Finding a minute to speak with Dan Kluger can be a little tricky these days. He is busy. All chefs are busy getting into weeds, getting out of the weeds, or planning the next step. Kluger—a James Beard Award-winner for “Best Restaurant,” nominee for “Best Chef NYC,” and the former executive chef of the culinary powerhouse ABC Kitchen—is sort of doing all three.
Kluger, a Maple Culinary Board Adviser, is opening a new restaurant under his own name—so there’s the pressure to redefine his approach to food, unmoored from the ABC Kitchen name, which means a thousand little details before the doors even open or he starts cooking. Somehow—either as prep or a form of insanity, Kluger also set aside time to craft a special menu exclusive to Maple that highlights the local, seasonal flavors and ingredients he’s known for. (Under Kluger, ABC Kitchen had a self-imposed rule to only source ingredients from a 100-mile radius). That’s why Kluger—in the middle of everything—is on the phone talking about what it means to be “local” and “seasonal” and if either really mean anything anymore.
How’s work going on the new space, the new restaurant?
We’ve been working on it for a while, the design’s basically done and we’re finalizing some last minute choices. I’m hesitant to give a timeline because it keeps getting pushed and then people will think I’m making stuff up.
In putting together a Maple menu, the challenges are different than working in a kitchen where you can have complete control. How was it working inside that box?
Looking at a maple dish really helps shed some light on the creative process. It took a couple rounds or so going back and forth with [Maple’s exec chef] Soa just figuring out what makes the most sense. She’s very good at saying “How’s this going to get to the consumer?” and “What’s it going to look like?” We were at a point where I was really confident with what we had and she shipped me everything, packaged ready-to-go, and we still made a few more tweaks. It’s no different from any other kitchen.
I’ll never just put something out and call it a day. There’s always a lot of tweaking and thinking around a dish. My menu for Maple is not very different except the criteria by which we were judging it has grown. We’re always look at different criteria, the “why” and “how” and how you make something better.
Cooking really does comes back to hard work.
I don’t think there’s any genius behind it, we just try to make flavorful food. Soa’s doing the same thing, she knows how to make flavorful food, but I just tried to make sure it had my twist, my touch, and the ingredients that we would typically use.
Is that the typical approach to building a menu?
Sweet and sour, salty and spicy—the balance of those is always important to me. Those things are the criteria I judge everything by. we tried to hit those notes but we adjusted it accordingly since this is a to-go item and not necessarily eaten the same way. If you have a salad in a restaurant, I’m working hard to dress it properly and cheese it properly and here, people are going to dress it and eat it the way they see fit. There’s nothing wrong with that but you kind of have to adjust for that. Someone might pour all the dressing in one corner of the salad, or they might pour all the dressing out and just eat the top leaves, then when they get to the bottom the components might feel boring. So we tried to think about that and the different flavor components. How do we make sure that even if that happens, the dish still becomes something very flavorful.
We’re starting to see “local” and “seasonal” all over the place—Maple uses them too—but do they mean anything to you anymore?
I think it’s about genuineness. I think sometimes those lines are a little blurred and people are quick to say “seasonal” and “local” and maybe it isn’t, maybe it is—I give a lot of credit to Soa and Maple in terms of really looking for farmers and not just taking the easy way out.
The mentality behind it is about “How do we look for better ingredients,” “How do we live up to these expectations that people probably have.” I wholeheartedly believe in it. I’m supportive of it, I like talking about eating seasonal and local but at the same time I try not to make it just a buzzword. The one problem I have with it is there are a lot of ways for people to punch holes in it. The day you don’t have something in season or the day you’re serving bananas, someone’s going to say “Oh well, that’s not seasonal or local” but we also have to run a business, so its dangerous.
How do you work with that reality?
At ABC we were definitely hardcore but I think the idea is if I’m going to look for these ingredients, I know I want to focus on finding less mainstream, small farmers that are growing that produce. So, ok, there are pineapples right now there are bananas and pomegranates and persimmons and things like that are obviously not local, and that’s fine, but we’re doing our best to try and find a small farmer that really cares about growing them, that is practicing sustainability.
Doing that must eat into the bottomline, but if it’s what you believe in, it’s worth doing.
We’re fortunate to have some buying power so even though you might take a hit on carrots, for example, you can spread that out over, say, 150 orders. I think that’s why a lot of places say they’re seasonal local and then say “Damn, I can’t do this and also sustain my business,” because it is very hard.
Do you have a first memory of cooking?
My first memory of cooking? I grew up in a family where there was pretty much always a home-cooked meal so, while my parents weren’t chefs, cooking was always a part of the day-to-day. I’d say probably one of my strongest memories was that friends of ours had a bakery on the Upper West Side, where I lived, and my father—somehow or another—was a really avid amateur baker and got involved baking some bread at this bakery for fun on the weekends. I would go with him and help the girl working there make some croissants and some pastries, and stuff like that. At the age of seven I was at a bakery on the weekend, just for fun. I think that’s certainly something that was in my blood at a young age.
It’s closed now, but it was called “Soutine.” It was a beautiful little place, really the epitome of the neighborhood. It was a tiny, tiny bakery that had great baguettes, great pastries, great cakes. There were a couple of people in the back baking and that was it, there was no “brand” to it there was no real marketing to it, it was just a bakery. As I got older I worked there a lot so it definitely played some part in my career.
If you make nice food, you can have a nice life making that food.
Yeah, you know, you might not always have a nice life but at least you can be happy about doing it. I read some of the things that you guys wrote, I think you used the word “wizardry,” and it’s nice, it makes me happy, but I’m just trying to make some food that people want to eat. I don’t look at it as any genius or anything that amazing, I just look at it as food I want to eat and hopefully food that people around me want to eat. Sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t but that’s what makes it fun.
The dishes are fun to eat, but it also means a lot to us that we’re helping support Chefs for Kids’ Cancer.
When you see how hard Larry and Gretchen [the founders of Chefs for Kids Cancer] worked at creating this charity, you know, you can—maybe you can’t— but I can really see where the money goes because I’m on the board. Literally, through two dinners we’ve done with Bon Appetit we’ve funded a trial that’s saved somebody’s life.
We talked a long time ago when Larry and Gretchen started Cookies for Kids’ Cancer and said “Hey, so, we should probably work on an event together” and they sort of ran with it and created Chefs for Kids’ Cancer and Jonathan Benno and I got involved that first year. With the exception of the few hard costs you have no control over, everything gets donated. I mean everything. We do a family meal for the chefs—I don’t know any other event that does something like that.
Through the money we raised this year we’re going to fund 10, 15, maybe 20 trials and one or two or all of them may actually save a kid’s life. I don’t take credit for what they’re doing, I’m proud to be involved in it. I’m glad that I can make that contribution along with Maple. We’re helping to fund a trial.
This article was updated on March 2016.