James Beard Awards: NYC’s 2013 rookie class

Get to know the culinary talent—chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders—repping NYC at the James Beard Awards for the first time this year.

Brooks Headley

Brooks Headley

Brooks Headley, Del Posto
Nominee: Outstanding Pastry Chef

It’s your first James Beard Award nomination. How did you hear about it?
I was already at work and a friend sent me a text with my name and a bunch of extra o’s in it. She follows food news pretty closely, so when I got her text, I knew it could only mean one thing. It was pretty exciting.

How did you go from being a drummer to a pastry chef?
It was 1999 and I was in a band that had broken up. I had always loved food. It was kind of my hobby at that point. Even if we were on tour—no one ever believes this, but I can assume you it’s true—we would carry a milk crate with olive oil and sauté pans. We weren’t making any money or staying at hotels so a lot of times, we would go to a grocery store after a show and make vegetarian food at someone’s house. I ended up answering an ad that just said pastry assistant and I didn’t know anything about desserts.

You once describe your style as “buzzed Italian grandma.” What does that mean?
I consider myself a home cook because that’s what I did most of my life. I didn’t go to culinary school, I either learned with these great chefs mentoring me or from cookbooks. I don’t want things to be too complicated or technical or contrived. It’s what a grandma would make it, but maybe a who would drink half a glass of white wine and turn into the most hilarious person in the world.

Speaking of cookbooks, what’s going to be in your upcoming one “Occupation: Pastry Chef.”
I want it to be a book that, even if you know nothing about dessert or don’t care about desserts, you can sit down and read. The recipes themselves are going to be totally do-able, rock-solid recipes that are the same things we do in the restaurant. I want to break down the barrier between the chef and the audience. It’ll talk about failures. It’s not going to be a coffee table book with porn-y photos.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from working alongside Mark Ladner at the restaurant?
Everything we do, we do in an italian context. It may not be something so authentic you would see in Italy at a restaurant, but it’s taking inspiration from products and nonna-style cooking. It’s pretty much the furthest you can get from a French fine dining situation. The ultimate goal is to make food that feels comfortable and Italian, but on the plate looks and makes sense in a a big opulent dining room. What I’ve learned here from Mark is to get the best possible stuff and manipulate it as little as possible. Present it simply. There’s nothing more Italian than that.

Vegetables show up all the time on your plates—is there one ingredient that just hasn’t worked out?
The only thing I have never been able to tackle in terms of vegetables is beets. To me, they’re just so sweet normally, I feel like they need savory dance partners.

If you win, how will you celebrate?
I’m going to go straight to Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street to buy a bunch of pies and get a bunch of beer and come back to the restaurant and just be with my staff because they’re the ones who really deserve it.