Jesse Schenker on Unique NYC Palates and His Extreme Personality
Jesse Schenker has never been one to take it easy. The executive owner and chef of NYC restaurants recette and The Gander owns over 350 cookbooks, admitting that he “eats, sleeps, breathes and reads all things food.” We caught up with him recently about why the New York dining scene is so unique, the job he’d had if he weren’t a restaurateur and what it means to be “schpilky.”
Jesse Schenker. Photo by Evan Sung
Your book is titled “All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme” — can you talk about what that means to you?
Everything that I do, I do all the way. Anything that I’ve done in my life, I will bring myself to the tip of insanity. I run myself ragged, whether that’s cooking or abusing drugs or obsessing over money or being a father. I’ve not been great with balance. I definitely tend to get more anxious when I have no fires to put out. When everything is good, I can become hypochondriacal and make things up because I need something to obsess on. I’m just extreme. I guess it’s kind of par for the course when you’re a chef. It’s a trait that a lot of chefs have — an addictive personality, a drive — never being satisfied, always doubting everything.
What inspired you to become a chef?
It’s all been very organic. I just put one foot in front of the next and kept going, and this is where I ended up. When I’m in it, I just kind of push forward. And then the days progress, opportunities arise, and things happen. When I first moved to New York and I took a job working at Gordon Ramsay’s [formerly in The London Hotel], I was staging around. I knew I loved to cook. I knew I wanted to be surrounded by food, but I couldn’t picture myself in the future as a restaurateur. It just kind of happened. Pathways opened and doorways opened, and I peeked my head in and learned to get out of my own way. Early on though, I was a hyper kid; my leg was always tapping. I was always getting in trouble, pulling jokes on people, being the center of attention.
First memories of cooking?
I remember my great-grandmother used to come watch me and my sister. She would cook stews and traditional Jewish things. I just remember the smells of the onions and the garlic and the dill and chicken fat, and all that just resonated with me. And I remember being in the kitchen with her and for those moments, my leg would stop tapping. And I think I just found solace in the kitchen; it was like a Xanax for me. As a young child, I got involved in sports and girls and drugs. And everything I did, even at a young age, I just did it. You never get “half-ass Jesse” with anything. If it was important to me, I was obsessive.
I went to vocational school for culinary arts, worked at McDonald’s — I loved it. I loved getting dirty, using the dish machine, the spray gun, the grease in my fingers. And I kind of just chased it. Food — it’s metaphorically saved my life. A lot of people, they struggle because they don’t have a trade or a passion or a hobby to distract them from themselves. At the core of me, I really just have a thinking problem.
You’ve cooked in Florida, London and New York. What do you think makes the NYC dining scene particularly unique?
It’s a combination of the population, ethnicity and congestion. The sheer volume in Manhattan, that’s what makes it so special. If you went into certain parts of New Mexico or Texas or Oklahoma and found a hole in the wall — there might be one very very authentic restaurant that represents that particular cuisine. But because New York is so congested, there are many quality restaurants here. And diners have been developed and educated alongside them. The population in Manhattan — they keep us going because they appreciate what we’re doing. In Middle America — not to say they’re uneducated diners, but they just know what they know because of their lack of visibility. New York just has so much diversity, the palates are there. It’s an amazing place. That’s really with any vocation — whether you’re a hairstylist or a lawyer, an actor or a cook — you come to New York and there’s the best of everybody here.
You started recette Private Dining, an underground supper club, in 2009. Where did the inspiration for that come from, and how did it differ from a normal restaurant experience?
Recette Private Dining kind of birthed itself from the inspiration and admiration I had for the French Laundry model in terms of the gastronomic 10-course law of diminishing return — little bites, bursting with flavor. I just remember reading the French Laundry cookbook when I was a teenager and my mind being blown. If I were to do a supper club now, I wouldn’t focus so much on these long tasting menus, I would focus more on seafood and crudos and doing less to the product but finding more interesting product.
“Schpilky” is a Yiddish word for when you can’t sit in your own skin. I had been working for people for a long time and had stuff I needed to get out, and recette Private Dining was my way to do that. It was completely different than a restaurant because there was interaction between the cooks and guests prior to dinner where we came up with the menus together. It was a private setting — very intimate. I was able to use everything I’d read and learned and seen. I’ve got so many cookbooks [over 350] it’s unreal. I’m just always opening them and getting constant inspiration. I’m constantly learning everyday. I was able to channel that. Supper clubs — they’re a really good way for a lot of talented cooks to do what they want to do — go rogue — and it’s an inexpensive way to do it. It’s fun.
How have you seen social media affect the restaurant industry in the last few years?
I love Twitter. I follow people, and I’m constantly updated with what’s going on in the world. I can see what’s going on in the culinary community, and it gives me ideas. It’s good to see what other chefs are doing, seasonal things, menu changes. It’s instantaneous which is gratifying.
Now because of all these sites and blogs and social media, I think that the New York Times reviews have lost some of their weight. People are getting their intel — instead of from a handful of sources — from millions of places that dilutes what was once a very influential single opinion.
If you couldn’t be a chef, what would you be?
It’s so funny. I’ve been very into politics. Would I be a politician? Probably not. My gut reaction to that question is I’d probably be a drummer in a band or work at an old records shop. Something to do with music.
Any favorite NYC haunts?
It’s tricky. I’m married with two young kids, so I don’t really get out and do much. But I would say The Waverly Restaurant on 6th Ave before kids. When me and [my wife] Lindsey first opened recette we would go there every day — it was our go-to for late night dining. The patty melt’s great.
What’s one of your favorite dishes at The Gander?
It’s become a signature — the Sea Trout tartare. It’s an inverted play on beef tartare. We take all the traditional things of a beef tartare and turn them on their head.
Sea Trout tartare at The Gander
Instead of raw beef it’s raw sea trout. Instead of regular capers we do fried capers, so they’re crunchy. Instead of dijon mustard we use a Japanese spicy mustard. Instead of a raw egg yolk we use pickled trout roe. Instead of cornichons, we do little Parisian cucumbers that we make here. And instead of putting Worcestershire we do a Worcestershire bearnaise. And then instead of serving it with toast points, we use the skin of the trout and do a crispy trout chicharon. You look at it — it’s beautiful — and then you mix it all together and eat it with a skin chip. It’s amazing — people love it. Paired with a Pierre Gimonnet champagne and you’re happy. For $19 a glass, it’s a steal.