Is it possible to know you adore someone before you even meet them? I think not, generally.
If a girlfriend told me she had the hots for a man on whose face she had never clapped her eyes, let alone planted her lips, I would say: keep calm, dear, and step away from the pinot gris. On the other hand, it occurs to me, this freezing cold morning in New York, that I'm rapidly developing a powerful crush on a young chef called April Bloomfield. This woman is, I am increasingly certain, my idea of heaven. How do I know? It's her cooking. Believe me when I tell you that her food is extraordinary. I don't mean extraordinary in a Michelin-starred look-at-these-truffled-potatoes kind of way (though she has two Michelin stars: one for the Spotted Pig in Greenwich, the other for the Breslin, in the Ace Hotel in Midtown). Nor do I mean extraordinary in a Heston Blumenthal this-mackerel-pops-like-Space-Dust kind of way. I mean only that it is extraordinarily delicious. You eat her burgers and her scotch eggs, her sweetbreads and her chowders, and all you can think is that you will never taste their like again anywhere else. It's a thought that is distinctly misery-inducing, given that I live in London, and she works here, in Manhattan.
I am going to meet Bloomfield tomorrow. Today, I am in the John Dory Oyster Bar, the newest of her three Manhattan restaurants (it, too, is in the Ace Hotel), where I am eating lunch with her business partner, Ken Friedman, a tall, rather haphazard man who used to manage bands including the Smiths and UB40. Friedman has a somewhat wobbly attention span. Last night, for instance, when I was eating my supper in the Breslin, alone, he sought me out, ordered a glass of wine, and told me that he would keep me company (when he arrived I was in the middle of my starter, a superlative salad of pears and candied walnuts). Five minutes later, though, he excused himself – "I just need to talk to someone for one moment" – and never returned. But on one subject his focus is never less than laser beam sharp. Friedman thinks that April Bloomfield is a genius, and he would like the whole world to know it. Which is why he is insisting that I try the entire menu.
And what a menu it is. Sam Sifton, the picky restaurant critic of the New York Times, has said that Bloomfield's chorizo-stuffed squid is among the best things you can eat in the city and, having tasted it, I cannot think that he could possibly be wrong. Bloomfield stuffs her squid with paella rice which she has first cooked with chorizo, red pepper, onion and saffron. The squid is then seared to give it a crust, and placed on a soft bed of white beans – Bloomfield is "obsessed" with beans – dressed in creme fraiche, and topped with coriander and smoked tomatoes tossed in sherry vinegar, olive oil and palm sugar. It's incredible – though not, perhaps, quite so punchy and addictive as her toast piled with anchovy paste, or her escarole salad, made of raw hearts and pickled outer leaves, both of which bedazzle with top notes of lemon, anchovy and parmesan. I could go on and on like this. The oysters. The razor clam ceviche. The Nantucket Bay scallops. And its crowning glory? That would have to be her oyster pan roast, a homage to the famous dish served at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. A pan roast is a soup, cooked in an old-fashioned metal contraption; Bloomfield's version turns oysters, their liquor, cream and tarragon into a nectar so heavenly, you sip it and expect to hear harps, and comes with a thin, crisp slice of toast over which is spread unctuous but golden sea urchin butter in rolling waves ("the sea urchin roe butter is to make the dish more oceanic," its creator will tell me later, "because cooked oysters don't really keep that cucumber-y taste").
The story of the odd couple, Ken and April, and how they rose to the very top of New York's dog-eat-dog restaurant scene is the stuff of legend by now (or if not legend, then at least of long profiles in the New Yorker). Friedman is 52, and grew up in California, where he attended Berkeley until he dropped out to become first a concert promoter, then a manager, and finally a talent scout for Arista. It was during his years in the music business, entertaining his artists at New York's best restaurants, that he grew passionate about food. Sometimes, observing this passion, his friends would suggest that he open a place of his own. A few of them – Michael Stipe of REM was one – even said they would invest. One day, he finally took them at their word. He had turned 40; he no longer got off on music the way he used to; hell, he had nothing to lose.
In 2003, then, Friedman began his new career. Another of his investors was Mario Batali, chef patron of Babbo and other celebrated joints, and good friend of Gwyneth Paltrow and other foodie stars. It was Batali who spotted Bloomfield's talent. Well, sort of. It happened like this. One day, Jamie Oliver flew in. Batali, a pal of his, and Friedman, a keen anglophile, took him out for the evening. According to Batali, Oliver was their man. The plan was to put the alcoholic thumb screws on him. Alas, even after a few drinks, Oliver could not be persuaded. He did, though, suggest that they meet a young British sous chef at his old employer, the River Cafe. Her name was April Bloomfield.
