather.

The Bruni Breakdown: Our Guide to Frank Bruni’s Guide to Recession Dining

You could read all of Frank Bruni’s article (and supplemental blog post) on the sad ways restaurants and their respective owners are coping with the downturn (by offering customers various deals to help lure them in), or you can read our simple guide to the guide. The choice is yours, but we know what would save more time. Savings we pass along to you, the otherwise hapless consumer.

Chanterelle – A management consultant notes: “You can go to Chanterelle at the last minute now, in a way that you couldn’t nine months ago.” ● WD-50 – Anyone who orders the $140 tasting menu can get a bottle of wine — any bottle of wine — off of their wine list for half price. ● The Modern – Bottles under $50 are now appearing under a special section on the wine list as “wines for our times.” ● Perry Street – A $35 three-course menu that runs on off-hours (from 5:30-6:30 p.m. and 9:30-11 p.m.). ● Nougatine – Also, a $35 three-course menu that runs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. ● Matsugen – A $35 seven-course menu that runs all hours. ● Del Posto – The infamous 20-course meal price went down from $225 to $175; a nine-course went from $175 to $125. ● Daniel – From 5:30-6:30 p.m., three courses, with wine: $98. You need a reservation to get this one. ● Cru – Through 6:30 p.m. nightly, a $49 three-course menu. ● Compass – A lobster “sample sale”: a grilled three-pounder for $39, lobster salad for $13. ● TOM – Now open as Damon: Frugal Fridays, with $10 dishes cooked by Craft’s executive chef. ● Lever House – A $35, three-course menu going through March. ● Eleven Madison Park – Still has a two-course lunch that goes for $28.

And NYC Restaurant Week is getting extended by a bunch of the places that were original participants, including Le Cirque.

Industry Insiders: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gallic Master

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the superstar behind elite New York restaurants Jean Georges, Spice Market, Matsugen, Perry Street, Vong, Mercer Kitchen, JoJo, and Nougatine on passing up coal and engineering for cooking, getting wine for his birthday as a kid, and bringing food back to its origins.

Point of Origin: I’m from Strasbourg, a big city in Alsace. It was a pretty big house, and we were cooking for 20 for dinner, it was a big deal. We had all of our meals at home; my grandmother cooking, my mother cooking. It may have been a one-pot stew, so it gave me a taste for making food for a lot of people. Every morning, I remember the smells around me; when I was eight or ten, I could tell you exactly what day of the week it was by what was on the stove. And I always knew what I wanted to do: cook! In 1957 I got a bottle of wine for my birthday, but by the time I was 16, I had only been to six restaurants in my life and never really knew that somebody could actually make a living by cooking. I started cooking at 16 as an apprentice. I wasn’t going to school, but working with a chef. In 1973, I began as an apprentice at the Auberge de l’ιll, which has now been going for 50 years. In 1976, they gave us a test, and I was voted Best Apprentice. I went to Paris for the finals and received the highest score in regional France, but the apprentices competed against each other there, and I finished third.

How did you get your start? I was the oldest of my brothers, so I was supposed to take over my father’s part of the coal business, and at age 15 I was sent to engineering school. I hated every minute of it. My father was really, really upset and wanted to know what I wanted to do with my life. So I told him I wanted to be a chef and that I should be cooking. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I was totally unexposed to anything like the business of cooking. One day, my father took me to a restaurant, and the chef came by the table. My father asked if he was looking for somebody to train. I got lucky. I studied and cooked and am still the only chef in my family.

What changed your life? When that chef stopped at our table, it was like looking at my future, and my father just hoped I was just good enough to wash dishes! I went to his restaurant for two weeks on a trial basis, and they really taught me how to cook — the basic techniques of cooking — and it was great. At the time I began as an apprentice, nobody was really into restaurants, but it was the beginning of my career, a passion that turned into a business. I’m still passionate about it 35 years later.

Any non-industry projects in the works? There’s a lot of waste when we make food, so we have a lot of companies who come to pick up what we don’t use. Like Share our Strength, a great organization that does a lot of good for cancer, and the Central Park Conservancy. We’re helping left and right, we’re raising money for good causes. When you share what you have — your talent — it’s good for you, too.

What about your diversion into mondo condo land and hotels? I did it! I haven’t had any education since I left school at 15, and actually, I learned how to do this business in New York. I was 32 when I got my first restaurant, and went back to school in Manhattan at Hunter College to take a course on how to run a business in New York; how to get permits, a liquor license, all of it. You can’t take things for granted. I just wanted a hotel, built around a restaurant, but the architect found out that the property next door to it was available as well, so we went into construction there too, but for condominiums [Calvin Klein bought the first apartment as Vong had vowed to cook for the buyers.]

Favorite Hangouts: I’ve just got a house in Westchester, in Waccabuc, and I go to places around there, where I don’t have a restaurant. I get to relax every weekend. I turned 50 last year and decided not to work weekends. I have a garden, and I’m going back to my roots, cooking for a lot of people. It’s a one-pot meal with garlic and olive oil, and people serve themselves. I have friends over with my wife and daughter, whoever’s around.

Industry Icons: Everyone in this business has been so good to me, and it’s so hard to choose, but among my icons is my mentor, Paul Bocuse. I have a lot of other mentors and a lot of people I respect. You really have to set an example for all people. People are not easy, and the restaurant business is a big task.

Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? I mean, I’m not the type of person who goes much beyond my family — my wife and my daughter — nothing flashy. I don’t go out just to hang out.

Future Projects: Relaxing, that’s for sure on the weekends, but I’m thinking of going back to the old days when people decided to invent the “real food world.” I really want to go back to something super organic — scallops with a little garlic, very world friendly, ABC food. You take all of the superfluous away, and you get back to the essentials. When you’re young you try to impress, and as you get older, you get down to what’s important. Its how I look at life … I look at the essentials. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect and a chef, and now, I am! Of course, we’ve opened a new Japanese restaurant in the W in Atlanta, and will be doing the same in the Venetian, like the one in Vegas. There are so many restaurants in a place like New York, the economy cleans out the overflow.

What are you doing tonight? I’m driving down to the new place on Church and Leonard, on my way to meet Japanese investors.