New York has an abundance of excellent food, but those who work in the restaurant industry can attest to how difficult of a business it can be. In this first edition of “A New York Minute of Fame,” That’s So Manhattan speaks with Brian Bennett, a 32-year-old chef from Jersey City, who cut his chops in the South before proving himself as a chef in New York.
Bennett moved back to the city two years ago, first living in Greenpoint, then Stuy Town, and he now lives across the Hudson in Bayonne, NJ. During that time, he’s cooked up delicious fare as a sous chef at Ichabod’s in Union Square, the executive chef at Bondurants in the Upper East Side and now as a private chef in Queens.
Bennett shares his thoughts on living, working and hanging out in Manhattan. Not only does he put together artistic culinary creations, he also enjoys photographing New York and shares his own photos with That’s So Manhattan:
That’s So Manhattan: How did you get into cooking?
Brian Bennett: I honestly got into cooking on a whim. When I was 20 years old I decided that I never wanted to work in retail again, so I took a bagel baking job in Charlottesville, VA. The position was actually a job I enjoyed for once. After high school I tried a bachelor’s program in North Carolina but quickly realized it wasn’t for me. One day someone mentioned culinary school, so I jumped at the idea of going to school for something that I was passionate about, and the rest was history.
I then went to Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, and after that I moved to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina hit. This was the perfect time to move to NOLA as there was such a high demand for cooks. Everything felt super natural to me. I started cooking in kitchens at age 22 and then became a chef at around 25/26. I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
TSM: What’s it like to work as a chef in Manhattan compared to other areas?
BB: Being a chef in Manhattan is a whole other ball game. The daily grind here is tough. There is such an abundance of restaurants in Manhattan and the other boroughs. Many people living in Manhattan and the boroughs have disposable incomes, hence the high demand for new places, variation, and the next upcoming thing. It can be a bit daunting in my opinion, as there have been times where I’ve felt like nothing was ever good enough and people in the industry are just after the dollar.
The lack of culinary professionals that exist in this city is also mind-boggling. I think with the number of restaurants, the wide spectrum of quality restaurants, and the intriguing culinary scenes, this city would be a dream for most chefs to work in. However, the hustle and bustle of the city and the extremely fast-paced work environment can be intimidating. Nowadays there are many reasons why the restaurant and service industry as a whole can be hard to survive in, but I strongly believe that dreams can be made here if you work hard and never stop working toward your long-term goals.
Dishes at Bondurants. Photo credits: Brian Bennett (Instagram: @getonthatgram)
TSM: What were some of the pros and cons of living in Manhattan, and why did you move?
BB: I lived in Manhattan for no other reason than to experience it for myself. After moving back to the Northeast for the first time in 12 years, I only had two friends left in NYC. One lived in Brooklyn and the other in Manhattan, so I stayed with them when I first returned, to see if NYC was for me. They say if you can make it here you can make it anywhere, but unfortunately the rent is out of control and only climbing higher. I have to say the cost of living is probably the only reason I moved out.
I loved Stuy Town, which was where I resided for the majority of my time in NYC. I had the East Village at my door step, Williamsburg was one stop away on the L train, and Union Square was only a few blocks away. However, it was a bit difficult for me to get used to the fact that the city is never quiet; it’s constant sirens, protests, craziness, and the constant hordes of people can sometimes be overwhelming.
Although I dislike Manhattan for theses reasons, these are also reasons I was drawn to it. There is always an opportunity to meet new people, and there’s a million sites to see and things to do. If anyone ever says they are bored here, they are just being lazy. One of the best things to do is just walk this city and snap photos. The graffiti, the architecture, the people, the scenery…they all speak for themselves.
Photo credits: Brian Bennett (Instagram: @getonthatgram)
TSM: What’s your favorite area of Manhattan?
BB: Chinatown is my favorite part of NYC. The culture and the community is amazing. The outdoor produce and fish shops are ridiculous. The little gem food establishments that no one ever talks about are truly hidden treasures. You really feel like you’re in a different part of the world when you are in Chinatown. Central Park comes in at a close second.
TSM: What are your thoughts on Manhattan now that you live and work outside it?
BB: I seem to have less animosity toward this city now that I don’t live amidst all the hubbub and can actually appreciate it for what it is at a distance. Now that I only live 20 minutes outside the city I can come and go as I please, but I still have the serenity to go home to.
If you’d like find out more about Brian Bennett, check out some videos from his early days as a chef:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=8wsPZC_tmAQ — at Annie’s Cafe and Bar in Austin, TX
https://vimeo.com/43485504 — at Contigo in Austin, TX