Most chefs dream the same dream: To work in the best kitchens they can, under the best chefs they can, to master the complex matrix of cooking and management skills required to open their own place, and then to do just that – strike out and open their own restaurant where they can do their own food, their own way, on their own terms.
When Joseph Ogrodnek and Walker Stern, friends from their days together in the kitchen at Alain Ducasse at The Essex House, found themselves working together again during Ogrodnek’s celebrated tenure as executive chef at Greenpoint’s Anella, Stern suggested that the time had come to open their own place.
Ogrodnek agreed, and the two opened Battersby, an intimate spot on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, a couple of years ago. They share a tiny kitchen — doing everything from the shopping to the prep work — and cook every dish themselves.
We stopped by to learn more about their unusual decision to share a kitchen together, their journeys through some of the city’s finest kitchens to their new home on Smith Street, and their spontaneous tasting menu – a freewheeling, constantly-changing culinary journey that’s generated some serious buzz.
So how did you guys decide to join forces to open your own place? You don’t see accomplished chefs teaming up to cook together in the same kitchen very often…
Joe: Walker and I have known each other for a long time. We graduated from culinary school together, and we worked together at Alain Ducasse at The Essex House for a couple of years – that’s when we really became friends.
We both went on to do our own things, working at different places, but we always stayed in touch and remained friends. Last winter Walker had left The Vanderbilt and was working with me at Anella in Greenpoint, and we started talking about doing something together.
Walker was the first to say, “We should open our own place.” I remember that moment and I was just like, “OK. Let’s do it.” I was ready.
Walker: For any chef, it’s always the dream to have your own restaurant. We just realized we could fast-forward the process by doing it together.
Joe: It’s unusual for chefs like us to team up with another chef. Some people will even think that sounds problematic. But looking back on it I think that was the smartest decision we could have made. We did this together – everything from finding the space, doing a business plan, finding investors, building out the space, and now cooking together – and I can’t tell you how right it feels that I’m with Walker in this.
Walker: Sharing the responsibility for all the decisions we make has led to better decisions.
Joe: It’s not like we couldn’t have each done it on our own. We could have. But it would have been a lot harder, it would have taken longer, and I don’t think it would have been done as well. With anything, you can only do so much, and there are certain things you’re good at and certain things you’re not. With both of us involved, we’re able to be better at more things.
Walker: We ended up doing everything ourselves. We didn’t know what we were getting into at first. Early on, we had some designers come in. They were really nice and cool, and then they started giving us estimates. When we started seeing those estimates, we were like…there’s no way this is gonna happen unless we do all this ourselves.
But by that point we were past the point of no return. There was no going back.
Joe: We didn’t know what we were getting into, but looking back I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. It was a great learning experience.
Walker: Yeah, but I’m not sure I’d want to do it that way again!
So let’s talk about the food.
Joe: The food – that’s the best part about the restaurant!
We had originally planned to keep the food really simple. The original idea was to get the place open, and just do something really nice but really simple.
But the same thing happened with the food that happened with the construction of the space – once we got into it we just wanted to go all out – to make the best food we possibly could.
And that’s what we’re doing. Yeah – we’re doing ‘New American.’ It’s seasonal. But everyone’s doing that – that’s not important. We’re not doing it that way because it’s a particular way of doing things that we really really believe in or anything. We just want to use the best products we can get, work with the best producers we can find, and make the best food we can make. And that means using local and seasonal ingredients because they’re the best you can get, and because we have relationships with people producing really great product.
Walker and I have been cooking in the city for a long time – at some great restaurants, and some big restaurants and some small ones, and we’re just kind of…
Walker: Just doing what we feel. Doing the best food we can at a price point that makes sense.
Joe: I couldn’t be happier with what we’re doing here now and where we’re going with the food. We’re just getting started and the sky’s the limit.
It’s just Walker and me and Michael Sowa doing everything.
Walker: Michael is a great cook that I’ve worked with a lot.
Joe: It’s just us three in the kitchen. And I think that’s what makes the food special. Walker and I are totally hands-on. We don’t have a guy peeling the onions for the stock. We do it all. We go to the market to get the produce, we put it away, we clean it, we prepare it, we cook it…
Walker: And we’re in the weeds every day! Ha ha ha. It’s no joke. At 5:30? We are NOT ready. I don’t know how we pull it off, but we do. We hit the ground running with service every night. And somehow we’ve been running out of everything at the end of every night and we start fresh the next day. And that’s great – that’s the way it should be!
Seriously, a lot of restaurants will make a big batch of something and serve it all week.
Joe: No. We’re not doing that.
