Talking with Sarah Zorn About Brooklyn Chef’s Table
By Kristin Iversen
Brooklyn Chef’s Table, an upcoming cookbook written by Brooklyn Magazine Food Editor Sarah Zorn, offers not only a host of recipes by some of Brooklyn’s top chefs, but also a chance to learn more about the people behind the food. Zorn visited a wide array of BK dining and drinking spots to put together this book, giving readers a look at Brooklyn’s culinary present, its history, and its future. We spoke with Zorn about her cookbook, her lifelong experience as a Brooklyn foodie (before that was even a term), and all about her favorite places to eat, drink, and be merry.
So, Sarah! You are Brooklyn Magazine‘s Food Editor, which is an exhausting enough job (so much food, so little time etc.), but somehow you also managed to write this cookbook. My first question is, did you discover some extra hours in the day that the rest of us don’t know about? Crazy. But also, how did you first come to tackle this project?
I had, of course, always dreamed about having a cookbook, but yeah…who the heck has the time? And I’m not even talking about the actual writing of the thing; it was the drawing up of proposals, pitching it around to publishers and agents, and the constant rejection I was wary of. How Brooklyn Chef’s Table came about was this; I opened up my inbox one day and there was a message in it from Amy Lyons of Globe Pequot Press, saying that she’d been following my work, and asking if I wanted to write this book. I spent a day making sure it wasn’t spam or a prank or some roundabout money making scheme before wholeheartedly embracing my incredible good fortune. Because when a cookbook deal falls in your lap all wrapped up in a bow, you don’t ask too many questions and you somehow find time to do it, even if you gain plenty of weight in the process because your days generally involve holing up in a corner of your couch on the computer, eating, holing up in a corner of your couch on the computer again, eating, repeat without end. Full disclosure: that’s usually how I spend most of my days anyway. [Ed. note: Me tooooo.]
You’re Brooklyn born and bred. Tell me a little about the formative Brooklyn food memories that you have from back in the 80s, when the Brooklyn dining scene was markedly different.
I actually grew up in Park Slope, but we didn’t really eat in Park Slope, save for the Grand Canyon diner and Smiling Pizza (both, impressively, still around today). But there was no Talde around the corner, or al di là down the block. Our big deal pilgrimage meal was to go to Theresa’s in Brooklyn Heights (also still around!) for blintzes and pierogis, or, of course, Nathan’s for hot dogs and fries; still my favorite fries in the entire city. I think it has a lot to do with that red pitchfork.
Would you ever have anticipated back then that Brooklyn’s dining scene would become what it is today?
Well, I was a kid in the 80s, but a food-interested kid…all I knew was that everything I liked or desired could be found within half an hour or so of our apartment. We got knishes in Brighton Beach. My best friend introduced me to coco bread and roti in Flatbush. There was dim sum in Sunset Park, where we could poke each other with (but never eat) chicken feet. But hip, no. Even with my vague, ten-year-old understanding of trends, I could never have imagined that the industrial boonies of Williamsburg/Greenpoint/Bushwick would ever become desirable. My mom was a single mother with a set of young twins to protect; it never even crossed her mind to take us out there.
Despite the changes, there are still restaurants (including several in your book, like L&B Spumoni Gardens) that thrive in Brooklyn today. What do you think the secret to longevity is?
Nostalgia goes a long way, of course, but you can’t hang around as long as a restaurant like L&B has unless you’re constantly reminding people why they loved you in the first place. It’s no small feat…living up to someone’s golden teenage memory of eating squares and chasing girls in your courtyard, and then meeting or exceeding their expectations each time as an adult. It helps that L&B has stayed in the hands of one family…they grew up with their customers, so they can really shoot the shit about the old days. They haven’t done a whole lot to change up the interiors or façade; are rough-hewn, reclaimed wood tables more attractive than brown plastic-topped formica? Yeah, but I don’t want to see any of that crap at L&B. And the food is incredible. When it comes down to it, the food needs to stay on point. Don’t try to convince me I just had undeveloped tastebuds as a kid.
There’s a really diverse group of restaurants represented in the book, including some from neighborhoods with which people don’t associate the “new Brooklyn” dining scene. How did you choose each spot, and what was the process in choosing the dish or drink that was emblematic of the restaurant at hand?
