Executive chef Ben Lee on training in Italy, his Insalata di Stagione, and the Ramen at Ippudo
Amidst the cherry tomatoes and Kirby cucumbers at the Union Square Greenmarket, you can find Ben Lee hand-picking produce to add to his summer menu at A Voce Madison. As the executive chef at the restaurant since July of 2013, he appreciates its modern Italian flair, but is sure to maintain the precision and simplicity that he feels Italian cuisine represents.
When asked what his favorite menu items are, he answers that, at the moment, it’s the Spaghetti alla Chitarra. The traditional pasta dish is made with tomatoes he’s chosen at the market, cooked in a pan with toasted garlic, chili flakes, parmesan, basil, and olive oil. “That to me, right now, being summertime, is what I love.”
You lived in Philly before moving here in 2009. What’s the difference between the restaurant business in Philly vs. New York?
Philadelphia is a great food town. I think that it’s one of those unsung places that people just don’t know too much about. In the last 10 years, it really started blowing up. There are so many great chefs down there making such phenomenal names for themselves, and elevating the bar in Philadelphia. The only thing that I would say is different, and it’s not too different from the trends here in New York City, is that people are definitely going towards more of the casual scene when it comes to dining. And in Philadelphia, there are amazing restaurants where you aren’t required to wear a jacket and you don’t have to expect that luxurious scene when you go have dinner or even lunch. The food is really interesting down there, it just keeps evolving.
You started at Morimoto in Philly. Why did you choose Japanese cuisine at first?
That’s when I decided that I was going to be a professional cook, and I wanted to learn the discipline of the way the Japanese cut their fish and treat their ingredients. And the basics was knife skills and I wanted to learn from the best, and I believe the Japanese are really obsessed with their knives and the cutting and precision. It was a great environment, obviously it’s not so traditional Japanese.
How did get into Italian cooking?
I met my best friend at Morimoto, and he’s mentored me through this business for the last 13 years. He guided me towards a French restaurant down in Philly called Lacroix at The Rittenhouse Hotel. I met some amazing chefs there and realized that European cuisine was the way I wanted to go. I figured I would start off with the French because they organized the professional kitchen. When I was working at Morimoto, I met pastry chefs Will Goldfarb and Bob Truitt. Will was a great inspiration when he told me, “Don’t worry about culinary school, just save all your money, buy all the books, and go out to Europe.” And my best friend, who was the sous chef at Morimoto, his name is also Will, said the same thing. I wasn’t sure where to go and that was the time when the Spanish Revolution was happening. I read about the Basque area and how there are tons of Michelin restaurants there per capita, more than anywhere in the world. So that was my goal, and for the next four years I just saved my money and worked in restaurants in Philly. I was supposed to go to Spain, but my best friend, Will, said, “I have a connection in Italy, why don’t you just go out there? And from there, you could just backpack, go from door to door to different restaurants.” It was the closest opportunity I had at the time to go out to Europe. He hooked me up with a trail out of the same area that Mark Vetri and Jeff Michaud started their Italian careers, in Bergamo, Italy.
What’s the hardest part about being the executive chef?
Sometimes it’s trying to step away. You know, I love teaching my cooks. I try my best to have an environment in my kitchen where we’re teaching and learning from each other. And there are times where I’ll show a cook a certain technique or method, in particular, how I want to do it, and it’s sometimes hard for me to step away and just be like, “Alright, you need to make your mistakes.” But there are times when you see it, and you’re like, “Let me just do it. You’re messing it up.” That’s part of being the executive chef, you realize you just can’t do everything all by yourself. You’re not a one-person team. You’re like a conductor in an orchestra, and you have all these different parts that you have to utilize and at the end of it, put out a nice dinner or lunch service.
Did you change the menu when you started at A Voce?
I changed the menu within the month. The concept is still modern Italian, so it gives it the doorway to venture off and not stay so traditional. We can play around with different European techniques and even different ingredients, which don’t have to be 100 percent Italian, as long as it’s with the spirit of Italian cuisine.
How often do you go to the market?
We try and go – myself and my chefs – about three times a week at least. Especially my pastry chef, Kristin, she’s definitely utilizing a lot of their fruits, lavender, and peaches.
What are some items on your summer menu?
We have a seasonal salad for dinner called Insalata di Stagione. The basis is always whipped ricotta with mixed lettuces. And whatever’s at the market – right now we have some Kirby cucumbers we’re putting on there. We just have fun with it. People love cheese and toast, so I’m doing a Burratina with mixed cherry tomatoes with some eggplant and basil. We take a whole eggplant and grill it until it’s charred on the outside and mushy on the inside. We scoop it out and puree it with olive oil and some garlic oil. It’s pureed eggplant on the bottom, Burratina cheese and cherry tomatoes.
You live on the Upper West Side. Where do you like to eat in the city?
I love getting a burger at Shake Shack. Me and my girl will go down to Lucali in Brooklyn when we want pizza. We love Ippudo for Ramen noodles. When they opened on the west side, I believe a year ago now, it was like heaven sent. I didn’t have to go all the way to the east side anymore. When I’m starving and not sure what I want to eat, I just know that I can always have a nice bowl of Ramen noodles, and I’m always satisfied with that.
For more information about the restaurant, visit www.avocerestaurant.com/madison.