Hot to trotter: April Bloomfield's latest American venture is an 'urban taco bar'
Almost 10 years ago, British-born Bloomfield opened the hugely popular Spotted Pig pub in NYC. Now she's taking a departure from the hearty-English-food-with-an-Italian accent that she's known for at her Michelin-starred restaurants.
Thursday 01 November 2012
At the start of her new cookbook, the aptly-named A Girl and Her Pig, April Bloomfield tells us about Druids Heath, the area of Birmingham where she grew up: "Everything there seems to be made of concrete," she writes. "It's also full of housing estates and massive high-rise flats. Quite a few of my family members have lived in housing estates at one point or another, when they were struggling to afford rent. These buildings were all scary and cold and quite grim."
It's at the top of another kind of high-rise building, in a different sort of concrete jungle, that I meet the British chef, who's spent the last 10 years taking NYC's competitive restaurant scene by storm. We're sitting on the sprawling roof terrace of the hip, newly opened Pod 39 Hotel in Murray Hill, Midtown, sipping cocktails.
Bloomfield, 38, is as warm, open and approachable as she was when I met her in her kitchen back in 2009: her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans. We're meeting here because, aside from the fact that Bloomfield enjoys a drink, it's the location for her, and her business partner, the music mogul-turned-restaurateur Ken Friedman's latest project – what she calls an "urban taco bar". It's a departure from the hearty-English-food-with-an-Italian accent that she's known for at her Michelin-starred restaurants the Spotted Pig and The Breslin.
Brilliantly described by New York blog UrbanDaddy as the "Travelling Wilburys of Midtown gastro-imbibement", it's also a collaboration with an as-yet-unannounced local Mexican chef, who Friedman describes as "kind of a big shot in the Mexican food world" . On the way up to meet the pair, I glimpse the huge space where the new project is being built. "There's loads of room for ping-pong tables, and it's going to be a great place to hang out, have some cocktails and some simple, fast, good food," says Bloomfield.
While the food will be Mexican, it will be Mexican very much through a prism of Bloomfield's cooking style – so heavy on the meat, offal and punchy, bold flavours: "We'll have tacos with crispy pigs' ears and stuff. I love simple, delicious food and you can't get much more simple than a taco." She's particularly excited about plans for tacos al pastor: an Arabic-style taco made with shawarma-style, spit-cooked meat, topped with pineapple, lime and chilli sauce. Her version will be made with spiced pork belly and shoulder, because "you've got to get a bit of pig in there somewhere". After all, her deftness with the beast is a big part of what she's known for. She later takes great joy in recounting how, on the rare occasions that she gets recognised on the street, people will come up to her and say, "oh – you're the Spotted Pig".
It was with The Spotted Pig that Bloomfield made her Manhattan debut, famously giving New York its first proper gastropub, just under 10 years ago. She was a 27-year-old chef with form at Kensington Place with Rowley Leigh and with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at The River Cafe in Hammersmith, when Friedman, who was making his first foray into the restaurant world, lured her across the Atlantic to open the Pig with him and a host of celebrity backers that include Jay-Z and Norman Cook. It's convivial, pub-like atmosphere and Bloomfield's gutsy British cooking made it an unbridled success (people still queue around the block to get in), and two more restaurants – the Michelin-starred Breslin, and the seafood-centric John Dory Bar at the Ace Hotel – have followed.
Between them, Friedman and Bloomfield now have a staff of more than 300 working for them, and Friedman – whose fondness and genuine respect for his partner are apparent when he talks about her – is clear that Bloomfield was destined for chef superstardom. "She was just kind of a bad ass," he says about their first meeting. "She knew exactly what she wanted to do and what she wanted to cook. She wasn't just great head-chef material, she was partner material. She's a really good partner, because she doesn't settle for anything less." He addresses Bloomfield. "You're so disciplined as a chef, but then you're also always trying to move forward." Bloomfield cuts in, laughing: "You make me sound like Yoda."
The sci-fi references don't stop there. When I ask her about where her obsession for swine comes from, the chef speaks of her grandmother's epic Sunday lunches. "My nan used to cook pork loin with fantastic crackling: you could smell it throughout the house. She used to make so much food you couldn't see one end of the table. Have you seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he makes the mash potato mountain? That's what it was like."
Despite her accent's inevitable transatlantic lilt, staying true to her origins is important, and she concedes that her cooking has become increasingly English over the years. "I've probably swayed more towards my English roots, whereas if I'd have stayed in London I'd have gone more towards Italian. But it's still in the vein of solid Italian food: it's very simple, made with fewer ingredients – but it's about layering the flavours, which is very Italian – to have different textures, and then the long cooking, the complexity that brings."
The impact of working with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at The River Cafe on her was also huge. "I was so deeply influenced by them, their vision. Their palate was very different – they weren't classically trained, but were just very instinctive – and they had that kind of physical connection with food – rather than mental. I think a lot of people cook with their minds, instead of their instincts."
While she respects the cerebral approaches of places such as Noma, or Faviken: "I just want to make food that's going to make you feel good. It should be exciting and just so delicious that you really want to sink your teeth into it and lick the plate. Some of this modern stuff is very intellectual. Not to dumb down what I do, but I think of mine as comforting and soulful, and that's who I am as a chef."
This week she returned to London for her sell-out, two-night residency at Fergus Henderson's St John Chinatown, and it was an exciting prospect for Bloomfield, who admits she misses her friends, English pubs and Soho. "London is amazing," she says. "It's coming into its own. There are lots of small, minimal places opening – it's getting quite New York in its feel and that's very exciting to see. You couldn't even get a good hamburger in London in the 1990s. The only place to get one was the Hard Rock and Bill Wyman's restaurant."
Was her appearance a chance to scope out London for a project? Friedman tells me he thinks they'll open in London in the next 18 months, and Bloomfield says she'd "like to spend some time in London setting it up and making sure it's the way I'd want it. I'm kind of particular – I'm a bit of a control freak, so it's nice to be hands on. I'd probably just fly back and forth." A jet-setting chef then, with restaurants potentially both side of the Atlantic; a cookbook under her belt; and celebrity fans that include Sarah Jessica Parker: it's all a very long way from the Birmingham high-rises.
"A Girl and her Pig" (Canongate Books, £25) is out now
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