Andres Valbuena, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, spent a decade cooking at the highest end – three Michelin star places like Mugaritz in Spain, and The French Laundry and Meadowood in California. A few years ago he left it all behind to start a supper club in his Brooklyn apartment. A few weeks ago, he and his wife Melissa opened the Brooklyn Sandwich Society in Fort Greene. We thought we’d stop by for a simple sandwich. We knew none of the backstory. In hindsight, we might have underestimated Andres.
OK Andres, what should we try today?
Today I think I am going to make you my rohan duck meatball. The flavor is very rich, very good for this time of year. One of the things I love to do is changing very often the menu. Changing with the season. This is the season for duck. Between fall and winter, the duck changes. They grow some more fat to prepare for the winter. They get more delicious and juicier. You don’t want to eat skinny, dry duck in the spring. You eat lamb in the spring. The same with the produce, the same with the cheese. They are living products. They have different flavors, different qualities during the course of the seasons, and that is why we change very often. Now is the time to eat duck.
Here, everything is from regional farms. The rohan duck is coming from Hudson Valley Duck, a farm that is at many of the farmers markets in Brooklyn. It’s a special breed that they have developed and raise themselves. It’s a cross between a special type of mallard and a pekin duck. They mallard is bigger. It’s raised for foie gras. It’s bigger and fattier with a more luscious flavor. The pekin is smaller, with a more gamier flavor.
When they’re bred together you get a medium sized duck that has that gamy, meaty flavor, but still has that fatty richness. It’s not so dry. That’s why I choose it to make the meatball. It’s perfect duck meat. It’s very flavorful, and has just the right amount of fat for a perfect meatball.
To make the meatball, I grind the duck meat and I mix it with some fresh herbs and some sambal oelek – an Asian paste of chilies, you know? – and caramelized onion. Then, I just roast it to make it nice and brown in the pan.
I serve the meatball sitting in a pomme aligot. Pomme aligot is a traditional French preparation that’s kind of like a potato fondue, made with cream and cheese. In France, it’s often served with a sausage or roast pork. It’s a good accompaniment for the duck meatball.
In France the aligot is usually made with an alpine cheese like gruyere or tomme, but I use a different cheese – a cheese from a creamery in Connecticut called Cato Corner. They have these fantastic, fantastic cheeses. One of my favorites is their aged Bloomsday. It’s sharp and tangy, and a little nutty and sweet, and it melts very well. It’s similar to an aged cheddar, but not so dry – a little bit fattier.
To make the aligot, basically I make mashed potato, blend it with fresh cream and then work in the cheese over some heat, so it all melts and into a kind of velvety fondue.
Then I roast some green endive. This is also the season for endive. When it gets colder outside in the fall, the endive becomes less bitter and more sweet. When we roast it it becomes even sweeter. We put the roasted endive in the aligot, and serve the meatball on top of that with some fresh chives.
To finish, I add some of the juice from the duck. I get the whole duck here and butcher it myself. I take the meat to cook, and I take the carcass, the bones, and I roast them, then boil them with water to make duck stock. Then we reduce the stock to make this sauce for this dish. This sauce, mixed with the sharp, nutty, sweet cheese and potato and cream of the creamy aligot, and the roasted endive, all with the duck meatball with sambal and herbs? It’s really delicious.
I think it’s a perfect dish for the time of year. You have the gamey, juicy meat of the duck. You have the Asian influence in the sambal chili paste that’s mixed with the meat – that gives a little freshness to the dish. And you have the caramelized onion, which adds a little sweetness. All of those are browned really nicely in the meatball. Then you have the aligot, with the silky potato and cream blended with the Cato Corner cheese, like a potato fondue. The roasted endive adds a little more sweetness. The sauce made with the reduced duck stock brings a little more of that intensely savory duck flavor to everything. And then you have some fresh chives which also add a little freshness – another layer.
I like to have different layers in my food. I don’t just want to give you a spoonful of one thing, even if it’s delicious. I want to play with textures and flavors. So I like to create layers in the dish, of flavors and textures. You just have to be careful to balance them all. So that’s what’s happening in this dish.
You mentioned that a lot of your ingredients come from regional farms. That’s obviously important to you guys here. Talk to us about ingredients.
