THE INTERVIEW: Jeremy Bearman, executive chef at Rouge Tomate
As executive chef at Rouge Tomate, Jeremy Bearman creates new American cuisine with a menu that constantly changes, taking seasonal ingredients and creating menu’s that are both inventive and healthy while being delicious. Here he dishes on the secret to a successful restaurant, why celebreality shows that glamorize chefs is bad and his techniques for making great new American cuisine at Rouge Tomate.
I read that you had an Ivy League degree but decided to become a chef, who is self taught. What was your previous career path and what made you make the jump to cooking?
Well, I graduated from Cornell with a degree in Hotel Restaurant Management, so actually I was headed in this path for some time. When I entered school however, I didn’t know that I wanted to become a chef. I was actually, like most kids my age, not sure what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I liked restaurants, hotels, and the whole hospitality industry, but it wasn’t until I did an externship at a local restaurant that I got the chef bug. I had worked at a local deli during high school and as well during the summers of college which I really enjoyed. I liked earning money, dealing with people, and most of all getting to play with food. This along with the fact that my parents cooked a great deal during my youth, all led me on the path that I ultimately chose. It was definitely not something that most of my classmates at Cornell did however. I guess earning $9 an hour to cook in 135 degree heat all summer isn’t exactly the most attractive job for a college graduate. That is, unless you absolutely love cooking and the energy of working in the kitchen like I do.
As Executive Chef at Rouge Tomate, when you create your seasonal menu’s, how does the environment around you influence what goes into each dish?
Everything influences my menu including the seasons, what’s at the market, what I have recently eaten at other restaurants, books and magazines that I read, the purveyors that we deal with including the local farms, fisheries and specialty stores. Mostly, however, what really influences me is the environment that we create here at Rouge Tomate. I have a number of sous chefs, as well as a dietician that I work with everyday. Between all of us, we bring so many different experiences, tastes and ideas to the table. The dishes on my menu are almost always a collaboration between two of us or even sometimes three or four of us. This kind of open environment, where my chefs as well as myself are constantly creating and changing the menu, lends itself to creating the most dynamic and interesting menu items that we can offer. One of the most unique aspects though, that sparks creativity for us in creating menu items are the parameters set by SPE which is the nutritional charter that we follow. Since its inception and the beginning of my work here at Rouge Tomate, this alone has been the most influential aspect for me in doing something truly unique and different than what I have done in the past. It truly shows you how guidelines, once thought by us as restrictions, spark the most creativity in terms of thinking outside the box.
What do you bring to the proverbial table that sets Rouge Tomate apart from other restaurants serving up modern American cuisine?
I think that all of my experiences leading up to this position have set the stage for the food that we cook here. I have been influenced by my previous chefs Daniel and Robuchon as well as by the chef positions that I have had in the past. I think that having worked in two of the best food cities in the country, San Francisco and New York has really shaped my approach to food. Working on the west coast has opened my eye to what seasonal cooking and farm to table cooking really means. The markets and environment there is like no other. The availability of the best produce, meats, fish and artisan products is just impossible to beat here in the U.S. The attitude towards dining and approach to food is truly unique and I will always embrace that for as long as I cook. As well, working in New York and for the people I have, has taught me how to run a restaurant, work hard and constantly challenges me to be the best that I can because of all the talent here in the city. It is my hometown and for me there is no other place that embodies the energy of the restaurant quite like it. All of this along with having run three restaurants previously, has given me the tools necessary to put together a truly unique restaurant like Rouge Tomate.
How do you decide what goes on the menu at Rouge Tomate versus what you have done at previous restaurants you’ve run in Las Vegas and San Francisco?
My approach to the menu is very much the same as when I was in the two other cities, however with Rouge Tomate, the whole nutritional approach and guidelines of SPE truly shape the way the menu is put together. For our menu here, we take into consideration so many aspects before planning a dish or menu. We need to think about seasonality, availability of local products, and sustainability in terms of fish, meat and produce. We need to consider the products we are utilizing and their nutritional values as well we also are very concerned with the synergies that can be created when putting ingredients together. At Rouge Tomate, I work hand in hand with my dietician, Natalia to create dishes that are not only interesting, tasty and beautifully presented, but also that are well balanced, and packed full of nutrients. I could go on for days talking about all of what shapes these menu items, but each day is new and each day my chefs and I are creating we are coming up with new ideas and learning new aspects of nutrition that we can incorporate into our cooking. The approach to menu development here is truly unique as well as quite tedious at points, but in the long run, it yields amazing results that balance great food with healthy cooking.
What is the most challenging dish you’ve had to cook and why?
