Why Restaurant North’s Eric Gabrynowicz Puts Farmers on a Pedestal
Above all, he says, the lessons they learn to honor the land is what shapes his cooking.
Most people choose to go into the restaurant business; Eric Gabrynowicz was forced. Okay, his father's friend needed help in his restaurant on a busy holiday, but, come on, made to wash dishes instead of hanging with friends? At 13? No way. “You're being a punk kid, you're going to do it, and I'm taking the money you make because you're being ungrateful,” his father fumed. The pay ended up in Eric's bank account, and Eric ended up with the time of his life. “The environment was crazy,” he says. “Things were flying around, people were playing with knives and fire and cursing like sailors. I fell in love with it that day.”
He's been working in kitchens ever since: his father's friend's until 18, then the CIA's in Hyde Park, then at New York City's Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and Tabla. His teachers read like a culinary pantheon: Danny Meyer, Michael Romano, Dan Kluger, Kenny Callaghan, Floyd Cardoz. But his greatest mentors aren't chefs, and they aren't famous. They're farmers.
“The ingredients that they put so much time and effort into perfecting,” Gabrynowicz explains, “the lessons that they learn just trying to honor the land...is what shapes my cooking more than anything.” He learned those lessons hard at age 27 at Tavern at Highlands Country Club in Garrison, running his own kitchen, his own four acres, and his own staff—which included a farmer. “We'd work together to build menus and create crop schedules,” he says. “Union Square Cafe focused on market cooking, and this was the opportunity to take it to the next level and work with the farmer and the dirt.” Three years later, this reverence informed the philosophy behind Restaurant North, but the actual seeds had been sown decades earlier, at his Genovese-immigrant grandfather's table in Queens. “We'd go to Papa's house on Sundays and it was a seven-hour dining experience,” he recalls. “It was all local, market food: pesto, pasta, tortellini en brodo, braised meat in gravy, tagliatelle tartufo. That's where my food culture comes from. His food was the most memorable I've ever had in my life.” Food—and drink: his grandfather's homemade wine, brandy, and, especially, the grappa that would transcend the table into the soul. The last bottle, from 1961, is Gabrynowicz's talisman, a totem gifted by his mother at North's opening. “I still have 90 percent of it,” he says softly. “It's a celebration of him. I hope to pour a glass for my daughter and me when I dance at her wedding in 20 years. I hope to have it be my celebratory drink in small amounts for the rest of my life.”
With the acclaim his restaurant's garnered, with his invitation to cook at the James Beard House this past December, with his goal “to be a destination for food people around the world; to be thought of in the light of the best restaurants” drawing closer, those “small amounts” of grappa are going to have to be miniscule.