Christina Lecki has brought some changes to Williamsburg’s Reynard since becoming the restaurant’s executive chef. The Breslin and White Gold alum assumed the position at the Andrew Tarlow restaurant earlier this fall.
Lecki’s coming into a spot that already has an established identity as an Andrew Tarlow restaurant, a hotel restaurant, a Brooklyn restaurant. She says she’s treating the new position as a blank canvas, giving Reynard her own stylistic flair. Since stepping in, she’s begun a 24-hour cooking system, taken steps towards becoming a more sustainable restaurant and completely revamped the menu. We stopped into Reynard to speak with Lecki about the recent shift, how her travels have inspired her and the challenges that comes with striving to be a zero-waste restaurant.
I read that you were inspired to be a chef after a trip to Japan.
My senior year of high school, I did a student exchange and lived with a host family [in Japan]. I grew up extremely Italian-American. My grandparents were from Italy but we definitely ate very specific American/Italian cuisine growing up. Besides eating fast Chinese food, I never had any sort of Japanese food growing up, never had raw fish. So, going there, obviously, was a complete culture shock for me. It was an interesting experience and time in my life because it was a time when I learned what a palate is, unknowingly, and watched how much it grew.
The first time I had green tea, I was like, “This just tastes like hot water, I don’t understand what the fuss is all about.” Then the more I would drink it, the more I would understand the nuances and the reverence and the appreciation, especially the family I was staying with, had for having that hot beverage after their meal at certain parts of the day. The first thing when I landed, I had a full breakfast of pickles and dried beef and hot rice. As a kid growing up in America it’s cereal or waffles. It was something I would’ve never experienced in the morning. True to myself ‘til this day, I’m not a morning person. I would never really have a huge appetite and they were like, “Do you want cereal? Do you want something else?” And I was like, “I’m just not very hungry in the morning.” They were just trying to be overly accommodating and I refused to let them give me cereal because I don’t like cereal either. It was a really mind- and palate-altering time.
A lot of the American students were homesick and were totally freaked out by the whole experience, whereas I didn’t want to go home by the end of it, loved eating and trying new things. That was the first time I was like, “Wow, food is so interesting.” It completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of salt and raw and hot mixed with cold and gelatinous things. There were so many textures and flavors. I was never the same again.
That’s when I started thinking about becoming a chef because there are so many possibilities out there. And I got kind of scared because, obviously, it’s a very demanding industry — not that I knew a ton about it then — but I was like, you have to work every weekend and miss holidays. It just seemed like drudgery, so I just ended up going to university and studying something else for awhile. Inherently it found me again, and that’s where I am today.
Did you have a favorite dish in Japan?
I remember eating arm-sized tempura shrimp, like shrimp the size of my forearm. I was like wow this is so insane. The green tea was one of those things, just drinking that in such a communal and family environment — it was a classic Japanese family where the grandparents lived with the husband and wife and their children, so meals were very important and special to them. They were very calm and reserved and I was like a rambunctious teenager trying to be impressionable. I mean green tea for sure, giant tempura’d items, onigiri, mochi, all the things that are commonplace now in my life, you could find them at any store, especially in New York, but yeah those things definitely stand out. And eating sushi for the first time, understanding warm rice with cold fish and not being afraid, you know?
Where in America did you grow up?
Oh, so you got some of that diversity.
Totally. I had a pretty urban upbringing, but to be fair, there’s not a lot of Japanese presence in Philadelphia, or Asian presence in general. There’s a really dope Vietnamese food situation there, but not too much else there.
So, since you’ve moved to Reynard, you’ve updated the hearth at the restaurant. What brought that about?
When I got here, the hearth was a large fireplace with a large Argentinean Grillworks grill over it. I felt that it was still an amazing opportunity to work on a piece of equipment like that, but I felt like it was quite limiting, I thought that we could do a bit more nuanced wood cooking if we had just various cooking pieces of equipment in the hearth. I put in a plancha, a very thick, hot metal surface you can cook food directly on. We put coals underneath that and cook things on top. It’s really a great application for getting a nice sear on things: fish, things that are a lot more delicate that might tear apart on a grill, can be nicely cooked on a plancha. I spent a good amount of time traveling to Spain in my early 20s and always had an affinity seeing food cooked on a plancha there, especially things like razor clams and shellfish. I always thought, “Someday, I’d really like to be able to have something like that.” So we were able to build that.
We also built two small grills that we can also stack. The grills, what I like better about them as opposed to the Argentinean style, is the bars are thinner. You can get a better marking on them, and, I think, a deeper crust. It’s closer to the coal so you pick up a more nuanced flavor as opposed to the Grillsworks grill. We were working on a lot of burning live logs. So now we’re doing a lot of turning the logs into coal and doing more cooking from the wood coals, not the actual wood itself. It’s a little smokier. For me, I felt if you’re cooking on raw logs, they’re on fire but they’re not fully carbonized. They just have a, I always say, burning, building, acrid flavor profile, sometimes. It can kind of turn your food that way.
This way, I think it’s a little bit slower, a little more controlled, a little more nuanced. Then the other thing we did for the hearth was build a grid system above that we can hang — for example we have a quail dish on the menu at night and we have this beautiful cabbage that we hang and we let it go all day. It slowly steams on the inside and builds a nice smoky layer on the outside and we take that and quarter it and put that on the plancha to finish it and let it get slowly caramelized. We’re drying herbs up there, slowly roasting garlic up there, just hanging stuff. We smoke hams, if we’re doing bacon for breakfast, that all gets hot-smoked up there.
So the hearth allows you to keep a 24-hour cooking schedule?
