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
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
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
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.
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