“At culinary school we had really classic French training – you’re taught to really respect your bosses, your chefs. I remember I kept calling the chef [at Fatty 'Cue], “Chef.” He was like, ‘Really? Come on.’ ” –Nicole Centeno
As the planet navigates the turn into the new year, the bone chill of winter has finally locked the city in its icy grip. In cold snaps like these, many seek solace in the ultimate comfort food — a bowl of steaming soup. And in those moments when the demands of urban existence conspire to prevent us from actually slurping soup non-stop until spring, one can always warm the imagination by talking about soup.
In search of warmth for the bones and the mind, we met up with Nicole Centeno of Greenpoint micro-soupery Sea Bean Goods, to do just that — talk soup.
Nicole and her husband Brian Chaszar launched Sea Bean Goods about a year ago with the goal of providing seasonal soups, made with ingredients sourced from local farmers, to the denizens of Brooklyn.
So Nicole, why soup?
There are so many things that are special about soup. One thing I really like about making soup is that it’s similar to making sauce. In culinary school and restaurant kitchens the saucier station is always the most coveted station. Sauces require such a delicate balance of flavors – a tiny squeeze of lemon or a tiny pinch of salt can really make a difference and transform a meal.
You’re taking so many flavors and distilling them into something that has to be precisely balanced. Soup is kind of like the lazy man’s sauce – most soups aren’t nearly as complex as some of the sauces made in restaurant kitchens, but there’s that element of building and layering flavors and getting the right texture that I really enjoy.
And the varieties are limitless, so you can be creative — and it lends itself really well to working with local and seasonal ingredients. The ability to be creative is really important to me. I’m always experimenting. Once I’ve got one flavor down I’m ready to move on to the next one.
The process of making a soup is really not complicated. I think people should cook more soups at home. Particularly if you’re a member of a CSA – it’s a great way to use that huge box of vegetables you get each week.
Tell us about some of your soups. What are some of your personal favorites?
Our Butternut squash soup is definitely one of my favorites. I use a Parmesan broth that gives it a real deep umami flavor and an intense savory mouthfeel. I make the soups at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint. I make the Parmesan broth with Paulie’s leftover cheese rinds. When I first started using his kitchen he had been keeping them and he wasn’t using them. He had like twenty pounds of them! He said, “Can you use these for anything?”
I was like, “Sure! This is like gold!”
Parmesan’s expensive! I shouldn’t say that – now he’ll start charging me for them. Ha ha!
So that Parmesan broth is really nice with the squash. It gives it that flavor – you can’t really tell what it is but it adds a lot of depth. I also add a little bit of red chili flakes. It’s not spicy, but the flavor adds complexity and a touch of heat to the soup. And I use cinnamon and sage, which are more potent flavors that are easier to identify. The cinnamon gives it a nice aromatic quality, and I get the sage from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. It’s really powerful. I asked Annie Novak, the farmer there, why her herbs are so intense and she said that there’s so much sun exposure up there that the essential oils in her herbs develop really nicely.
Texture is really important in all soups, and I think the texture of the squash soup is particularly nice. It’s not heavy, but when it’s cooked and blended right, it’s almost luxurious feeling. It almost feels like a bisque, but it’s actually much lighter.
I also love our rabbit stew. That one has a special secret ingredient – super dark chocolate. You make it almost like a beef bourguignion. After you’ve strained it and you’re reducing it, you add a little shaved dark chocolate and it creates this beautifully shiny base with a really deep flavor. You can’t quite identify what it is – because it’s dark chocolate it’s not sweet — but it adds that umami-ish flavor that fills your mouth.
And rabbit is sooo delicious. Anyone who hasn’t had rabbit before should totally try it. It’s so tender and it just falls off the bone…I had a woman who had never had it before come back for seconds one day at Smorgasburg and say, “I had no idea I liked rabbit so much!”
On the lighter end, I do a tomato soup that happens to be vegan. We did it chilled in the summer and hot when it started getting colder. There’s a lot of dill in it, which isn’t used all that often in tomato soups, and there’s basil which is more common. The fresh herbs are blended in at the end – they’re not cooked with the tomato – and they give you a great burst of flavor. The dill gives you a nice creamy herbal note that’s a nice counterpoint to the acidic brightness of the tomato.
