It's tough enough for a New York City chef to make a splash at one restaurant. But for a chef to leave a carnivorously bombastic imprint on three restaurants in the span of a year? It's enough to make a gastronome go hog wild. Which is exactly how Ryan Skeen likes it.
Indeed, the 30-year-old chef likes his pork jowl. Savors his pig's ear. Covets his fatback. And if, earlier this year, you enjoyed the deviled eggs on pork toast at Resto; or the chutney-doused ribs at The General Greene; or, more recently, the showstopping boudin blanc–and–beyond charcroute plate at Irving Mill—well, chances are you liked them, too.
You see, Ryan Skeen may have nabbed both raves and headlines in 2008 (his abrupt departure from Resto last June raised eyebrows). But what makes Skeen our top chef this year is that the nine-year NYC vet has made eating so damn fun. Crispy pig's feet? Serve it up with ribs! Pig's ear? In the salad, baby! On Skeen's watch, hearty eating need not be a guilt-ridden affair.
"He takes chances and does risky stuff," says Irving Mill co-owner Suzanne Riva, who hired Skeen in October to overhaul the Gramercy eatery's staid identity. "The excitement that goes into his [cooking]—that's who he is. He can't even hide it."
In fact, Skeen revels in it: As we sat down to chat with him at Irving Mill, one of his purveyors stops by bearing a bevy of luxe ingredients. There, amid the intoxicating aroma of truffles, he takes a satisfied, Zen-like whiff of the bounty—a brief, calm repose before the chaos of the kitchen and the frenzy of big expectations.
What do all three of the restaurants you worked at this year have in common?
Good people. Honesty. There's not a lot of foams and gels. I've got a lot of friends who are into molecular gastronomy. It's just not what we do.
How do you think the opening went at General Greene?
It was an endeavor, to say the least. This is Brooklyn. You have to restructure who you buy from. At Ici a guy would pull up in a pickup truck with half pigs. It looked like somebody took a saw and cut a pig in half. [General Greene] owner Nick Morgenstern and I wanted it to be as simple as possible because we only had a month to put it together.
There's been a lot of rumors about why you left Resto. Set the record straight.
There was a quake in the partnership, between [owner] Christian [Pappanicholas] and myself. The relationship was never perfect, to say the least. We used to joke that we were two brothers who hated each other, but were living in the same house.
How'd you react when the Riva family approached you about Irving Mill?
I was a little...[long pause]....let's take it slow. You walk into a restaurant—that had the reviews they had—very cautiously. I needed to understand why it didn't work the first time around. The owners recognized that it was the last shot.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Getting out from under the Gramercy Tavern concept was the biggest thing. We needed to reset the identity of this restaurant and give it a personality that would grab people's attention.
Which brings us to...the pig. New York Magazine wrote that you have an "irrepressible porkophilia that approaches Momofukian levels."
It makes me laugh a little bit—the fact that Dave [Chang] and I are the pork guys in New York City. I remember when we were line cooks at Café Boulud, neither of us approached it like we are going to go "do pork." I have this addiction that everything should have pork. They're working on this milkshake in the kitchen and I thought it would be amazing if we could air-dry some bacon and sprinkle pieces over the top. The sous-chef said that I have a serious problem.
What's Irving Mill's most popular dish?
I'd like to think that it is the charcroute plate, which was kind of a dream I had while at Resto, where we didn't have the space or manpower to do it.
But the burger is your calling card...
I joke that I don't think I will ever be able to escape this burger thing. It was almost an afterthought when we started Resto. We wanted to have a burger with a technique and focus behind it. It reinforces the rest of the menu. I think the dining scene in the city has started to change. I'm not going to say that fine dining is dead, but those techniques, that style just needs to be incorporated into a different environment. I love seeing a banquette full of "Sex and the City" girls here eating pig's head sandwiches not knowing that the hell it is but loving it.
There are actually non-pork items on this menu. Co-owner Suzanne Riva points out that you get as excited about Japanese mushrooms as you do about pig's head.
[Motions to a man standing nearby, waiting to chat with Skeen] Actually, can I bring this guy over real quick...[shouts]...Mike! He's actually got the Japanese mushrooms you're talking about.
[Mike Rojas, who works at luxury food purveyor Mikuni Wild Harvest, heads over, carting a small luggage bag. It's filled with matsutake mushrooms, as well as thousands of dollars' worth of truffles, wrapped in paper towels.]
This guy is one of my secret weapons in the city. This guy gets me all my crazy, amazing stuff. Yeah, this restaurant opened up the door so I can do pastas, and I can do more fish, and hopefully people will start focusing on things other than the pork that we do.
Have you had your cholesterol checked lately?
I have no idea. I'm a little scared to check, actually. I'm not a big doctor guy. My grandfather never went to a doctor, and he had one lung taken out when he was 30 and he lived to be 70, and he drank and he ate and never really paid attention to that kind of stuff. I feel pretty healthy, and I'm gonna go with my grandfather's role in life: just pork, beer and red meat. And just for fun, a salad.
Photo by Melissa Hom