It’s Saturday night at the Spotted Pig, the U.K.-style pub in New York’s West Village. London chef Fergus Henderson’s dishes are making a guest appearance on the menu as he’s on his annual culinary visit to the city.
Henderson is upstairs, celebrating his “FergusStock” culinary event with Tom Colicchio of Craft. Diners face a wait of several hours for a table. Co-owner Ken Friedman is with friends in the private third-floor bar, where a growing number of chefs will drink late into the evening. (This is one of the power rooms of New York.)
In the tiny kitchen on the ground floor, a young British woman, silent and intense, is pushing out dishes such as pig’s head with beans for two. She is April Bloomfield, 37, who was cooking at the River Cafe in London when Jamie Oliver recommended her to start the Spotted Pig in 2004.
She is also responsible for the food at the John Dory and the Breslin, which she co-owns with Friedman and his business partners. How did she find New York when she arrived in 2003?
“It was all new and refreshing in terms of food,” Bloomfield says over lunch at the Breslin. “London had been a bit stagnant. It was nice here because you had neighborhood restaurants that were a little different from London.
“I was ready for a different experience and I was amazed by how much good, cheap food there was in New York, like good Japanese, Chinese, Korean. When I arrived -- I’m not sure if it’s got anything to do with Sept. 11 -- people were ready for a more casual environment to eat in, where they could enjoy themselves and not have to pay too much or dress up.”
Bloomfield sounds almost girlish when she speaks, yet she looks tough, almost muscular. She has the kind of great palate and work ethic that impresses her U.S. counterparts.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, like its sister venues, does not accept reservations, so you may face a long wait to try Bloomfield’s gutsy dishes, such as Caesar salad with anchovy croutons or lamb burger with feta, cumin mayo and triple-cooked chips. Across the lobby of the Ace Hotel at the John Dory she serves Hawaiian blue prawns with coriander mayonnaise; and chorizo stuffed squid with smoked tomato.
Bloomfield isn’t the only London chef making a splash in New York. Paul Liebrandt, 35, who trained under Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc and Richard Neat, holds two Michelin stars at Corton and is working day by day for his third.
“This is my home: I love New York,” Harare-born Liebrandt says. “If I were living in Brittany, say, I might be influenced by the landscape and the sea. New York is such a melting pot and we have access to many cultures and peoples.
“When people come to a restaurant, what they look for in the food is personality, integrity and uniqueness. I’m British and I’d love to do a restaurant in London, but I still have things to achieve here and I don’t want to lose that focus.”
(Corton is the restaurant of Drew Nieporent, whose Myriad Restaurant Group venues include Nobu London, so Liebrandt has a useful potential ally for any U.K. venture.)
Back at the Breslin, Bloomfield laughs when reminded of the reputation for toughness she developed when she refused to allow diners at the Spotted Pig to order her burger without Roquefort cheese or to have mayonnaise served with it.
“It started from just the smoothness of service because I didn’t want to get to the point where somebody was asking for cheese with onion, no lettuce,” she says. “People had a hard time at first with the no substitutions.
“I’ve since learned my lesson, and if they don’t want cheese, we won’t do cheese,” she says. “We have a policy now that we’ll always take away something but we won’t add something.” How about mayo? “Apparently, Ken’s been known to sneak in a few jars of mayonnaise without me knowing.”
How does it feel to be a Briton in New York?
“America’s great for opportunity in general,” she says. “Look at me: I came from England and people were friendly and they were excited that we opened the Pig and they opened their arms and welcomed us into the neighborhood. I love New York. I love the weather, I love the food and I love the people.”
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.)