by Maura Hehir, Communications Manager at Irving Farm
Chef Dani. Photo by Joshua Littlefield.
Not only is 26 year-old Danielle Dillon (formerly of La Vara, Txikito, El Quinto Pino, Tekoá, and Four & Twenty Blackbirds) revamping Irving Farm's food menu as our new Culinary Director, she’s committed to not trashing the planet in the process. Her Shakshuka on a Roll recently appeared in New York Magazine’s “8 Best Eggs on a Roll” feature, alongside sandwiches from Eggslut, Daily Provisions, and The Breslin — no small feat for a coffee shop breakfast. While she’s created a viral-sensation dish not even a year into her tenure at Irving Farm, she has also designed a menu abundant with seasonal produce, locally sourced dairy, and even honeycomb from Millerton, NY — home of our Roastery. Here we talk about her roots, what inspires her cooking, and her perspective on the current state of the food industry.
Maura: When did you first become interested in cooking?
Dani: I grew up in a very food-oriented home in the Berkshires, a community that’s really focused on local food. My grandmother always made a lot of awesome Puerto Rican food and my mom had a garden and cooked all the time. My mom also kept an extensive cookbook collection and tons of Gourmet magazines. I remember this one food column by Jane and Michael Stern in the old Gourmet that was about road food, and they would go on road trips to diners and stuff — kind of like a predecessor to Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I convinced my mom to let me cut out these articles and paste them into a binder. I loved to see these small places all over America doing regional food.
When I was 14 I got my first restaurant job, as a busser/dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant. I would go there after school and when I finished my shift, I’d do my homework there and then my parents would pick me up. And repeat!
When you went to college, did you study culinary arts?
No. I studied visual arts and art history at Barnard. I was cooking a lot in college, though: I got a job at Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a bake shop in Brooklyn owned by two sisters. Everyone who was working there was awesome. They were all baking and doing all this hard work from scratch. I loved it so much.
Was that when you decided to try to become a professional cook?
It didn’t occur to me necessarily that this would be something I would do when I graduated. I’d just always been really involved in food, so I thought, this is another thing I can do while I’m at school. I was mainly interested in working in art galleries. When I graduated, I was applying for art jobs and still picking up shifts at the pie shop. That’s when I started to work more in the kitchen.
Charred Okra salad
Did you start off as a pastry chef?
The whole strange story about it is that during this time, my best friend and roommate was working at a restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn that had just opened -- it was La Vara, Alex Raij and Eder Montero’s restaurant. She was working there as a server and after I finished shifts at the pie shop I would stop by there. So I got to know their staff really well, and through those connections I began working as a prep cook. I started getting call backs from the galleries to come and interview, and I was like, “nope.” I decided I was going to keep cooking, because it really appealed to me on many different levels.
Who or what inspires you as a chef?
Definitely Alex Raij and Eder Montero, because they’re incredible chefs and I spent the longest time in their kitchens. They have such a unique way of looking at food and they work hard to make sure that the ingredients they’re using is of the highest quality. They have a real integrity to the food they put out. I also really love Ashley Christensen from Poole’s Diner in North Carolina. She takes the idea of diner food and comfort food and elevates it by using unexpected ingredients and methods of preparation. On the west coast, Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl is a big inspiration, with their idea of the “one plate.” At Sqirl, you don’t order courses, you order one thing, and on that one plate you have all sorts of exciting flavors and textures -- and all the ingredients are responsibly sourced. Which is basically the model that we used when we were thinking about Irving Farm’s new menu, because our customers aren’t coming in to order multiple courses -- just one dish. And that one dish has to wow.
There’s also a book that recently came out out called Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop. She investigates the ingredients and methods of preparation in China by looking deeply at the history and the people. So as a chef and a cook, Fuchsia Dunlop is someone else I’m really interested in.
How did you conceptualize the new Irving Farm food program?
