We have it good in Brooklyn. We have it really good. Farmers from the Hudson Valley and beyond pick the fields, pack their trucks and roll through through woods and fields to our pre-dawn streets to pile tables high with their harvest at markets every week. Restaurants and diners have embraced the farm-to-table ethos, and had their minds blown over the possibilities of regional, seasonal cuisine. We all want to know where it’s from and how it’s grown, and we all want it good. And it is, if not here, then at the next place, just down the block, or around the corner.
So…what happens next? In a city whose DNA dictates that new becomes old, that progress becomes history in the blink of an eye, where the frenetic pace of living drives us to inexorably push forward, innovate, and create or to get out of the way for somebody who will, the threat of creative stagnation looms high over the borough’s culinary culture. There’s no going back, but if we’re all eating the same seasonal market ingredients all the time, how will the borough’s many talented chefs push us forward?
At Governor, Chef Brad McDonald, who worked his way through the kitchens of Essex House, Per Se, and Noma before joining forces with the Colonie team last year, aims to do just that – use the newfound freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants in the kitchen to cast a light into the fog, and forge forward in search of a path ahead.
We met with Brad to find out more about his intentions, and his food, at Governor.
So Brad, looking at the menu here, I get the sense that this isn’t just a new restaurant – I get the sense that we’re about to see the real Brad McDonald. Freedom is in the air. True?
The simple answer is, yes. [laughter.] It is. But this isn’t about me. This is about the community here – in the neighborhood and in Brooklyn. I live here. We all want something nicer, better options in our lives. The kitchen is going to have a lot of freedom here, but we don’t plan to go too far with that freedom, because this is still a community-driven thing. We want to have a certain sophistication about it that’s reflected in the flavors and the look of the food, to let the diner know they’re in good hands. You can trust us not to take advantage of you. We’re here to be playful, but we’re definitely not playing around.
What about that playfulness? What do you mean by that?
There’s so much more to local cuisine than what we know at this point. We’re trying to explore that here at Governor, but we’re still just at the tip of what that actually is, what the region has to offer.
I grew up in Mississippi, but this is my home now. For me, this is about really trying to understand, “What are the ingredients that define this area, my home, my community, the place where I live.” Trying to search for what that food is, to me. And by that to try to take part in the discussion about the question, “What is American food?” People call what we’re doing here New American cuisine, and they call what we’re doing at Colonie New American, but the food at each of those restaurants is quite different. So what does it mean?
In some way it’s kind of meaningless, but we’re hoping to contribute to making it more meaningful. It’s not something that’s going to be defined by one restaurant or even one area. It’s an always-evolving discussion – a conversation that many of us contribute to in search of the meaning of New American cooking, and our own regional cuisine.
Look, we’re all cooking the same things from the Greenmarket, and we want to try to push ourselves to find the variables that will offer something new. That can be as simple as a different cut of meat, or looking at a vegetable we all know in a way we haven’t before, or working with farmers to encourage them to farm for flavor.
There are still a whole lot of farmers who are not farming for flavor. But we hope to send the message that you can take that approach. If you can do that anywhere, you should be able to do it in the Hudson Valley, because there’s nowhere in the country where demand for the newest, latest fashionable thing is as strong as it is here in New York City. That doesn’t drive our approach to things, but we do take into consideration that that demand is a part of what this city is. Not just in food – in everything. So we’re all essentially using the same products, and what makes it interesting for us is when we’re working with something new, and feeding the creative process with those new materials.
So, you’re making an effort to search for new things within the context of a focus on local, regional cuisine…
It’s important to keep challenging yourself when restricting yourself to a focus on local cuisine. You can get lazy. You have to constantly challenge yourself or you can become complacent.
When we first opened I told my pastry chef, “You can’t use vanilla.” She’s French. It was like an overwhelming statement to her. She said, “What do you mean I can’t use vanilla? We use vanilla in everything!” And I said, “Well, let’s not use vanilla here. Let’s see what else we can find.”
Of course, it’s not hard not to use vanilla in desserts. We just wanted to challenge ourselves to find other ways. We’re not cooking anything here that no one else has ever cooked, but we are making an effort to have somewhat of a singular voice if we can.
Restrictions are good for creativity. When you can have everything, it’s often hard to make a decision about exactly what you want.
Restricting yourself creates a field of play…
Yes. That’s essentially what the majority of what are considered the best restaurants in the world are doing. Not to beat the drum anymore than it has been, but at Noma – when I was cooking there we were restricted from using all outside ingredients with the exception of lemons. That’s a pretty severe restriction, and they’re doing some of the most creative cooking in the world. And it’s really hard to cook without lemons, so I think that’s all fair. [laughter.]
Look, we use lemons and limes here. We use tapioca here. I think it’s really hard to cook at the creative level we’re shooting for without making some exceptions to those restrictions. I think you have to allow yourself some spice route stuff or some dry goods that aren’t ultimately going to severely change the course of the menu.
The beauty of cooking in these modern times is that there aren’t any noble ingredients anymore. We’ve really transitioned away from the idea that you have to have foie gras in your meal in order to have a four star dining experience, and that is a great thing. Because that means you can go out and pick a piece of wood sorrel in the park, and you can present that ingredient as something just as noble and of just as high a quality as foie.
The definition of ‘quality’ has totally changed. A great meal no longer has to have these luxury ingredients. Caviar? It’s great, but there are so many other kinds of fish roe that you can work with that are just as delicious, and that used the right way will blow somebody’s mind.
