Life (& Food) Lessons From April Bloomfield

Photographed by Winnie Au.
There aren't nearly enough badass female chefs rising to fame and finding the cult followings they truly deserve in the food industry today. But, that's not to suggest that there aren't some truly accomplished women out there right now, leveling the playing field and shattering ceilings both as chefs and restauranteurs. One of our favorites among them is April Bloomfield. With two Michelin stars (one for The Breslin and one for The Spotted Pig), she's a powerhouse by any standard.
Trained at The River Café under the guidance of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, she's a comfort-food pro, with a particular love of expertly prepared meats (as evidenced by her charming book, A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories). She's also a co-owner of some of the most star-studded spots in NYC but has absolutely zero diva airs about her. Just the opposite, in fact.
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We convinced her to spend a few hours with us, hanging out at The John Dory (her third NYC establishment) before it opened up for business. Thoughtfully honest, kind, and incredibly intelligent, she schooled us on the powers of speaking softly (but carrying a big stick butcher's knife, of course). Ahead, some of the smartest career advice we've gotten in a long time (and a word of caution to any fellow garlic-press users).
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
You've accomplished so much in an industry where women aren’t achieving at the same rate as men. Is that something you think about?
“When I first started cooking, I didn’t. My two sisters were at cooking school, and I hadn't gotten into my chosen career (as a police officer). So, I just did it. I didn’t think about it. A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s it like being a woman in the kitchen?’ For me, that wasn’t the issue. What I wanted was to be good at something. So, I just kept my head down, and I got on with it. I tried to be the best chef I could be — the best cook I could be, not even a chef.”

Do you only use the word cook, never chef?
“Cook is very basic vocabulary. A chef is the one who runs the restaurant and knows the business side as well as the creative side of running the restaurant. I still say that I’m a cook even though I don’t feel like I’m just a cook — but I feel much more comfortable with that term.”

Is that the part of your work that you enjoy the most? Is the cooking still where your heart is?
“I get a lot of joy out of everything. I like managing a little bit less than I like the creative side, but I do it. And, I do enjoy it when I do it. I like learning about the business side and making deals, but creative work is what keeps me happy, and that’s what keeps me moving and progressing. It keeps me learning — and that’s the most important thing for me. Once I stop learning, I will probably just stop doing what I’m doing.”
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
How did you learn to be a good manager, since it wasn't what came most naturally to you?
“It comes with practice and from making lots of mistakes. But, having successes, too. You are always learning, and there is never a dull moment. No two days are ever the same in a restaurant.”

So, how would you describe your leadership philosophy?
“You have to look at yourself and be self-aware. You have to figure out how you are going to get the best out of your team. Sometimes, that's about coming up with a creative way of expressing a dish or a plating technique or a finishing-off technique. But, no matter what, you have to analyze yourself to figure out how you can get the best out of people.”

What's your best advice for young cooks looking to plot out their careers?
"You have to love the restaurant you work in. But, once you’ve gotten what you can out of that job, you need to move on to something bigger and better. Don’t go lateral. Go up. If you don’t feel like you are getting what you want in a job, then push. Push and ask. But, try and do that in a gentle way."

But, how do you ask for that next thing confidently? And, especially when it comes to asking about money?
“When I first started off cooking, it was never about the money. I was just passionate about doing one thing and wanting to learn. Obviously, now, as a businesswoman, I am cautious about money and where it goes, how it comes in — and all of that. But, when you're negotiating, you have to talk to people. Talk to outsiders and people within your business. Find out what you might be worth. That could give you the confidence to be like, ‘Look, this is what’s happening out there. Give me more money now. Please.’ Or, whatever! But, know your value.”
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
Since your passion is also your business, does that ever make it harder to enjoy cooking at home?
"I still like cooking at home. Now I have a bigger kitchen, so I enjoy cooking more than ever. I like to make comfort food that just hits the spot. Because you work so hard at your job, at the end of the day you want to have something that is very satisfying — that will touch your soul and nurture your body. I like to cook food that will make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.”

What does that usually involve?
“I like a really hearty soup or a huge salad with lots of stuff in it. Or, a simple breast of chicken with some vegetables. Really delicious. Sweet, salty, and nutty. Crispy!”

Do you have a tool or a gadget in your personal kitchen that you just really love?
“My pestle and mortar. I can’t live without it. You can pound herbs, garlic, or spices in it. You can make sauces in it. You can serve in it, too, which is great. You can just plop it on the table and let people help themselves. It's also super cheap. It’s not a big robot. It’s just a simple, rustic tool. Mine is granite. That's my favorite because it’s heavy, and it doesn’t release any crumbly powder. What’s your favorite cooking tool?”

Well...I really like the garlic press because I’m a very lazy garlic chopper. But, that's not allowed, is it?
“Yeah. That’s not allowed. You have to chop it with a knife. Alice Waters would not be very happy with you. But, I suppose as long as you use it straight away and you aren’t storing your garlic after you’ve pressed it, it's okay.”

What are your other kitchen no-nos?
“Sometimes, people have a habit of overthinking things. If you keep it simple and get the best ingredients you can find, you can’t go wrong. Even if it’s just salt and olive oil. I actually have a book coming out next year that I just finished writing. It’s a vegetable book — because I cook with a lot of meat, but then when I was writing, I realized that really it’s my vegetables. They are really simple. And, actually, it’s simply a matter of finding some delicious fennel and boiling it, taking it out, then sprinkling it with some salt, lemon, and olive oil. That's the most delicious thing. So, it’s about letting the ingredients speak for themselves.”
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
When you left London to become a co-owner of The Spotted Pig, did you feel afraid at all? Of putting your reputation on the line?
“I didn’t feel afraid. I think I was ready for a change. I had gone as far as I could with The River Café. And, then, I got this opportunity to work at The Spotted Pig and be an owner. I really didn’t know about The New York Times. I didn’t really know who Mario Batali was. I didn’t know who Ken Friedman was. So, I just came, and I didn’t feel any pressure. I had a feeling that I had good taste, so I made the food that I wanted to cook and crossed my fingers, hoping that people would like the food. Thank God they did! I’m very grateful and lucky that they did.”

Do you think it’s harder now, since you know what the pressures are?
“It’s worse now than when I first started The Pig. There is a lot of pressure because now I know all about The New York Times, I know about reviewers, I know about Michelin stars. People know who I am. They know my restaurants, and that is intense."
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Photographed by Winnie Au.
So, what's your big dream now that you have that success? What's next?
“I have a couple more concepts that I’m working on at The Pig, The Dory, Salvation Taco, and Tosca. But, my big goal is to eventually have some farmland where I can breed some pigs, have chickens, and grow lots of vegetables to help sustain my restaurants. Have a restaurant on the farm. It could involve some education for inner-city children. That’s my big dream."

And, 100 years from now, what is the legacy that you want to leave behind?
“I don’t know. I never thought about it. I don’t know about having a legacy, but I do know that I want people to be inspired by what I’m doing, in the subtle way that I do it. I suppose, hopefully, I can do that. I hope I can inspire women to take that step and not be fearful. I want them to grab it and run as far as they can with the opportunities that they are given.”
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