Lauren Shockey isn’t your average food critic. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in 2008, she decided to go on a culinary journey, working as an apprentice at Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 as well as kitchens in Vietnam, Israel and Paris, as documented in her new book Four Kitchens. Today, she puts her culinary experience to work as a food critic at the Village Voice. We sat down over a nice craft beer with her to discuss Israeli cuisine, getting sexually harassed in Paris and where to find great Vietnamese food in New York.
So, which was the most eye-opening experience: New York, Vietnam, Israel or Paris?
wd~50 in New York, because it was really the first restaurant I worked at. I remember walking in the door the first day petrified; I was so intimidated by Wylie that couldn’t look him in the eye. At first I was really slow. Tasks that took the rest of the staff four minutes took me 40. Eventually, though, I learned all of the basics of how to work in a restaurant kitchen: prep, organization, even how to hold my knife correctly.
Being in Vietnam was also great because I was introduced to all of these ingredients I’d never seen before like Vietnamese mint and banana flowers. The Vietnamese food you find here in New York is only a small portion of what Vietnamese food has to offer. There are a couple of places here where you can find things like perilla leaves and banana flowers, but it’s stuff you really have to seek out.
Which kitchen was the most difficult to work in?
La Verticale, in Paris, was the hardest kitchen to work in. When I was in Tel-Aviv (at Carmella Bistro), I was working the appetizer station, so I actually had a lot of responsibility. It was hard to go to Paris where I was back to being the lowest of the low. I basically shucked crab for like five hours a day. It was also hard being a woman; chefs would always make sexual advancements towards me, saying things like “Oh, after you shuck crab why don’t we lay naked together?” When that’s your boss, it’s very awkward. I mean, what do I say? “Yes Chef?” But overall it was a good experience working in a very regimented restaurant with two Michelin stars.
Where do you eat in New York when you’re missing the food in Vietnam, Paris or Israel?
My favorite place is called Thanh Da (6008 7th Ave) in Sunset Park. They have a bunch of dishes that are hard to find in New York like bun bo Hue, which is a spicy beef noodle soup, bun rieu, which is a crab noodle soup, and bhan xeo, which is like a crepe thing that has sprouts and pork and shrimp inside. The flavors are really spot on.
For French food, I really like Buvette (42 Grove St), which just opened this year. It’s Jody Williams’ French gastroteque and wine bar in the West Village. It’s a really nice place to have a glass of wine; they do a nice confit rabbit, plus excellent pork rillettes and sausage.
What about Israeli food? Wait … what is Israeli food in the first place?
The thing is that Israel hasn’t really developed a food culture because it doesn’t really know what Israeli food is. There are so many different ethnicities that comprise Israeli culture that it’s hard to define a culinary outlook. Especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the chefs there were trying to replicate French cooking. Now they’ve finally discovered that they have all of this great produce—dates, figs, fresh cheeses—and that’s starting to help define what Israeli food is.
Can you get food falafel in New York?
It’s much better there, but I do like Taim (222 Waverly Place). They put all these great herbs in it, which is what they do in Israel. I really like the sabich there, too, which is the eggplant sandwich with tahini and amba sauce (a pickled mango sauce).
Do you still find time to cook?
I cook as much as I can, but when you eat out five nights a week, it doesn’t leave much time. I like to cook Marcella Hazan’s spaghetti with tomato and butter sauce, which is basically canned tomatoes with half an onion, half a stick of butter, and you cook it for like 40 minutes. It’s so good. When I’m at home, I like to keep it simple.
You grew up in New York. Do you still go to any of the restaurants that you went to as a kid?
When we went out to eat, the places we’d go to were like Elephant & Castle on Greenwich, which had good burgers. John’s, we’d go there a lot for pizza. Japonica, the sushi restaurant on University Place, I’ve been going there since I was four.
Does your experience working in the back of the house affect how you judge restaurants?
Having worked on the other side, I realize not everything is going to be perfect 100 percent of the time. Working on a Saturday night when every single table is filled, it’s easy to get backed up and things can get a little slow. If I have really bad service once or have bad food once, I’m willing to overlook that. It’s a problem when it happens three times. Then you’re like, well, something is going wrong in the kitchen. At the same time, I almost have less of a tolerance for bad food after working in a kitchen and seeing how you can make really good food.