Oh, Brother: Speaking with Mike and John Poiarkoff, Brothers and Chefs at the Pines and Vinegar Hill House

 Mike and John Poiarkoff

There are plenty of successful, family-owned businesses in Brooklyn, like Four & Twenty Blackbirds, from sisters Melissa and Emily Elsen; Tanoreen, overseen by mother and daughter duo Rawia and Jumana Bishara; and more domestic partner-run restaurants to count. But Mike and John Poiarkoff are poised to become the borough’s most formidable brother act, currently forging separate (but equally impressive) careers, with starring roles at two of our most respected eateries; Vinegar Hill House and The Pines. We spoke with the talented pair about who was the first to pursue cooking professionally, what their ‘signature dishes’ were as kids, and who is actually the better chef (because you know we had to ask). 

Were you both always into food and cooking, growing up? 

Mike: Yeah. We were kind of surrounded by it.  Our father had a catering business for a while and our great aunt baked a lot for our church and most of the community, so as soon as we were old enough to serve as free labor, we were put to work, prepping and washing dishes.  As kids, we took trips at like 2 o’clock in the morning to the produce yards in the strip district of Pittsburgh to buy all of the product.

John: We also had huge meals on every holiday, traditional Eastern European on our father’s side and home-style American on our mom’s. We would make sauerkraut in our grandfather’s basement and bake seasonal pies with our great aunts. Cooking was part of our lives on almost a daily basis, and we had some semi-professional experience at a young age.

When you were kids, what “signature” dishes did you make for the family?

Mike: I always ended up making dessert. I did savory too but John never did dessert.  We had a good amount of property with berries growing all over it, so I used those a lot; pancakes, pies, cheesecakes. Oh, and we got really into making sushi for awhile.

John: I was also big into grilling for a while. I made a mean burger.

Did one of you inspire the other to become a chef, or did you develop your passion for cooking roughly at the same time?

Mike: I think we both knew we would end up in kitchens. We both went to school for other things. John actually took the first step and went to culinary school, graduated from FCI top of his class, and got a job and a place. I pretty much just packed my stuff and moved in with him, hoping someone would hire me.

John: I decided to go to culinary school after graduating college. I didn’t want to pursue my degree in psychology professionally, so I decided to pursue my passion for cooking. Mike moved to NYC after I had been cooking for a couple years. He fell into an entry-level job at Char No. 4 and started climbing the ladder.

What job would you say really kick-started your career?

Mike: Working at Char No. 4 under Matt Greco. That guy kicked my ass. I don’t think I ever really had a title there until I was Chef.  I was the guy that did whatever Matt needed, just to learn.

John: I would say it was probably landing a job at The Modern right out of culinary school. At that point, I had no idea how great of a restaurant it was. I just googled “NY Times 3-star restaurants” and started sending out resumes. The amount of knowledge I gained during my time there was incredible, from learning to make liverwurst to taking leadership classes at the USHG home office.

Who’s the better chef?

Mike: I don’t really know how comparable we are. I think we each have very unique styles, and are often on opposite ends of the spectrum. He’s better at making things into powders and gels and chips. I’m better at making animals into smaller pieces of animals.

John: We’re very different chefs. It’s hard to say who’s “better.”

How would you describe your personal culinary style and point of view?

Mike: I like to keep things simple enough that I can do everything myself. The more components, and bells and whistles you add only take you farther away from the food. Almost everything at Vinegar Hill House is done from scratch, and very technique based. I’m very particular about the way things are done. Everything in my kitchen turns into a very specific process. A lot of my food is hard work, and takes weeks or months to make. But in the end I hope it is as unpretentious as possible. I’m not fussy on the plate. The last thing I want to do when I sit down for dinner is have someone rub his or her ego and creative genius in my face. I cook food. I love what I do. And I hope that shows.

John: I cook food that I like to eat. Sourcing and seasonality are important to me. A dish can only be as good as the product. If you buy factory-farmed beef from the grocery store, it’ll never be as good as local, grass-fed beef that was cared for and aged properly. The same goes with vegetables. Celery or strawberries from the greenmarket during the summer are a completely different product from those that most Americans are used to.

