New York City chefs setting up shop in Westchester is nothing new. Besides big names like Jean-Georges and Michael Psilakis, you’ll find plenty of county kitchens where the chefs cut their teeth in Manhattan before heading up to the burbs. But in the past year, it’s a new crop of chefs, from Brooklyn, who’ve piqued our interest. Just like the neighborhoods they come from, these chefs are a diverse group who mix creativity, personality, and formal training to create some of the county’s best new menus.
When Eric Gabrynowicz left Restaurant North, there were some big shoes to fill. “It was super-important to have someone who is an intellect, who’s educated on food and super-passionate about sustainability and the food system,” explains owner Stephen Mancini. “When John cooked for us, he aligned the mission statement and the vision of the restaurant.”
After several years at The Modern, Danny Meyer’s Michelin-starred restaurant at MoMa, Poiarkoff helped open The Pines in Gowanus. “We kept it kind of edgy,” says Poiarkoff, who built the menu around regional farms. “We had this kind of summer-camp-eclectic, cool-backyard vibe. The food was visually stunning, and we tried to push the limit of flavor combinations.”
Serious industry buzz followed — and so did new Brooklyn restaurants, including Willow and Denizen. While on the hunt for his next project, Poiarkoff got a call from Ralph Rubino, the new GM at Restaurant North, saying Mancini was looking for a new chef. “I thought it was the logical next step for me,” recalls Poiarkoff. “We have the same philosophies. I thought I could take my style of cooking and bring it to a new audience.”
That style is playful yet thoughtful. “I expected that I would need to tone down my food, but outside-the-box dishes actually sell well [here],” he says. Pickled delicata squash with goat cheese and cranberry-brown-butter hollandaise is a top seller, as is an unfamiliar Denver cut of Happy Valley beef. “Eric was in two weeks ago for dinner,” says Mancini. “He said the food’s better than it’s ever been.”
At Mr. Koo’s Kitchen in Irvington, there are char siu meatballs on the menu: lacquered orbs of Berkshire pork, nestled on a fuchsia swoop of apple-beet purée with shavings of pickled fennel. It’s not exactly traditional, but neither was the road chef/owner Ben Pope took to get here.
Influenced by an eclectic mix of growing up in Hong Kong and New Caledonia, rolling wontons with his grandmother and watching classic cooking shows, Pope left his 10-year career in film production for culinary school. He worked at Inatteso in Battery Park and Brooklyn’s Purple Yam, then opened 2 Duck Goose in Gowanus in 2014.
The idea of pairing char siu with beets and fennel started there, a style of cuisine he calls Modern Cantonese, which earned him a Best Male Chef nomination from Brooklyn Magazine. “I haven’t plugged [the food] anywhere as traditional,” says Pope. “It’s steeped in Cantonese flavors. In Hong Kong, we eat seasonally. It’s really the original farmers’-market concept before it became something hip.”
After leaving 2 Duck Goose for a Manhattan restaurant project that didn’t pan out, Pope found himself in Westchester, where his wife, Erica, had just opened a wellness business. “Manhattan always had this We’re better than the other boroughs thing. There’s more community in Brooklyn,” says Pope, something he’s found here, as well, with loyal customers who’ve become fans of his patatas-bravas-style sunchokes and flash-fried soy-sauce-broth-braised chicken.
“Erica said, ‘I think somewhere like Westchester will be great for you because you like to connect with people,’” recalls Pope. “I’ve met a lot of really nice folks.”
Even before he opened Best Pizza in Williamsburg, Frank Pinello was born and bred in Brooklyn. A graduate of the CIA, he grew up canning tomatoes, curing meats, and making wine with his grandfather. After he got his toque, Pinello slung pies in Hyde Park, made guacamole at Chipotle and worked alongside James Beard Award-winning chef Nate Appleman at NYC’s Pulino’s before landing a job at Brooklyn’s coolest, ultra-acclaimed pizzeria, Roberta’s. “It was just so unique,” recalls Pinello. “The way they did things was so refreshing to me.”
When they needed a pizza guy to open Best Pizza, they asked Pinello. “I felt like I just got signed by Cash Money,” he jokes. “These guys were my idols, and they asked me to be their partner.” Best Pizza blew up, and Pinello started consulting on pizzerias from Toronto to Hong Kong to Kuwait.
Opening Pizzeria La Rosa in New Rochelle, however, was the idea of his Best Pizza coworker Matt DiGesu. Together, they transformed the former Modern Restaurant space into an old-school-meets-modern pizzeria, inspired by a mix of Brooklyn, Neapolitan, and New Haven styles.
“I think Brooklyn chefs are a little more mom-and-popish. You start to develop your own ideas [that are a marriage] between your training and your own creativity,” says Pinello, adding that he wants to introduce specials featuring sophisticated techniques and flavors at La Rosa. “It might take a little while for people to trust us, but I think once they start, they’ll really love it.”