We often assume that opting for the "healthier" options on a menu might mean sacrificing the flavor, satiety, and creativity of our dining experience. But at Rouge Tomate, Executive Chef Andy Bennett has proven otherwise (and with a Michelin star stamp of approval), by executing inventive, produce-driven cuisine in an elevated and delicately flavorful fashion. Chef Andy invited us to their new Chelsea location to chat about his passion for showcasing the integrity of local ingredients, along with the process of redesigning a former 19th-century carriage house into a restaurant that would embody its commitment to sustainability and artful restraint.
How did you develop your passion for cooking healthy and locally-inspired cuisine?
The second restaurant I ever worked at was Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, England – it was a beautiful country house that was converted into a luxury hotel-restaurant. The two-star Michelin restaurant is led by a renowned French chef, Raymond Blanc, who is really passionate about organic food and vegetable cookery, and he cultivated the hotel grounds to be certified organic so that he could grow produce for the restaurant. So when I got there, it was a very idyllic situation – at the end of the night, you wrote down the ingredients you needed on a clipboard by the door, and when you came back to the kitchen in the morning, his team of gardeners would be wheeling up all the fresh produce you needed from the garden. It was amazing to cook with produce that had just been pulled out of the ground, just 200 meters away from your kitchen. He was really ahead of his time – the movement towards organic and nutritious food hadn’t launched yet, so a lot of people didn’t really understand his mission to simplify his cuisine and just focus on the ingredients. As a young chef – I was only 18 at the time – I was exposed to all this produce and learned from such a great teacher, and that ingrained in me a deep respect for produce and sustainability.
Chef Andy prepares the roasted cauliflower salad, tossed with Castelfranco radicchio, tamarind, fennel, emmer wheat and crushed almond.
How did you end up joining the team at Rouge Tomate?
After Le Manoir, I moved to New York City and worked at Daniel and a few other restaurants. I eventually saw an ad for Rouge Tomate, and I was struck by their unique mission to celebrate nutrition, plant-based cookery, and sustainability. At the time, the culinary world was using a lot of pork belly, heavy meat, and big, bold flavors, and I wanted to return to that philosophy ingrained in me to focus on delicate and clean flavors of produce-based cookery. It seemed like such a natural fit so I immediately applied, and ended up working as sous chef at the original location (on the Upper East Side) for about 18 months, during which we got the Michelin Star. I moved to D.C. for a couple of years, but returned to New York to join the team again as chef de cuisine for another 18 months before we decided to relocate to this location, where I'm now Executive Chef.
Chef Andy showcases portobello mushrooms in his mushroom tartare, garnished with crispy fingerling potato slivers and freshly picked watercress leaves.
Have New Yorkers always been very receptive to Rouge Tomate’s commitment to upscale healthy dining?
When we first opened Rouge, everyone saw it as a noble cause but didn’t fully make that connection between next-level vegetable cookery and the idea that healthy food can be tasty, delicious and fun. So it was a bit difficult in the beginning to convince people that we were delivering an outstanding food and beverage program that was also healthy. Luckily, we’ve managed to stand the test of time – getting the Michelin star helped quantify what we were doing and propelled us forward in terms of getting our story out there.
For the seasonal rhubarb pie dessert, Chef Andy adds a rhubarb juice reduction to a pastry cream base of eggs, honey, gelatin, & milk. By reducing the fresh juice, he intensifies the flavor while adding natural sugar so that less sugar is needed for the base. The crumble is made from a baked speculaas dough, and the cream is a lavender-infused Greek yogurt. whipped greek yogurt that they infuse with lavender
What inspires the dishes you come up with?
I always focus on the produce first, and then build the dish up from there. I like to practice restraint, and I’m always asking myself – am I masking something else by adding this extra flavor, or am I letting the ingredients stand on their own? I want to make super tasty food that’s fun to eat, but I also want you to know exactly what you’re eating and have the integrity of each ingredient be showcased at the forefront. I try not to get too clever, the way they say “make your dish, and then take away the last two ingredients you added to it”. Team-wise, our kitchen is very open and collaborative – we really encourage our cooks to bring their ideas to the table. Even if it ends up just as a starting point for a dish or an idea, we try to incorporate their ideas into the menu so that they have some ownership of what they’re doing here. It’s important to constantly look at things from different perspectives, especially when you’re surrounded by people of such different backgrounds and experiences – otherwise you end up going down the same road all the time.
