Photos Rory Gunderson
Brian Leth’s career didn’t begin at a fancy culinary school in Paris with lessons on how to braise, poach and garnish to perfection. Instead, it started while the New Jersey native was living in Taos, New Mexico, enjoying the skiing, culture and small-town vibe. “I worked in various stages of pizza preparation when I was a teenager,” he says. “But as far as going back to cooking as a career, I started cooking when I was there.” Since moving to New York, Leth has demonstrated his cooking chops by creating the menu at Vinegar Hill House—the cozy Vinegar Hill restaurant with a Brooklyn-chic aesthetic and farm-to-table fare. Leth, who has worked as the executive chef since 2009, says he’s inspired by fresh ingredients and working directly with farmers. “It seems really simple, there’s not a garnish that’s six inches tall,” he says. “It still might have taken, you know, five people to make it. It still might have taken a few days all told, and a lot of people, a lot of different ingredients.” We tagged along with him at the Union Square Greenmarket while he picked produce, and headed back to Vinegar Hill to watch him create one of his signature dishes: Day Boat Hake.
Checking out the selections from Millerton, NY’s McEnroe Farms.
Sweet potatoes and fresh thyme.
The exterior of the restaurant, which opened in 2008 and features ingredients while they’re in season. “We don’t redo our whole menu once a week, but we always have things changing,” Leth explains.
In addition to the main dining room, Vinegar Hill House has a cozy private dining space downstairs, as well as a lush garden in the back.
“It’s a hake. It’s one of five fish that are in the same family as the cod,” Leth says. “Cod is the most popular one, but it’s also the most overfished.” The hake will be cut, cooked, and served over a red onion puree with braised cranberry beans.
Vegetables and purées in the prep kitchen downstairs, where the smell of fresh-baked cookies fill the air.
“The red onion puree is just red onions cooked until they get nice and sweet, pureed with a little red wine, cumin, butter,” Leth explains. Here, the chopped onions cook on the stovetop with a dash of salt added for flavor.
The hake fillet sizzles in olive oil, almost ready to serve. “To make something simple is sometimes very hard, I think,” Leth says. “To make something appear really simple but taste really good. You know, because if food were that easy, everyone would just make it at home.”
Leth peels the red onions from McEnroe Farms. “The farmers we work with are really good and they have great stuff,” he says. “Especially in the summer and now, you really can get a lot of local produce.”
Leth’s favorite aspect of the dish is the cranberry beans, which are cooked in water and then braised in butter and parsley. “They’re really satisfying to cook right, because it’s hard to get them to be perfectly tender without broaching the skins… and they have a really sort of satisfying feel to eat. They’re almost meaty,” he says.