I never wanted to be accused of doing a hipster book…which you know is going to happen anyway. It’s like Brooklyn Magazine being accused of being a hipster rag, and people don’t realize that two of a relatively small handful of writers actually live in Bay Ridge. I grew up in Southern Brooklyn, and my understanding of Brooklyn’s food scene extends way beyond what people know of the borough right now, local-artisanal, blah blah blah. At the same time, I wanted to pay just as much lip-service to what’s happening in North Brooklyn, because the evolution of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Smorgasburg etc. is just as important a puzzle piece when you’re attempting to examine Brooklyn’s food culture overall. The story of each neighborhood is equally important, and I wanted to do my best to honor that.
As far as choosing recipes, I really wanted to leave that up to the restaurants. I thought it would be a real disservice, say, to order Tanoreen to give me a chicken dish, because I had a gap to fill under “Entrees.” In order to truly showcase what these restaurants are about, they need to be able to supply a recipe that best represents them; even if they wind up presenting a bit more of a challenge to the home cook.
I’m sure picking a favorite is sort of like picking a favorite child…but could you tell us what a few of the most memorable things you ate were during the writing of this book?
Evil! Well, the turbot dish at Prospect was one of the first we shot (and eventually, ate) and it got me so excited. The picture is on the cover, it’s so flipping gorgeous, and equally delicious, but when you look at the recipe (save some xantham gum and edible micro flowers), it’s not all that tough to recreate at home. The tofu pizza at PeteZaaz is incredible…Pete Entner is a mad genius. The snap pea cocktail from Clover Club is amaaazing. And L&B, again, boy. You haven’t lived until you’ve gone to L&B Spumoni Gardens to shoot a plate of pasta, and they wind up sending you every last dish from the kitchen to eat just because that’s how they roll.
What is it that you look for in a restaurant or bar when you’re going out to eat/drink?
I think a lot of food writers will tell you this, but some of my favorite food experiences bar none are cheapo places that no one has ever heard of. There’s a level of expectation that comes with going to a restaurant that has already been praised to the skies that is just so hard to meet (especially if it involves waiting two or more hours on line or paying over $100 a head). When you’re not absolutely blown away, you have a terrible inner battle about whether that’s your fault or the restaurant’s. Of course, I go to the restaurant “du jour” all the time; I have to. And I’m always happiest with restaurants that feel like they’re trying to please everyone equally, not just a handful of critics. Those that will continue to turn out good, honest food and provide great service for a fair price point, long after the spotlight (inevitably) goes away.
What are some of your favorite places/cities to eat that aren’t Brooklyn?
I think one of the few cities that gives us a run for our money in terms of how varied their cuisine is is San Francisco (of course, they still don’t have quite the ethnic range as we do). I’m a sucker for seafood, though, so I could exist quite happily there. Ready for the other one? Stewarts Shops, which you’ll find in Central NY and the farthest reaches of Jersey. If we plan a day trip anywhere outside of the city, we will literally drive over an hour out of our way if it means we’ll pass a Stewarts Shop. Their ice cream is the best I’ve ever had in my whole live, for real. Their hot fudge is really hot, and it’s really fudge. You can make your own sundae from a spinning caddy of toppings. All for the whopping price of $2.95. My contingency plan in life is, if this whole food writer in NYC deal doesn’t work out, I will move to a house upstate and take a part-time shift at the local Stewarts. They offer health insurance and profit sharing.
How do you think Brooklyn’s dining scene will continue to evolve?
We’ll eventually drift out of the public consciousness, and that’s ok. It’s ok if Moscow doesn’t open anymore theme restaurants about us. We don’t need Jeffrey Steingarten to discover us(!) in the pages of Vogue. The food culture in Brooklyn has always been shaped by the unbelievably diverse economic, cultural, and ethnic makeup of the people that move, migrate and settle here. We don’t need to be remade in Manhattan’s image; the land of relentlessly white tablecloth, tasting menu-only restaurants. That’s fun on anniversaries, but I want to enjoy eating out in my borough every day.
If you could plan a perfect Brooklyn day of eating, from breakfast to an after-dinner drink, what would it be?
This is a damned if I do, damned if I don’t question. If I name restaurants from the book I’ll be picking favorites again, and if I don’t that will be bizarre!