Chef Spotlight: An Interview with Chef Nick Curtin from Rosette

Chef Nick Curtin at Rosette, February 2014
Last week, I had an amazing meal at the Lower East Side’s newest hot spot, Rosette.  Although not a vegetarian restaurant, the menu is full of beautifully creative vegetable dishes almost too pretty to eat. I knew I had to meet the mastermind behind the menu, who was none other than the talented Nick Curtin, formerly of Acme and Compose in New York and Iron Chef America competitor.  

I had a chance to sit down with the New York City chef, and while we bonded over our love for Rhode Island (Nick is a native Rhody and I attended college there), Nick was kind enough to share some of his secrets behind the complexity of his vegetable dishes, creative ways to cook in small spaces, and his favorite New York Farmer’s Markets.

We discussed the rapidly changing landscape of food cultivation, preparation and cooking.  Nick, also shared tips on where to find rare products and high quality ingredients, like an Apple Balsamic from Quebec (that literally takes 2 years to produce a bottle).  If you’re any kind of food enthusiast, Nick Curtin is the ultimate chef and food connoisseur to sit back and learn from. See for yourself here…

Can you tell me about the some of the dishes at Rosette that really excite you because the flavor elements are unique?

It’s funny actually, that you are coming to interview me about a health food blog or vegetables, because I think if you met me three years ago, I was a very different person as a chef.

I would cook everything in bacon fat, (laughs)! It’s only the last couple of years that I’ve worked more with Scandinavian food, and worked with Chef Mads Refslund, who taught me a lot about working with vegetables. It opened my eyes to so many new possibilities.

So I came here (to Rosette’s), and we have this incredible wood-burning oven and we just started to experiment with new cooking techniques. The things that spoke to me the most, and that I found most exciting, were the vegetable dishes. Like our cabbage dish, where we roast our cabbage in the hot embers for 2 hours, peel off the chard layers, core it and sear it.  Its like Cabbage cooked in its own skin. It’s very sweet, very "cabbagy”, and very clean.

We also take cabbage and leave it in the oven overnight and when we seal the oven pressure builds up and what occurs is the Maillard Reaction or caramelization. When we come in to take it out in the morning, the entire cabbage inside the charcoal layers is caramel. We just add a pinch of salt to that. It is a little sour, smoky, sweet, but still tastes very much like cabbage.  We put that on the plate with lemon vinaigrette and puffed buckwheat to give a little pop crunch. That dish is a lot of fun.

Cabbage Heart at Rosette
We’ve also been working on a new dish, which I’m super excited about (smiles). We take giant beets (the size of your head) and put them in the back of the oven with the embers for an hour and a half.

What happens is the beet skin turns to charcoal, about a ¼ inch thick. We cool the beet down, and when we pull it out, you can crack through the charcoal layer. There is a space, the size of your pinkie, because the beet has dehydrated and separated from the skin.

When we pull off the charcoal, you end up with this really concentrated beet flavor. We break it into chunks and pair it with fish sauce vinaigrette, onion cream, and ramp capers.

"To me beets are the meat of the veg world. They are so hearty and their texture is just so incredible."

 How did you learn to cook vegetables this way? Was it mostly through experimentation?

I'd say it’s about 50 % happy accidents. For example, the cabbage marmalade was a result of us trying to learn (the capabilities of) our oven and see how it cooked things. That was one of the first dishes we tried overnight in the oven and it ended up teaching us so much about (cooking in) our oven. The complexity that we were able to get out of a single pure ingredient was so intriguing to me that I just wanted to chase that and find dishes I could serve and be more excited and proud of than the meat dishes that I serve.

It was about finding something that represents the way that food should be going - which is healthier for us and healthier for the environment and more exciting to eat. Ya know, steak is boring after about 3 bites… but cabbage changes every time you take a bite.

So, that brings me to my next question. Now that more consumers are paying closer attention to where their food is coming from, eating seasonally, and how it’s grown. Has this influenced the menu at Rosette?

Yes, 100 %. When I first came here, I didn’t intend to do as many vegetables as we ended up doing (laughs). I originally thought this would be more of a comfort food spot. When we soft opened people from the neighborhood started coming in and we kept getting people who were vegetarian and gluten free. We started making dishes like our brussels sprouts, which are gluten free and vegan. We make them in a tamari lime and adobo glaze, with cashew, puffed quinoa, and apple. These are pretty classic flavors to put with a brussels sprouts, but we worked around to make sure it was gluten free and vegan and those customers could eat our food.

I became really excited about all the possibilities we could have with these vegetables and I started to spend more time at the green market finding the best vegetables we could use.

Is most of the produce used sourced locally?

Yes, we try to source as much of it locally.  What I think is a better approach for this restaurant is to source the best product we can get. There are products out there that are not local per say, but are products we want to put on display at Rosette because they are very special. They are well raised, grown with care, and allow us to have a diverse menu while still featuring real food. We want the best flavors possible and from the best possible we can get from.

"We want the best flavors possible and from the best sources we can get from"

So, what markets do you like shopping at in New York?