The Pines has developed a reputation for serving interesting, seasonal food that is creative but not overly fussy or pretentious. When I create a dish, I try to think about how it will fit the vibe of the restaurant. I have a great team and we collaborate on the creation of most of the dishes on the menu. We’ll start with a focal ingredient for a dish, whether it’s the amazing ducks we get from upstate NY or a vegetable we find at the market, and build a dish that highlights the natural flavor of that ingredient. We then accompany it with something classic or nostalgic but add another ingredient that may be unfamiliar or non-traditional. We also try to push ourselves to experiment with new techniques, both modern and archaic. We try to prepare each ingredient in whatever way maximizes it’s potential. Sometimes that means curing lamb breast for 7 days, then slow-cooking it for another two days. Sometimes, it’s briefly sautéing local squid with a pinch of salt. So, I guess overall, my style is eclectic seasonal modern American…

Would you say your aesthetics are largely similar, or wildly different? Is one of you more “right brain” and the other left? One more into high-end cuisine, and the other more casual? Does one of you flavor classic dishes and presentation, while the other is more into modern innovation?

Mike: I don’t think we are wildly different in our approach to food. Both of us work very seasonally and like to take some risks. We both source everything responsibly and change our menus daily. John is a little fancier than I am though. He’s trendier and modern. I think we are rapidly going different directions as well. John keeps making cooler, more experiential things, while I’m getting more rustic and drawing from very classic preparations.

John: We are similar in some ways and very different in others. We both care about the quality of our ingredients, but tend to treat them differently. If we were both given pork jowl, Mike would probably cure it with traditional bacon spices, then roast it in his wood-burning oven, chill it, and slice it thin, whereas I would cook it sous vide, then pan roast it so it eats like a braised pork belly. Our professional cooking backgrounds are very different. I’m used to elegant presentation and Mike is used to rustic dishes. He has an art background though, and he can create some beautiful plates when he wants.

Have you ever actually worked together in a professional kitchen? What are some quirks or habits that irk you about the other? (Full disclosure: my husband NEVER closes cabinet drawers.)

Mike: Yes. I worked with John for a couple months at The Pines while I was between jobs, and we did a dinner together at Hillside. I’m very meticulous, and kind of an organization freak. John is not.

John: We actually work surprisingly well together, though. We think very differently about food, but we’re both flexible and open to each other’s ideas. We created some great dishes together and didn’t really have any drama between us.

How would you describe your styles as leaders in the kitchen?

Mike: I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am. I love coming to work, and appreciate the hell out of everyone that works for me. I try to teach “why” and “how” as much as I can, and in a way that makes the cooks feel more empowered than belittled.

John: I try to draw on my professional background with USHG for my leadership style. A good leader needs to be malleable and know how to alter his or her attitude based on the situation. Sometimes you need to take charge and sometimes you need to step back and let your staff do their own thing, while constantly observing and making sure their work is up to your standards. I hate when chefs answer every question with “because I said so.” Maybe your garde manger cook had a good idea that you just completely dismissed because you wanted to show your authority. I also try to incorporate my education in psychology to motivate my staff. If someone feels empowered and takes ownership over their responsibilities, they’re going to do a better job. Of course, I sometimes lose sight of all of this after 9 shifts in a row. It happens.

No, really, who’s the better chef? 

Mike: Ask our parents.

John: Well, I have more experience in restaurants, but Mike was an executive chef first. We’ll see where we both are in 5 years, then we can maybe answer that question.

How did you each come to join your respective restaurants, Vinegar Hill House and The Pines?

Mike:  I left somewhere I had been at for a long time, and was looking to really come into my own as a chef. I wanted to find a whole package that fit. There were a lot of deciding factors…a wood oven, beautiful dining room, a wine bar next door, a back yard… But in the end it really came down to just wanting to work with Jean Adamson and Sam Buffa.

