Ilene Rosen came to the restaurant world later than most. After a career in design, then starting a family, she decided that what she really wanted to do was cook. At one specific place, actually – Maury Rubin’s City Bakery, which she had frequented since it opened in 1990. And she did just that. After finishing culinary school she spent fifteen years as the Bakery’s savory chef.
While there, she met Sara Dima, a former editor who found the magazine world too ‘desk jobby,’ and left it to attend culinary school. To pay the bills, she poured coffee at the counter at City Bakery, and stuck around long enough to become general manager of the entire company.
A few years ago, they decided to strike out on their own. Last winter they opened 606 R&D near their homes in Prospect Heights. We stopped by for lunch.
So Ilene, Sarah, what should we try today?
Ilene: I’m going to make you our squash roll. It’s a little bit of a play on a lobster roll. We only serve it at lunch. Basically, it’s beer battered, deep fried slices of butternut squash with lettuce, lime mayonnaise, and broccoli sprouts, on a buttered lobster-roll style bun that’s toasted on the grill.
I have to get the buns sent here via UPS from a bakery in New Hampshire because I can’t find them anywhere around here. It drives Sarah crazy. It’s a top-split potato bun – the classic kind you’ll find in every lobster roll in Maine. They’ve got great flavor and they toast really nicely with butter.
The slices of squash are battered tempura-style in a rice flour and beer batter, so they’re very light and very crispy. The squash comes from a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They’re organic.
We put those in the bun with lettuce and the lime mayonnaise, which we make here with lime juice and lime zest. We put one line of the mayo at the bottom of the bun, and another on top of the squash. And then we finish it with some broccoli sprouts for flavor, color and texture. One order is two rolls.
It’s a pretty luxurious sandwich. You have the toasty, buttery roll, the sweet, creamy butternut squash in that crunchy, light, fried batter, and then you have the tang of the lime mayo and the cool, clean taste of the lettuce and sprouts.
Sarah: The squash comes right out of the fryer, and the bun comes right off the grill, so they’re both nice and warm, and then you have the cool mayo and lettuce and sprouts…I like that kind of mix of warm and cool too.
Ilene: There’s hot and cold, and crunchy and soft, and the sweet and the tangy and salty. You have a lot of temperature opposites, texture opposites and flavor opposites all in one roll.
Sarah: We think it’s a very good sandwich, and we think more people should try it.
What’s your story? How did you both end up here, doing this?
Ilene: I grew up in Brooklyn. Not so far from here, but it feels very far away because it was a very long time ago. It was on the other side of Prospect Park, in the neighborhood they now call Ditmas. Then, it was Flatbush. Everything was Flatbush before the whole real estate thing came along. That’s where I grew up.
I left there thirty some odd years ago, and lived in Manhattan for a long time. About three years ago I moved back here, to that building you can see right out there, just off Vanderbilt. When I first moved here Sarah and I started looking for locations for a restaurant. We looked in lots of neighborhoods, far and wide, and we ended up right here, a half block from where I live.
I’ve always loved food, but I’m old enough that when I was young, cooking was not a profession people went into. It was thought to be a rather terrible thing to cook for a living. So I did other things. I got two design degrees from Parsons School of Design. I always cooked because I loved to cook. We would have very lavish dinner parties and it was the sort of thing where people would always say, “You know, you should really do this for a living.” And I’d say, “But then it wouldn’t be fun anymore.”
But then after I had my kids I kind of had an epiphany that maybe it might actually be fun, and that it might actually be just the kind of fun I needed. So I went to cooking school.
I had been a customer at City Bakery from the very beginning. I was a regular. I decided before I went to culinary school that City Bakery was where I was going to work. I was a bit older. I had young children. I didn’t want to be a line cook, and I was interested in the kind of really high quality prepared food they were doing there.
It all seemed logical. When I finished culinary school I called the owner Maury Rubin and asked for a job. I had never spoken to him before. He did ask when we interviewed the first time where else I was looking for work. [laughter.] I wasn’t looking anywhere else. I thought, “Oh. Yeah, that would probably be something a normal person might do – think about a series of places one might want to work at rather than just one.”
But that was where I wanted to work and Maury hired me. I spent fifteen years there, and that’s where I met Sarah.
What about you Sarah?
I moved to New York in the winter of 2003. I’m coming up on my ten year anniversary as a New Yorker, so I think I’m slowly losing my tourist status, maybe. I’m married to a New Yorker. My business partner is a New Yorker. I own a restaurant here and I’ve birthed two children here, so I think I’m starting to get close. [laughter.]
I moved here with the intention of going to culinary school and then going back into magazines and food editing which is what I had studied and was the field I had worked in after college. But I ended up leaving it. It was a little too desk jobby for me.
I started working part time at the bakery pouring coffee at the counter when I was in culinary school, and I just stayed and worked my way up. When I left six years later I was the general manager of the company. I managed the buildout of a few new locations of the shop and learned how to manage the business side of things. I wore a lot of hats and that prepared me pretty well for opening our own place.
So that’s how we came to work closely together. After I left the Bakery we remained friends. The day Ilene told me she wanted to do something together was the day I told her I was pregnant with my daughter who is now three. So, these things take time. [laughter.]
Here at 606 R&D, we’re just doing things Ilene and I like. That’s what we’re doing. Like doughnuts – one of the first things we did was buy a doughnut machine because Ilene really wanted to make doughnuts. She first fell in love with the doughnut idea when we were still at City Bakery. She really wanted Maury to buy this machine and start making doughnuts. They’d have this ongoing series of animated discussions throughout the day, going back and forth about the doughnut machine. [laughter.] He wouldn’t do it.
So when we first started talking about what we were going to do here, the idea was to do a bar with a hot plate and ten seats and fresh doughnuts. Then the idea grew into doing something more, like a neighborhood restaurant with breakfast and lunch. Then we thought we’d just do dinner. We wanted to do something that would become a part of the fabric of the neighborhood, and we ended up with a place that does all those things.
Ilene: What Sarah said first is really true – it’s about doing things we like. Way back when I was in design school, a teacher I had that I really respected a great deal was speaking about how to imbue meaning in whatever project we might find ourselves working on some day. He said something that really, really stuck with me, and that I’ve seen ring true in many situations since. He said, “The more personal something is, the more universal it is.”
That’s something that really fed into our approach to doing things here. We wanted to do exactly what we wanted to do, exactly the way we wanted to do it, and we believed that if we did it that way, other people would like it too. And I think it sort of works. We’re here all the time, and we care very much about everything we do here, and it just sort of works.
606 R&D is located at 606 Vanderbilt Avenue, between Prospect Place and St. Marks, in Prospect Heights.
Photography by Liz Clayman. All rights reserved.