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The Inn LW12

7 Ninth Avenue, New York

by Francince Cohen

Andy Bennett fell in love in New York in the winter of 2002 when he came to work in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen for a two week stage. Two weeks turned into 18 months where he and his future bride, Helen Park, worked side by side. Ever since then, this Winchester England native has been plotting to remain in town. Bennett traveled many miles to run a kitchen of his own, but wherever he has been he always had an enduring respect for the bounty of each season and plans his menus accordingly. While at the two Michelin-starred and five Rosette-awarded Le Manoir, Bennet recalls the most amazing organic vegetable gardens. “While working away in the kitchen,” he recalls, “Raymond Blanc would grab you in the middle of service and drag you off to the garden with a torch to dig up salad or vegetables. We would then run back to the kitchen to cook them, with his words, ‘Fresh is best’ ringing in our ears.” The four years he spent with Blanc were some of the most educational and formative of his career. Today, Chef Bennett encourages his sous chefs to stroll through the nearby greenmarket, picking up whatever looks appealing and together they create day-of specials that add an extra kick to an already tempting seasonal menu.

Planning a menu using fresh produce is something Bennett learned at an early age. Summers were spent with grandparents who lived by the seashore and had an enormous garden that Bennett learned to tend. The family dynamic always seemed to draw Bennett back to food as comments, “My father left before I can remember, and my mother worked three jobs before remarrying seven or eight years later.” With mom at work and dad not around, the young chef and his older brother were left to fend for themselves at mealtime, and Bennett took on the responsibility of cooking. “It’s one of the things I knew at an early age,” he says. “I wanted to cook.”

NYRI: What came first, the space or the desire to find the right space for a gastropub?

Bennett: Originally it was Jeffrey Jah and Lyman Carter’s concept. They had been friends a long time and they both had the idea to do this. They’ve had this space for a while and this project has been in the making for about two and a half years.

NYRI: How did this all come together with bringing you on board?

Bennett: It was a great coincidence and great timing. I was still in England, waiting for my visa. The end of the paperwork process was two months away and halfway through it I got a call from Daniel Boulud saying “I have this project and you need to be here by the end of September.” So, while I was pushing through the paperwork I got all the information about the project; the design, concept, etc. and I finally arrived here and saw the situation in person. The restaurant wasn’t finished, but the concept was done and dusted and I had received a brief about what the partners wanted the food to be conceptually. From my arrival in November we started testing dishes and working on what we all felt the concept would need.

NYRI: How firm was the concept and what guidelines did you have for the menu?

Bennett: The concept is quite close to my heart, I could put classic British influences on the menu, but the menu was completely blank, there were no restrictions on which way to take it. However, Lyman had a few “musts” for the menu. He had loved lamb burgers growing up and asked me to add that to the menu. And poutine was another item I had to have. Apart from that it was completely up to me. We did tastings and figured out what worked and what didn’t. As soon as he said lamb burger, I thought of spicy Moroccan lamb with chick pea fries and a harissa mayo. I wanted to do something that was not just another burger and fries. And I was conscious of Spotted Pig’s burger and wanted to make sure we did something that was different. When Lyman said poutine, I just went silent. It wasn’t something I had eaten but I made a couple and they loved it. And given all the press it has been getting I realized it was something I had to embrace. We did a braised beef, stilton and red wine jus poutine that is almost a meal, and a spiced pork poutine that is a heart attack waiting to happen, but you can’t help yourself but eat it. The vegetarian version has spicy tomato chutney made of sun dried cherry tomatoes. We use cheese curds because they work best due to their melting factor. When we were making this one of my chefs said they didn’t think that fries and tomatoes go together. I said, “Hello!, what is ketchup made of?” As for the amount of people that will order it, I’d say one out of three. At a four-top they can get one of each poutine, it’s a good sharing dish and great for the bar! It’s what people are after. It’s a new thing. If it can help us get settled and bring them in the door and try the other food.

NYRI: What did it take to get the dishes just right?

