If you want to reveal a chef’s true character, drop a slice of their famous chocolate cake in the corner of the restaurant and see how they react. Twenty-four perfectly crafted layers sit crumpled, defeated, on the cold, unforgiving floor. A friend, who was helping me photograph some of the dishes that Maison Pickle has on their menu, stood petrified. She froze, as did the rest of us, and stared at the empty plate she held in her hand and the glob, which was previously a piece of cake, on the floor. Chef Glen didn’t pause, reacting right away, turning on his heels he headed back to the kitchen to request another slice: “Don’t you worry, we’re going to do this right.”
Glenroy Brown, the Executive Chef of popular brunch spot, Jacob’s Pickles, walked us through the process of opening the Pickle Hospitality group’s second restaurant, Maison Pickle. Brown and tan hexagon tiled floors, slick long wooden tables, an open kitchen and a backlit bar with forest green upholstered chairs help the restaurant feel like the modern version of something you’d expect to see in the 1900’s. The decor of the restaurant mirrors the menu, or maybe it’s the other way around.
Maison Pickle opened in January on the Upper West Side with a menu inspired by the desire to revive classic dipped sandwiches. “That’s the general idea behind it,” Chef Glen says. He sits straight, wearing a crisp white cooking shirt and a flat brimmed baseball hat. “We wanted to take classic dishes that people forget about and bring them back with a little bit of a new twist.” The menu boasts an array of forgotten classics with a twist– including lamb, pork belly, classic beef entrees.
Chef Glen noted the process of producing his “Royale” French Dip ($37), which has a sliced beef base and a large piece of foie gras on a hot, freshly baked French roll. The end result is a product of months of research: “Jacob had this idea for french dipped sandwiches. So I took the idea, did my research and then I came up with some recipes. We came together and tried them to see what worked and what doesn’t. We were doing it for months, like five or six months.”
Even the dessert menu takes vintage desserts and brings them back to life. Two favorites include the twenty four layer chocolate cake and an icebox cake made with oreos and cream. When the new slice of cake is ready, Chef Glen hops up from his chair and walks to the open kitchen where he grabs a small blow-torch. He carefully sprays the cake with fire, warming the frosting between the layers.
“We didn’t just want a regular chocolate cake,” he says, carefully covering the chocolate slice with flames until everything glistens. “I think that’s pretty normal, most restaurants have that [chocolate cake]. We wanted to bring old desserts back and when they hit the table people say ‘Wow, look at this, this is amazing’.”
He sets the cake down on the table in between us, next to plate stacked high with banana Nutella french toast. The little details that go into making each plate at a restaurant are often overlooked. You notice them when they aren’t there, but sometimes fail to see them when they are there. Like the blowtorch used to bring out the rich flavor of the cake. The open kitchen design brings some of what lies beneath the creation of a meal to the surface, but only part of it.
In fact, when preparing the menu for the opening of Maison Pickle, Chef Glen and his team spent hours and hours getting the restaurant running and off the ground. “We came here everyday and tried to clean up the kitchen first to make it a functioning kitchen before we could play with recipes. We played with a lot of recipes. I came up with about 80 different dishes and we practiced everyday.”
Chef Glen has been cooking for most of his life. When he was younger, his family moved to New York from Jamaica. As a young boy, he helped cook for the family and their neighbors, making traditional Jamaican dishes such as Oxtail and Jerk Chicken. With a little encouragement from family friends, he pursued the craft at the Art Institute of New York after high school: “I didn’t know that cooking could be a career, until my mom’s best friend told me, ‘you have a really special talent, you should try and pursue cooking after high school’.”
After school, Chef Glen worked at Mesa Grill under Bobby Flay, Blue Smoke, and helped open Tommy Bahama’s before following his mentor to Jacob’s Pickles. While cooking came somewhat naturally, it was the management aspect that he found to be most challenging. However, he soaked in his training and transitioned to Executive Chef of the Pickle restaurants a few years ago. “Jacob had a lot of confidence in me. I was really young and didn’t think I was ready for the responsibility of being an executive chef, but Jacob really stood by me and gave me the confidence. He believed I could actually do it.”
It’s early afternoon and the lunch crowd lingers. Waiters say hello to us as they pass to serve their tables. The chefs in the open kitchen joke amongst one another while swiftly prepping meals. It’s a casual, friendly environment. Chef Glen walks back to the open kitchen to help with a few things, but he keeps an eye on us as we take our first bites into the cake, waiting for our reaction:“The most rewarding part is seeing people’s reactions when they try our food.”
The first bite is delicious, a combination of sweet frosting and fluffy fresh cake. We give him a thumbs up and he smiles, returns the thumbs up and turns to the next dish at hand. It’s the look after the first bite on a person’s face that inspires him to keep innovating.
Originally published in the Columbia Journal