Walker: We don’t even have the option of doing that! We don’t have anywhere to store anything! We don’t even have a pot big enough to do that!
Joe: We’re doing it the only way we know how to do it. The kind of food we’re doing here is the same level of food you see at all the places we’ve worked at. But it’s our own own take on it.
I think we’re offering a really great value for the kind of food we’re doing. And we’re able to do that because it’s just us. We don’t have a lot of overhead. We’re not paying a whole kitchen staff. It’s just us.
Walker: And we want to be cool with everybody, you know? We want people to come in and have a great time and a great experience and want to come back again and again.
Joe, you said the whole New American, seasonal thing is meaningless. I know cooks often don’t like to categorize their food. Tell us more about that.
Walker: That’s what we are, but if we call ourselves that whoever hears it is going to have their own assumptions and preconceived notions about what that means, and about the kind of food we’re making. So when you start to talk about categories like that people immediately have these expectations about your food, and that kind of compromises it. We are ‘New American,’ but our food is definitely not the food most people will think of when they hear those labels.
Joe: It’s not meaningless. We definitely are New American and seasonal. It’s just that when people ask you, “What kind of restaurant is it?” and you say, “New American and seasonal,” what does that tell you? It tells you nothing about our food. There is no information you can get from that.
Walker: I guess our flavors and dishes are mostly French with a strong Mediterranean influence, and that comes from the Ducasse experience and approach. But we play with Asian, Indian and Latin flavors – all that stuff is part of what we do. But we aren’t ever trying to do authentic Asian food or whatever – we’re doing our own thing. We might be looking to add a little mustiness by incorporating an Indian spice, or we might go for a variation of the sweet/sour/spicy flavor profile that’s common in Asian cooking, but we’re working those elements into our own dishes, never trying to reproduce something.
Joe: We use everything from all over the map. The only way to describe it as a whole is New American, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about the food.
So is that what New American really means at the end of the day? Just doing whatever you want, in your own way?
Joe: It’s the melting pot mentality. America doesn’t really have a traditional cuisine like Italy or France, so we take elements and inspiration from other cuisines and incorporate them into our own thing.
Walker: I’ve never been to Asia. I’ve never been to India. So where have I experienced those flavors? Here, in America. I use those flavors in my cooking, but I’ve only experienced them in the American context. So all those influences fit into the ‘New American’ thing.
I know your menu changes all the time. How do you plan what you’re going to serve each night?
Joe: At the end of the night we’ll talk about what we have left, and think about what we want to do the next day. We’ll sit down with that night’s menu and scribble down some ideas…
Walker: Let’s change this or try that…
Joe: Maybe cross a couple of things off, change something, and leave some other things alone. So we’re not necessarily changing everything every day, but over the course of a week you’ll see a bunch of things change on the menu. You’ll see some new things, some things we’ve done before but that we’ve changed in some way…
And also Walker or I might be at the market and see something that looks great. If something looks great, we’re going to buy it and do something with it. And when it’s gone it’s gone.
And that’s what’s great about the way we’re cooking here. It’s very spontaneous.
Walker: A lot of places will change the menu four times a year and that’s it. The menu is built on slots. Each season you slot in new dishes at specific price points. You have five apps and seven main courses covering a range of proteins and price points and you slot things in and slot things out. It’s heavily programmed.
Joe: I hate that. There are no rules with our menu. There’s a basic outline of how we organize it, but we’re open to do whatever. The bottom line for us is: Does it taste good? Are we happy with it? Are we proud of it? Does it look good? Do we want to serve it?
But that’s easy. We’ve been working together for a while and we know what works and what doesn’t.
You mentioned that you have relationships with local producers. How does that work? Anyone you particularly love working with?
Joe: We go to the markets. We go to Union Square on Wednesday and Saturday, we got to Borough Hall on Tuesday and Thursday, the Carroll Gardens market is right up the street on Sunday.
Walker: And that’s all good, but we also have a guy. His name is Dan Machin. He actually was my roommate a few years ago when I lived in an apartment with five other people here in Carroll Gardens. He’s a pretty awesome dude. He was a waiter and just doing the New York thing. And one day a few years ago he was like, “Fuck it. I’m going to move out to Long Island and be a farmer.”
He interned at Satur Farms, which is kind of big now, but it’s a really nice, really great farm. Then he got hooked up with an organization that buys land and sets it aside for farming. So he has one acre of land that he farms out on Long Island. His farm is called The Lone Acre. He grows 100 varietals of rare and heirloom vegetables and stuff on his one acre. He’s certified organic. His stuff is legit. It’s so perfect and nice.