We don’t have somebody here all the time, and there is a cleaning crew that comes in, but we try to use the wood oven [all day and night]. We clean that ourselves so we put the door down and we’ll put a pot of beans in there or some tomatoes [overnight]. We’re still experimenting with that and trying to be fully sustainable with the wood. Obviously, trees are a thing, and we should be respectful of what we’re using and trying to make the most out of the wood and everything that we’re getting. You’re leaving dinner service and we’re closed for the night, but the oven is still 500 or 400 degrees, it’s slowly winding down all night. It’s a great opportunity to put something in there and continue this cycle of what we’re doing. In the morning when everyone comes in, everything gets lit again and we start the hanging and start the process.
I feel like, in New York, we’re really behind the times of what other cities are doing. The way that we compost here, I often question its practices.
Why is being sustainable important to you?
It is very important to me, and it is something I’m always thinking about. It’s something that if we’re not thinking about, we should be always be thinking about. What stood out to me the most is that I spent some time this winter in California just watching how restaurants out there work; this summer I spent some time in Europe and watched how restaurants out there work. I feel like, in New York, we’re really behind the times of what other places are doing. The way that we compost here, I often question its practices. Is the trash and waste really going where it needs to be going? I mean, yes people are starting to buy things in bulk. But there’s something about the East Coast that doesn’t have the environmental conscience that the west coast has. I’m trying to figure out why that is. It’s almost like we’re such city people here that we don’t think about nature and our environment that much.
The way that we package goods is so wasteful, the way that we receive goods is so wasteful, the way that we waste product — it’s staggering. I worked in a hotel before and you just see the amount of of trash that goes out every night. You see the vegetable trim and this and that. We’re just trying to save everything as much as possible. We dehydrate a lot of our veg trim to turn into things to flavor soups, things to powder other vegetables with to fortify flavors, adding it to meats. I’ve done some stuff where I save all the onion peels, because obviously onions are like kind of the crux of a lot of restaurants. I’ve been doing some natural dying with yellow onion peels. I have like a bunch of bags of them in the freezer here. Once I accumulate a big amount, I’ve been making vats of dye and just dying fabric. It’s another way to use something to its fullest and it’s also a fun hobby. It’s something I enjoy doing.
Where are you dyeing usually?
Andrew [Tarlow] has a really beautiful house in Long Island and I’ve gone there with his family. But in the past, in my backyard, I have a very tiny backyard in Fort Greene.
Are you dying tote bags or shirts?
Just pieces of fabric to make headscarves to wear in the kitchen. Andrew, his wife and I have been trying to make aprons and uniforms for the kitchen, which is really awesome. It’s definitely a bigger, long-term thing and we’ll see how it goes. For me, if I can tie in my college education with my current trade, that would be something very inspirational. After being in the kitchen for so long, it’s nice to think about other passions. It just makes you a more creative person, using your brain in other areas. When I come back to work, it makes me feel like I have a much more fulfilled life.
Have you reached zero-waste status?
No, and I think it’s very difficult to reach zero-waste status. I’ve had a lot of pushback from large purveyors, like when I ask if we get our salt in a large bag instead of small boxes. I’ve got a guy who has to then go to the companies to change their [packaging]. Then there are reasons why things are packaged the way they are, so they don’t affect quality. It’s been an uphill battle, for sure. I have some smaller farms and some mid-level farms that we buy our stuff from that are giving us our vegetables in plastic containers that we [return] to them or boxes that we immediately give back to them. Instead of getting a brand-new box, we take our produce, meat or fish out and give it back, or else it goes right into the garbage. That box has a shelf life of a second once it hits the restaurant. So we’ve been trying to give back the packaging that the stuff comes in to reuse it. Even if it’s waxed cardboard, it’s still sturdy enough to use again. We try to very gently take things out.
I do think we’re being conscientious about how we treat our whole animals as well. Even before I started, that was always a thing. Making sure all the meat fats are being used, all the bones are being rendered or turned into stocks. This company has always been a smart company about how they handle their whole animals, making sure they’re being utilized to their fullest. For us, it’s really making sure that we’re fermenting those carrot tops, fermenting all the trim, all the byproduct. I think the biggest challenge is, the ideas are all there, it’s finding the time and having enough staff to make sure to keep up these healthy, fun practices. It’s been a big learning curve, for sure, but I don’t think we’ve lost the fight. For me to keep doing this in this kind of way and in this large capacity, it’s paramount to keep pushing and trying to raise the bar about how we’re handling what goes into the garbage can.
Before you were here, you worked at female-owned and run places like The Breslin and White Gold. Now that you’re working with Andrew Tarlow, have you seen any sort of shift between working with mostly women and now working with Andrew?
[laughs] Andrew’s kind of like a woman. He’s very delicate. But what’s different is I came from a very chef-driven restaurant group, like the chef was the main attraction, it was why people went there. Whereas the restaurateur is the main attraction [here], I think that’s the shift. People come to his places for the vibe, and the aesthetic and that he’s created these very niche, beautiful restaurants. Obviously the food is good, but it’s very little about the chef, it’s mostly about his story and who he is.
The challenge is when you’re working for a chef who is very successful and world-renowned, people go there with expectations of what the food should be and a level of openness. They’re excited to eat things like offal, or pig’s head and lamb brain, whereas here we have more work to do to get our customers to trust that I’m going to sell them a really great, exciting, interesting experience because it’s sort of like a blank canvas here. They don’t really know who the chef is; they know it’s a Reynard restaurant in a beautiful hotel in a really cool neighborhood, but there’s no real chef story behind it. They don’t know what kind of experience they’re looking for.
There are also different energies working in Manhattan and working in Brooklyn. For me, it’s been a very eye-opening time to see a whole new attitude. It’s not that different, but I can be very serious when working in a kitchen, and I definitely brought a lot of that here. Maybe that’s from my time working with April [Bloomfield].