It’s not often you see an entire cow being delivered to a New York City restaurant, but at Brooklyn’s applewood it’s a weekly event. Celebrated chef/owner David Shea does his own butchering on premises, then plays culinary Jenga trying to fit everything in the refrigerator. We recently talked with David about his elegant and inventive cuisine, and his devotion to sustainability and organic wines.
What is your style of cuisine?
We fall back on the term “contemporary American.” We source all of our meats from local farms in Vermont and Maine and purchase whole animals. A big part of what we do relies on local farmers who deliver directly to our door. We’re unbelievably fortunate to have the connections we have. The food itself is as simple as possible. We start with high-quality products and do our best to allow the natural flavors to come through. We try not to burden the plates with heavy sauces or extensive seasoning. When you get something that’s naturally delicious, it makes your job pretty easy.
What inspired your dedication to sustainability?
Laura [David's wife and co-owner of applewood] and I worked at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn while we were in culinary school. It was this little place that had a self-sustaining garden and greenhouse. Almost every vegetable and herb used in the restaurant was picked that day; there wasn’t a canned product to be found. Laura came in one day from the garden and said, “I just ate some arugula right out of the ground that was still warm from the sun. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat anything else again!” Once you have the freshest, most organic foods, it’s impossible to settle for anything else. The more people we can expose to these kinds of flavors and experiences, the more people will understand how important it is.
You’re known for buying and butchering your own animals, something few chefs do themselves anymore.
Well, it’s challenging just to receive and store them. Every Thursday, Oliver comes in from Vermont and walks right through the dining room to deliver the animals. If dinner service has already started, he covers them with bags; they’re not as pretty as they are delicious. We typically receive three or four whole animals a week, plus a forequarter of veal. Our walk-in is pretty small, so figuring out how to hang them safely until we can butcher them can be like playing refrigerator Jenga. It’s all worth it though, because the quality is insanely good, and we can make anything we want. We can grill, sauté, roast and braise every last bit of the animal and then, when we’re down to the parts other people would never use, we can make interesting and delicious charcuterie, as well as stocks from the bones.
What are your opinions on organic certification?
Organic certification is great, if you can afford it. Most organic farmers are not wealthy people. To spend $15,000 for the honor of the government deeming you “officially” organic is a staggering waste of funds that could otherwise go toward things like paying your mortgage and feeding your family. We buy organic produce for the restaurant because we happen to have a handful of amazing nearby farmers who don’t treat their crops and who do the right thing from start to finish. We don’t, however, insist that our produce be organic. Laura has always maintained that she’d much rather buy minimally treated produce from a local farmer than import some organic version of the same thing from California.
Do you have a favorite organic wine?
Laura’s the wine drinker in the family. She’s got wines on the list that are made from organically grown grapes, some of which she really loves. Her favorite white is the Villa Paulus Pouilly-Fume, and her favorite red is the Chateau Haut-Selves, Graves. Interestingly, there are so many French wines, among others, that are totally organic but don’t advertise it. We may have more than we even know about.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?
The menu changes daily, so there’s really no one favorite. I do love braising just about anything, though. We do a four-course tasting menu every Tuesday through Thursday-I cook it and Laura matches each dish with wines.
Anything new on the horizon?
We just opened a retail kitchen supply shop one block from the restaurant called applewares. After a couple of years of constantly having to run into the city for every pair of tongs or new chinois, we decided the neighborhood needed a professional cooking store. The response has been terrific from the neighborhood.
501 11th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215