Joe: He puts a lot of care into it. He’s not in it for the money – you can’t do that with one acre. But he’s able to grow amazing things. The carrots he grows are the sweetest carrots I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t know carrots could be that way. The spinach is unbelievable…
Walker: He’ll tell us, “Oh it’s gonna frost soon. Once you get a frost the spinach retains all this sugar. The stems are unbelievably sweet.” He’ll be like, “I’m gonna leave this in the ground for you guys until it frosts and it’s going to be unbelievable. You’re going to love it.”
We get the straight hook up from him.
Joe: He’ll give us a call or send us an email with a list of everything he’s got before he harvests. He’ll have sunchokes in the ground. You tell him you want some and he’ll harvest them and we’ll have them here in the restaurant the next day. That’s pretty awesome.
Walker: I talked to him yesterday. He said he’s got celery root. “They’re tiny,” he said, “But you should get them. They’re really sweet because they’re so young.” So we got some and just shaved it, gave it a light sauté. And the taste was amazing.
Joe: It’s great to work with someone like that because he’s just so into what he does and he really takes it seriously. He takes the same approach to his farming that we take to our cooking. When somebody has that kind of approach you know they’re going to have a great product.
Walker: Dan is really a pretty big part of the cuisine here.
So how did each of you guys get interested in food, in cooking? And how did you end up here together?
Walker: I started getting pretty serious about cooking as a teenager. I got a job as a cook at a really busy brasserie-type place in the Bay Area called The Left Bank. They did pretty good food.
The guy that owned it was a chef named Roland Passot, and he had a fine dining place in San Fransisco called La Folie. After working at The Left Bank I want to culinary school at C.I.A., and I did my internship at La Folie, and that was a huge eye-opener. It was crazy. The ingredients, the preparation – everything was at a completely different level than I’d ever been exposed to. I didn’t realize how much care and work could go into assembling and cooking and tasting everything and making sure everything was perfect.
The chef, Roland, was there every day, constantly checking everything, every dish. It was that French kitchen culture where the chef was screaming at everyone all the time, going completely crazy. And I really liked it.
After finishing school I got an opportunity to work for a guy named Sylvan Portay, who was the chef at the Ritz Carlton in San Fransisco. Sylvan was pretty much the man in San Fransisco. He had been with Ducasse since before Ducasse was famous. He was the first chef at Monte Carlo when they got three stars.
He was notorious for being unbelievably serious. There was no talking allowed in his kitchen – that kind of stuff. It was scary. But I got the job and it was awesome. He’s a great chef and I learned a lot from him, and from the discipline and the culture in his kitchen.
He left there to become Ducasse’s corporate chef for North America, and his first project was opening Mix in Las Vegas. I went with him.
Mix was crazy. It was a huge restaurant. They did four hundred covers. They had fifty cooks in the kitchen, and it had some key people from those Sylvan Portay and Alain Ducasse camps involved. Some serious professionals. So I moved to Vegas, and I learned a lot. I worked with some really talented people there.
But I hated living in Vegas. Eventually I told Sylvan I had to get out of Vegas. I was like, “I gotta get out of here. I gotta do something. I can’t be in Vegas anymore. I’m going crazy!”
Sylvan said, “OK. I will set you up at Essex House in New York.”
And then nothing happened. Every month I’d ask him, “When can I go!? When can I go!?” He’d be a total asshole and be like, “Bah – I cannot do this now!” And then finally after I asked him for like the fifth time he was like, “Be there on Monday.” Ha ha.
So I moved to New York, showed up at Ducasse at Essex House, and Joe was there. My friend Danny Amend, who’s the chef at Franny’s now was there. Brad McDonald who’s the chef at Colonie was there…
Joe: I remember when those guys all came in. It was great.
Walker: It was awesome. I hated Vegas. I was kind of lost there. And suddenly I found myself in a cab coming into New York from the airport. I hadn’t spent much time here and I was just looking out the window thinking, “What the fuck? This is awesome.” I was riding the subway to work, I was working at Ducasse! In this serious kitchen. It just all felt right. I knew this was where I was supposed to be.
When they eventually closed down Ducasse, I hooked up with Juan Cuevos, who was the chef at Blue Hill. He was an old Sylvan guy, an old Ducasse guy. So I knew we were going to get along and we did get along. I was with him at Blue Hill for a while. When he left to open 81 I went with him as his sous chef. When that place started going down he moved to New Jersey and I got a job at The Vanderbilt before eventually going over to Anella to work with Joe again.
