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Ed Brown and eighty-one

April 1, 2008

    photo of: Ed Brown 5 years since graduating from CIA, 17 years from joining Restaurant Associates, 14 years since starting at Sea Grill, and 2 years since we last interviewed him, the talented Chef is now his own boss at the upscale eighty-one on the Upper West Side - and he is more than ready.

NYRI: You’ve been a well-known chef for many years in New York, so its inevitable that many of your prior customers from The Sea Grill will follow you. What differences, and similarities, will they notice when they open your menu for the first time?
Ed: Eighty one has similarities to The Sea Grill in terms of quality; in both restaurants I stressed the importance of excellent food and hospitality. The differences, aside from the obvious ones of décor and location, will be most noticeable in the menu. Although at The Sea Grill we always focused on day boat specials and strived to provide fresh ingredients, eighty one’s menu is expanded to include ingredients of all kinds - from farmers and purveyors as well as fisherman.

NYRI: Do you have any interesting stories during your search for a space, and how did you eventually find the location for eighty one?
Ed: I looked for two years for something with 4,000 contiguous street-level square feet on the Upper West Side, which was very difficult to find. Before I saw this space there was nothing that I was remotely interested in. I never knew the current space existed since it has been empty for so long, but when my realtor showed it to me I had an “Aha!” moment and knew instantly that this was it.

NYRI: Describe the space, your ideas for its design that was implemented by Chris Smith, and how you think your restaurant’s Upper West Side neighborhood may have influenced the cuisine and the styling of the interior. I imagine you’ll be getting a lot of museum traffic?
Ed: Chris Smith and I collaborated a great deal on the concept for the design. I wanted a “grownup restaurant” that really took our neighborhood into account during each step of the design process. As a 17-year member of the community I feel confident that Chris accomplished this and that we’ve created a place that fits very well into the neighborhood. The attributes of the design that I felt most strongly about were luxury, comfort, spaciousness, acoustics and grace. I think Chris delivered on all counts.

    photo of: Ed Brown

NYRI: Would you care to mention a few farmers or other producers of some special ingredients and their contribution to the originality of your food at eighty one?
Ed: Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Ohio provides us with many of our fresh, custom-grown ingredients such as baby lettuces and leeks. Some of our exclusive wines come from Doug Margerum of Margerum Wines in California. And Marc Sarrazin is our purveyor at DeBragga and Spitler, where we get a lot of our meats – one example is our Niman Ranch bacon.

NYRI: Being a seafood chef for the last 17 years, what were the challenges in introducing non-seafood dishes into eighty one’s menu, and what dishes wound up working the best for you?
Ed: I wouldn’t describe cooking with other meats and fowl as a challenge but more like a welcome opportunity. During the past 15 years I have overseen many other restaurants that were much less fish-focused. I love cooking meat, fowl and vegetables and it is very exciting to be working in a more in-depth and hands-on way with these ingredients at eighty one.

NYRI: You were an executive chef for many years but now you’re a co-owner, how has the business side of what you do changed?
Ed: When I was the Executive Chef at R.A., which is a very large corporation, I had a great deal of exposure to the business side of running restaurants. I don’t think many people realize just how much business is involved in the Executive Chef position. Now at eighty one, I can stay easily in tune with the business side of things but I spend much more time cooking. It may seem counter-intuitive that I do less business as an owner, but the desire to spend more time in the kitchen was one of the most important reasons that I decided to open this restaurant, so I’ve continued to keep that goal in sight and have made sure to have a team in place which supports that goal.

    photo of: Ed Brown

NYRI: Did you start eighty one with a clean slate as far as the suppliers and purveyors that you have used in the past? What changes were made in this respect from these relationships from the past at the Sea Grill to today at eighty one.
Ed: I opened eighty one with the exact opposite of a clean slate – but in the best sense possible. This restaurant truly has the relationships that I’ve forged over the years as its backbone. The only changes have been to increase the number of those relationships and to strengthen the current ones.

NYRI: What specific modifications and/or design or layout ideas did you implement in eighty one’s kitchen, in order to suit the type of food you knew you would be preparing?
Ed: I knew that at some points we would essentially be serving two different menus at once, due to the large private dining room at eighty one. This was one of the reasons that we designed the kitchen to be very large with a special section in the back where multiple dishes can be plated at once. When forty people are being served the same thing at the same time, this comes in handy! Because of that extra space, having private events doesn’t intrude upon the average diners’ experience. Since the space was literally a concrete box when we started, I was very lucky to be able to start from scratch which is almost never the case. Every wire, pipe and piece of equipment was carefully selected to ensure an ideal flow of work in the kitchen. I didn’t want myself and my team to have to “deal with” any of the normal constraints found in a New York kitchen. Now that we are open it is proving to be a very comfortable working environment and it is allowing us to grow our business more smoothly. Some of my favorite pieces of equipment are the plancha and the Jade ranges with S-grates (this is instead of a standard range with individual burners and allows you to slide pots and pans around). All of these elements help us to reach our goal of making each dish be the best it can be.

NYRI: Plans for the future?
Ed: At the moment it is wide open. I would love to do more but right now I’m entirely focused on eighty one and making it everything I dreamed it would be.




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