So tell us about some of the dishes here. Illustrate for us how that search for new elements and angles within local, regional cuisine is manifesting itself on the plate.
Again, we’re not doing anything groundbreaking here, but I’ll give you a few examples.
Take romaine lettuce. If you go to the grocery store, you’ll probably get a three-pack of romaine hearts with the roots cut off, in a bag. If you go to the Greenmarket, you’ll find that the romaine is a lot greener, a lot firmer. You have to peel more of the biiter, tougher outer layers before you get to the sweet inner leaves. But the root is still always cut off.
Now, the root of romaine lettuce is absolutely delicious. When it’s braised or nicely seared or roasted, it’s lovely. It’s got all the flavors of the lettuce, but intensified and concentrated in this really wonderful way. So we’ve worked with one of our farmers to keep the roots on for us. When they come in, we pare down the tough, woody, bitter part on the outside of the root, then we split it and cook it on the plancha to give it a nice sear. It’s quite delicious. It’s hearty, and less wasteful. I’m sure there’s some sort of logistical farming reason why it’s so hard to get romaine roots, but it’s an example of a new aspect, a new twist on something we’re all very familiar with, something that’s clearly a part of our local cuisine.
Another one is baby corn, or young corn anyway. We all see baby corn all the time, mostly in Chinese cooking. The thing is, that’s not actually corn. It looks like corn, but it’s not. It’s the bud of some kind of grass. It’s a completely different plant. We’re getting baby corn that’s actually corn, picked from the stalk when it’s very young. We’re getting it from a farmer we work with upstate who is very committed to farming for flavor. Her name is Pat Sheldon. She picks them young for us. When they come in they’re about 4-5 inches long, and when you peel away the husk, they’re tiny. They’re fantastic. They give you a whole new way of looking at corn. You can eat the whole thing. You’re not nibbling these tiny kernels off a tiny cob – you eat the whole thing and it’s delicious.
What do you do with the baby corn?
We’re doing a beautiful dish with it. It’s a sort of Mexican corn and shrimp dish with a few other random influences. We make a cream with a goats’ milk feta and buttermilk. We roast the corn, take them out of their husks, split them down the center, and caramelize the two halves on the plancha. They get marinated in a little bit of lime juice, olive oil, and chili flakes, and then they go down warm on top of the goat feta and buttermilk cream, and they get a little cilantro salsa verde on top – cilantro, olive oil, jalapeno, grilled bread – really simple flavors. And then a head-on prawn, seared a la plancha as well, and straight over the top – fresh lime juice and a little sprinkle of chili. It’s a super-simple dish with a lot of technical thought that’s gone into it, and a lot of elements, but it’s approachable. It’s corn. It’s really satisfying.
Another one is the pork neck. I first had pork neck on one of my trips to Europe, and I came back and asked about it for years. It’s nearly impossible to get it, because you have to cut into the shoulder to harvest the neck. It’s totally uneconomical for any butcher to take that cut out for you, because they have to cut into the top of the rack, cut away from the ribs, and cut away from what’s considered one of the most prime pieces of meat in the country, and that’s pork butt – the shoulder. They can’t do it.
So the only way we can get it is to buy the whole animal – we get ours from Heritage Meats – and butcher it ourselves right here. We’re able to do that through the support of our other two restaurants. We harvest the neck and some other cuts for Governor, and we send other parts to Colonie and Gran Electrica.
So once we’ve harvested the neck cut, we brine it and cook it at a very low temperature for eight hours, sous vide, to tenderize it. Then it gets roasted in a pan and sliced. It’s such a gracious meat – at the end of the day it tastes like a fattier pork chop. So you can ask, “Why not just do a pork chop?” And I’ll ask you back, “Well, why not just do a pork neck?”
It would be easier to do a pork chop, but we have the knowledge to do this, and we’ve spent a lot of time training in order to be able to execute these sorts of things, and we’re trying to add something to the conversation, so why not push ourselves to do this sort of thing, every day? Push ourselves to make make something new, different, better. But here we always want to have a reference point to tie it to something familiar. There’s nothing to be afraid of with pork neck. The reference is a pork chop. If you like pork chop, you’re going to love pork neck.
Foraged things seem to be a nice way to add unfamiliar twists to the conversation. Do they play a role here?
We work with foraged stuff. We don’t have a fully integrated program yet where we’re sending our own chefs out into the field to forage yet, but we have foragers on the ground in Maine. We have a berry forager that comes once a week or so, and she covers a lot of area. So yes. It’s there, but it’s not the focus of what we do.
What we’re striving for here is seasonality, in what’s available at the market and from our local purveyors. It could be driven at times by foraged ingredients, but it’s never driven by chemical alterations and those sorts of cooking techniques. A dish here can be driven by a different technique, but mostly things are driven by flavors we know are going to work well together, products that offer something new and unfamiliar, but that have a familiar reference point. Our hope is to use that reference point as a launching pad, and at some point along the way before we land at the table, to pick up something that’s new and add it to the dish, if that makes sense.
Is it good to be cooking every day again?
Of course. It’s great to be cooking every day, and to create a menu from scratch. It’s a realm – total freedom in the kitchen – that I’ve been looking forward to, and I’ve been working hard towards that for a very long time. Now it’s here, and I’m trying to take advantage of it.
We’re trying to raise the level, raise the bar. We’ve got some great food in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn deserves even better, in terms of effort, service, and convenience. The approach to farm-to-table cuisine doesn’t always have to be casual. Not anymore. Not here.
Governor is located in the Clocktower building at 15 Main Street, in DUMBO. (718) 858-4756.