With Juan I really found my style. He let me have one. You can’t really have a style at a place like Ducasse – you do what they do how they want it done. That’s a great way to learn the skills and the approach to food. But Juan let me do my own thing a little bit and helped me develop my own style.
I think that anything I cook now would be accepted in that Ducasse environment, but I have more of a personal style now than I did then.
How about you Joe?
Joe: I grew up in Philadelphia. I always loved eating. My mom cooked a lot at home, and it was great and I loved being a part of it. I was always kind of interested in cooking. So when it came time for me to find a job when I was a teenager I thought, “Why not cook?”
It just so happened that one of my neighbors had a sister who owned a restaurant called Opus 251. It’s not there anymore, but it was a really great restaurant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was amazing that the chef there agreed to let someone like me with no experience work there.
Working in the kitchen was not anything like I thought it was going to be. It was very fast paced, intense. There’s a lot going on. And for the right person it’s a lot of fun. It’s great. You work closely with a lot of people. You get to work with a lot of different products. You work with your hands, which I love, and there’s that whole creative element to it.
I was the youngest guy in the kitchen, but they didn’t treat me like a kid when I was there. They’d take me out after work and stuff. That part was great, but I really loved the work and the food. I felt like I’d just kind of jumped into the fast lane with a career. From that point on I never looked back. I never thought about doing anything else. I just knew instantly that I loved cooking.
After high school I went to culinary school at C.I.A. I did my externship at Tabla, and while I was there I became friends with one of the sous chef, a guy named Ben Hollinger.
After I finished school I went back to Philadelphia and worked in a couple of great places, learned a lot. But I had always wanted to move to New York. My big brother had gone to school here, at Columbia. My sister and I would always come and visit him, and I remember having that experience of taking a taxi or the subway or something and thinking, “Wow. This place is really cool.”
One day out of the blue, my brother called me at the restaurant and said, “My roommate is moving out. Why don’t you come up and take his room in the apartment.”
I was like, “When is he moving out?” And my brother said, “Next week.”
So I moved to New York. I didn’t have a job. I trailed at a few restaurants, and I ran into Ben Hollinger again. He was the chef de cuisine at Union Square Café. I loved the whole Danny Meyer thing – I think he does a great job with his restaurants – so I took a job there. It was a great experience. It wasn’t the highest-level dining restaurant, but I learned a lot about how to work with people, how to hustle on the line, how to get the job done, and how to make great, simple food.
Ben Hollinger had worked for Christian Delouvrier for a long time. I had always loved Alain Ducasse and Christian Delouvrier was the chef Ducasse at Essex House. I always talked about wanting to go work there, but I never thought they’d hire me, because I’d never worked in a place like that. I mentioned it to Ben a few months after I started working there, and Ben said, “Listen, if you stick around here for a year and a half, I’ll go to bat for you and I’ll call Christian Delouvrier and I’ll get you in over there.”
I said, “That sounds great.” I didn’t know how much of a sure thing it was. I knew he’d try, but I didn’t know whether I’d actually get it.
I just really wanted that. I wanted to work for Christian Delouvrier at Ducasse. At one time, he was the big chef here. A year and a half later Ben stuck to his word. He called Christian Delouvrier. Christian Delouvrier called back on the kitchen line at Union Square Café asking for me. I’ll always remember getting that phone call.
He said in his French accent, “Ben Hollinger says you want to work for me, so come on Monday.”
So I came in that Monday to trail.
Were you nervous?
I was so nervous. I’ve never been so nervous any other time in my life. I still remember to this day that ride to the Essex House. I was early, so I walked through Central Park. And when I went into the kitchen my hands were shaking. I had never seen a kitchen like that before. I didn’t know what to expect. It was all black! I was like, “Wow.”
It was a really cool kitchen. Everything was so nice: Black marble counter tops, the pots were all copper, the Molteni stove, really nice lighting. It was so cool and I felt so fortunate to be there. I was nervous. I wanted to make a good impression. I wanted to get the job. And at the end of the day when I spoke to Christian he said, “Ben says you’re a good guy. For me, that’s enough. When can you start?”
It was a little rough for me at the beginning. They were kind of hard on the new guy coming from Union Square Café to a place like Alain Ducasse at The Essex House. But after a little time I was doing well there. Making that jump into that level of fine dining changed my life entirely. It was a great experience and that’s when Walker and I started working together.
The motivation and the drive and the passion from everyone from the cooks to the chef at Ducasse was top notch. The amount of work that went into every little thing in that place was unbelievable. I remember every day just feeling lucky to be there, to have my hands on those products, and to be in that kitchen, with those ingredients, those pots, that stove, that china, with those guys…everything was great.