Bennett: We tested and tested and tested to death. For instance the lamb burger in the making took forever. Every day for two months we tried different grinds, cuts, and spices and then we left it alone for a couple of weeks and came back to it and got it right the first turn. Sometimes you just think things to death and when it’s the only thing you think about you miss the obvious.

NYRI: When thinking about the pub aspect of this concept did you look at other pubs and gastropubs, here and home in England?

Bennett: As soon as I knew about it I started researching gastropub cuisine, which was easy as it was right on my doorstep in London, and it was something I knew. They sent me a list of places to go see that represented what they perceived as the concept and they had picked out the places I had been to already, like the original gastropub in London called The Eagle, and one that Heston Blumenthal had opened outside London that was based in the countryside. And as soon as I arrived back in New York I went to the Waverly Inn and Spotted Pig to see what was already here. Our market here at Inn LW12 is a little different. We’re slightly more polished in finishing, not quite as rustic as Spotted Pig.

NYRI: How did you design the menu?

Bennett: It was never meant to be a Canadian restaurant. It sort of organically grew. The whole idea was

that it’s just food. We can afford to put poutine and British specialties on the menu. I tend to keep the descriptions short. If I order something I like to know what I ordered but there’s just as much fun finding it somewhat surprising. Pig’s feet and tongue in cheek are a few things on our menu that stand out as fun. I’m using things that aren’t run of the mill cuts of meat. The tongue in cheek was dictated by a play on words; we can get servers to sell that dish and nine times out of ten diners like it. I don’t need to convert diners but it is important for them to be open.

We’ve been defined by heavier dishes and always plan to have them, but we’ll have to balance the menu as it gets hot out. We’ve already changed a few dishes, we put on a cod with grilled radicchio, fennel puree and grapefruit. We’re losing heavy sauces and braises and moving to light dressings.

The Tuck menu is a lot shorter, purely until we build more of a following. I want to get to a stage where we’re a chef’s hang-out for those chefy kinds of dishes. What will appeal is that we’re using different cuts of meat and interesting, older techniques.

We’re being careful to cook for the market without losing our identity. The crispy pigs feet will always be on the menu, regardless of season. It’s a favorite dish on the menu.

NYRI: Where do you get your products?

Bennett: Hiring the purveyors was completely up to me, but for the sake of ease I stuck to what I knew from when I worked at Daniel. As we get settled I can source others who provide a better fit. We started using Pat La Fritta Mats; they are just two blocks over. While a big company offers a great guarantee that I’ll get what I order there’s more one-on-one with a smaller company and I love the fact that they’ve said if I ever need anything they’ll just send it over. We’re also using Manhattan Fruit Exchange – we took them on for the same reasons. And the Union Square Greenmarket is so close, the chefs and I often wander through to pick up whatever looks interesting. The informality of a gastropub allows you to run out of things and do with what you have on hand as verbal specials.

NYRI: Daniel’s role as consulting chef, what does it mean exactly? How does it work and how much of the menu’s stamp is Daniel Boulud’s versus Andy Bennett’s?

Bennett: Daniel is the consultant chef, basically my safety net, but it’s not his menu, I would take dishes to him and get his input. The final decision still comes down to me. It is great to have someone like him on board as he gives you out of the box perspectives. The whole Dinex Group helped out, setting up the front of house, hiring waiters, coordinating purveyors, contractors and systems. It was a big help to us to have developed the menu so long in advance of the kitchen here being ready. I was on site in the kitchen at Daniel where he’d take a look at the dish I presented and go through it and say “let’s try this, do this”. And it was an experience for him as well since he’d never created a gastropub. To put the concept in his mind I explained it was an English version of the classic French bistro but we had to make sure we weren’t getting lost in French classics. With Daniel sometimes you just have to keep him focused because you can see he’s trying to go one step further but we had to bring it back to the realities of the gastropub’s small kitchen.

 NYRI: What is your relationship like with Daniel Boulud?

