By Jennifer Meehan
If you’ve ever thought about eating completely locally and seasonally, you know how daunting it might seem. No salads all winter? No olive oil?! But we like olive oil! In fact, according to Jordan Colon, Chef and owner of Eat restaurant in Greenpoint, the challenge to strictly local sourcing is actually having so many options.
While the food always comes first at Eat, Jordan also views his restaurant as a kind of artistic endeavor – one that he hopes will broaden diners’ perspectives on the diversity and abundance available through strictly local sourcing, and that will encourage Brooklynites to envision an appealing alternative to the industrially-based cuisine that it’s so hard to escape.
I met up with Jordan at the restaurant to talk about what inspired him to open a restaurant with a hard-core devotion to local, seasonal cooking.
What was the inspiration behind Eat restaurant?
It didn’t happen overnight – it was an evolutionary growth. I started here in 2006. It was a record store and coffee shop and I had the opportunity to take over the coffee shop part of it. I did that and slowly started getting into doing local food. My neighbor has a farm upstate and she was serving me vegetables. My sister was living in Italy at the time and I was traveling to see her. She was living with a bread maker who does all traditional stuff and she met a lot of people at the market who were doing organic food. I would visit there with her and got very inspired. One thing I liked about visiting Italy was their food; it was all from Italy and that’s what made it special. I thought, ‘why isn’t the food here special? Why do we feel like we have to bring so much in from so far away?’
How did you start to make the changeover?
Slowly, slowly I started brining in more products. I changed my outlook and said, well we can do it all! I slowly found different oils, the person making vinegar, all different things. It’s actually easy if you change your perspective.
Ok, that leads to my next question. Do you ever feel like you’re limited by cooking this way?
No! The opposite. There’s too much stuff to get. We live in a culture and society with a concept of convenience that is a little backward. We want everything at our fingertips. There’s a little bit of entitlement. We need to be more conscious of how we’re getting goods and this is one start.
Do you have the same eating habits out of the restaurant or is that just a focus for the restaurant? Are you looser with sourcing in your daily life?
It’s both. The restaurant’s a business and I’m a human being. I do eat this way mostly, but I’m also in the world. I’m not out to change the world. I love olive oil. Olive oil is wonderful!
The business is in the imaginary realm. It’s conceptual, it’s conceptual art. Any movement, any sort of change or revolution – whatever you want to call it, I call it evolution – comes with art. Art comes first and that sets the groundwork for the rest of the people. They have to be able to stomach it. So this is art. Me, personally, I only eat vegetables that are in season because I think they’re the best. In the winter I don’t eat lettuce. It’s easy. Some things, if I’m at a friend’s house and they’re serving dinner I’m going to eat dinner with them. I’m not going to say, “Where did this kale come from?”
Do you have a favorite season for cooking? How often do you get your produce?
All of them! All the seasons are great. I try not to discern too much because you can’t control it. Fall’s great, summer’s great. Spring’s exciting for all the fresh stuff coming in. The winter is as exciting as this time of year. At first I thought it would be hard to cook in the winter, but it’s really not. You don’t have a lot of fresh things, but we [try to] prepare. We dry a lot of peppers and herbs. It’s really laborious – I spent probably at least 60 hours this year just tying peppers on strings.
Right now I go to the market Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. In the summer, starting in this month, I’ll get a delivery on Monday from John Ronsani from Lineage Farms – we’re hosting his CSA here. Friday, if I need to I’ll go to Union Square. Saturday, McCarren Park. Everything’s at McCarren — it’s a great, diverse market. That takes us through the week. We don’t buy large quantities so we can keep moving through it. That’s also why we only have one meal and no choices – so we don’t have any waste. The whole restaurant is running like a permaculture system!
I also saw that you have some herbs growing outside — do you grow the basics like herbs and lettuce yourself?
Not really, what I’ve planted outside is mostly decorational.
So is that something you get at the farmers market? I’ve mostly seen them selling the actual plant. Or do you reach out to city/rooftop farms for smaller scale items like that?
Yes, all the herbs are from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and Battery Rooftop Garden. Fred Richie has a rooftop terrace; he’s helped us out. I got various herbs and sorrels from him this week. The rooftops – they’re more about empowering and educating people than producing huge amounts of food.
What’s an example of an Eat meal?
Dinner is a full meal for $35 – $40. Tonight it’s going to be pickled ramps (which I spent all afternoon doing) served with bread I make here by hand – whole wheat and sourdough. The soup is sea vegetable with carrots, mushrooms and green garlic. There’s a polenta with adzuki beans, a poached egg and spinach. Then a pea tendril salad with sunflower seed aioli, wild chives and apple. For dessert there are cookies and tea.
What have you found to be the main challenges of cooking and running a business this way?
The one challenge is working with the public. Cooking this way isn’t hard. As far as doing the business this way, it has been a little difficult because you can’t be out to please everybody. Some people want to come out and eat really cheap food but unfortunately this isn’t really cheap food. Anybody who’s been to the farmers market knows how much things can cost and we get every single ingredient from the farmers market or directly from farmers. A part of me would love to see this be really inexpensive, and for a while I priced it really inexpensively but I was going out of business. I wanted to change the system, in essence. But that’s only going to defeat you. If we want to see cheap organic food we need to see a whole infrastructure change. This is an example of what it can be like – it’s also very healthy, it’s very fresh, it’s very tasty. It’s something that you can treat yourself to.
Is there anything specific you hope to achieve over this next coming year?
Once again I’m not interested in the growth model, I want to get to a point where we can just cap it. I want to do everything and continue doing it by hand. We make the bread and some of the pottery ourselves now. I’m going to get a kiln and begin doing all the pottery myself. My main goal for this year is to do one seating a night by reserving the restaurant – about 30 people. During the day it will continue to be more informal — you can just pop in and out. We’ll do prepared foods like rice salads and grain salads in ball jars. You can buy the jar and take it with you or you can buy a side of bread and eat it here. We’ll make kimchi and pickles and stuff that you can just buy. Almost like a store during the day with one or two things prepared but no hot cooking.
Eat is located at 124 Meserole Avenue (between Leonard and Eckford) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. For hours, reservations and more, check their website.