We use ingredients from a lot of regional farmers and producers, like Hudson Valley Duck and Cato Corner. Most of our produce is coming from the Lancaster Farm Co-op in Pennsylvania. It’s a cooperative of small Amish farms over there. They have a distribution center. All the farmers who are members of the cooperative deliver their harvest to the center. You call the center and talk to them about what they have and you tell them what you want and they deliver to the city three times a week. They’re like, really wonderful people. It’s pretty amazing to see how well run it all is. There’s nothing like that yet in the Hudson Valley or New York state, but it’s starting to change.
For me, I believe good ingredients are the key, but more important even than just that, is the people who grow those ingredients. I want to see the people who grow the food or who make the cheese. I want to look in their face and talk to them so I can see the passion that they have for what they do. To me, that is transparency. Looking in someone’s eyes. You know, a cheese from France can be really amazing, but I don’t know how the farmer who make it looks. I can’t see them. When you can’t see that passion with your own eyes, it’s not the same.
I think there are a lot of really underestimated things happening in this region with food. When I was cooking in California, in Napa Valley, it’s different there. Over here, I think the star is the chef. Over there, the star is the farmer, the producer, the guy who makes the thing. It should be that way. Here on the east coast it’s changing a little bit, but it’s not as much as it is over there. Over there, a good cheesemaker can be as famous as the best of the chefs. That’s a good thing for a lot of reasons.
So Andres, how did you end up doing this, and doing it here in Fort Greene?
I am from Caracas, Venezuela, in South America. I started cooking about twelve years ago – a little bit more, maybe. Back then, I wanted to cook in high end restaurants, in the very best kitchens. I came here to the United States to work at the French Laundry and Meadowood in California, both with three Michelin stars, at Gordon Ramsay in Manhattan, which has two stars.
Before that I was in Europe for quite a while too, cooking and living over there, at Mugaritz, another three star Michelin which is kind of like the equivalent of the French Laundry over there in Spain. Pretty amazing restaurant. All that was about was me trying to follow the paths made by these people that I really respect, people I feel have a very good philosophy behind their food, to try to learn as much as I could from them.
After about ten years working in those kinds of kitchens, I got to a point where I was kind of done with that kind of cooking – that super high-end three Michelin star, cutting edge kind of cooking. I just wanted to go more towards what I felt like were my roots – more home-style cooking, maybe. A little more rustic, but bringing in a lot of the techniques and knowledge I gained by working in those places, and also bringing in the ideals and passions I had developed for supporting the people who grow the food, who raise the animals. I always want to find the small farmers and small producers who put a little more passion into what they do.
So three years ago my wife Melissa and I started a little experiment. We started a supper club, called the Brooklyn Edible Supper Club. We hosted five course dinners at our apartment, made all with seasonal ingredients from the farmers markets. We had a really great response to it. People really enjoyed it and we decided to do it on a bigger scale.
The idea here at the beginning was to really focus on sandwiches. Of course, they’re not just made with cold cuts or something. We put a lot of preparation into them. I use a lot of the same techniques and recipes that I used at those high-end places. I’m trying to offer the same flavors and the same quality of ingredients and quality of preparation without all the fuss. That was the idea. But of course we ended up doing many more things than sandwiches. I have veal sweetbreads over there. Today I’m doing a new dish with duck tongue. I have marrow bone on the menu.
I have a lot of things that I want to introduce to the people that don’t normally eat those things. I want to say, “Here it is. Just try it.” So it’s not just about the sandwiches. There is a lot more going on here than just the sandwiches.
Last question Andres – how did you end up coming to New York? And how did you and Melissa meet?
Melissa and I met dancing in a club called Santos Party House. [laughter.] It’s in the city. We met over there and we started talking and talking and we started dating and we found that we shared a lot of the same passions, about food and about life. Not just about the food itself, but also about how it should be grown and seen and respected. That’s why we started the supper club.
When I came to New York, it was kind of by accident. I was living with this girl in California. We broke up and she moved to New York and I kind of followed her over here. [laughter.] In the end it didn’t work out but I stayed in New York and I love it here.
I had been living in Napa Valley in California. It was like living in a postcard. Every day was perfect, idyllic. But over here, the contact with the people, the energy and dynamic and diversity…It just makes you feel alive. In Napa, you can kind of feel still. Even though it’s a beautiful place, a beautiful life, it can feel like time is not passing, do you know what I mean? Some day that will be perfect for me, but not yet. Right now, I like that feeling of really being alive that I think New York delivers like no other place.
The Brooklyn Sandwich Society is located at 184 Dekalb Avenue, between Carlton and Cumberland, in Fort Greene.
Photography by Liz Clayman. All rights reserved.