The Guv’nor Of Gastro Pubs
Mr Winser mans the kitchen at his new Manhattan private-dining space, 58 Gansevoort
Mr Phil Winser explains it like this: “There is no textbook.” The British-born hospitality expert evidently doesn’t need one. At 30, he’s already carved a niche for himself in the famously ruthless New York restaurant scene. He’s aced one of the most difficult business exams of all. In addition to the zeitgeist-defining Fat Radish and a pair of other Manhattan restaurants, there’s the globe-trotting events planning business that’s worked with the likes of Krug and Bentley, and, now, a residential-style space called 58 Gansevoort for customised private dinners.
Mr Winser’s path was neither normal nor, he admits, particularly thought out. He worked as a cater-waiter in London while on school holidays, at such venues as Buckingham Palace – not so much to learn a trade as to earn pocket money. He held a front-of-house restaurant job or two, then moved to New York at 23. There, with a shoestring budget and a less-than-ideal visa status, he launched a two-man catering outfit with Mr Ben Towill, a Marlborough College classmate who’d been working as a chef in the Gordon Ramsay empire.
For Mr Winser, quality of ingredients takes precedence over tradition or technique
The fashion world took a liking to the two British boys and their casual-seeming start-up. Big catering jobs followed, and their first restaurant, The Fat Radish, was a hit. And so here Mr Winser is, seven years later, occupying a corner couch at SoHo House in black jeans and a worn-through white T-shirt – three dining establishments to his name, and co-owner of a multi-armed hospitality company that’s the New York tastemaker set’s culinary-creative firm of choice.
Silkstone, as it’s called, does event design and planning. The Fat Radish is the best known of its bricks-and-mortar holdings; under its name Mr Towill (who’s in charge of the food) and Mr Winser (who designs the spaces) have recently released a cookbook and, this past summer, created a pop-up dining club in a Rio de Janeiro mansion to coincide with the 2014 World Cup.
The entrance to 58 Gansevoort is discreet. Mr Winser’s new space was inspired partly by the concept of the garçonnière
The Fat Radish opened in 2010, on an unprepossessing stretch of the city’s Lower East Side. Its low-fuss menu – one heavy on seasonal, locally-sourced vegetables – Mr Winser describes, a bit self-consciously, as “elevated home cooking”. However they referred to it, New York’s normally unforgiving diners took immediately to novel yet uncomplicated offerings such as winter’s celery-root pot pie. “People couldn’t even believe there was no meat in the dish, it was so hearty,” Mr Winser recalls.
It makes him think of his English childhood, he adds, when “the only thing you could do with a poor celery root was mash it.” Tweaking the humbly familiar is something he and Mr Towill do well. They now have Leadbelly, an oyster bar across the street from The Fat Radish, and East Pole, a sleeker uptown restaurant done in collaboration with the city’s longer-established Martignetti brothers. With Mr Towill disengaged from the business for a spell – he’s getting married soon – Mr Winser is now taking the lead on a new venture: a private-dining space, 58 Gansevoort, in the west side’s Meatpacking District.
Mr Winser’s approach to design is to work with what’s readily available. “I enjoy stripping places back to the raw elements,” he says
The bookshelves at 58 Gansevoort are lined with terrariums and leather-bound volumes. One of these shelves slides open to reveal a dining room with French parquet floors and an open kitchen. There are handsome brass fixtures, coils of nautical rope and towers of pristine McIntosh sound equipment stacked in a pair of exposed-brick alcoves.
Even more than Mr Winser’s other spaces, this one is meant to resemble a residence – or perhaps a garçonnière, he suggests, an apartment that a certain type of Frenchman keeps on the side. Rather than for mistresses, though, Mr Winser’s version was created with 20 to 30 diners in mind. It’s gentlemanly and Bohemian, both raw and refined, an ideal testing ground for its creator’s no-fail entertaining formula, which goes something like this: employ the best produce you can get your hands on; greet every guest with something to drink and nibble; use candles, liberally, to set the mood; then – and this is where Mr Winser sometimes loses people – don’t be afraid to hit cruise control.
