Blame It on the Whiskey
Chef Susan Burdian gets into the spirit at her N.Y.C. restaurant.
As Executive Chef at the Flatiron Room in New York City, a cozy, chic establishment boasting 700 whiskeys and live entertainment, you may think that the food runs a poor third in gaining the attention of fickle hipsters looking for a night on the town. Not so, and kudos to Susan Burdian, a warm and thoughtful chef who knows how to stand up to the complexities of the world’s most popular spirit.
You run a very cool joint. What do you love most about it?
There's so much to love about this gig, starting with the beautiful space I get to walk into each day and call my home away from home; the chance to work with owner, Tommy Tardie, and be a part of his vision. But the #1 reason was easily the opportunity be involved with the launch of a new restaurant and build a menu from start to finish. Every morsel, sauce, idea on every plate is my expression or vision, as opposed to most other executive chef opportunities where you are walking into an already-existing menu, to which you might be able to make some changes and/or improve upon. But here I've been given the opportunity to create something completely unique. It’s been wonderful and exciting.
How did you design a menu that complemented whiskey?
The Flatiron Room has probably the largest collection of whiskeys from around the world on the East Coast. Whiskey is a beautiful, simple, elegant spirit that goes naturally well with savory, smoky, umami, fatty and sweet foods. Anything acidic or spicy can be tricky, but I am a spicy fan so I found a way to add some kick to a few dishes by combining the right amout of smoke, or lusciousness. I am a comfort food chef at my core, and I was also inspired by the gorgeous venue. It's elegant but very comfortable, and I think so is the menu.
What is your personal favorite or signature dish on the menu?
It changes often. The Braised Short Rib served over polenta with a mixed berry BBQ sauce is pretty special; the Crispy Skin Salmon with cucumber-fennel-fig salad; the Seitan Tacos, a delicious vegetarian option. But if forced to choose I would say the house Mac & Cheese. It's the number one seller on the menu, very complex and unique. It's sweet, smoky and spicy, and I've had some very memorable compliments on this dish. One guy said he needed to be alone with it, another person said it could possibly bring about world peace. One woman waxed poetic about it on Yelp!, how she daydreamed incessantly about it, and changed her Valentine’s Day plans with her boyfriend to come back for it. Another diner said it the nicest: "This sets the bar for what Mac & Cheese should be."
I was pleased to see you have a few vegetarian dishes!
Eating less animal protein is the future, my friends, for a variety of good reasons. We have many health-conscious, vegan or vegetarian guests who come for the whiskey, or come with friends, who are surprised and delighted to find something balanced and delicious on the menu (not just side dishes as is the case with most restaurants). Our Seitan Tacos entree is a top seller and that is very gratifying to me. I am a graduate of Natural Gourmet Institute here in N.Y.C., so I am a trained vegan/vegetarian chef. I care about health, the politics of food, and the planet. At the end of the day, I want people to try it and like it just because it's delicious, period.
As an out chef, have you faced any discrimination?
Thankfully, no. My entire culinary career has been developed in New York City, so I might have an advantage there. I would have to say I've encountered more misogyny than homophobia. The chef world is somewhat of a white boys club unfortunately, but that's changing with time. At the end of the day, you earn respect in the kitchen by being good at what you do. I push past anyone's pre-conceived notions by working hard. Owners, chefs and cooks just want to work with someone competent, someone who gets the job done, who takes pride in their work, and is an unselfish team player on the line.
Advice to aspiring lesbian chefs?
It’s hard work, don't kid yourself! But it's also soulful work; you are nourishing people and making them happy! So have a good work ethic, find good mentors, be curious, and learn your craft well. My favorite thing about being a chef is that moment when someone takes a bite and says in ecstasy, "Oh my god." Yeah, that's makes it all worth it.