I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Christophe, one of the proud (and incredibly talented) owners of Northern Spy Food Co. here in Manhattan.
How did you come up with the idea for Northern Spy Food Co.?
While in my first semester of graduate school at NYU, I decided that I wanted to work on opening a small, local/sustainable focused restaurant and prepared foods store in which I would operate as the business and operations manager rather than chef. I set about finding partners who would fill the chef and front-of-house roles. 18 months later, here we are.
Tell me about your typical day at Northern Spy Food Co.
Bookkeeping (entering sales, bills, payroll, looking at bottom line), trouble-shooting service and space issues, fixing a couple of things that are broken, discussing the menu with Nathan (chef), managing staff issues, and long-range planning.
What is your favorite menu item at Northern Spy Food Co.?
The poached squid with mussels, navy beans, cabbage, and vegetables. It’s Nathan version of a kind of Italian cooking style that I love. Tastes deliciously of the ocean, has a variety of textures and flavors, is very nutritious, totally satisfying.
What is your favorite meal to cook?
If you mean which meal of the day, by far it’s dinner. If you mean a specific dish, these days I tend to make lots of layered soups with some kind of greens, some kind of legume, and a little bit of meat or poultry. Finished typically with a great big gob of olive oil and a mound of grated reggiano. I usually cook in quantities sufficient to last several days.
What is your favorite New York City restaurant?
I actually eat out irregularly since I’m at Northern Spy so much. When I do, I try to step out beyond the usual comfort zone to expose myself to new flavors. I love Sri Pra Phai in Queens, Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, and Zenkichi in Williamsburg. You can have truly revelatory experiences at all of those places.
What is one kitchen tool that you couldn’t live without?
My Japanese vegetable knife. It’s what everyone should own instead of the over-priced, underwhelming “santuko” knives that every company hawks. It has a very slim blade, sharpens easily in seconds with a steel, cuts vegetables like a laser, cost me $35, and has lasted 8 years so far.
How would you describe your cooking technique?
Methodical and ad-hoc at the same time. I have certain practices that I always use for certain ingredients (soaking beans and grains, blanching greens, etc.) but at the same time it’s pretty loosey-goosey in my kitchen. Better actually that Nathan’s the chef over here.
What do you see in the future for Northern Spy Food Co.?
Success and sustainability at the current location is the first, most important goal. After that, developing the brand further in a second location, perhaps in Brooklyn, either continuing the current format or opening something more like the original prepared food and catering idea, or maybe just a small lunch counter, who knows…
Describe your kitchen at home.
Extremely spacious for a city apartment. I have loads of counter and storage space, obscene amounts, really. It’s a joy to work in.
Do you consider yourself to be more of a cook or a baker at home?
I’m more of a cook although I really love baking and am pretty good at it. I occasionally make my own bread, and mess around with cookies, cakes, quiches, etc. when I have time.
What is your best kitchen advice?
For the home cook: buy a few truly essential cookbooks to cover the basics (all-time best lists abound on the net) and ignore the rest, you’ll almost never use them. Next, buy a scale that works in ounces and grams, it’s the only professional way to bake. Last, invest in the aforementioned Japanese knife, two basic all-clad pans, and some other essentials (colander, strainer, peeler, etc.) and you’re off to the races.
For the restaurant cook: skip culinary school and just go learn from a series of mentors in restaurant kitchens. School is fine for learning, but relative to the real-world pay-scale for cooks, I don’t think that it’s worth the expense. In fact, there’s an argument for it being quite a racket that preys on kids who aren’t college-bound, leaving them heavily in debt and not especially skilled.
What inspires your menu and market at Northern Spy Food Co.?
The menu is definitely Nathan’s so I can’t speak too much for him. Basically, we are guided by seasons and locale, and some sense of sustainability in the choices we make. Therefore we have lots of grains, vegetables, meat from smaller animals (chicken, pork), legumes, eggs, and sustainable seafood. The market is really just focused on featuring the great artisanal foods being produced in Brooklyn and the greater Northeastern region. The local food movement in this area is filled with incredibly creative and skilled entrepreneurs, and we’re trying to provide an outlet for their work. So you’ll see a lot of the same products in our store as you’ll find at the Brooklyn Flea.
Did you always have a passion for food growing up as a child and throughout your adolescence?
I was actually a pretty picky eater until my adolescence, then something switched and I started getting into exotic flavors, lots of Asian things. My passion for food really developed after three seasons working on an organic vegetable farm. That was the real beginning for me.
What is always in your pantry?
Olive oil, nuts, grains and legumes of all sorts, eggs, reggiano, anchovies, garlic, and the full complement of spices. With those on hand I can buy five ingredients at the greenmarket or local Key Foods and build a feast.
Desert island cookbook?
Considering that I’m on a desert island, I’d probably hope to have something on hand about foraging wild plants and catching fish. I can’t think of any cookbook on my shelf that would be more useful than that. I’ve always imagined myself going through a survivalist hunter/gatherer phase, so this would be the perfect opportunity.
Thank you, Northern Spy Food Co. for a wonderful (and delicious) interview.