Walker: In that kind of kitchen there’s one guy who just cooks fish. That’s it. He just cooks fish.
Joe: There’s another guy who just does the fish sauce. That’s it. Sometimes there are two guys doing nothing but the fish sauce, because it’s a crazy sauce. Which is kind of crazy when you think that here we do everything ourselves.
You rotate through different stations depending on what was needed and who was doing well…
Walker: Everybody could be pretty much plugged in at any station, because we had a good group of guys.
Joe: I was there for almost three years. I really liked it. I stayed until the end, when they closed that place up. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a place like that again. That’s more like a fantasy world. I always have in my head that I’d like to get back into fine dining someday, but…
Walker: It’s hard though. Sylvan used to tell me years ago, “Fine dining is dead.” The opulence of a place like that is too much. It probably wouldn’t be wise to try to recreate something like that now.
Joe: It’s too extreme.
Walker: But you can take what you learn in a place like that and apply it in any kitchen. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
Joe: That’s exactly what we’re doing here. Like Walker was saying, we have this foundation that we built at Ducasse, and we’ll always have that. There’s something about that way of cooking and that approach to food and ingredients that we love. Our cooking styles are very different in a lot ways, but we share that foundation.
He just said a little while ago like, “Anything I make here would still be acceptable in that world.” I feel the same way. And because we share that foundation and approach, we can work really well together even though we have different styles at times.
After Ducasse I wanted to stay in fine dining. I wanted to go to Per Se. I trailed there for a while but they didn’t have an opening at the time, so they sent me over to Gramercy Tavern. Mike Anthony was the chef there at the time. Jonathan Benno was the chef at Per Se and he used to work at Gramercy. So that’s how I ended up at Gramercy.
And that was a great experience too. I love how that whole group is set up, and how they treat their employees…how right it is. It was a whole different world again going from Ducasse back to the Union Square group. That experience kind of set me straight. Moving into a management position and running a kitchen and learning how to get what you need out of people was great. It was huge.
I was there for about two and a half years. After that I went traveling for a while. I took some time off and traveled all over the place. And when I came back I wanted to get back into fine dining and go work for another big chef before doing my own thing.
So I took a job with Jean Georges for a short time before realizing that I really was ready to do my own thing. I realized it was time for me to be a chef. And that’s when I found the job at Anella. And that’s when I started doing my own thing, and my cooking style got to really develop.
I was a little unsure at first about jumping into a chef position, and starting up a team with people I didn’t know very well, but I did it and it got very comfortable very quickly. I was ready. It was a really small start at Anella, way off in the corner of Greenpoint. But it was fun. That place went from being a little pizza and pasta place to being something a little bit nicer. We turned a few heads at that spot, and that was cool.
After being there for a while, it just made me want to have something of my own even more. So when Walker came along and was working with me there, when he said it that day…he said, “Fuck this, we should just open up our own place. We should do our own thing.” I was ready. I was ready to do it.
This has been a roller coaster ride. We definitely didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, but we’re here. It worked out. We really just opened, but we’re in a good place. It feels good to be cooking again, and to be cooking together. We’re being very ambitious with the menu. We could tone it down a little bit to make it easier, but we’re not going to do that. This is just how we cook. This is the way we know how to cook.
Tell us about the spontaneous tasting menu. I’ve heard good things…
Walker: People seem to really like it.
Joe: It’s really cool. We put aside some things for the spontaneous tasting menu – things we have in really limited quantities, or a dish we’ve been working on but haven’t yet put on the menu. We order some special stuff, some more luxurious things and set them aside for the tasting menu.
I love what we’re doing with it. The food is getting pretty elevated and I feel like we can keep going with it. You don’t need a million dollar kitchen, or a big budget, or a huge space to do beautiful things. And that’s what we’re doing and it’s really fun.
Not a lot of places offer a spontaneous tasting menu, but it works really well for our style of cooking. It’s a really good value too.
Walker: We’re accommodating with it too. We’ll do whatever we can to put together a tasting menu that works for you. If someone’s a vegetarian, we’ll put together a vegetarian tasting menu on the spot. If someone doesn’t eat red meat, we’ll do a seafood tasting for them.
Joe: If you wanted to, you could come here five days a week and get five different tasting menus. We like cooking that way.
And we’ve been really fortunate with our clientele. I thought the spontaneous tasting menu would take a while to catch on, but on the third night we offered it we had something like twelve tables go for it. As a chef, it’s a great thing to know that your clientele trusts you like that – trusts you to decide for them.
Battersby is located at 225 Smith Street, between Douglas and Degraw, in Carroll Gardens.