Many words have been written about the hard lives of chefs, and most of them happen to be true. While diners relax in candlelit dining rooms, chefs slave away in white-tiled hellholes. He or she is working frantically under the merciless glare of fluorescent lighting, watching anxiously as ever more orders are stuck upon the rail. The chef’s back and feet ache, there are probably some burns, and then some idiot Elite Yelper walks through the door to live-tweet his darkest hour.
Given the stresses that chefs endure in their day-to-day working lives, it’s no surprise that they regularly need to decompress. To that end, Manhattan restaurants like Blue Ribbon and Momofuku Ssäm Bar became well-known hangouts for chefs because their excellent kitchens stayed open late for discriminating (but out-of-civilian-synch) restaurant workers. Both restaurants offered off-duty cooks the sense of community they craved after spending a brutal day on the wrong end of the pass.
Sadly, restaurant-staff weekends start just when ours are ending—Sunday nights are generally when cooks finally clock out for the week. Now, just think about your own Westchester town on a Sunday night; it’s probably a ghost town. Happily for local chefs, Kyle Inserra and Mike Abruzese—the team behind Polpettina—have decided to do something about that.
On one Sunday night each month, Inserra and Abruzese hold secret, invitation-only parties at the Larchmont location of Polpettina. These are open solely to restaurant workers. The events are organized like the old Playboy key club: Partiers are issued special tokens without which they are warned they won’t gain entrance but, given the small pool of invitees that formality is mostly disregarded. Facebook also helps invitees stay connected with a secret community page. “Mainly,” says Chef Abruzese, “we just wanted to network and to get everyone together from all of the Westchester restaurants.” The county’s footprint, with 450 square miles, is far wider than Manhattan’s 34 square miles. Abruzese explains, “At Blue Ribbon—and this is going back years—you knew that you could go and eat there at one, two, and three in the morning. And, when you were there, you’d run into the same kind of people.” In Westchester, Abruzese contrasts, “every neighborhood and every chef might have their own places, but how often do we all cross paths? This monthly Sunday [industry night] will be the night when everyone will be in one place at one time.”
Left to right: crispy pickled tripe taco with ancho chili salt and lime crema, al pastor taco with pork and pineapple, and a pair of beef-cheek tacos with kimchi and spicy aioli
Currently, the party explicitly does not include the usual Twitter and Yelp personalities who, sadly, have become the unpaid—but often comped—wing of Westchester restaurant promotion. “In time, we may bend the rules a little bit, but, now, it’s just for restaurant people and their employees.” Part of the reason for the event’s exclusivity is that, with Facebook and Instagram, the privacy of well-known chefs is increasingly at risk. Put yourself in their shoes: What if, after your third well-deserved cocktail, you suddenly had to be “on” for someone else’s self-promotion on Instagram? “Not that we put the show on with horse and buggy all of the time,” says Abruzese, “but it would be nice not to have to look over our shoulders worrying that someone will be writing about a taco that won’t be on our menu. Or if they saw [one chef] smoking a cigarette. You know?”
Abruzese and Inserra see the parties spreading throughout Westchester to offer the sense of community that so many local restaurant workers crave. “If word gets out, we may open it up to more vendors, maybe some VIP customers, and it’ll hopefully turn into something bigger.” He continues, “And, maybe, we’ll switch up the restaurants. Who knows? I mean, Dave [DiBari] has his party once in a while and I know that Chris [Vergara] hasn’t, but he might. I know that Peter Kelly would probably love to do one and he has the space. This could grow into something very big for everyone.”
Even better, the events offer a creative outlet for chefs who may be stifled by their restaurant’s particular genre. The first Polpettina Industry Night in May, for example, offered tacos—off-brand in a pizzeria. Says Abruzese, “The best family meals [the meals staffers make for themselves] that we have at Polpettina are tacos. It gives us the opportunity to explore our Mexican roots a little bit.” He continues, “The whole idea is to let chefs get away from their own restaurant. So, if a chef says, ‘I always wanted to make crêpes,’ then great—make crêpes. It could be anything: You want to explore your Japanese roots? Go ahead. You want to do a hot-dog thing with boiling water like New York City? Go ahead. You want to do nothing? Do nothing—just come—but, if you want to explore anything here, just explore. Let your hair down and have a good time.”