April Bloomfield grew up in the industrial city of Birmingham, England, with a vague notion she’d like a career in law enforcement, preferably in New York City.
She was quite taken by the two female Cagney & Lacey detectives and the strapping Eric Estrada atop his motorcycle in CHiPS, another 1980s American police drama. She wondered what it would it be like to eat doughnuts and the mysterious, sponge-like Twinkie on a New York City street corner in between bouts of fighting crime.
Bloomfield eventually did get to New York City, but not as a cop. Instead, she landed as the chef and co-owner of The Spotted Pig, the city’s first gastro pub, which opened in 2004. She has since introduced four more restaurants, earned two Michelin stars, published the meat-centric, snout-to-tail cookbook “A Girl and Her Pig” and won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York City.
New York City and London are both international cities; Bloomfield doesn’t feel like an immigrant. “I feel like a New Yorker,” she says, although she is still concerned about getting “flattened” by looking the wrong way before crossing the street.
One place she notices a difference is in the kitchen. Bloomfield started her training at age 16, which is typical in England (and which she calls “a kick up the ass”).
Training tends to start later in the US. “The English kitchens are much more grown up, much more structured,” she says, “Whereas the American kitchens can be a little bit more flaky.”
She continues emphatically: “You can’t be flaky if you want to open a restaurant. You have to be focused, work hard and just keep pushing to be successful.”
“Straightforward” and “unpretentious” is how Alice Waters, the pioneering chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, describes Bloomfield. Waters spearheaded the organic and locally sourced ingredient movement in the 1970s, which today is de rigueur for high-end restaurants in most cities. Bloomfield spent time at Chez Panisse when The Pig was under construction, an experience she likens to a pilgrimage.
Despite Bloomfield’s down-to-earth demeanor, “micromanager,” “perfectionist” and “control freak” are words her loquacious American business partner, Ken Friedman, affectionately uses to describe her.
Bloomfield credits her success to her working-class background and the strong work ethic it instilled in her. “Not everything is going to be handed to you on a silver platter,” says Bloomfield, who had to “knuckle down” and strive for what she wanted.
One of Bloomfield’s former chefs coined the term “anal rustic” to describe her food – simple, fresh, forthright dishes that may look effortlessly plated but in fact have been agonized over behind the scenes. Having spent time in England, Friedman understands there’s a difference between most Brits and Americans. In the US there’s no shame in having career ambitions way beyond one’s socioeconomic class (and broadcasting said ambitions to anyone who will listen).
“British people sort of apologize for wanting to succeed in lots of ways still,” says Friedman. He attributes this to his country’s rigid class system, which he compares unfavourably to that of the US.
“I want to succeed, I want money, I want fame, I want it all!” says Friedman half laughing as he channels “the typical American.” With an air of anthropological wonderment, he says, “April has this ambition that’s different than Americans’ ambition.”
“April doesn’t want to make money without doing the work herself,” he explains, noting that she’s remained very hands-on in all the kitchens, even at Tosca, their newest restaurant in San Francisco.
Where Bloomfield is decidedly English is in her cuisine.
“It’s good to remember your roots,” says Bloomfield, sporting an apron over kitchen whites, her hair pulled back from her face. Revamped English classics pop up on her menus from blood sausages to scrumpets, fish and chips to Scotch eggs, and all can be paired with a swill of hard cider.
Bloomfield says there are probably some dishes from home that shouldn’t be resurrected. “But I haven’t quite found one yet!” she says, laughing.
On a recent afternoon in The Spotted Pig’s third floor private kitchen, above the bustling lunch crowd where regulars like Bill Clinton and Kanye West might eat a $21 burger, Bloomfield is clearly in her element.
She chops orange-fleshed kabocha squash and sautés garlic for an experimental curried-soup recipe, possibly for her upcoming A Girl and Her Greens cookbook, while her assistant takes notes. A huge pot of chicken carcasses, heads included, simmers on the back burner for future stock.
Bloomfield followed in the footsteps of her two older sisters by going to cooking school. She worked her way up the restaurant ranks, from a brief interlude at a Holiday Inn restaurant to a position at London’s renowned River Café, then run by Rose Gray, who has since died, and Ruth Rogers.
“I used to lie awake at night thinking, ‘I want to work there,’” recalls Bloomfield of the years before she worked for Gray and Rogers, “but never thought I was good enough.” She credits the River Café for teaching her everything she knows about food.
Yet after four years at the River Café she was looking for a new challenge.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, her future business partner, Friedman, was having a meltdown of sorts. He had devoted his life to music, promoting Buzzcocks and Gang of Four concerts in college and later managing UB40 and The Smiths, but had suddenly grown alarmingly bored with the business.
He soon shifted his passion to opening an establishment that would paired a barlike atmosphere (because he hated to dress up) with excellent food (because he fancied himself a foodie).
Friedman, who is a towering, friendly figure, teamed up with his “best chef friend,” Mario Batali, one of The Spotted Pig’s many high-profile investors.
In search of a chef, they initially approached Jamie Oliver. According to Friedman, he “giggled,” saying they’d never be able to afford him, and suggested Bloomfield.
“I was, like, in love with her before I even met her,” recalls Friedman. Not only was she from Birmingham, a working-class city with a sense of humor he loved, but she was also a woman, which he considered “punk rock,” his guiding principal, because there were not many female chefs at the time.
Within 15 minutes of their first meeting, Friedman recounts Batali saying “she’s the one”. When Batali spotted the oven burns on her arms, her status was elevated to “badass.”
“She took a real chance on me,” says Friedman earnestly, “In a lot of ways, I was some mid-life crises guy, trying to open a cafeteria for my music business buddies.”
“The Pig,” as it’s nicknamed, was a wild success from the start. “I had an inkling that what I was cooking was delicious – I loved it,” says Bloomfield, but she was shocked by how well it was received; the discerning West Village neighborhood embraced it.
The atmosphere, as in all five of herrestaurants, is always rollicking and inclusive despite its high-profile clientele, who dine amid floor-to-ceiling pig paraphernalia, from pork dissection charts to piglet Christmas lights.
Bloomfield realized early in her career that while being a perfectionist workhorse was admirable, it could eventually stunt her career by keeping it small.
She made the conscious decision to relinquish some control and let employees take on responsibility, allowing them to advance in the company and her to focus on new projects and expanding. Bloomfield encourages shared responsibility among her chefs; one of her favorite sayings is “work smarter, not harder.”
Friedman has an easygoing demeanor, excelling at front of the house duties, but he admits to being, like Bloomfield, a control freak. Recently at The Breslin, their second gastro pub, he seemed profoundly disappointed that a mirror, one of hundreds of decorative hanging pieces, was a few inches off center.
Despite their shared “control-freakism,” their different personalities balance each other out.
Friedman says he believes that if Bloomfield were not his partner, he’d probably have a slew of mediocre restaurants around the globe rather than the highly rated restaurants he owns now.
Like Waters, Bloomfield’s advice to those who dream of a culinary career is to be true to one’s self. “Listen to yourself,” she instructs – which suddenly triggers an impromptu rendition of the melodramatic 1980s Roxette hit Listen To Your Heart for several seconds, followed by laughter.
Regaining her composure, she adds that whether one is devoted to selling chicken wings out of a truck or cooking deconstructive haute cuisine in a stuffy restaurant, as long it’s a genuine interest, and the research has been done, it will possess integrity and soul. “Do everything in life with passion and fire,” she adds, “both professionally and personally.”
This article was written by Nina Roberts, for theguardian.com on Friday 30th January 2015 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010