As you all may well know, East of Eighth is one of my top favorite restaurants in NYC. Last Friday, after dinner, I decided to ask the chef, Martin Markovitz, if he'd be willing to take part in an interview with me; he obliged.
PB: Are you native to New York?
MM: No, I'm a native Chicagoan and my interest in New York came from old movies and the romance of the city--I just had to live here.
PB: Tell me about some of the restaurants you've worked at prior to East of Eighth.
MM: I began my Chelsea experience at Trois Canards, on 18th and 8th, which I helped to open, but my early experience was purely (expensive) French: Le Plaisir, Le Bistro, Le Provençal and The Carlye Hotel, just to name a few. I also did a four year run at Caliban, a neighborhood tavern on 3rd Avenue, which was a great experience and where I learned about wine. We had a 10,000 bottle cellar for our 40 seat dining room. Lots of rare and first growth wines were available. We imported much of our fish and other supplies from France and were one of the first restaurants in New York to buy from D’Artagnan. We used fresh truffles from Urbani and fresh foie gras. It was a pleasant place to work and after service we'd drive our motorcycles from the backyard, where we parked them and go for a ride before returning to close the bar at around 6 a.m.
I've been here, at "EOE," since its inception in 1996, for fifteen years.
PB: Explain the philosophy behind EOE's menu.
MM: Many people laughed when we opened up because we had Matzo Ball Soup next to Southwestern Black Bean Soup with Chorizo. We were one of the first successful eclectic, mixed-menu restaurants. Our philosophy is (and always has been): 1. Great comfort food at a great price (a great price is part of the comfort, no?) 2. Give New Yorkers the food they crave, no matter what the inspiration or ethnic origin 3. Have a relaxed and all-inclusive door policy: gay, straight, transgender... are all invited.
PB: What do you like about EOE's location?
MM: I (of course) like the mix of interesting people in Chelsea--from local families to local color; they all add their own fun to the restaurant...
I once had your grilled pork chop with blackened peaches and thought it to be a very thoughtful, unexpected touch. (It was a very interesting combination that worked well!) What's your inspiration when designing dishes?
MM: There are simple rules for making things tasty; sweet, sour, salty, spicy. Believe it or not, I can taste things in my head before cooking them and focus on balancing these elements to create a new dish. But I also love the classic dishes of all cuisines--I do Tandoori Chicken, Moroccan Couscous, a great Bouillabaisse, Coq au Vin, Steak Frites and others.
PB: Lastly, I'd like to add that once, while dining at EOE, I thought to myself: I can't believe The New York Times hasn't discovered this place! --do you have any comment?
MM: Well, I'd say there are a number of factors contributing to that.
(not in any specific order, except how they cross my mind)
First: I wanted to work in a place that didn't need a review to survive. I've played those games before and it's difficult, to be sure. East of Eighth has been perfect for me. We live comfortably under the radar of critics who may or may not get our goal. Next to the high-wire acts and fireworks of other places, screaming for their place on the food scene, we survive quietly, doing fairly straight-forward food. We may sometimes seem boring, or even uninspired, to people used to being dazzled by the showmanship of other trendy restaurants. Sometimes, great food at a great price is not enough of a performance...
Second: There was a time when we had plenty of drag shows at our restaurant that were popular, yet vulgar; and that brought down our reputation as a dining destination. Also, we're known to be a place with a "non-traditional" clientele; and that also overshadowed our perception as a destination for foodies.
[The New York Times] know[s] we are here... they were blinded by the buzz and probably, still are.
East of Eighth, 254 West 23rd Street near 8th Avenue, Chelsea