When a guy is equally skilled at wielding a ping-pong paddle and a chef's knife, then you know you've found the right man to head up the kitchen at a table-tennis nightclub. That's the story with Will Horowitz, a onetime junior table-tennis pro who's now the exec chef at Ducks Eatery, the new restaurant inside Gramercy ping-pong club SPiN that starts serving tonight. Here, he's whipping up a global melange of finger food, which he describes as "sort of like spectator food but on crack!" We like the dude already!
So I see that you like table tennis, and you like cooking.
I was actually a professional junior table tennis player. I'm 27 now—that was back when I was 9 to about 16. And then I slowly went into cooking, and so my life [was] basically mismatched. And we created this club, and here we are.
Best of both.
It really is a fantastic situation for me—everything I love in life. I have food, ping-pong and booze. It's great.
Hopefully not all at the same time.
Hopefully not, but you'll be surprised. It's a pretty wacky place here [laughs].
So, are you a chef first and ping-pong player second?
Well, I actually do play ping-pong with my chef knife quite a bit for exhibitions. The other night I had a big party here and actually [had] a death-defying match playing Mario Batali.
It was a pretty good match. He's actually pretty good with a ping-pong racquet. I was amazed. I'm using the knife instead of a paddle.
How very underground. It's like your own version of Fight Club.
Yeah, pretty much. That, plus usually a lot of alcohol and great food and usually a couple of models in the mix—it's a really fantastic place [laughs]. At the end of the day, I'm a chef first. We wanted to call the food "ping-pong-inspired food." Sort of like "spectator food" but on crack. So we might have sweet-and-spicy popcorn, or a burgundy-truffle-and-foie gras popcorn. Sandwiches go from this cheddar-gruyere-taleggio grilled cheese and tomato soup, to our own banh mi and Korean tacos and pork buns.
What's in a Korean taco?
I do it two ways: You can either get it in duck confit or with a Korean beef short rib, and then I use a Korean miso aioli and we do our own homemade oyster kimchi, and then we're doing these wonderful homemade tortillas.
Our banh mi is my favorite. We confit our own pig skin for about three-and-a-half days and honey-roasted in the oven. And I actually cut them in individual squares, so they turn into completely flat crackers. We do our own five-spice pork belly, homemade pickled daikon and cucumber, and lemongrass pate.
Pretty wacky stuff. What was your criteria for what ultimately made it onto the menu?
[Laughs] I guess you could say, what was our criteria for making a ping-pong nightclub! It falls along the same lines. I've worked at a lot of different types of restaurants, mainly fine restaurants—it was kind of like a good escape for me, just sort of do whatever the fuck I want. And just have fun was the main thing, just putting in the hours and passion and creating, creating, creating, creating.
Before I wrote the menu, I just came back from this extensive trip where I was living and cooking all over India, Tibet and Southeast Asia. So when I moved back to New York, there was a lot of [my menu] that came from all sorts of places around the world.
Susan Sarandon's a partner at Spin. Did she weigh in on the menu?
My biggest inspiration from Susan was the popcorn, actually. When we first started doing the menu, we wanted to do a side but we didn't really know what to do. And one night we were all hanging out and she just came to the conclusion that we had to serve popcorn. And we took the idea and we just kind of went crazy with it.
Back to that Batali ping-pong deathmatch: so who won?
[Laughs] Well, I guess this is gonna be bad press, but actually I lost. The amazing thing is, I can beat a lot of great players! And I can't believe it: Not only does the guy have a ping-pong table at his summer house apparently, but he was fantastic. So we decided that our next match, we're just going to go knife against knife.
What's the best type of knife to play ping-pong with?
I like to use a Japanese vegetable knife, but for all utilitarian purposes you can't really match a good old Chinese cleaver [laughs].
You should probably have EMS standing by.
Fortunately, we made a rule early on that I was not allowed to play ping-pong with my chef knife once I had a couple of drinks in me. I have a three-drink cutoff and then they take the knife away from me. So it's good.
Smart thing. You'll need all your fingers.
There's liability issues! [laughs]