The onions in the tomato soup are cooked long and slow, which adds a bit of sweetness, and there’s a little chili pepper from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in there as well.
Tell us about the clam and leek soup – one of our favorites.
So clam chowder is a big thing in my life. I grew up in Massachusetts. My mom grew up on Cape Cod, where there’s real clam chowder. When I was growing up my mom would order clam chowder everywhere we went.
There’s one place on Cape Cod, called Wimpy’s, which makes a great chowder, and that was the standard by which she judged all other chowders. So I’ve adopted this habit. I now order chowder wherever I go. And I’m generally disappointed. I don’t know what it is – Chowder is so easy to make! It just seems like most of the time it doesn’t have the right consistency, and it often doesn’t have the right clam taste. You should be able to taste the clam in clam chowder!
When I make mine, people are always like, “You’re putting too many clams in there!” I’m like, “Trust me, we need the clams.”
I also use a lot of leeks and a little white wine. When I had my mom taste it, she said, “This is not clam chowder. It’s very, very good, but it’s not chowder.” By her standard, it didn’t qualify as clam chowder because I had fancied it up too much. So I had to honor her judgement by not calling it chowder. Mine is just ‘clam and leek soup.’
The secret to that soup is just what you’d expect – super-fresh clams. I get the clams and I make the chowder that day. I steam the clams and save all the liquor. That liquor you reserve after steaming them is what gives chowder that taste – that spoonful of the sea. You only get that true briny chowder flavor from steamed fresh clams.
So I use some cream from Ronnybrook Farm, the liquor from the clams, the clams themselves, a little milk and not much else. The leek adds a little bit of sweetness and freshness. I try not to use too much potato. The textures are really important in chowder, as it is in all soups. The potatoes shouldn’t fall apart or be mushy in your mouth. The celery should be a little crunchy. And the clams should be everywhere – minced, but in every spoonful.
You mentioned that you’re really focused on using local and seasonal ingredients. Where do you go for your ingredients?
We use one farm for almost all of our produce. The farmer is named Hector and his farm is Jersey Farms. They’re not certified organic but they don’t use pesticides and they practice crop rotation so they don’t have to use artificial fertilizers. He’s at the Park Slope Farmer’s Market on Sundays each week. Sundays are the one day a week we sleep past 6am. We get up and make the trip to Park Slope and we scout out what he’s got each week. We plan our soups for the week based on what he’s got, then we buy a whole bunch of produce, fill up the car, and drive it to Paulie’s where we store it.
On Wednesdays we pick up our dairy and meats at the Union Square farmers market. Our meat comes from Arcadian Pastures, a farm in upstate New York. I met Laurent and Matthew at the McCarren Park Greenmarket last year and got to know them. I just really love their product. They have really great pork that they cure and smoke themselves. I use their rabbit, chicken and pork. All their animals are pastured.
I also get some meat from The Meat Hook – I use their bones to make stock.
And we get our dairy from Ronnybrook – a dairy upstate. I love their milk. They do what’s called a creamline milk and they don’t homogenize it, so it has amazing flavor and creaminess.
I imagined that there was a whole complicated process to getting accounts set up with these farms. I imagined big famous restaurants were banging down their doors and buying up all their produce, but it’s not the case. They’ve all been really accommodating.
You know, a lot of the farmers at the farmers markets are not certified organic, and I’m OK with that. That’s why I’m so focused on local sourcing rather than looking for labels like organic or free-range. I think knowing your farmer is the best way to understand the food. If you’re just buying something because it has a label, you don’t really know what’s happening behind that label. Who knows if the reality matches up with what you think those labels should mean?
Seeing a farmer who lives nearby, in person every week, and talking to them – getting to know how they grow crops or animals – is a much better, healthier way to source food. That’s how I feel, anyway. And it’s great to have the opportunity to get a glimpse of the farming lifestyle, to be reminded that all this food is being grown not far from the city, and to directly support the people growing the food you’re eating.
