We reached out to meez founder Josh Sharkey’s former boss, Dan Kluger, to hear about his creative process and approach to vegetable-centered dishes at Loring Place. Dan is always seeking balance and then evolving to make each dish cleaner and simpler. He’s inspired by seasonality and market visits and utilizes a wood-burning grill and wood-fired oven at the restaurant in Greenwich Village.
What’s your philosophy with vegetable-focused dishes?
Leeks were a partner to something else. Leeks wouldn’t become — with the exception of like leeks vinaigrette — as a dish, leeks wouldn’t ever become the center of the plate or the reason for something. Similarly, broccoli would have been part of a medley of vegetables. To make broccoli the star and leeks the star is really exciting and fun. I’m constantly looking at how to take something that was the supporting actor and make it the lead — roasted onions, cippolini, a dish like that. Those were always part of something else, they were never on their own.
We’re just trying to feed people and make them happy. Last year, people just wanted food. When we opened back up in June or July, people just wanted food. They missed restaurants. We looked at how to make the best home experience as possible whether that was a playlist or cook-alongs. We’re here to make good food, create a good dining experience and make people happy.
Why wood fire?
The obsession started back when I worked at Union Square Café and I would go eat at Gramercy Tavern. At Union Square Café we had this spinach, fennel and portobello salad, and it was really good — great, I loved it. At the same time Gramercy Tavern had a spinach and portobello salad and they both had a balsamic vinaigrette. They were different, but the Gramercy one was so addictive, so incredible, and it was all because the mushrooms were grilled on their wood-burning grill. That opened my eyes up to the little nuance that cooking something over wood could have. I’ve done more and more over time, and when I opened Loring Place, a lot of it was meant to be.
Broccoli is just broccoli. You can get an amazing head of broccoli just pulled from the perfect soil but it’s still just broccoli, and I don’t know how many people are going to ooh and aah over a piece of broccoli. For me, what’s more exciting is making the broccoli the vehicle to get some of these other flavors. In this case: pistachio, mint, spice and the creamy orange. So the idea of cooking over the wood-burning grill is just one more element of flavor in building this dish.
The Dish:Wood Grilled Broccoli Salad with Orange, Pistachios and Mint
The wood-grilled broccoli dish evolved from inspiration to a signature at the restaurant. My family and I were out in Montauk staying at a friend’s house for a week in the summer. We drove around, went to a couple farmers markets, picked up some things for dinner, and then spent all day by the pool relaxing and hanging out, so I didn’t have a ton of energy to make a big dinner.
My kids are kind of on the picky side: They love vegetables and meat and chicken, but they don’t like a lot of sauce or a lot of flavor, so I had this thought that I would just cook some broccoli and a steak. I decided rather than turning on the oven for the broccoli, I’ll just quickly blanch it for a second and then throw it on the grill while I’m cooking the steak. I grilled the broccoli and found that charring vegetables and bringing that meatiness and smokiness, the little bits of char and all that happens there — I found that my kids tend to eat more vegetables like that than just steamed. That works really well with them.
I knew the broccoli would be good for them and at the same token I knew I wanted a little bit more. I had also picked up some jalapeños and mint, and I found pistachios in the house and made up a quick pistachio vinaigrette, but really not a lot of effort in it, and sprinkled some jalapeños on it. My wife and I had that and then I just gave them the plain grilled broccoli.
I kept revisiting that methodology and that vinaigrette and thinking more about it. As we got close to opening Loring Place, I wanted to replicate it by cooking the broccoli on the wood-burning grill. That evolved into trying to have that overall balance I talk about. I knew I had smoky, I had some texture from the broccoli, I had a little bit crispy, but I wanted more. I added kohlrabi to it, so you get some crunch. I added an orange mayo to make it a little more rich, bring out some creaminess and add some fat.
The orange mayo is based on a kewpie mayo. We make mayo with a lot of mustard, some miso and orange jam, and that has a ton of flavor and texture. We make the pistachio vinaigrette with herb oil so there’s this mint flavor and a bright green that’s somewhat attractive. We’ve made tweaks in terms of plating or consistency, adding some radishes to have some more crunch and taking the chiles out of the vinaigrette to add them on top so you get this little crunch and burn rather than having the vinaigrette be spicy. As for the plating, I guess I would say that over time it’s just become a little bit more casual, a little less perfect, in a good way.
I didn’t set out to make this dish, I set out to make dinner, and I was inspired by the market and the seasons. Through time, I’ve made something that’s really become, in the case of Loring Place, a true signature that represents a lot of what I want: seasonality and balance of sweet, sour, spicy, crunchy, creamy, all of those things.
