Earlier this year, my wife and I went to L’Artusi, in the West Village, and had a wonderful meal. We were taken with the place, the food, of course, but also the warm and enthusiastic service. We especially loved the olive oil cake and I found myself returning to the place just for another taste. It is the creation of Katherine Thompson, who grew up in and around Washington D.C. She learned to cook from her mother and from watching Julia Child on TV.
After graduating from William and Mary with a major in business and minor in fine arts, she lived in Seattle for a few years, unsure what she wanted to do, while entertaining her friends and cooking for them. She was spellbound by Alfred Portale’s cookbook, “12 Seasons,” and decided to move back east where she attended the Culinary Institute. After she graduation, Thompson came to New York and started a career in the restaurant business that took her to from places like Per Se and Italian Wine Merchants to Del Posto. She married Gabe Thompson and is involved in two restaurants with him, Dell’Anima and L’Artusi.
She was kind enough to sit down with me recently at L’Artusi. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.
BB: How long is the program at the C.I.A?
KT: It’s a little less than two years, with an externship in the middle. I did the externship in D.C. at a casual American restaurant called Chef Geoff’s. What was great about that place is that it taught me speed. It wasn’t high end in terms of the food but it was incredibly busy. It was exactly what I needed because when I showed up I was the slowest person in the world and I got my ass kicked. There are skills that I learned there that I still use today, like piping pounds and pounds of butter into ramekins.
BB: So you were at school, then Chef Geoff’s and then back to school.
KT: Yeah, school for nine months, I think, then to D.C. and then back.
BB: What was it like going from being a home cook to a competitive cooking atmosphere?
KT: It was hard and intimidating. I was worried that everyone was looking at me like, ‘What’s this girl doing here?’ I was 25 at the time. But everyone there had been around the block a couple of times and I was green. They were worried that I was going to chop my hand off kind of green. But everyone was great to me in the kitchen. Someone would come to me and say, ‘Instead of doing it this way, why not approach it that way?’ I listened and I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to be wasted space in the kitchen.
BB: In that atmosphere were you pushing yourself because you don’t want to be seen as the weak link?
KT: I also wanted to prove to them that I belonged. It was hard but after a month or two, it worked out. I kept my mouth shut and did what I was told.
BB: Did you have a better sense of what you wanted to do when you graduated?
KT: No. I had a degree, I had student loans to pay, but didn’t know what I was going to do. I looked at job postings at the CIA. Some were dream jobs and I didn’t think I had a chance. One was for an assistant to Jeffrey Steingarten, so I sent a resume and got called back for an interview, and was like ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I got called for an interview, I’m going to meet Jeffrey Steingarten.’ Also, there was an opening at Per Se, and they had just gotten four stars, so since I was going to be in New York, I dropped off my resume with them. I met Steingarten and didn’t get the job but Per Se called me up for an interview. I was pinching myself. They asked if I wanted to interview for front of the house or back of the house. I interviewed for front of the house because it was more money and in the kitchen…
BB: You don’t get rich working in a kitchen.
KT: No, you don’t. At all, ever. I had front of the house experience and thought that would be the right fit. I went through a long process, they offered me the job and I took it. They call their food runners kitchen servers. It was the most stressful job, one of the jobs where I couldn’t mentally get over it. I was so intimidated by everything, the food, the dinning room, the china, all of it.
BB: And the pressure of having not to fuck up anything.
KT: And I did fuck up. I fucked up so bad once and they had an all staff meeting about it. Brought the whole restaurant together. They didn’t say my name but they talked about what happened and everyone knew I was involved in this one mistake. It was horrifying. We screwed up a course on a table. It was a hard job, but I’m glad I had it. Not only did I meet a lot of great people and see a lot of amazing food it made me realize I don’t want to do front of the house and I don’t want to do four star dining.
BB: Because of the stress?
KT: The pressure is unrelenting.
BB: How long were you there?
KT: Not very long. Seven months. What’s interesting is that the minute I gave two weeks notice, all of sudden the job was easy. I realized that I put myself in the mental weeds the entire time. That job actually wasn’t that difficult. I’d be, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m shaving these truffles that are worth thousands of dollars, I can’t drop it on the floor.’ The mental image on dropping a truffle on the floor was enough to give me a panic attack. Really, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s a softball that you’re grating on a grater. But I couldn’t think of it that way.