How did you end up becoming interested in cooking and in soup in particular?
I grew up in New England. My father’s side of the family is Filipino and my mother’s is of English and Scottish descent. The all came over and moved to the Cape and the islands. So, two very different backgrounds.
My dad was first generation American. When we would go to their house, everyone would be speaking in Tagalog. My early memories of food were often around people complaining about food. At my dad’s parents’ house I remember my grandfather always complaining that there wasn’t enough salt in my grandmother’s food! Ha ha ha!
I really liked her food. She made this soup called sinagang – it’s a sort of citrusy, salty broth with a few vegetables and that’s it. I loved it. The other dish she made that I really liked was called arroz caldo, which is basically a Filipino version of congee – it’s rice that’s cooked down with a really rich chicken stock, with soy sauce and fried garlic on top.
And I remember eating with spoons. Filipinos usually eat with a knife and a spoon or a fork and a spoon, because they eat so many soups, stews and sabao. Sabao just means ‘soup’ in Tagalog. With a sabao, you’ll have a pile of rice and some meat and vegetables. You pour a broth over it and you eat it with a really big spoon. Like a huge tablespoon. My grandfather would even eat with a serving spoon sometimes! So I guess subconsciously I’ve always been interested in eating with spoons. It’s part of my heritage!
My fascination with cooking really started to blossom in college. In the dining hall I’d take notes about things like which fried chicken parts were better than others. When I’d go home, I’d get into my mom’s cookbooks. The one I always gravitated towards was The Silver Palate, because it was as much about the experience of dining as it was about the recipes. I started going through the cookbooks and making dinners for my family and I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t just the recipes – the whole experience of making and serving a meal really appealed to me. I loved the whole process of choosing recipes and setting the table and sitting down and having everyone gather and talk and eat.
When I was a senior in college I thought about going to culinary school, but it didn’t seem to make sense. I wanted to be able to support myself. I moved to New York and ended up with a career in media. In 2008, before the market crashed, I thought, “I don’t know whether this is what I want to do with my life.”
I was in my mid-twenties and I realized I hadn’t been thinking about what I’d been doing. I was making money, but was that all I really wanted? It had nothing to do with anything I was interested in. So I decided to go to culinary school at night. I kept my day job.
When I finished culinary school – I still don’t know how I did this – I trailed at a few restaurants at night. I trailed at Fatty ‘Cue in Williamsburg and at Eat in Greenpoint, which is like the complete, exact opposite of Fatty ‘Cue.
How were they different?
Fatty ‘Cue was…exciting. All men. All packed into a kitchen about the size of a large table. Tiny. There were four cooks and the chef de cuisine. Working in a real restaurant kitchen is a very different experience than what you get in school, but culinary school definitely prepares you for it. You know what’s expected of you, and you have the skills. I was nervous, but I was confident I could figure it out.
So I trailed. The chef de cuisine would say, “Watch me make this dish.” When he was done he’d say, “OK, you do the next one.” And we were all in this tiny kitchen, standing shoulder to shoulder. Every surface was blazing hot, except for this little area in front of the stove where you plate.
At Fatty ‘Cue everything just comes out as soon it’s ready. When you order, they tell you that. They say, “Don’t expect to have your salad before your short ribs.” So it’s super fast-paced in the kitchen. They’re screaming orders at you and you’re just frantically trying to do everything at once. Everyone’s packed in, in this whirlwind, it’s unbelievably hot, they’re blasting heavy metal music…
At culinary school we had really classic French training – you’re taught to really respect your bosses, your chefs. I remember I kept calling the chef, “Chef.” He was like, “Really? Come on.”
The second night I was there they had me share a station with one of the cooks. He was pouring sweat. It was like 200 degrees in there. His face was colorless. At some point he kind of collapsed onto the floor groaning. It turned out he was passing a kidney stone. He came out and said to the chef, “I’m really sorry, I have to leave.”
The chef was like, “You’re passing a kidney stone. Go to the hospital!”
So suddenly, in the middle of this intense environment, two hundred degree heat, steam pouring out of the dishwasher, heavy metal music blasting, orders flying in, the chef looks at me and says, “You – you’re on the station. You’re in it. Go.”