Bloomfield flew out to New York, which she had never visited before, for an interview. A little to her surprise, this consisted of a 10-hour marathon during which she and Batali and Friedman ate at some of the city's best known restaurants, among them the Union Square Cafe, the Carnegie Deli, and Batali's own Babbo. No doubt Batali was impressed by Bloomfield's appetite. Mostly, though, it was her war wounds that pleased him: a missing fingernail, scars on her arms. "It means she'll sacrifice her body," Batali is supposed to have said. "She's a star. I can tell." They offered her the job.
Bloomfield handed in her notice, and moved to the US, where she spent the summer working at Alice Waters's restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, to familiarise herself with American ingredients. Then she headed to New York where, in the fullness of time, she and Friedman opened their gastropub, the Spotted Pig. The menu was meaty, and rather British. But the house speciality – cheeky, this – was a burger served one way: rare, on a brioche bun, with roquefort. Did the punters love it? Yes, they did. Pretty soon, the Spotted Pig was rammed: a favoured hang-out of hipsters and celebrities alike. To this day, bagging a table requires the patience of Job. April Bloomfield, a quiet, unassuming girl from Birmingham, had succeeded where the likes of Gordon Ramsay and countless other shouty, macho British chefs had always failed: she had taken Manhattan by storm.
April Bloomfield is small, preternaturally cheerful, and extremely single-minded. This is not to say, however, that she was determined to be a chef right from the start. She was born in Birmingham, in 1974. Her stepfather was an engineer, and her mother, who worked at home, painted china bonbonnieres for the West Midlands enamel firm Halcyon Days. Safe to say that it was not a foodie household. "I grew up with cheese sandwiches," she says. "And my mum's steak, which she would fry without any salt; it always came out grey. My nan's cooking was my favourite: loin of pork with crackling and stuffing. We would eat the leftovers, the pork cold, the stuffing hot. Even today, I love that contrast between hot and cold."
At 16, April decided to join the police force, a decision based mostly on her love of Cagney & Lacey. It was only when she realised she'd left it too late to apply to the cadet scheme that she changed her plan. Just as her mother was asking her what she planned to do with her life, in walked April's sister, who was at catering college, in her chef's whites. Maybe I could give cooking a go, she thought. "But when I walked into college, and saw the kitchens and smelt the spices, I knew I would give it 110%. I was just blown away."
Her first job was at a Holiday Inn in Birmingham. By this time, her sister was working at Launceston Place in London. "I knew I didn't want to stay in Birmingham," April says. "I wanted something more. I asked my chef: 'Could you give me a few double shifts? I want to know what it's like to work really hard.'" Apparently, it was rather enjoyable, and six months later, she left, having landed a job at Kensington Place, whose kitchen was then in the hands of Rowley Leigh. She followed that with a job at Bibendum – she still talks of Simon Hopkinson, "such an elegant cook, so particular and clean and efficient", with deep reverence – and another at Roscoff in Northern Ireland. By the time she returned to London. for another stint at KP, and then a job at the Brackenbury, she knew both that she had progressed amazingly, but also that she still had a lot to learn. Where next? "I used to lie in bed thinking about the River Cafe, because I'd watched their TV programme. I remember watching Rose [Gray, the restaurant's co-founder] cooking cavolo nero. She pureed it with the best olive oil and cheese. I went to work the next day and immediately made it."
A friend worked at the River Cafe, so Bloomfield called her, and said she wanted to move. "They told me to come in, and I loved it from the moment I tasted the food. It was this pasta… I had to peel these walnuts. I'd never seen a wet walnut. My fingers were burning, but I was so happy. We made a sauce from the walnuts, some bread, the water I'd blanched them in, some pesto and some spicy oil. Tossed it into some tagliatelle. When I tasted it, my palate moved to a higher consciousness. I actually thought: what have I been doing for the last 10 years? I was so worried I wasn't good enough to get a job there."
We are talking in the back of a car, on our way back from visiting a farm in the Catskills. One of the legacies of her time at the River Cafe is a reverence for ingredients, and April is convinced that, in the long term, the only way she can get her hands on the very best produce is to grow it herself (New York's top chefs fight ruthlessly for veg at the Green Market in Union Square). So, she is looking to buy a farm: "It's important for my soul, and for my passion." Driving the car is Scott Boggins, who was the "culinary farmer" at the French Laundry in California, and now works for April full-time (he will manage the farm once they find the right place). Also, Ken, who is staring hard at his Blackberry (a couple of movie stars are having a party at the Spotted Pig tonight, but they have demanded that staff sign a non-disclosure agreement, and Ken is furious).
