The terms "Michelin" and "down-to-earth" are rarely paired together when describing a dining experience, but for Executive Chef, Brian Loiacono, this is exactly what he wants to bring to the table at his restaurant, Acme. With six years of classic French culinary training under Daniel Boulud and a natural affinity for Italian cuisine by blood, Brian has created a space at Acme where guests can kick back and enjoy dishes grounded in Michelin-techniques, but delivered in a more comfortable, accessible fashion. We chatted with Brian (and his acclaimed wine director, Nicole Hakli) about what inspired this vision for Acme, how his plateware is a little homage to his mother, and the collaborative processes that underlie both the food and wine menus at Acme.
What led you to becoming executive chef at the reinvented Acme?
I worked for Daniel Boulud for about six years – I was Executive Chef at DB Bistro Moderne when I first met Jean-Marc and Neidich (Acme's managing partners), but leaving my position wasn’t an option at the time. In due time, I started recipe testing at Acme in October of 2015, and we re-opened the restaurant with the new menu by January 2016. It just felt like it was the right time to be my own chef instead of being in the shadow of another.
How would you describe your cuisine here at Acme?
That’s always the hardest question to answer, especially in just one sentence. I’d like to think that I’ve brought my Michelin experience and techniques into a comfortable, down-to-earth atmosphere where my friends and family can really enjoy the food. I also always knew it was going to be French because that’s how I’ve been trained, but I also come from an Italian family and grew up making pasta with my grandma. So it’s a lot of French techniques mixed with some Italian ideas, along with Mediterranean spices that are often used in French cooking – I’ll throw in some Moroccan or West African spices here and there. I just turned 29 so it’s been a solid 6 years of hammering out what “my” cuisine is. I’m in an industry where you keep learning so much as time goes on, and the more you learn, the more cuisines you learn, and the more you evolve as a chef.
What inspires your creative process for the dishes that you create?
I go out a lot with the kitchen staff, where we’ll hang out with beers and a notepad, just shouting out ideas. Like one guy was really excited about firefly squid – so we brought that in just to play with. My staff will come up with an idea or desire to learn more about something, and we’ll talk about it and work on it closely together. I did a carrot couscous once, and the next day I saw some of them using carrot juice to make risotto, which ended up blossoming into a burnt radicchio appetizer with a light carrot risotto. I like bouncing ideas off of people. When I worked at a kitchen it was inspiring to see someone else’s ideas but it’s hard to learn when you don’t have your idea heard. You need to freely speak your ideas – even if they’re not good, you need to say it out loud and have someone to give you feedback so you can grow from there. So the dishes are inspired in that respect - we’re just a group of guys and girls who talk about food all day and all night. Either that or Game of Thrones, but that doesn’t start till July.
What kind of ingredients do you gravitate towards the most?
While working at Daniel, a fellow chef and I would always say that anyone can cook meat and fish, but a real chef knows how to make a great vegetable dish. And it’s true. Even if it’s not a fully vegetarian dish, it’s great to have a vegetable presence on your plate. Execution during service is also so important because consistency is hard to achieve with vegetables. And we look for sourcing our market produce from all over – you don’t have to wait for it to be spring in New York City just to get the “local” produce you want. For instance, our mushroom forager is from Seattle – their spring is earlier, and their nettles are a lot nicer and more consistent than the places within 200 miles of the city.
The dishes you've prepared for us today look amazing – can you tell us about them?
On the Spode plate (pictured below) is a creamy butternut squash puree with a hint of cayenne and cumin, topped with a grilled butternut squash steak (that I seasoned with some lemon before plating), along with stracciatella cheese (slightly melted just to take the chill off, but not all the way). I've sprinkled a layer of chives, sunflower and pumpkin seed granola, and added a drizzle of local apple vinegar that has an amazing syrupy consistency. It's a cheese-loving vegetarian's dream!
I've also prepared a spicy clam vongole (pictured below), where we use the standard balance of garlic and chilies for flavor, but we take the extra step of making a very bold clam stock using little neck clams, and use that as an ingredient with cockles on the pick-up. By barely cooking the pasta in boiling water and transferring it to the pan filled with a mix of clam juice, garlic, herbs, and Calabrian chilies, we allow the spaghetti itself to absorb more clam flavor, making the dish really crave-able. In season, we add razor clams as well.
How did you settle on your plateware aesthetic for the new iteration of Acme?
My mother has always been into collecting Spode plates – you know, those blue and white plates that often have some kind of scenery of a farmer tilling a field or something. So that was my starting point when I started talking about Acme’s plateware options with our director of operations – I wanted a mix and match collection of both clean white plates and Spode plates, and in all sizes. Now we have a bunch of different designs. I think it’s really special when everyone at the table has the same theme of plates but individually, they’re all different. I love eating off a beautiful plate. Our collection is still building, too, and it’s a huge team effort with the people I work with. We handpick plates online at Ebay or in person at flea markets. My mom melts over the fact that we’ve brought in so many Spode plates – in the end, it really is an homage to her.
What are the things that you have to think about in terms of glassware?
Nicole: We use Korin glassware – the “unbreakable” series. This is a really fast paced casual restaurant so it can just get wild here. We pour a lot of wine in volume, but we also wanted a glass that our diners can drink fine wine out of. The wine list here is a mix of fun, casual wines, along with serious wines – so we needed a glassware collection to accommodate both, and Korin provides the perfect glass for that.
How collaborative is the process of pairing wines with the dishes?
Nicole: I've worked at restaurants that wouldn’t let me taste the food when figuring out wine pairings, so I've learned to rely on seeing the components of a dish to figure out how it'll taste with the wine. But no matter how much you can hypothesize how well a wine and a dish are going to pair, it doesn’t always end up the way you imagined. So with Brian, I’m able to make killer pairings because I get to taste all the food – it’s super important to both of us, and the process is very collaborative. Brian loves learning about what makes a certain wine pair with a dish so well. I think about regionality often – like this one time he did an oxtail dish that paired so well with Barolo, because it was such a hearty, countryside Italian dish. I also love acid. Wine with acid helps you eat more and drink more, and it’s about finding the perfect balance between those two.
Do you have any advice to culivate our readers?
Brian: A lot of people go out to eat and don’t bother reading the full menu. They’ll see the first thing that they like and feel comfortable with and will instantly go for that option. But it’s good to understand as much as you can about a menu – a lot of people don’t ask enough questions. I ask about ingredients and dishes all the time – I need to know what everything means. I also really like to learn about people’s different culinary lifestyles whenever I travel. Everyone eats so differently once you leave the NYC bubble – so if you go away, take a minute to figure out what people eat and how they’re eating it in those areas. Be observant and take in what you see.
Kitchen Snapshot – Brian Loiacono
Go-to homemade meal: Meatballs. My friends and I have “Meatball Mondays”, where I'll make a big pot of meatballs, and they'll bring beer and wine and we all just hang out.
Culinary quirk: Whenever I whisk anything that takes a few minutes, like a cream or sabayon, I find myself pacing all over. I’ll start off at my cutting board in the kitchen and before I know it, I’m standing in the middle of the dining room with the bowl and whisk in hand.
I can’t live without: I can do anything with a spoon. And I love a simple can opener – not the twisty one, but the old-school piece of flat metal. That is the greatest kitchen tool ever. A really good set of spoons and a can opener will keep a smile on my face.
I never use: A bowl scraper. I use spatulas.
Photography by Anne Z. Chen