Doug Psaltis, the newly installed executive chef and partner at Smith’s — Cindy Smith and restaurateur Danny Abrams’ (The Mermaid Inn) Greenwich Village American bistro — explains what “comfort food” is to him, why he left high-end French cuisine for chicken and grits, and whether or not he’d rewrite his (fairly controversial) book, given a chance.
How’d you end up at Smith’s? I come from a background of formal French training in a lot of high-end restaurants in Midtown Manhattan. The last restaurant I was at: executive chef at Geoffrey Zakarian’s Country here in New York. It had a café downstairs, fine dining upstairs. I was overseeing that project from the beginning through the first two and a half years, and it was great. It was a fantastic run and a great challenge for me, and really one I enjoyed. The upstairs dining room was something that followed in a lot of the training I had of working with the Atlantic House before, for five years, working for a period of time with Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.
What happened when you left Country? That really was something, the dining room at Country, a great opportunity for learning, and it was a great place for me to really express some very classical, very formal dining technique and experience with the team that I had there for me. But leaving there, my first thoughts were, “Wow, I want to open up something bigger and grander.” And then, as time wore on, and I began to travel and see things, and think, you know, I reflected back that I’m a pretty young guy still, I’m 34, I love hanging out in casual places, I love going to Paris for the finest of meals, but I also would like to broaden my audience and who I cook for.
What’s important to you as a chef? The level of performance is something that is really important for me. I love expressing myself through food, and I love the medium of having a place that’s small enough to be able to control, but large enough in volume that we’re all happy with the pay. So, a restaurant like Smith’s is something that really excited me, because it’s downtown and has its own class and sophistication. But it’s small enough that I can really wrap my hands around it, and have fun with it, and kind of steer it in different directions as the week goes, as the days go. The most important thing is to comfort people. It isn’t to do a double-cooked pork chop, and do all the trimmings of an American comfort restaurant, but it’s to lower somebody’s … or to get rid of some … predetermination for somebody, and to really make them feel confident when they see a menu and they say, “Oh, chicken and grits, I know what that is,” as opposed to, you know, “French chicken with Anson Mills grits,” and things of that nature. So the whole intention of the menu, and I don’t know if “dumbed-down” is the correct phrase, but to really get rid of the intimidation factor, and things like that, and really allow them to look at something, be able to understand it, and order it.
Speaking of which: There’s a huge Southern influence on the menu. You cooked high-end food for a majority of your professional career. Where does that come from? I’m a big fan of Americana, a big fan of Southern food and barbecue, and things like that, and from growing up in New York, and working in my grandfather’s diner, there’s a lot of food like that that I really enjoy. My brother, who is a literary agent, eats my food as often as anybody, if not a lot more than anybody. And he had a chance to eat my food at (Alain Ducasse’s) Mix in New York, and at Country, and he was like, “Just cook what you cooked at Mix.” At Mix we had a dish on the menu that was called “Fresh Chicken with a Spiced Gravy” — it pretty much was a gumbo. So, I was like, you know, that’s a dish that I haven’t done in a while, but the flavors were great, and I had it from there. So, the down-home stuff, and the Southern stuff, you know, it comes from that.
With the economy trending downward, and the (literal) appetite for fine dining going with it, do you think the appreciation for these kind of less-intimidating, comfort-food dishes is going to be wider? I really do. I think good cooking is one thing people are really looking for. And I think right now is a point where everybody reaches for honesty; honesty in things you come to love, whether it’s your old sweatshirt and your coach on a Saturday as opposed to hitting the town hard, etc. People are definitely looking for that, and I think that honesty and integrity, and straight-forwardness in cooking, I think, is where people are at right now.
What’s your ideal meal? What are your favorite things you’re cooking at Smith’s right now, for you to eat yourself? My ideal meal is with my family, you know, to be eating the grilled squid that’s on the menu here. I’d definitely be having the beef tartare as well. I think I would love to have the chicken and grits. That would be my ideal meal. Yeah, I’d need the smell of the grill, the bread rubbed with garlic for the tartare that’s hot, you know, the fried cornichons with the tartare, that might inflect some humor, for me. And the chicken and grits served on a cast iron plate, and the gumbo sausage on there, and the gravy, and it’s moist and it’s delicious, and it’s spicy and it’s sweet. Those are things that really would comfort me, and they do tend to be comforting food here.
Who else is cooking in New York right now that you’re excited about? What Michael Anthony does at the Gramercy Tavern. I think he has a great connection to its food and what he does with it. You know, I love what they’re doing at Robuchon, which I know is a big thing, but I just love the execution of what they do there, I think it’s fantastic. And also I think what Michael Psilakis has done at Kefi is really incredible. I have a lot of respect for that as a restaurateur, and I think he’s phenomenal how he presents Greek flavors and reintroduces them to people.
You’re coming on as the second chef at Smith’s. What are you going to bring to the table there that is going to make the restaurant survive? Well, I’m not too familiar with the first chef. From what I understand, his food was great, and the way he did his business was great. I think what I do a little bit different is … good enough experience, and knowledge, and a strong drive. I think what’ll make this restaurant survive and will make it really great is the time I put in. And it’s not just on the food, it’s the whole service, to make it a complete restaurant, and to make it a place where you’re going to get great, great food cooked by people who care. I’m fortunate that the staff has been with me, especially in the kitchen, for at least, you know, six years — less for others, maybe four for my dishwasher and my sous chef — and we have a lot of joy and a lot of excitement in what we do. That’s going to be passed along to our guests to make it a very special place. You know, one of the things that I was interested in doing, that might have been done different here in the past, was lower the price point, and make it a place that’s really a neighborhood place, and be as friendly as possible, which is really something that Danny Abrams strives for.
Final question: it’s been four years since The Seasoning of a Chef came out. It was pretty controversial. Would you do the book again? If you had the chance to do it over, would you do it differently? I would do it again, for sure. Would I do it differently? There’s probably a lot of things I would change. It was the first time I went through the process of working with editors, and things of that nature. I thought the advanced reader copy that came out jumped the gun, and I didn’t really get a chance to see before it was printed. So, yeah: I’d do it differently.