There is a lot about Dennis Foy that you may, or may not know. He currently owns a seasonal eponymous restaurant on the New Jersey Coast in Point Pleasant Beach, open only 70 days a year. He’s owned critically acclaimed restaurants in New Jersey and New York City for more than 30 years, including Mondrian (in the 1980’s) and EQ (1990’s) in Manhattan, the latter of which earned two stars from Ruth Reichl, and The Tarragon Tree in Meyersville, New Jersey. He plays guitar and has a collection of 1910-20’s guitars he has kept for years. He served in Vietnam, and his son is now training in the military in North Carolina, and has very strong views on the current situation in Iraq. He is also a talented self-taught painter, as is immediately evident when you walk into his new Tribeca restaurant, also named “Dennis Foy.” The paintings, which are available for purchase, line the walls and lend warmth and energy to a space which had previously had been missing those ingredients. “Mr. Foy captures the essence of the sky and the water,” says his art dealer Bernard Maiser, and it’s difficult not to see that in his work, strategically displayed as it is among the colorful vaulted arches and cranberry chandeliers in the 60-seat dining room.
EQ, which opened in 1998 and closed 6 months after 9/11, was named after Mr. Foy’s wife and longtime business partner Estella Quiñones-Foy, who now oversees the front of the house in their new restaurant, which opened on December 5th. Mr. Foy spent time with us discussing his new space along with his other experiences during his 33 years in the restaurant business.
Q: What was the New Jersey restaurant scene like when you started your career in the 1970’s?
A: When my brother and I opened the Tarragon Tree in ’74 there were no restaurants there. We literally walked down the street to farms, picked out the eggs, the chickens and all the vegetables. People would hang game on the fence, like whole deer, pheasants, rabbits; that’s the way it was, we were in the country. It’s 30 minutes from Manhattan but that part of Northern New Jersey wasn’t built up at that time, and it was a great time to open a restaurant, there was nothing there. I think myself, Larry Forgione, Mark Chayette from the Quilted Giraffe, Leslie Revson, were basically revolutionizing the way food was being presented on the East Coast. Outside of the French houses, food really didn’t exist outside of that midtown circle, and if you did some historical research it’s really interesting what happened right around the cuffs of 1976. That’s when food started to change and that’s when a lot of us older guys now – it’s crazy thinking like that - were on the cuffs of that transition. Some of us are still around, some of us aren’t.
Q: So what made you decide to come back into New York?
A: I wasn’t interested in coming back into the city unless I found a space like this; my major concern was finding the right physical environment. Prior to EQ we had looked in Tribeca for close to a year and in fact I looked at the space next door 13 years ago. It’s kind of a neat interior, so being on the block that I looked at all those years ago was kind of significant. It was like I knew it was my space, it just needed to be updated. There was no lighting in it, the entire restaurant was beige and there was no life in it, and the banquets they made are basically pews, so it was sort of like this abstract food cathedral. So Estelle and I came in and color was really important to both of us, so I decided to keep the structural integrity the way it was and then articulate it to our sensibilities. It was basically a turnkey situation for me, and then a décor job basically.
Q: Where did you learn how to paint? When did you start?
A: I was self-taught, I don’t know how to explain it. You’re always looking to find or to do a restaurant that’s a personal statement, that incorporates all your philosophical content about how you feel or what you’re about. You struggle with that and then you design how you’ll articulate the rules to the staff, the way in which you plate dishes and all that. In terms of the painting in the environment and the food, there’s a symmetry here that I think a lot of younger guys and a lot of guys that have cooked for a long time really strive to meet because then it becomes a lifestyle. It’s not a job. I’ve never gone to work; I’ve gone to the restaurant. The sensibility of going to the restaurant and going to work are 2 different things. Painting has never been work for me. Cooking has never been work for me.
Q: Do you see or feel similarities in painting and in cooking?
A: When you’re painting, every single brush stroke is a conscious thought literally and when you’re cooking, every moment that you’re over that sauté pan, whatever it is that you’re working with, you’re immediately engaged and I like that aspect of the engagement, the reciprocation between the idea and the actualization of it and the presentation of that on a plate. That’s no different then painting to me, but cooking is not art, it’s a craft, it’s a totally different thing than painting.
Q: I noticed that none of your paintings utilize food or restaurants as a theme, so when you’re painting you’re in a completely different kind of place?
A: They are two distinctly different aspects of my mentality and they don’t join in that way. Painting is very solitary whereas cooking is collaborative. You need a team to execute an idea and usually if you have an idea, because of that end of my personality, I’m very open to everybody else’s ideas. But once we get down to the point where we’ve executed something and it’s where I want it to be, then the discipline that happens with that is like a lightening bolt; it has to be executed exactly like that every single time. The disciplinarian in me comes out in me then. One thing about the work on the wall is that they’re meditative paintings, they’re very peaceful kinds of things and the kitchen can be volatile at times, it can be really driven hard, lots of very forceful energy going on, you’re pushing out 150 dinners on a night, you have 15 people that you’re working with and it can be a very authoritarian environment that way, and painting is just so solitary and so peaceful.