I love the Union Square Market; it’s the largest and the best farmers go there. I also am a big fan of the New Amsterdam Market, which is less produce but feature a lot of really great jams, beer, breads, and ciders. One of my favorite purveyors in all of New England is Gabe the Fish Babe – she goes there sometimes. 

Do you think there are any ingredients that have fallen out of fashion or chefs are overusing?

Good question. Yes, herbs. Noma (restaurant) inadvertently started this gratuitous herb overuse. It’s become a thing to cover your food in very very small greens or herbs, regardless the season. I’m very much over that. A lot of that is only about what looks pretty on a plate and not necessarily what tastes great. A lot of micro ingredients don’t taste that great because the nutrients haven’t had time to flow into the green.  It’s so easy to make something look gorgeous by putting wispy green herbs on a plate, but that doesn’t mean it tastes good. I think sometimes it can be a little overkill - not to say that in the spring or summer we wont use herbs on occasion, just not without purpose.

What do you think is the most overlooked vegetable you use at Rosette?

Definitely cabbage. 100%. Most restaurants are into root vegetables but you don’t usually see cabbage on a menu unless it’s a kraut or slaw. I didn’t even take it seriously until one day we decided to experiment with it, the next thing you know we were having a lot of fun with it.

We are also playing around right now with these beautiful Rutabagas we got from Windfall Farms at the Union Square Market.  We are experimenting slow cooking the rutabagas with beeswax. So that will be very fun!

So, what inspired the parsnip "steak"?

I’ll be honest. I’d say my favorite restaurant in the country is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They do an over winter parsnip that they cook like a steak.  They carve it tableside and serve it with a blood sausage bordelaise; it is really a beautiful dish. I decided that I wanted to present a vegetable as a meat dish. We figured out a way to cook parsnips, which is to roast them with aromatics in the oven until they are tender, and then cook them in a pan in a similar fashion to cooking steak until the parsnips are golden.  I think parsnips and hazelnuts are one of the best pairings, so we put them with hazelnut butter. We wanted to do a creamed spinach element and potato element. So we take beet greens, which are blanched and cut, and then cream them with a potato puree that is mixed with whole grain mustard and house-made cheese buttermilk. It’s really tasty!

Do you have any tips for cooking in small spaces? I mean all New York City Kitchens are extremely tiny.

Oh totally. If you want to do a big meal I highly recommend doing the prep ahead of time.  When you are able to function really well in a small kitchen it’s because you have everything you need readily available at your fingertips. It’s because you’ve taken the time to think about all the elements, ingredients, and how they are going to be prepared and incorporated together.

I highly recommend doing one pot meals and building all the elements from there. There are a lot of fun ways to be creative with pots. For example, you can roast in your pot.

Most of it is about organization. Being able to work in a small space is about understanding you have very limited space and you need to use it to your best advantage. Keep things tight and lined up; find homes for things in your kitchen and use a lot of shelves and cabinet spaces. Work in small units. Don’t pull all your products out at once or pile everything on the counter when you come back from the grocery store; pull them out when you need them. I wish I had a more romantic answer… but it’s mostly about space management.

What is one kitchen tool you cannot live without because it helps to efficiently manage your time?

Let’s see…every year there is a tool of the year for me. In 2011 it was the offset spatula. I used it for plating, placing, and to lift proteins. In 2012 it was scissors. I know that sounds crazy but we receive so many boxes that we have to cut through. 2013 was a box cutter, which was just an extension of the scissors (laughs), but I used it for everything. My current tool is probably just my knife and a good spoon. You can do everything you need to do with a good spoon and knife.

What’s the last great dish you had?

That’s a tough one – I’ve had a lot of great dishes. Can I say two? The first was in Copenhagen, at Amass. American Chef, Matt Orlando did the best bread course I’ve ever had in my entire life.  The dish was potato that had been fermented for 4 days, and then made into bread with yogurt and flour. It’s then grilled and served with a sauce made from sunchkoke leaves, olive oil, parsley, and lemon juice. It was so simple, but had so much complexity; my fiancé and I had four orders of it! That was pretty amazing.

The other one was a few months ago when I spent time in northern California at the restaurant Meadowood. Meadowood is one of the two of three Michelin star restaurants in California. They have one of the most amazing setups, teams, and are doing incredible stuff with vegetables. Chef Kostow has been very inspiring to me as a chef and one of the most incredible dishes I had there was the cucumber porridge. They took cucumber seeds and chopped them up, strained them to get out the excess liquid and saved the cucumber juice, which was thickened. The seeds are cooked and finished with crème fraîche.  The dish is plated warm with pickled and raw varieties of cucumber, caviar, various sea grasses, a pool of the cucumber juice, and seaweed oil. It was so so so good. Clean, rich, with an ocean and earth combination.  An incredible dish.

Do you think chefs are incorporating more vegetables in their menu versus meat or poultry?

Yes, 100 %. That’s where food is going.  It’s one of these things where a large portion of the dining public still wants their steak but these chefs are saying you can have your steak but I highly recommended this root vegetable too. It’s a more sustainable way of cooking and I think for chefs it’s a more interesting way of cooking.

171 E Broadway, New York NY 10002
(212) 933-1176