Do you have a preference for where you source the restaurant’s ingredients from?
We always go as local as possible, but you have to make some trade-offs at some point, especially during the winter. If it’s not local, we keep it as close to home as possible or at least domestic, and we make sure that the product is organic and from the right producer.
What drove the shift in design and aesthetic for the new vs. old Rouge Tomate space?
We always felt that the old Rouge was beautiful, but there was a disconnect between our mission and the space itself. The old design suited the neighborhood, being in the Upper East Side, but even when the restaurant was at capacity, it was such a large open space that it still felt a little empty, and lacked great ambience. It was more of a quiet, elegant experience, and we wanted Rouge Tomate to be a more fun and accessible place to dine. We searched for spaces and found this old landmarked carriage house in Chelsea that was built in 1886. In designing the new space, we used materials like reclaimed wood, leather, and bronze to recall the building’s history as a carriage house and stable. To reflect our commitment to sustainability, we incorporated living plants throughout the restaurant, including an ivy-laced "living entryway" and a living chandelier in the middle of our dining room. We reincorporated art panels from the uptown location that were created by the artist, Per Fronth, and inspired by the original Rouge Tomate restaurant – we wanted the dining room to feel more outdoorsy with the green artwork and living plants. We intentionally went a different direction in the bar room, where we used more granite and slate to invoke the atmosphere of a wine's terroir. Overall though, I think we ended up designing a space that's more conducive to the livelier, more casual ambience we were looking for.
Did you do a plateware overhaul as well, as you moved the restaurant downtown?
The only plates we carried over from the old Rouge were a few from Jono Pandolfi. We had always used classic white plates, but started to transition to more ceramicware in the last six months of being there. We just wanted plateware that fit with the space, and to serve as a great visual platform for the food without being over the top. We also wanted to work with local makers. We searched for a long time, and it took a lot of work to try to find the right pieces. Wynne Noble, who’s Brooklyn-based, is the one we sourced most of our plates from. Essentially anything could be custom-made with her, and it was a very collaborative effort. She was very hands-on in terms of listening to what we wanted, and making us templates and samples to test out various colors and finishes. It was a more straightforward process with Jeremy Ogusky, where we selected color schemes from his signature collections. His plates are super versatile and fit well with the plates we had from Wynne and Jono. Leading up to the opening, there were so many sleepless nights of second-guessing all these little decisions – from the plateware to silverware, glassware, the chairs, and so on – and we had no idea whether come together in the end. But I think we got pretty close to what we wanted, and we’re happy about it.
Can you share a tip to culivate our readers?
There’s so much written about healthy eating and cooking, and I think it overwhelms people. It’s really not that tricky – just be adventurous with techniques and flavors when cooking with produce at home, and you’ll find that it can be fun to eat in a way that’s better for you. There are so many stereotypical perceptions about healthy eating, but hopefully we're undermining them here at Rouge. You don’t have to sacrifice health and wellness to eat delicious, fun food – those can all come together.
Kitchen Snapshot – Chef Andy Bennett
Go-to homemade meal: overnight muesli. I do a lot of cycling so it’s a great sport-based fuel that incorporates lots of healthy things – like almond milk, blueberries, chia seed, banana, and whatever other toppings I’m in the mood for. It’s great to make in large batches, and easy to grab and go in the morning.
Culinary quirk: people always comment on how calm I am, and that it’s almost unsettling – but I like running an open, relaxed kitchen. I’ve seen the trickle effect of a chef losing their temper in the kitchen – and at the end of the day, it’s the food and the guests that end up suffering. Treating others like you want to be treated is a philosophy I hold very dear. It’s important to teach others that it’s possible to foster a creative learning environment that’s also fun, with the goal of producing great food. I hope my cooks take that lesson with them as they move onto other restaurants.
Favorite kitchen tool: a Japanese mandolin, since we do so much vegetable cookery – it adds that crunchy texture.
Favorite serving piece: a gray bowl from Wynne Noble that’s super versatile for a lot of dishes. It’s fun because it’s a little dramatic – the colors pop off a bit, and the depth pitches out pretty far so that you can use it like a flat plate, or also for other dishes that have broths and sauces.
Photography by Anne Z. Chen