Q: Do you think that having that external creative outlet helps you as a chef, helps you with your business?
A: I think that people who cook who are creative or who have been in the business a long time and are very successful are multi-dimensional, whereas others may take it so seriously and they’re so focused and driven in one area that the kitchen never opens up to them, because you need the exploration of your mind in order to explore what you’re going to put on the plate. You have to be open to things and you have to express things in a different way, so I’ve painted most of my life - whether they were menu covers or wood boards or panels or whatever it was, I was always involved in that kind of thing. What immediately attracted me to food was that the plate was just a blank canvas to me, and I loved the symmetry where I could focus the eye on a plate and that has always been adventurous to me. If you’re presented a plate that’s articulated in a balanced fashion and there’s color harmony, and if you have that visual impact of balance on a plate, then it is a communion to the conversation because you are no longer thinking about the food, you know everything is okay.
Q: You received 2 stars from Ruth Reichl for EQ several years ago, what’s your philosophy as far as restaurant reviewers?
A: One of my great mentors, Steven Specter, told me, “Dennis, don’t ever read your reviews and don’t ever believe what’s in the reviews.” He said, “You’ll do it anyway, but I want to make sure that you always keep your sense of self for what it is.” He said, “Don’t let a great review or bad review effect you. A great one will inflate your ego and a bad one will destroy it, so just do what you do, you’ll have a great life,” and I was a kid at the time. It was great advice for a young chef, 27, 26 years of age, that’s the best advice I could ever get. The stars may follow you, but your ego should not be attached to it.
Q: How is the menu different from some of the menus you’ve had in the past and how is it similar as well?
A: It’s about style and accessibility. I like to eat, so basically this menu and all menus that I’ve been involved in are all things that I’m not only interested in cooking, but I cook for my own palate first. That may seem a little obnoxious, but the fact of the matter is what I’ve found over 3 decades is that a very large clientele base that I have also enjoy what I do, so the menu hasn’t differed in a sense, but the food is always in a state of metamorphosis or being more refined as I explore different techniques and getting something to a better level of perfection. It may seem simple, but doing a perfect roasted chicken and cooking it to order in a restaurant is not something that’s done on a daily basis in probably four restaurants in New York City, and to do that right or to do the perfect spare short rib or doing a braised piece of cabbage. I’ve always been interested in balancing alkaline and acids because that’s what gives your palate real taste, where you can get to the middle palate. When you have a counter balance between acids and alkaline in dishes and you can hit it and you cook it right, it’s wonderful food.
Q: You’ve mentored a lot of people; who are you most proud of in terms of the people you’ve mentored that have gone on to do well?
A: I think that I’ve been fortunate enough to have had in my employ people of great talent and I think that they chose or made the decision to work for me because they also saw something that I saw reflected in them and somehow that symmetry between us produced some great results. What I’m really good at is I guess fundamental structures in a kitchen, teaching people how a kitchen works, and I’m really good at finishing skills. The middle skills, like people that do prep work and sauté and stuff like that, I’m not really interested in that because that’s sort of mundane drudgery, that’s the same thing over and over again. I’m interested in those that have a mindset that are interested in ‘why does this work that way.’ I’m always interested in the question, the process of it, so those that I’ve worked with like Debbie Ponsack or Craig Shelton or Edwin Ferrara or I forget who else at this point, a lot of people, Bob Long, Morris Mosher, all those guys had a skill set that equaled or exceeded mine and it’s a great compliment to see that they’ve done well.
Q: So what are your favorite restaurants in New York these days?
A: I probably dine at Balthazar – I’ll be conservative, 70 times a year. Why do I like Balthazar? Absolutely consistent. That is a rock solid kitchen, you can dine in any day of the week and that liver pate is the same liver pate they had the day they opened. That roasted chicken is exactly the same, the oysters were incredibly fresh from day one. Keith McNally is probably the best restaurateur in the city. Look at Café Luxembourg 30 years later; Odeon; Balthazar has got 10 years under its belt and it’s still doing 1200 covers a day. Every restaurant he’s built is just fabulous. I love him. Jean-Georges, definitely, he’s one of my favorite guys. I really admire Bouley, I think he’s absolutely consistent and I judge a restaurant through consistency. I only dine in restaurants that are either chef-owned or if I know the chef in the kitchen personally, or a restaurant where the owner is on premise and he’s not a chef, because you’re guaranteed to have someone who is personally interested in your dining welfare.