By Nicole Berrie
Photography by Sasha Israel
“IF I WERE NOT IN THIS PROFESSION, I’D BE A VEGETARIAN,” says chef Min Kong matter-of-factly, perched on a barstool at Little Park restaurant in Tribeca. Kong, who cut her teeth working the Manhattan’s “It” restaurant circuit from Aughties hotpot Tabla to Italian-American eatery Carbone, now helms the kitchen at Andrew Carmellini’s latest rave resto, which makes vegetables the main event. “It’s easy to use a lot of the cliché catchphrases like ‘farm-to-table,’ ‘seasonal,’ and ‘sustainable,'” says Kong, after whipping up a fresh mushroom carpaccio for us to sample. “But those really were our priorities here. Traditionally, Andrew Carmellini’s restaurants have always favored the market and prioritized seasonality. Here, we wanted to showcase more vegetables as opposed to proteins and smaller portions for sharing and keep things natural. Locanda Verde is Italian, Lafayette is French, Bar Primi is a pasta house. Here, we wanted to have something straightforward, non-denominational, taking influences from wherever we thought was delicious without being too identifiable.” To wit, you’ll find plant-based dishes like beetroot risotto mingling with a locally-raised chicken or plays on classic sandwiches subbing the meat with hearty vegetables. Below, we caught up with Kong who divulged on her favorite dishes on the menu, why going plant-based is a good idea and what she typically eats after midnight.
When did you become interested in making vegetables the focus in your cuisine?
I’ve been really fortunate in all of my experiences that the restaurants I’ve worked at, particularly with Carmellini’s restaurants, they’ve all purchased a lot of their products from the market. I started off at Tabla, which was a Danny Meyer restaurant way back in the day. We had an entire walk-in that was just vegetables. And of course, working with chef Floyd Cardoz, he had vegetables all over the menu. He was a frequenter of the market. From there, at every other restaurant that I’ve worked, I’ve always fought for the ‘market guy’ role. Meaning, the person who would go to the market, buy things and see what was going on. Not that there was ever an official position, but I always tried to make it one. I did that at the Nomad, I did it at Carbone–I’ve always tried to do that. In a restaurant you have all your vegetables organized in a labeled plastic container. But when you see the market, you really see them in their truest, most beautiful form. That has always been really exciting for me.
So you’ve always been interested in seasonality and the farm-to-table concept?
It’s funny because farm-to-table just seems so natural and obvious to me. It’s what we’re obligated to be doing for best flavor. Working at Carmellini’s restaurants is when I really started to go to the market more often. It’s a culture that has this heartbeat with a lot of different chefs and sous chefs. It’s contagious.
How much does what’s in the market determine what’s on the menu at Little Park?
We try to stay true to what’s there. In the winter, as you can imagine, it’s just cabbage, potatoes and all root vegetables so we’re semi-local then. We accommodate a little bit out of necessity just to keep things interesting. If there’s something cool at the market that starts to come up, then you know it’s time to start using it. For example, asparagus. I’d been waiting for it to be out of Jersey and it started showing up at the market recently, so I know it’s time.
Do you put a special on the menu in that case?
Certain vegetables come around at the same time every year, so we already plan it out. Once we start seeing them a little bit more bountiful, the plan that we had already set can really come into action.
How often do you change the menu?
This is our first year but ideally we’re going to change it every season, which would be four times a year. Within that, if something looks really cool at the market, I can swap one thing out for another so it will be constantly changing.
Do you have a favorite dish on the menu?
Our beet tartare has been on since the beginning, people really love it. The beet risotto has also been on since the beginning, people find that interesting because we use beet juice to make it red. Personally, I’m really excited about the mushroom sandwich we just put on the menu. I can’t stop talking about it.
Your sandwiches seem to be a big hit here.
I think it’s a very welcome change for people to have sandwiches that are satisfying but without any meat in them, which is what we were going for. The MLT is like a BLT except it’s with mushroom instead of bacon. The mushroom is marinated, smoked and grilled to assume all the characteristics of bacon, minus the pork.
Are there favorite vegetables or fruits that you get really excited about during the summer?
Tomatoes, which I buy from Tim Stark at Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania. I’m really looking forward to different kinds of basils and all the herbs that come out for summertime. And Tri-Star strawberries, which I have always bought from Rick Bishop at Mountain Sweet Berry in New York.
What are your go-to farmer’s markets?
Wednesdays, Saturdays and Mondays, I go to Union Square. Sundays there’s a market by my house in Carroll Gardens.
Is there an underrated vegetable that you love during the summer months?
I’m looking forward to working with different colored eggplants this year. There’s the Italian eggplant that everyone recognizes from the oval shape and then the Japanese eggplant, which is really long. But then there’s the Kermit eggplant, which is green, and there’s white eggplant. You see them often in curry.