I think that tasting for new jobs are one of the most challenging meals that you cook as a chef. The tasting for Rouge Tomate was definitely the most challenging for me. First of all, the pressure was on to show what I could do. Not only did I have to cook a seven course meal, but I had to do it in New York. At the time, I was living in San Fran and was the chef at Lark Creek Steak. It was the middle of December, and I was incredibly busy at the restaurant. I had already been working like 90 hours a week when this opportunity came along so I jumped at it. I had to work all week and then fly out on a red eye to New York. I arrived early in the morning, dropped my stuff off at the hotel and went directly to a friend’s restaurant who was going to let me use the kitchen to do the tasting. I worked tirelessly all day, and then met with the owners afterwards for dinner. Basically this was in itself another part of the interview. We stayed out pretty late and the next morning I woke up (about 5 hours after going to sleep) to go back to the restaurant and prepare for the tasting that would be in just 5 hours. The tasting only lasted about 2 hours and it was a race back to the airport to catch another red eye back to San Fran where another 90 hour week awaited me. When you do tastings you are usually in an unfamiliar kitchen with different equipment. When you cook with great products, you need to secure those products because your food depends upon it. When you are out of your area, sometimes that can be the most difficult part. I always prefer to source my own product rather than rely on others to get it for me, because if it is not up to par, then you either have to serve an inferior product and make excuses, which I won’t’ do, or change your menu last minute to make up for it. For this tasting, I had things flown in from all over and ran around for part of the day to a whole bunch of specialty stores trying to find the products that I needed. Luckily I was in New York. I have done tastings in other places where you are not so lucky. All in all, tastings can be quite difficult especially the preparation for them. You only have one shot, and you need to prepare the menu accordingly. There are so many aspects to weigh out when deciding what you will cook.
What do you think is the secret to running a successful restaurant?
Listen to your guests, work hard and hold yourself to the highest standards, surround yourself with talented hard working individuals and be dedicated to staying the course, riding out the good and bad times. Most of all, you need to be proactive, and be smart enough and have enough experience to know when things are working and when they are not. You need to be able to change course on a dime when you know that things aren’t working. A good PR company is also very important. One that understands your goals and how to market the restaurant properly, give you good feedback and promote you in the right places. Lastly I would say MONEY. It is important to have enough to sustain you through the beginning stages of the restaurant. It can take a good amount of time in some cases before you can truly call yourself successful, at least in a financial sense.
When you’re not in the kitchen, what restaurants in NYC do you frequent for inspiration and/or fun?
For inspiration, I like to go to places I haven’t been before. There are so many restaurants here both old and new that for someone like me who is constantly at my restaurant, it would be impossible to visit them all, so there are a lot of choices. I live up in Westchester and one of my favorite restaurants is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The food there is very much my style and reminds me of being in California.
Do you ever watch celebreality shows like Top Chef? If so, do you think it’s helped or hurt the industry?
I have to say that I have watched some episodes and although there might be some positive that comes out of it, there is also a good amount of negative. Many young cooks coming out of culinary schools these days who see this and other shows like it get many misconceptions. We in the industry see these cooks and are the ones who have to give them the wake up call. These shows glamorize what it is to be in the profession. It is all about being the celebrity chef. The reality is that the hours suck, the higher up the ladder you go the more hours you end up working, you never see your family, holidays go out the window, the divorce and alcoholic rate for chefs is sky high and basically until you get to the top, the pay sucks too. For years you will most likely get yelled at for everything and you won’t get any credit until you are the chef. Many of these kids today think that they are going to be a chef 2 years out of school when the reality is that, to be a real professional chef, you probably need to be working as a cook or sous chef for at least 7 to 10 years, otherwise you will not have gained the experience necessary to be fluent in your craft. I guess the reason some of us become bitter at this is because we need to sift through the resumes constantly in search of talent, discipline, determination, and a true love for the craft. Sometimes it seems to have gotten worse as we see more and more disillusioned cooks that really don’t want to work hard and who are not truly passionate about being a cook. In the long run, that’s what we all are, Cooks. If we didn’t love it then I am sure we could find something a lot better to do to make money.
With a bad economy, have you noticed a change in what people are eating, and if so, how have you adjusted your menu to it?
I am not sure that the economy is really changing what people eat, but rather where they eat. Everyone in the industry is offering some sort of deal these days whether it be a prix fixe menu, pre theater menus, discounts for certain days, or discounted menus during certain weeks or months. At Rouge Tomate we definitely see one trend however, of people who are looking to eat foods that are more healthy, local and sustainable and of course that is what we are about. I think this trend will continue to grow, especially as people become more informed about what they are truly eating.
Are there any types of cuisine or cooking techniques that are currently influencing you?
We have recently received our permit to use Sous Vide Cooking and for us this is very important. The use of this cooking technique allows us to create things that are not possible without it. It also allows us to retain the nutrients during cooking as well as flavor. Because we are so concerned with serving food with a high nutritional content, this cooking technique is invaluable as it allows us to prepare foods quickly and accurately without losing the properties of the wonderful products we are sourcing.
What can people expect to see on future menu’s at Rouge Tomate?
Expect to see whatever is in season on future menus. We change our menus daily and work with our farms and purveyors very closely to offer our guest the best of what is in the market.