BB: What came next?
KT: I went to work at Italian Wine Merchants. Mario Batali was involved with it at the time. It’s a retail wine store but they do private events in the back. I helped run the private events program there, so I’d book the event and then help cook for it. That was my first experience cooking Italian food. I learned about making sauces and fresh pasta. I was there for two-and-a-half years and did a lot of cooking. I also learned how to develop a private events business and that’s a very specific job. After that, my cousin opened a wine store in Tribeca and I helped them open. But there was down time as we waited to open, and that’s when I went to work at Del Posto in the pastry program. I fell in love with it. Del Posto was amazing, the pastries were amazing.
BB: Del Posto is a four-star restaurant, too. What was the difference there?
KT: Well, it wasn’t four-star yet. I was friends with pastry chef a the time. I felt comfortable with the staff. It was a little more relaxed, not quite as strict. At Per Se, I was too uncomfortable to let myself have a personality, whereas at Del Posto it didn’t feel that way. It wasn’t as daunting. Plus, I was doing pastry, which I loved and which was easier to do than talking to people in the dinning room. So I went back-and-forth between Del Posto and the wine store and then moved to the wine store full time and developed their events and cooked for them. But after awhile, I got burned out from it, booking events, cooking for the events, it’s a day and night process. When I left, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had nothing lined up. And I had just met Gabe. When I left Del Posto, my friend Elizabeth, who had also worked with me at Italian Wine Merchants, was still there. She became friends with Gabe who came to work at Del Posto’s and she introduced us and it was one of those love at first sight things. He also left Del Posto. It was the summer of being ridiculously poor, not having any idea of what was next, and we would cook for each other.
BB: This was when?
KT: ’07. Spectacular summer. In Brooklyn. I lived in an old brownstone in Boerum Hill, had three roommates, big kitchen. We’d have impromptu dinner parties all the time. Then in August, Joe Campanale, our wine guy, who I had worked with at Wine Merchants, contacted me about the Dell’ Anima space. They wanted to open something. They knew about wine but not food and they asked if I could help them find a chef. I knew I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t have line cook experience. So I told them, ‘I’m sleeping with this guy and his food is delicious.’ Not only did I fall in love with Gabe’s personality but I fell head over heels for his food.
BB: That is romantic.
KT: It’s funny, right? I introduced them, he cooked for them, and it was the right match, so it worked out and we opened Dell’ Anima in October ’07.
BB: And what were you doing there?
KT: This is where my life gets complicated. I helped open the restaurant but I didn’t initially work there. Officially. I took a job at Brasserie 44 in the Royalton Hotel as a pastry sous chef because my old pastry chef at Del Posto was there. I really wanted to do pastries. Also, it was so earlier in my relationship with Gabe.
BB: Working together could get tricky, right?
KT: We’d just met each other, so working together, maybe that’s a little much. Maybe I need to do my own separate thing. But after work at the Hotel I went to Dell’ Anima to help out. They didn’t have a pastry program and when you open a restaurant there is stuff to do around the clock, it’s never ending. I was going back-and-forth between the two jobs and a few months after they opened, they realized they needed front of the house stuff done and since I was there all of the time. I transitioned to Dell’ Anima, where I was the manager and the pastry chef.
BB: Were you far enough into your relationship with Gabe that it worked?
KT: Yeah, it was perfect. It was one of those things were we had such a great relationship that it made it easier. In most restaurants there is a division and conflict between the front of the house and the back of the house. I was the bridge. Especially in that space where there is no wall between the two, so you are in each other’s face no matter what. But we were so comfortable talking to each other that there wasn’t any conflict. Plus, I don’t think that some chefs understand what when a manager asks as bizarre request, they’re just the communicator, they just want to make the guest happy. Gabe never questioned that. Which makes such a big difference.
BB: Were you living together?
KT: Yup, in Brooklyn. Studio apartment, 12 feet by 12 feet. A place to sleep. And we decided we wanted to get married and simultaneously, our investors decided that they wanted to open another restaurant.
