A Conversation with Saul Bolton

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Saul Bolton is looking for parking. It’s a Thursday morning, and the multifaceted chef—he’s behind the Michelin-starred Saul on Smith Street, the Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights, a sausage stand at the Flea and the opening menu at the new Nitehawk Cinema restaurant in Williamsburg—is driving back and forth on Atlantic Avenue, searching for a spot in front of his newest project.

That’s Red Gravy, a southern Italian restaurant set to open in Brooklyn Heights right around the minute you’re reading this. When I arrive to meet him, he’s still circling, so I hop in and the pursuit continues, but just as we are primed to parallel park, someone rushes in from behind and steals our spot. I am furious; Bolton laughs it off, saying this is why, rather than drive, he often takes a Flatbush Avenue Dollar Van from his Prospect Lefferts home. But I suggest that, given everything he has done for Brooklyn and its restaurant scene—his restaurant tied with Peter Luger in bringing the borough its very first Michelin star, back in 2006—the borough president might give him his own dedicated parking spot on Smith Street, which he essentially launched as Brooklyn’s first real restaurant row when he opened his self-named restaurant in 1999. “Yeah, that’d be great,” he says, laughing. “I’ll e-mail him right away.”Quite frankly, a dedicated car-length on Smith Street—where Saul, by the way, has been awarded that Michelin star every year since—is the least this borough could do.

Bolton may not be the only reason that Brooklyn has become synonymous with culinary coolness— he’d have to share that honor with better known names like Alan Harding (Patois, La Bouillabaisse, Gowanus Yacht Club), Anna Klinger (al di là), Charlie Kiely and Sharon Pachter (the Grocery), Andrew Feinberg (Franny’s and Bklyn Larder), the Franks (Spuntino, Prime Meats), Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow (Diner, the Marlows) and all the boys of the Meat Hook and Roberta’s—but he was one of new Brooklyn cuisine’s first trailblazers and remains one of the most important.

Trained at Bouley and Le Bernardin, Bolton brought modern haute cuisine—now-ubiquitous dishes like seared foie gras with poached rhubarb—and serious sourcing to Brooklyn’s shores. His regulars have been eating farm-to-table for a decade—heck, some of the greens even come from Bolton’s well-tended backyard. And he did all this at a time when opening a restaurant on a run-down road best known for drug deals and shady bodegas wasn’t practically passé.

One might call Bolton Brooklyn’s own Danny Meyer, and like that charmed restaurateur, he’s a Midwestern boy. Born in Ohio, Bolton, now 45, spent his early years on his family’s tobacco farm running with horses, keeping time with the cows and feasting on the foods of the heartland. His father was a professor at the University of Cincinnati, and his mother a dancer; both loved to cook, as did his grandparents (one of whom actually grew strawberries for the Queen back in England). His family moved around, to London and Georgia and finally Boston. After high school, Bolton enrolled in ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but soon realized even artsy college was not the right fit—but that cooking was.

He found himself flipping burgers at a popular luncheonette called the Hawthorne Street Café, and the experience changed him forever. “It was nothing all that special,” he says, “but I loved it. Freshman year I purchased Jacques Pépin’s The Art of Cooking,” he adds, “and it blew my mind.”

Back in Boston in 1989, Bolton scored a job at Hammersley’s Bistro, then one of the city’s most respected restaurants. The menu was modern French bistro fare—duck liver flan, rabbit terrine with prunes, lemon soufflé pudding cake—and sharing the stoves with future luminaries Jody Adams and Stan Frankenthaler was better than culinary school. The next stop for an ascendant chef? A stint in Paris. After two years at Hammersley’s, Bolton and his girlfriend Lisa—now his wife—moved to France so Bolton could  stage, or work as kitchen apprentice. But with little money and no contacts, it proved difficult to land the right gig. After a month and a half of trailing at unknown restaurants, the couple was broke and booked a flight to New York. They moved into an apartment on Union Street they’d rented through an expat newspaper in Paris, and Bolton started looking for work across the river.