John: I was at a point where I needed to move on from The Modern. I had been there for almost 5 years, had learned everything that I could in my position, and wanted to do something new. I really wanted to be part of an opening and stumbled across The Pines. I live down the street and just stopped in one day. I liked the philosophy and vibe of the place and joined the team just before the opening. I started as sous chef and was promoted to exec a little less than a year after we opened.

Mike, obviously Vinegar Hill House is known for their pork chop and chicken, and John, the Pines has that lush backyard outfitted with a wood-fired grill. So how have you gone about working within the existing structure/identity of the restaurant, while still adding your own personality and ideas?

Mike: I would be crazy to get rid of the Red Wattle Chop.  It’s one of the best proteins I’ve worked with. I changed the prep for it and I change the garnish all the time, but I hope that chop is here for as long as the restaurant.  And changing the rest of the menu just kind of evolved slowly. I think my personality and style are a great fit for the restaurant, and I mostly let the space inspire me. I don’t over think it. It just seems to work.

John: I’ve been here since the beginning, so I helped shape what The Pines is today. When I took over as exec, I tried to tighten things up a little and add more technique and consistency to the creativity that was already here. We now make almost everything we serve in house, including our butter and yogurt. The backyard is poised to take off this year. We’re serving a simple menu of grilled snacks that are aligned with the food inside, but at a lower price point. We’re doing a ramp kielbasa, shishito peppers with squid ink romesco, and a grilled beef jerky skewer with fermented chili paste that is much more popular than I ever expected.

What do you consider the pros and cons of running a restaurant in Brooklyn, as opposed to Manhattan?

Mike: I think the crowd in Brooklyn is generally more interested in the food than they are the whole package that is good for the chefs, but sometimes drops the standards of other aspects of the restaurants. And I have 3 different farmers markets I can go to on my short way to work where I can take my time and really talk to the purveyors.

John: One huge con of being in Brooklyn is inconsistency in business. In Manhattan, there’s so much foot traffic that you can almost survive solely on that. In Brooklyn, you really have to get your name out there, especially if you’re in Gowanus. On the brighter side, there are fewer tourists and more “foodies” (I hate that word), so you have more freedom be creative instead of dumbing your menu down for the masses.

What’s your go-to meal after a long night of service?

Mike: Checkers. Or Reyes bodega on 4th Avenue….they have damn good tacos and tortas.

John: A sandwich from the deli. If the staff goes out after service, it’s usually somewhere on 5th Ave: Blueprint, 200 5th, Blue Ribbon. If we’re feeling adventurous, we might head to Manhattan and hit up Chinatown or an Izakaya.

What are some of your favorite casual spots in Brooklyn, and where do you go when you’re really looking to treat yourself?

Mike: I go to Korzo a lot. We’re Russian, and I have a sweet spot for that kind of food done very well. I don’t treat myself that often. I went to Marco’s the other night and that was good.

John: My go-to is Franny’s. It’s incredibly consistent and the menu changes frequently, so there’s always something new to try. The burger at Korzo is one of the best in the city and their Hungarian dishes are great comfort food. I’m a fan of Moim as well. There aren’t many good Korean restaurants around and they make a mean seafood-scallion pancake. I also went to this place called Vinegar Hill House last week that was pretty good…

What do you consider to be the greatest personal achievement in your career thus far? 

Mike: Seeing cooks that I’ve trained really elevate other chef’s kitchens. Training someone from scratch, to really take pride in what they do is an unexplainable feeling.

John: Becoming an executive chef and running the kitchen at The Pines. I’m getting an opportunity to develop my own style and learning how to manage every aspect of a restaurant. Getting nominated for Eater’s Young Guns was an honor, and having Danny Meyer write a blurb about me and understanding my point of view was even better.

And what ultimate goal are you each striving for, that will let you know you’ve really made it? A Michelin star? A Beard award? Your own string of restaurants from here to Tokyo?

Mike: I don’t think I have a goal just yet. I’m just trying to be better than I was the day before. I’ll know I’ve made it when I’m not so damn stressed out all the time. But that will probably never happen. So yeah, a star and a JBF award would put a smile on my face.

John: Either of the first two would be amazing. Running a successful restaurant is first and foremost, though.

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