BB: What was the reception like at Dell’ Anima?
KT: When we opened, Gabe and I wondered if it was going to work. Italian had been done a thousand times, why open another Italian place, we’re sick of Italian. So true. But people still like to eat good food and people love pasta. As long as you do anything well people are going to gravitate toward it. We were busy from the minute we opened which is, knock on wood, unbelievable.
BB: I know the space is cozy and the food is tasty but how can you account for that kind of immediate success?
KT: The neighborhood embraced us. We instantly had regulars. We never got reviewed. [Frank] Bruni blogged about us a couple of times but we never got reviewed. Partly because we were so small and partly because people didn’t necessarily see it as a legitimate restaurant. Is it a wine bar, what is it? Plus, nobody knew who Gabe or Joe were so nobody cared about the names. Still, we were busy, and it went well. Then, Alfred Portale came in to eat, and he’s my idol. That was wonderful. We also made the decision to stay open until 2 am, so we’d serve a full dinner until 2. Our perspective was it would become an industry place. When our friends got off work, and it was midnight and they’re hungry, they can come in and get a great glass of wine and a big bowl of pasta. So there were cycles of time when entire staffs would show up at 12:30-1 am. We really wanted our peers to enjoy what we were cooking and get their feedback. The downside of that was that we weren’t getting off from work until 3:30-4 am, every single night, living in Brooklyn, we were lucky if we got home before 5:00.
BB: And then came L’Artusi.
KT: Yeah, it was back-to-back. Gabe and I got married in the fall of ’08, went on our honeymoon, and when we got back we opened L’Artusi. Lehman Brothers collapsed when we were on our honeymoon so that economic shitshow went down as we were opening up this huge restaurant.
BB: How much bigger is it than Dell’ Anima?
KT: Dell’ Anima is 50 seats this is 124 seats. A lot more money, a lot more pressure. At Dell’ Anima we could get away with being more adventurous with our food. Even though it was a smaller restaurant. It was such an industry place that people would come in and go, ‘Oh, sweet breads!’ and really want to eat it. We foolishly thought because we have a bigger kitchen, a bigger place at L’Artusi, we could do more of those things, and we realized when you are feeding more people you have to make food more approachable for bigger groups of people.
BB: How long did it take to recognize that?
KT: We opened in December of ’08 and the reviews started coming out in January, February and they were scathing. So we asked ourselves, ‘what are we doing wrong?’ And that was such a good process because we learned from it.
BB: And what was the initial business like here compared with Dell’ Anima?
KT: It was slower in that it’s easier to fill a smaller restaurant. Percentage wise we weren’t doing as much as we should have been and then the bad reviews didn’t help bring people in. The first six months were hard. It was a delicate act of working on the food and making sure we didn’t have too much staff if we weren’t busy.
BB: Were you working front of the house and pastries here too?
KT: No, I decided to just do pastries because the kitchen was better equipped here and we still do all of the pastries for Dell’ Anima here. So I was doing that for both restaurants and I was thrilled to stop doing the front of the house stuff and we hired Kevin Geary to be the general manager and he’s wonderful. He had so much experience than I did and he really knew what he was doing.
BB: When did things start coming together?
KT: With the menu, slowly but surely, we started putting together things that people really loved.
BB: Was it trail and error?
KT: Yeah. You put something on the menu and see how it sells. Sometimes it takes a while before it takes off. Our friends and the front of the house staff would taste things and we listened to their feedback to get a sense of what people wanted. Then we started getting busier and busier. People started showing up two or three times a week, so Gabe and I figured we were doing something right. It was really satisfying when we got the Zagat review this year and we got a 26—score—and we’d started off at 21. That’s the mark of our neighbors reviewing us.
BB: How did the olive your cake, your signature dessert, come about?
KT: Gabe deserves a lot of the credit for that. The thing with us is that we help each other out with our menus. If I didn’t have his feedback my pastry program wouldn’t be what it is. We have complimentary pallets. Sometimes, I’ll think of dessert in a specific way, not realizing that it could be done differently, or one less step. And he can point stuff out.
BB: Is there something about the nature of Italian cuisine, which can stress simplicity that reinforces that idea?