Our hero had landed in Brooklyn, but this was 1991: The idea of cooking in the borough never even occurred to him. “At that time there were really very few restaurants in Brooklyn,” he says, “The only place I really went to was Two Toms over on Third Avenue. And there were Henry’s End and Noodle Pudding over in the Heights. But [Manhattan] was where things were happening.” Plus he had his eye on one chef in particular: David Bouley. “Bouley was at the height of his powers,” says Bolton. “He was, and is, one of the greatest cooks ever.” Bolton landed the job, and over the two years worked every station in Bouley’s kitchen—fish, meat, hot and cold apps, even pastry. (Bolton’s baked Alaska, made with a chocolate Oreo cookie crust, layers of coffee and vanilla parfaits, then topped with Italian meringue and rum caramel, triumphed on an episode of Throw Down with Bobby Flay.)

After Bouley, Bolton spent a year at Le Bernardin under the legendary Gilbert Le Coze and Eric Ripert, followed by two years as sous-chef at Luc Dendievel’s impossibly popular French bistro Le Zoo, then two more as executive chef at the Grove. But after the birth of two sons, Miles in 1994 and then Theo in 1998, he and his wife decided it was time to open a place of their own. They scoured Manhattan, but were quickly cowed by sky-high rents. While they’d already moved to Boerum Hill, their next search was in Park Slope, where they looked at a space that now houses al di là—but that was also too pricey. A restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights looked promising, but it was riddled with asbestos. Finally, they found a former soup shop on Smith Street, just blocks from their home on Wyckoff. Aside from Patois, the street offered little to attract serious eaters, but the price was right: rent was $1,100 a month. They signed the lease, maxed out their credit cards, and in 1999, with Lisa in the front of the house and Bolton in the kitchen, the sweet little brick storefront became the restaurant named Saul.

But would anybody on rundown Smith Street be willing to pay for Bolton’s pan-roasted sweetbreads glazed in vanilla, or piquillo peppers stuffed with line-caught Chatham cod? “They were like, ‘You’re gonna put a TV in there so we can watch the game, right?’” recalls Bolton. “I was filled with doubt. People told me I was crazy, that the neighborhood was dangerous, so I had no idea if it would work. But I had an inkling. I saw all these beautiful brownstones and lots of people taking the subway into the city, which was just a few stops away. I was just crossing my fingers.”

His hunch was right. People from the neighborhood and beyond came night after night for dishes like duck confit with black lentils or sea scallops with parsley vinaigrette, plus homemade pasta and sausages, all grounded in great ingredients and set to a soundtrack that included the Who, Yo La Tengo and Abba. Bolton’s oasis of fine dining not only survived, it flourished. In his 1999 review of Saul for the Times’s “$25 and Under” column—long before Brooklyn was in the section every week, and Saul outgrew that price range—Eric Asimov praised the food as “serious and ambitious.” Bolton, and Brooklyn, never looked back.

And while we’ve grown accustomed to watching experimental young cooks grow into serious cuisine along with their neighborhood— Diner, Franny’s and Roberta’s all started out as neighborhood joints with little hint of their finer finesse to come—Bolton’s narrative is just the opposite. As Bolton tells it, he’d have been happy running just that one kitchen. Other than a small side project called the Boerum Hill Food Company—a soup and sandwich spot that stood next door to Saul for seven years—Bolton wasn’t interested in adding any outposts. But his longtime accountant, Joe Delprete, had other ideas.

In 2006 when the chef catered Delprete’s lavish Hamptons wedding, the guests went wild for the food. Delprete says that several friends approached him afterward, ready to bankroll Bolton and whatever his next project might be. But Bolton wasn’t interested. “My dream was always to do my thing in a small personal space and that was it,” he says. Delprete was dogged. “I’d been telling Saul for years, you can’t make money with a 40-seat restaurant,” he says. “I kept nagging him to let me put together an investment group for him. After two years, he finally said, ‘Okay, Joe.”

With investors in place, Bolton, Delprete and managing partner Ben Daitz (a Saul alum and co-owner of Manhattan’s Num Pang sandwich shop) quickly got to work and opened the Vanderbilt in 2009, a gastro-pub named after the Prospect Heights avenue it called home. Like Saul a decade earlier, it was born of foresight and faith, a brave venture on a still-shabby stretch. Three years later, the stretch is another bona fide restaurant row. Sprawled along one of its busiest corners, windows wide open and sidewalk seating jammed from brunch until midnight, the Vanderbilt is largely its lynchpin, thanks to dishes like crispy pork belly with cheese grits, or plump mussels in a rich and fiery coconut broth, plus craft beers, thoughtful cocktails and homemade beef jerky served in big glass jars on the bar.