And it was amazing. It was a huge adrenaline rush. I left that night feeling like, “YEAH!” I really contemplated quitting my job and taking an $8-an-hour job as a line cook, because nothing else can make you feel like that. It’s addictive. It doesn’t make sense for any other reason.
But it’s really intense. I wouldn’t be able to do that kind of work for a place where I didn’t love the food.
And then there was Eat?
Eat was totally the opposite sort of experience. Eat is very ascetic, super-super local, and almost vegan at times.
My first day there, Jordan — who’s the owner and chef — and I met up and took our bikes on the L to the Union Square Greenmarket to shop. We loaded up on vegetables and he was like, “OK, let’s ride back.” It was crazy – I had bags of produce on either side of the big, a huge bag stuffed into the wicker basket on the front of my bike, and another big bag strapped onto my back rack. My bike at the time was the bike that I rode in middle school. It was so over-loaded that I could barely pedal. I was freaking out that I was going to go down and crush all the tomatoes or something.
Jordan was like, “Don’t worry, we’ll take it slow.” It was this beautiful day and I just thought, “Wow – is this what he actually does every day? This is amazing!”
We got back to the restaurant and it was quiet, and we made soup, a vegetable stock, some tea. It was very peaceful. He let me make a strawberry chutney. His philosophy is that everyone in the kitchen is equal. There’s no dishwasher – you wash the dishes, you do all the prep. There’s a lot of freedom regarding what goes on the menu – it’s really based on what’s in season and available at the farmer’s market.
It was just so relaxed. His friends would come into the kitchen in the middle of service and just hang out. He really cultivated an environment that he wants to maintain. And in my head I was like, “God, how does this work? How does he make any money?” – because it was just so peaceful and such a drastic difference from the experience at Fatty ‘Cue.
I really loved both those experiences, but in the end I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen. So Brian and I started talking about ideas, and we both liked the idea of doing something with soup. I’d always make soups when I had people over and I loved soup. We started thinking, “Maybe we can create a brand around soup – soups made with great local, seasonal ingredients from local farmers.”
So we thought, let’s try it. And we just started doing it. We started testing recipes. We pitched Brooklyn Flea kind of on a whim about a year ago. When we got in, we knew – this was it. We just had to go for it. So we were at Flea and Smorgasburg in Williamsburg every week until the end of the season. Now we’re doing deliveries throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, our soups are on the menu at Paulie Gee’s, and at Eastern District in Greenpoint and Brooklyn Victory Garden in Clinton Hill, and we’re gearing up to launch a monthly soup subscription delivery service next month.
It’s been crazy. When we started out, we were renting kitchen space at a shawarma grill down the street from our apartment. I was running back and forth from the apartment to the shawarma grill cooking everything. Our process was totally inefficient — making all these trips during the week to different farmers markets. I don’t know how we did it because everything we did we did in the slowest and most expensive way possible. Things are much smoother now, but I’m sure I’ll look back someday at how we’re doing things now and think we were really stupid. Ha ha.
But you just have to start doing it. You figure out how to improve the process as you go. That’s still our philosophy – that it’s better to be doing it, to be pursuing something you care about and find rewarding than to be just sitting at home thinking about it.
Hopes and dreams for Sea Bean?
They change. Focusing on the local ingredients and making food with what’s seasonally available is really important to me. My goal would be to have what a friend of mine called ‘micro-souperies’ – shops or kitchens close to the farms we source from, wherever those farms might be. So you’d know that wherever you were picking up a Sea Bean soup it was made with local ingredients grown on farms nearby.
Ready to dive into your own bowl of Sea Bean Goods’ brothy delights? You can find their soups at Paulie Gee’s, Eastern District, and Brooklyn Victory Garden in Greenpoint. Can’t make it there? Sea Bean is now delivering soups (info is not yet available on their website, but you can email them here)! Next month they’ll be starting a soup-subscription service where you can get a a few quarts every two weeks — for more details, check back on Nona in the coming weeks or visit Sea Bean Goods’ website.