In The East Village, It’s A Chef’s Life

Belcourt Matt7Gloria Chung Matt Hamilton, chef and partner in the Second Avenue restaurant Belcourt, says that he puts in 60 hours a week to manage the restaurant. “I don’t see it as a burden,” he says. Belcourt, below, is part of a wave of restaurants that have helped the East Village become one of the city’s premier dining neighborhoods.
Belcourt exteriorGloria Chung

Cheese for breakfast? Why not?

In the upstairs tasting room at Murray’s on Bleecker Street, Matt Hamilton, chef and partner in the Second Avenue restaurant Belcourt, is moaning gently over a mouthful of Brunet, a rich Italian goat cheese firm in the center, meltingly gelatinous just below the wrinkly, earthy rind.

A chef’s life would be great, he says, if it just involved tasting and cooking. He imagines that’s how it probably is if you’re Tom Colicchio or one of those corporate guys. We moved on to the Salers, a Cheddar-like cow’s milk cheese from the mountainous Auvergne in France. Elizabeth Chubbuck of Murray’s explains that the sentimental Salers cows only give milk when their calves are nearby. Salers is rare, and like so many fine cheeses, expensive.

Matt doesn’t visit Murray’s daily, or even weekly. Usually, in fact, the rep comes to him. He changes his menu with the seasons, then makes small adjustments within each season. Every month or so he considers new possibilities for his cheese program. He currently offers a plate of four cheeses but would like to do more, would love to have a cheese tray. Elizabeth says she knows his palate; apparently it tends toward the creamy and funky. We eat some Stilton from Colston Basset, a cheese I grew up with.

My plan was to follow in Matt’s footsteps for a day. Over the last few years, the East Village has become one of the city’s premier dining neighborhoods. Alongside the inexpensive pizzerias, the discount sushi, and the tandoori restaurants of East Sixth, serious restaurants have established themselves. With some exceptions, like Daniel Boulud’s DBGB, the best of these are independent, not part of a larger organization or corporate chain. What makes these places run?

In Union Square, we search for one of Matt’s preferred vendors, Sycamore Farms. Their stand seems to have moved. I scour the greenmarket map while Matt dispels some myths about farm-driven restaurants. “You used to see all the chefs here, every morning. Not any more.” Yes, the Tom Colicchios and Danny Meyers, they still send people, but it’s not the early morning club for local chefs it once was. Matt buys a few things here, but for a chef on his budget, the greenmarket is mostly too expensive. His main reason for visiting is to see with his own eyes what’s in season, what looks good. Then he orders produce from a centralized distributor, but one which does favor local farmers.

Sycamore Farms doesn’t have what he needs. He picks over some Winesap apples at another stand and talks about sourcing dilemmas. What’s best – organic, sustainable, local? They don’t always go together. He leans toward local, as long as there’s minimal interference from the producer, as long as they care about their product. He buys non-perishables like olive oil from established businesses like BuonItalia. There’s no personal relationship in these cases, no need to keep tasting and trying. The quality is predictable, consistent.

Belcourt Matt11Gloria Chung Before joining Belcourt, Mr. Hamilton ran Uovo on Avenue B.

Walking over to Second Avenue, Matt talks about the pressures on the independent restaurateur. He’s a self-taught chef in his early 40s. After several years in Italy, he arrived in the East Village and got a job alongside Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune. She liked his name. Almost inadvertently, he stayed. He opened Uovo in 2005 on a corner of Avenue B. With Mercadito, Back Forty and Barbone, it’s now a restaurant strip. Five years ago, not so much.

Uovo won critical acclaim, but struggled. It closed in 2006, and after briefly straying to the Upper East Side, Matt jumped aboard Belcourt in 2007.

Belcourt’s owners anticipated a classic French bistro. All the fittings were brought over from France. The dining room reeks Parisian authenticity – even the restroom doors are stolidly Gallic. On a sunny corner of East Fourth, it also has terrace seating. “You don’t need me for that,” Matt told them, although he agreed that Mediterranean bistro might be a fair description of his cooking which, despite its eclectic influences, he generally prefers to call “American.” Last year he was offered a partnership and told the restaurant was his to run.

No frisée salad, then, no pâté. But there’s Matt’s idea of steak frites: hanger steak in a bone marrow sauce. There’s chicken, but it’s rubbed with middle Eastern spices. Basque-style squid, Spanish-style octopus. There are also two burgers, one lamb and one beef. “I have to have a burger on the menu,” he says, although he sometimes tires of serving them, has even been known to 86 them (take them off the menu) when customers order too many. Belcourt’s claim is that whatever can be made inhouse, is. They had to give this up with the burger buns – it was a full-time job for a cook.

The burger isn’t cheap, but then the beef costs more per pound than the hanger steak, and in any case, “it’s taking up entrée space.” Diners are happy to pay $22 for a 10-ounce steak, but balk at $15 for an 8-ounce burger deluxe.

Belcourt Matt6Gloria Chung When determining the price of menu items, Mr. Hamilton must strike a balance between quality and accessibility.

The restaurant is peaceful in the afternoon, bathed in sunlight. Matt would like to serve lunch again. They stopped because an accountant told them they were losing money – “But we were covering our costs, so what’s that all about?” Matt receives wine merchants in the afternoons. Tony Gibson of Moonlight Wine Co. pours an excellent ’04 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. It’s probably too expensive for Matt’s list though.

“We used to have a bunch of $75 bottles, but they didn’t move. And they were too expensive by the glass.” On the other hand, he knows he can’t put a $6 glass of wine on the list. “They’ll think there’s something wrong with it.” It’s all about walking a tightrope between quality and accessibility.

The staff is trim – five cooks, including Matt, two dishwashers, a front-of-house manager. There are twelve servers on the books, but they’re not all full-time. Right now there’s no sous chef, nobody to take over the kitchen if Matt’s not around. He needs to find not only a highly qualified line cook, but someone whose palate and aesthetic matches his. So he works a sixty hour week. “I don’t see it as a burden,” he says, although he’d be happy never to peel garlic again. It gives him a crick in the neck.

His day begins with looking over the numbers from the night before. He is constantly concerned with food inventory, but with no beverage director, he’s also responsible for ordering all the wines and liquors. One of his partners pays the bills and goes to the bank, but Matt reviews the payroll, deals with personnel issues, then starts chopping and peeling. He preps all the soups himself, as well as the octopus and pork belly. There’s never enough time.

Once the restaurant is open, it’s constant supervision – of the dining room and service as well as the kitchen. “The chef needs to know everything which is happening,” he says, “because it all needs to work harmoniously.” He’s off on Thursdays and Sundays. He goes home and reads old cookbooks. He found his music-paper bread lasagna this way. It’s a Sardinian dish: “No-one else is serving it.”

His wife used to pass him novels to read instead. She’s pretty much given up on that.

Kim Davis is the community editor of The Local East Village. He writes about New York restaurants At the Sign of the Pink Pig.