KT: There are times when you over-manipulate food and it’s just fluff that is lost on the final product. You also don’t want to be too simple or rustic so that there is no finesse behind it. That’s what’s tricky about Italian food, is finding a balance. With the olive oil cake, for example, Gabe had the recipe, and we tried it, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s go with the raisins and the crème fraiche mousse would go well with it.’ I really wanted a simple slice of cake, that’s all I wanted. At that point in time, all anyone cared about in the dessert world was foam and all that molecular stuff was popular. I wanted to do the opposite of that. But when we did friends and family, I served it and when we first opened nobody bought it. I said to Gabe, ‘Nobody is going for it, should I just try something different?’ And he told me not to give up on it just yet. And within a week it became the most popular dessert on the menu and it is to this day.
BB: So you have to have faith in things and let them play out.
KT: Yeah. Over the summer, Gabe put on a tomato panzenella salad with watermelon and pickled watermelon rinds and pancetta. The first two weeks, it didn’t sell. But Gabe and I knew it was good. We knew it would eventually sell because you can’t go wrong with tomatoes and bacon and watermelon. And sure enough…
BB: On the other hand, have their been dishes that you liked but didn’t work?
KT: Yeah. When we opened Gabe put on a bruschetta with thinly slicked tongue with a cabbage slaw and an aioli kind of dressing. It tasted like a Rueben. It was absolutely delicious. It wasn’t thousand islands but it tasted like it could be, it wasn’t saurkraut but it had the cabbage. It was so tasty but it looked awful. The color of it was muddy and unappealing. We didn’t use nitrates so the meat didn’t have that pinkish quality. But for a long time we kept it on the menu because it was so good. If I was desperately hungry that’s the thing I wanted to eat. It was the most satisfying thing we had on the menu. So we tried to hold onto it but finally we knew that the only reason we kept it is to make us happy and not anybody else.
BB: I know Gabe cooks seasonally but how often do you decide to change things up on the dessert menu?
KT: We both reevaluate every season. A certain amount of items aren’t seasonal like the olive oil cake. Olive oil and raisins never go out of season. And it’s nice to have those. I know when I go to Lupa I’m going to want to have the tongue, and if it wasn’t on the menu I’d be annoyed. But because we love the seasons and new ingredients a large chunk of the menu is seasonal. Summer gets tricky because it’s so plentiful so we switch things out quite a bit. Sometimes, we’ll bring things back because it worked last year, or we’ll bring it back but tweak it a different way.
BB: Do you and Gabe still enjoy that kind of shorthand that you developed in the kitchen over the years?
KT: Yes, but since we had our baby, I’m away from the kitchen more now. I miss being there and I go through phases when I want to be back in the kitchen but I also want to be with my son. But today, I’m here during the day, Gabe is at home, and we’ll both be home tonight.
BB: It might also work that if you are away for a little while, when you come back you’ll have a new freshness, too.
KT: That already happens. I come in with a perspective that I wouldn’t necessarily have if I were here every day. And our son Luke is really cool about showing up with us to the restaurants. He can really roll with it. We also live not so far, in a fourth-floor walk up.
BB: That keeps you in shape.
KT: It does.
BB: I’ve been meaning to ask, how are you not a complete fat ass working here?
KT: Well, I like to exercise for one, but also, I’ve gotten tired of pasta so there are other things I eat.
BB: You mentioned that Dell’ Anima was a hangout for other cooks. Where do you guys like to go to eat?
KT: Okay, we love the Spotted Pig. We’re addicted to it. We love April Bloomfield’s food, all of her places. We also love Casa Mono and Lupa.
BB: Do you ever cook at home?
KT: Before we had the baby, the only thing we had in our fridge was a bottle of champagne. We didn’t even have condiments. Now that I’m home with the baby, I’m cooking for him and cooking for myself, instead of ordering takeout. But our kitchen is small. We don’t even have a counter. Our cutting board is on our sink, so it’s a challenge to cook there and not use every swear word I’ve ever known. What’s been great about it, though, is that I’ve rediscovered home cooking.
BB: Especially in a small kitchen.
KT: Right. I think about how I can make a really good meal for myself with just a few ingredients and have it be healthy and taste good.