Bennett: We’ve always had a good relationship and when I worked for him we got on well. I traveled with him and did a couple of things promoting his cookware in England and Chicago. Obviously on a day to day basis in his kitchen, I was respectful of him and when he comes here he’s respectful of it not being his kitchen.

NYRI: How connected are you to this project and what is next?

Bennett: I’m committed to the bitter end. I love it. It’s my first project that I get to completely grow with it. It’s been a great opportunity to open a new restaurant, have Daniel Boulud as part of the project and work with forward thinking people. If this is successful we’d think of doing something else. From what I hear, people are very happy. It’s a great atmosphere and we have a lot of repeat customers already.

We’ve got a great group of partners and it makes for an interesting project with all views coming in at every stage. We’ve only been open about six weeks now. We’re still in our young phase. In the next few months we’ll have the terrace out front with 40 more seats and at a later date we’ve got the third floor to turn into another room for dining. But that will all happen once we have stabilized our dinner service. We have stuff we want to do with the building but we wanted to make sure we weren’t running before we walk.

NYRI: In addition to Daniel, do you turn to your wife Helen (formerly the chef at Pair of 8s) for inspiration or guidance?

Bennett: Helen and I tend to help each other with different ideas. We look at things differently, it’s always good to be able to bounce things off someone.

NYRI: As the season changes what are you looking forward to?

Bennett: Ingredients I look forward to are vegetables; specifically English peas, and asparagus. I think you have to do less to them, they stand up by themselves. For here it’s about what’s needed, I’m not trying to overwork something too much. I’ve got a quality product.

Also, I don’t want to scare people, I want to make it approachable, not confusing. This is so different than what’s at Daniel and Le Manoir which are high end with lots of garnishes, and complicated dishes. They are both destination dining close to perfection places that deliver a big wow! They are special occasion places, not everyday places. This is food you want to eat every day.

NYRI: You’ve got a much smaller kitchen here than you had at Daniel when you were testing things and worked there years ago. How do you adapt?

Bennett: The great thing about working in small kitchens is that you can have your hands in everything. You’re shoulder to shoulder all day long. When the kitchen gets bigger you might get disconnected but in a smaller space you can look around, see what’s happening around you and rotate to fill empty spaces It makes for quite a tight unit.

I’ve been lucky, most of my staff is very well trained. Hiring is always difficult. It was a challenge because good cooks are not going to leave established jobs. We needed to have a well balanced team. There’s an obvious hierarchy we need to stick to in a kitchen.

NYRI: Prior to working here in New York you were at the famed two Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxford. How different was that from what you are doing here at The Inn LW12 and how has that experience influenced how you run your kitchen?

Bennett: Manoir holds a dear place in my heart. I got there when I was 19. I started out at the bottom and left as senior chef de partie. There it’s all about systems and repetition, everyone knows the system and they have the tools they need to do the job. They say when you leave there life becomes easier. At the time you don’t believe that but then you see things differently, especially in other kitchens with people who didn’t get the same experience. It was a structured kitchen, if you made a mistake you were shown how to correct it. Shouting was kept to a minimum. They were training you to be managers. When I left I was 23 or 24. I’m 28 now.

NYRI: So what is your philosophy about helming the kitchen?

Bennett: My kitchen is very quiet, quite controlled. When people yell all the time a lot of it falls on deaf ears. If you can confine your shouts to special moments it has more impact.

In a small kitchen I can lead from the front, it shows you’re not afraid to lead. It’s very important never to get to the point where you ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.

I’m one of those people who has always been older than their age. And being in charge of people older than I am is not a new thing for me. At Manoir a majority of the people below me were older. Sometimes you need to approach them in a different way. It’s about making sure you put your effort in so they respect you.

NYRI: We just had to ask, and we’re probably not the first, but what’s with the short sleeve jacket?

Bennett: I think it’s an English thing. I’ve never worn long sleeve jackets in my life other than Daniel. It’s restrictive with long sleeves. Quite clumsy. It’s funny, living in a country that is rainy and cold! But come summer it’s going to be warm, and I’ll be laughing.

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