When I was considering dishes for the new menu, one of the main things I wanted to do was try to use inspiration from the history of the City. So, for example, we have Milk & Burnt Honey on Toast, which is a nod to the Land of Milk and Honey -- inspired by the Jewish history and community on the Lower East Side. Same with the fermented black bean chili oil (which is actually made from soybeans): Chinatown and the history of the immigrant community there influenced that. I’m always searching for ways to draw from the culture and food styles of all the people that surround us in NYC, as well as from my own family’s culinary history. My all-time favorite nostalgic meal is my grandmother’s black bean recipe: the Matos Family black beans, which made their way onto the Irving Farm menu!
The Arepa, ft. Matos Family black beans
Can you talk to me about presentation?
Cooking and painting overlap in ways that surprise me all the time when I think about it. I studied oil painting, which is also very process-driven and tactile and sensory. I definitely try to make my platings artful without being too fussy. Like using tiny tweezers — that’s overkill. Mostly, I think of plating as creating a method to eat the meal. When I plate, or when I’m designing platings for dishes, I think about both the beauty of the plate and the utility of it for the guest. I want to make sure that someone eating it can get a bit of everything at once. I always keep the idea of the full bite in mind.
What are your thoughts on food quality in this country?
It’s something I think about a lot. On the one hand, the current number of people who are concerned about and willing to pay for quality ingredients is unprecedented, partly because it’s so “on-trend.” On the other hand I find that people’s concerns can be exploited by businesses. There are definitely places (not ones I’ve worked in) that will say that they’re doing the right, ethical thing when they’re not and they’re actually getting their food from crappy sources.
There’s also a tendency to prioritize poor-quality ingredients that customers are accustomed to over what’s actually in season. Like: yeah, you love strawberries. But you can’t get great strawberries in New York in the winter without the quality suffering or fossil fuel waste increasing. So we need to be really conscious about sourcing foods that are in-season that will give the customer a similar satisfaction, but that won’t come with such a big impact.
This is a way of eating that our grandparents and our great-grandparents would be familiar with. Forty or fifty years ago, people knew, “I can’t get a strawberry — they’re not growing right now!” or, “I can have strawberries, but they’re the ones I preserved.” So I think it’s funny when anyone calls it “elitist” to use produce that’s in-season, when it’s incredibly populist to eat what’s growing near you.
How are you bringing this perspective to Irving Farm?
Food quality, sustainability, eliminating waste: these are all things that I’m always thinking about. We’re a big group of restaurants, so I’m trying to work on the relationships we have with farmers and vendors. We’re so good about doing that with our coffee and our coffee sourcing, and we are applying that same philosophy to our food.
As I developed the menus I left a lot of flexibility for fresh produce. So you’ll often see language like “greens” or “seasonal fruit.” And that’s not because we’re trying to be trendy, it’s because genuinely, the fruit and vegetable seasons change so quickly and we want to be able to source great produce. And we might not know what’s available until the week of.
I’m also thinking about how we can use our account power to really benefit farmers. We have eight locations in total, soon to be nine. So say, kale really exploded this year and a farm we work with has a surplus they need to unload or else the produce will go bad. How can Irving Farm help them? Can we make that into something? An oil or a sauce or a soup? That’s a long-term project and goal because that doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s something we’ll definitely be working on actively.
Shakshuka on a Roll
What’s your all-time favorite meal to cook?
My favorite thing to cook is anything I want to eat myself. I always look to Central America for inspiration, because they use ingredients in a really awesome, fresh way. I also love Middle Eastern and Japanese food. I hate the word “fusion,” but I’m definitely inspired by different ways people around the world cook. Especially countries that might not have a ton of resources or access to certain ingredients — I love learning about all the ways in which they are creative with flavor.
Quickfire Proust’s Questionnaire
What is your current state of mind? Always anxious.
What is your most treasured possession? A rice pot that belonged to my great-great grandmother.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Do it well or don’t do it at all.
What is your greatest extravagance? High-end clothes. Or expensive knives.
Which living person do you most admire? I’m gonna go with bell hooks, at the moment.
What is your motto? You get what you put into it.