What goes into preparing the dish consistently?
The broccoli gets blanched in salted water. This helps to keep it from drying out on the grill, makes it a little bit creamier, cuts down the cooking time. It’s not going to dry out and shrivel up as much and we can have a little more consistency in the product, and it’s seasoned. So it’s blanched in salted water, tossed with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, grilled really hot on the wood-burning grill over the embers rather than tons of flame so it doesn’t have that rich smoke, more picking up a little bit of that char, a little bit of that smoke. It’s not meant to be heavily charred, it should have little bits of char. The florets are crispy but not burnt and at the same token it needs to have enough char on it that it’s not just spoiled broccoli.
Kohlrabi is literally just peeled and diced so you get these little crunches in the salad, but different than the crunch you get from the pistachios.
How do you lead the kitchen?
I’d like to think my leadership style is to be hands-on. I’m typically either expediting or cooking next to somebody. I enjoy cooking. I enjoy cooking next to cooks and try to get them to have that same kind of joy digging each other out of the weeds. Over time I’ve calmed down a little bit. This is certainly my life’s work and in the case of Loring Place, it’s my money and my livelihood. I have a lot riding on it. Cooks say they want to be pushed and to be ridden but I’ve found more and more that lots of gentle coaching seems to be more effective than that old school mentality of yelling, not that I was ever really a yeller. I like to just be present, coach people and make them enjoy work but at the same time work is work. It’s intense, you’re learning a skill, you’re busy. It can be fun but it can also be tough.
How do you train your team to be consistent?
We have very detailed recipes. Anything in a sauce or vinaigrette is weighed out to the gram. We have checks and balances in place in terms of when something’s made, it’s signed off on. We try our hardest to do a lot of detailed trainings. Consistency is the hardest part and it’s also, to me, the most important part. There’s nothing worse than going somewhere and having something on a Monday and thinking it’s great and going back Thursday and it’s not as good.
There’s the chef, myself or a sous chef always on the line checking every dish as it comes out. Spending a lot of time with employees getting them trained. It’s certainly not perfect today. It’s a very different world today.
Recipes being detail-oriented helps. Repetition. Not just expecting that somebody got it after the first time you showed them. And in general, that’s one of the reasons we like having young cooks work with us. Technique-wise we’re fairly simple, product-wise we’re as good if not better than some, and flavor-wise we do a great job and there’s plenty for people to learn.
It is a monotonous job and you do something over and over and over again, but if you’re challenged to make each one that you make perfect or getting each one a little bit better, I think that process is incredibly important for a young cook, rather than working somewhere where there’s a ton of technique and it’s amazing, but you put four of them out in a night. I don’t think you get that training consistency. No matter how busy you are, if it’s supposed to be 11 pieces of asparagus, it still should be 11 pieces of asparagus. If there’s supposed to be a perfect char on the pizza all the way around, there should be a perfect char on the pizza all the way around.
Part of the consistency is repetition, and one of the benefits of a busy restaurant with a fairly simple menu is you’re forced to really work on that repetition and consistency. I think we’ve done well with training young cooks to do that and hopefully they’ve gone off to work at some of these other restaurants that maybe have more technique and more going on on the plate, and they’re set up for success because they know how to push through and be consistent.
What’s your relationship with purveyors like?
When it’s not in season, if we’re running it, we’re getting more things from our partners who have smaller farms in California, Arizona and Florida. When we can get things locally it’s a matter of touching base with the farmers and knowing when they’re coming in. Everything’s fresh. Understanding if there are any changes in the growing season. Sometimes you get the farmer that’s super excited about something they’re growing, they feel great about the product and they’re going to tell you about what they’re using and why it’s so sweet or how this kohlrabi is amazing. And other times it’s more just them telling you I’m bringing this in, it’s great and you’re going to love it. It’s that dialogue and it depends on the farmer.
What’s your dynamic with seasonality? You mentioned missing sugar snap peas last year.
Much like a kid kind of relates the 12 months of the year to the school year, Christmas, summer break… They have those milestones. In cooking, seasonality has always been the milestones for me. When sugar snaps and asparagus are just around the corner that means sun and getting out of winter jackets, no more Brussels sprouts, it’s like the kid getting out of school. And then in summer: tomatoes, corn and peppers, now I’m so excited to have something new to cook with that I love. On top of that, they have their own memories. Corn and tomatoes bring with them the memories of grilling outside and pools and summer. I relate life and milestones to food in that way.