“We always think you need to do so much in order to impress people – that we need to go over the top,” Mr Winser says. “But that’s not what it’s about. If you feel confident, none of that really matters. If you’re sitting there with a group of friends, having a good time, and the carrots are a little bit overcooked, no one cares.”
“It’s never been about serving a particular genre of food. It’s been about where the meat and the produce come from,” Mr Winser says
Of course, it makes all the difference that those carrots were the finest ones at the farmer’s market. As Mr Winser puts it, “The more you know, the less you need.” It’s an attitude he cultivated early on as a traveller. His mother was an expedition planner, his father a long-time employee of the Royal Geographic Society. (Dad’s cartographic collection supplied the Map Room at East Pole.) Mr Winser recalls that it was on a trip up the Amazon, at age 17, when a Brazilian family on the boat invited him to share their modest meal – despite the fact that hosts and guest had no way of speaking to one another – that he registered the true and beautiful conviviality of food.
Mr Winser was galvanised, he says, by TV chef Mr Jamie Oliver’s irreverent approach to cooking, and explains that The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries aims to do something similar. “The one thing I would like people to take away from our book is to realise: ‘Oh, I can give it a go.’”
The second-floor anteroom at 58 Gansevoort. Mr Winser’s aim, he says, was to create “the ultimate small-entertaining space”
Inevitably, others have arrived at that conclusion. The Fat Radish has its share of imitators. Kale, little more than a glorified weed back when Mr Winser was biking it over to fashion shoots, is the new spinach. Even the samurai top-knot he has worn for years seems to be trending.
But Mr Winser hopes earnestly that the new, naturalistic food culture won’t go away. “Yes, ‘farm-to-table’ and these other buzzwords are a little ridiculous, but the fact that they exist is amazing,” he insists. The key, he adds – echoing Mr Oliver, really – is educating people against being misled. And with a clientele that’s trusting and open-minded enough, Messrs Winser and Towill can keep experimenting with things such as goat meat (which has done well at The Fat Radish, as an autumn menu item) and bluefish (which hasn’t).
Mr Winser is just back from two weeks in Kenya, and now using the kikoy (skirt) he wore there in lieu of trousers, as a scarf. He recently added sky-diving to his sporting repertoire, to go along with his surfing, and is vague but excited about what business step comes next. “It may involve other areas” – outside New York City, that is – “and may also involve some [hotel] rooms,” he hints. But not, you can bet, a textbook.
Mr Winser’s super Caesar salad
The Fat Radish’s kale Caesar salad might just be the world’s most delicious take on this now-ubiquitous breed of ruffage. “This dish is kind of a signature for us,” Mr Winser says. “This idea of food and trends is a bit hysterical. But I love leafy greens in general, so if people are now eating this way, then that’s great.” The following recipe appears in The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries.
Mr Winser prepares the kale salad that has become a menu staple at The Fat Radish
For the dressing:
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 1 egg yolk
- 1tsp Dijon mustard
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Pinch dried oregano
- Zest and juice of ½ a lemon
- 2tbsp olive oil
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- Coarse salt and freshly ground thick black pepper
For the salad:
- Leaves from a bunch of curly kale, torn into bite-sized pieces (6 cups)
- Juice from ½ a lemon
- 4 pieces crispy bacon, coarsely chopped
- 2 six-minute eggs, peeled and quartered
- 1 cup croutons
For the dressing, place the anchovies, egg yolk, mustard, Parmesan, oregano, lemon zest and juice and 2 tablespoons of water in a food processor and pulse until well blended. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oils to form an emulsified dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Place the kale in a large bowl and pour over the lemon juice. Using your hands, massage the kale together with the lemon juice to help it soften. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine. Scatter the bacon, eggs and croutons evenly across individual plates or on a serving platter.
“The one thing I would like people to take away from our book is to realise: "Oh, I can give it a go,” says Mr Winser