The signature house-made sausages—smoked kielbasa, weisswurst, merguez, chicken and foie gras, for starters—attracted such a fervid following they became Bolton’s next big thing: Brooklyn Bangers. Like Meyer, whose high-low portfolio stretches from 11 Madison Park to Shake Shack, Bolton brought his white tablecloth sensibility to the streets with an outdoor stand at Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea. Except Bolton, we’d argue, goes one better: While you’d never see Meyer slinging burgers, Bolton personally peddled his sausages all summer, loading up a grill, tent, table and coolers each morning. “If I could do that for the rest of my life I would,” he says of weekends at the Flea. “Just sit back, drink an iced tea, crank up the radio and cook and hang out. What’s better than that?”

He’ll soon debut a retail line of those Brooklyn Bangers, and is in talks to become the sausage of record at the new Barclay’s Center, within a free-throw’s throw from the Vanderbilt. Not a bad way to watch the Nets. Bolton was also behind an idea you might have thought was cooked up by some artsy stoners in a not-quite-legal Bushwick loft: Early last year, he signed on as the chef/ consultant at Williamsburg’s new Nitehawk Cinema, probably the only place in the country where you can watch a movie in a state-of-the-art triplex while being served a meal prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.

“The challenge,” recalls Bolton, who has since left the project, “was to create a menu that could be eaten in the dark.” That meant not only reimagined classic movie snacks like warm popcorn drizzled with restaurant-quality butter, homemade chocolate bars flecked with pretzel crumbs and toffee, but also full-on dinner fare like two-handed fish tacos, cheese empanadas, steak and kimchi sandwiches, and a slew of movie-themed specials like the “Deconstructed Dragon Roll,” a delectable barbecued eel roll best eaten while watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

And now the chef is setting up stoves in yet another culinary wasteland: Brooklyn Heights. The much-anticipated Red Gravy will be an ode to southern Italy—think red sauce joint meets locavore farmhouse—that has Bolton and chef de cuisine Ryan McLaughlin elbow-deep in ragu and cookbooks. Bolton has spent months perfecting recipes for everything from housemade focaccia to antipasti like roasted cauliflower with olives, anchovies, capers and currants; pastas like bucatini alle sarda, fragrant with fennel, garlic, currants and sardines, or braised lamb neck malloreddus (a small Sardinian pasta flavored with saffron) steeped with preserved lemon, cinnamon and cardamom. The menu also includes daily blue plates like the signature Sunday gravy for which the place is named: hearty, rich and simmered down for hours with slices of pig skin, which give the sauce a depth of flavor reminiscent of an afternoon meal at your Nonna’s, served on a platter that gets loaded up with homemade sausages, lamb ribs and meatballs.

The generously sized bar will serve house-made vermouth and amaros aged in barrels in the restaurant’s roomy basement, along with a crop of classic cocktails (think Negronis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds) and a roster of Italian craft beers. Red Gravy is poised to follow Bolton’s past projects and turn this stretch into a culinary destination, but the chef is cautious. “There are lots of experts out there in Italian food,” he says, dressed construction worker–style in a Carhartt jacket and jeans in the beautiful exposed-brick site weeks before opening. The hammering has stopped and the sun is shining in through the restaurant’s windows, lighting up the plaster dust in the air. “They know this stuff better than I do, and they look at me like, ‘Good Luck, buddy, you’re in way over your head.’ But then I think, no one thought a place like Saul would work on Smith Street.”

But it did. And then some. Will someone please give this man a parking spot?

Ambidextrous. The man who landed the borough’s first Michelin star also personally peddles sausages at Smorgasburg.

Exceeding expectations. “People were like, ‘You’re gonna put a TV in there so we can watch the game, right?’” recalls Bolton. Instead he created Brooklyn’s first restaurant row—and ten years later sparked another in Prospect Heights with the Vanderbilt, where eaters feast on housemade sausages with raita or spring salad with local goat cheese.

Photo credit:  Vicky Wasik.

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