Do you have any tips for people who are wary of cooking plant-based meals?
If someone gets tired of vegetables or they want to make them a little more interesting, flavor bombs are great. A good way to do that is mix garlic, herbs, acid, make it spicy or maybe add anchovy. We have a couple flavor bombs here. The one that we used upstairs was parsley, house-dried oregano, garlic, lemon zest, mint, basil and olive oil. It’s a little bit cooked so it really blooms out into the oil. We have another, which we put into our grass-fed burger, which has onions, garlic and spices.
What kind of food do you personally like to cook and eat?
I’m Filipino so I like a lot of high acid in my food. I like seasoning. I’d characterize my food as a lot of herbs, garlic, very savory and high acid. Not so much meat, but the perfect mix of raw and cooked.
Is Filipino cuisine plant-focused?
No, it’s actually quite the opposite. There’s a lot of pork and a lot of fish. They use a lot of salt and vinegar for preserving because it’s so hot there and lot of sour or spicy flavor. For the most part it’s a lot of braising, grilling or frying.
When it comes to your own approach to health, how would you describe your philosophy?
Working in a kitchen it’s hard to keep a balanced diet and have consistent meal times, which seems counterintuitive because you’re always surrounded by food. I just try to keep it balanced. I try to drink a lot of water, eat vegetables and eat a lot of fruit. I’ve always grown up eating fruit. That’s what we would have for dessert so I try to do that still.
Take us through a typical day in the life of meals.
I get up at around 8:30am, come to work and have an iced, black coffee here. That’s how I drink it all year round. Sometimes I put a shot of espresso in it if it’s that kind of day. I try to drink some water and then I have whatever is around. At the beginning of the day, I’m so excited and can’t wait to get things started, so I have to be really hungry to stop and eat. Then I work throughout the day, trying and tasting things all the time. Its weird, you think that you’re eating a lot, but it’s really just a spoonful here and there. You might end up feeling more full or maybe it’s just stimulating. Its deceptive, I feel like I’ve eaten a lot, but I really haven’t. We have a family meal here every day at 4:30pm. It has generally a grain in it, whether its wheat berries or rice or pasta. I try to put some vegetables in it. I avoid meat. If I were not in this profession, I would be a vegetarian. Before I started cooking I was a vegetarian but I did eat fish, here and there. When I eat meat, my body feels heavier. On the flip side, when I favor more vegetables, I feel I have a cleaner energy.
What do you mean by a cleaner energy?
I used to work at this juice bar, Perelandra in Brooklyn. Every day I would make myself a kale, celery, apple, ginger juice and, after I worked out at New York Sports Club upstairs. You can feel the natural green energy. When you eat a big salad, you immediately feel it as opposed to if you eat braised meat and mashed potatoes, you feel full. You’re like “Oh man, that was so great,” but then an hour later you’re so tired. That’s the reason I tend to favor more vegetables and less meat. I also sweat differently when I eat a lot of meat, I feel like it’s coming out of my pores. I still enjoy it, but definitely 100% in moderation.
Back to your typical day, what time do you get home usually and do you have dinner?
This is a little embarrassing. I don’t really eat a proper dinner. Sometimes I do, but it’s not consistent. I get home anywhere between 11:30pm and 12:30am. Maybe I’ll have a bowl of cereal or a small sandwich or grapefruit. That’s a classic go-to at the end of the day for me. I peel off the skin on the outside and I just eat the pulp, so it’s not so bitter.
What’s your favorite cereal?
I like Special K with strawberries, Raisin Bran, and Peanut Butter Puffins with vanilla soy milk. If I put milk in my coffee, which I don’t usually, I use whole milk from Trickling Springs, which they sell at Whole Foods now. For a little while there was farm called Milk Thistle that used to sell at the market by my house but the farm closed. It was so good, so sweet. That’s the only way I use milk for my cereals, if it’s really good milk. Otherwise I like vanilla soy milk.
Do you have a mediation or self-care practice?
I was doing some yoga before the opening but with any opening schedule, forget about any sort of routine you had before. On my commute, I listen to music. That centers me for my day. At the end of the day, I take about an hour. I don’t just come home and go to sleep, I have to decompress a little bit.
What’s your guilty indulgence?
I am a glutton for potatoes and rice, its pretty bad. I’ll eat just that. On my last day at Carbone, the cooks, to say goodbye to me, had a potato contest. They all cooked a different dish with potatoes for me.
That sounds like the best day of all time. What were some highlights?
Pomme puree, of course. One guy made tater tots. There were fries, there was a gratin, it was a great day. Obviously I can’t eat like that all the time but I was helpless.
FOR CHEF MIN KONG’S MUSHROOM CARPACCIO RECIPE, CLICK HERE