Did she and Ken agree right from the start on what kind of food they would serve at the Pig? "Not really. He wanted to do tofu hot dogs. I was very concerned. I sent him an email telling him what I was most passionate about, and I ended it by saying: look, I might not be the right chef for you." Ken promptly backed off, and has left her alone ever since. He deals only with front of house, leaving April, who is emphatically not a schmoozer, to get on with her work. This suits them both.
Is she as severe as people say? The mythology is that Ken has a secret store of mayonnaise, which he dispenses surreptitiously to customers who want it on their burgers. She laughs. "I did once tell a customer that they couldn't have a burger without cheese. I'm not severe. I'm just firm. I've learned to be OK about it if they want their dressing on the side. But I won't substitute or add anything; I don't mix and match. It slows down the kitchen, and it's not how I want to work." From the front of the car, comes Ken's voice. "I know now that mayo on a burger is naff, unless you're from Montreal or Belgium," he shouts. Then he goes back to stabbing at his Blackberry.
Last night, I spent the evening in the kitchen at the John Dory watching April during service. She made for an amazing sight: quiet and smiling, but also about as finickety as it is possible for a chef to be. I could watch her clean whelks all day. At one point, dissatisfied with their taste – she is an enthusiastic rather than a merely dutiful taster – she tipped seven plated servings of scallops back in a basin and began seasoning them all over again. Most impressive of all, though, was her relationship with her young, hipster staff. Bloomfield doesn't bark orders; she makes suggestions. Is her relationship with her chefs as good as it seems? "I think I'm probably a control freak, but if I trust them, it's collaborative. They're all hugely talented. I can't be everywhere, but I'm always in one of my kitchens, and hopefully I'm motivating and inspiring. We want to grow with our chefs. If one of them has an idea, and we can help them, well, I think that would be good." She is an American citizen now, but she longs to do a restaurant in London; certainly, there will be more restaurants, and thus more openings for her staff, in the future.
Naturally, I put her calm, kindly manner at the pass down to her gender. But she isn't so sure. Nor does she have a view on whether it is more difficult for women to succeed as chefs. "You just have to work hard; it doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman. I didn't come in to this thinking I was a woman in a man's world, and if I was ever on the receiving end of anything [sexist], I probably just pushed it to the back of my mind and got on with it. The only thing I would say is that when I was offered [a stint on] pastry, I said no. I didn't want to be stereotyped."
Our conversation begins to tail off: the gloaming and the sense of anti-climax in the car are doing their work (the farm, all clapboard and rickety outbuildings, wasn't right for April and Ken; they want a beautiful place, so people can stay and attend cookery classes). But then April perks up. "Why don't we go to Blue Hill Stone Barns for dinner?" she says. This is an exquisitely swanky restaurant and farm on an old Rockefeller estate just outside New York; its chef Dan Barber is a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement.
So, this is what we do. When we pitch up, it is 5.20pm. The restaurant opens at 5.30pm. We wander in. None of us is dressed for fine dining. April is in a parka, jeans and her beloved Birkenstock clogs, Scott is in his lumberjack gear, Ken is in sneakers as per usual. But April has decided: we are going to have a great treat. While we wait, we sit in the bar and drink cocktails. In her deep leather armchair she says: "I'm so happy."
We go to our table. By now, April has been recognised; several staff tell her how happy they are to see her. Obviously, we will be having the tasting menu, and no arguments. Dan Barber appears, and shakes her hand ecstatically. It's as if the pope is visiting the archbishop of Canterbury, or something. Then the food starts arriving: innovative and ravishing. But I can't take my eyes off April. I've always found it peculiar how few chefs seem truly to like eating. April, though, treats every dish with the relish of a child opening an Easter egg. First, she examines it, pondering what tricks are involved in its composition. Then, she tastes it, very carefully. Finally, once she has its measure, she scoffs whatever is left. I wish I had a camera so I could photograph her delicately picking the cheeks from a cod's head. "Isn't this beautiful?" she says, over and over. After our feast, we walk to the car, ice crackling, smiling and replete. What did you think? I ask. "Amazing," she says. I am struck by her Brummie accent. It has emerged at last, released by a good dinner, like a genie from a lamp.
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