Freestylin’ in the Kitchen at Semilla
While dining at Semilla, Williamsburg’s recent 18 seat restaurant, we were served 10 stunning plates of vegetable based dishes that might have evolved from one seating to the next. Chef José Ramírez-Ruiz and his partner Pam Yung describe the format as ‘freestyle’, which allows them to work with what’s been made available to their kitchen by the farmers and producers with whom they work. “We base the menu on availability rather than impose a demand on the farmer. That demand is very capitalist,” said José. “The idea that this is my menu and I’m now going to search for the products and try to get the best price on all of those products, it’s a very industrialized mentality. The approach that I have toward my menu, is seeing what’s available, and if the dish changes organically, then it’s a good thing. It’s not that we change it because we want to change it. We change it because the product changes, the season changes, or because the guys we’re buying products from, might have it today and not tomorrow. We’re small enough that we’re able to make those changes.”Opened in October of last year, Semilla has gained a following of regulars and curious newcomers that keep the horseshoe shaped counter full, with reservations that are now difficult to come-by. “We’ve got 60-year-olds from the Upper West Side and 20-year-olds from Bushwick,” said Pam. “Some of our most appreciative customers have been an older crowd from the UWS that have eaten all over the world.”
When José worked at Per Se, he envisioned working with mostly vegetables when he opened his own place. Later, when the pair worked in Belgium, said Pam, “We were surrounded by all of the producers that would bring stuff to the [restaurant] door. Or they’d pick it up in the morning before work. We love vegetables,” she continued. “There’s an ability to be creative with them in the same way you cook a piece of fish or meat. Most people don’t think of all the ways you can cook a vegetable. For the both of us, it’s an opportunity to be creative and to follow how we believe people should be eating, which is a more vegetable based diet verses a meat based diet. That’s unsustainable.”
Sustainability, creativity and perfection are the driving forces at Semilla. They seek natural wines for pairings that mirror their food selection and production. “If people come looking for traditional wines, then they’re not keeping themselves open to the whole experience,” said Pam. And as a baker, she loves the idea of working with indigenous yeast.
“We tasted Salinia ‘Saint Marigold’ a few years ago and we loved it,” said José. “Then we tried the 25 Reasons and the PG, the Pinot Grigio, and we thought we’d love to have all three wines on the list.” Sourcing wine producers as they source farmers, at Semilla they seek the small and artisanal, and being able to adapt on the fly is a prerequisite to working with producers who don’t mass-produce.
“If it doesn’t wow us,” said José, “if we eat a dish and we’re not like, ‘Fuck that’s good,’ then it’s not that good. It’s very simple. We’re our harshest critics. Sometimes we change a dish through the night. I’ll be making a dish and I’m not happy with it, so we change the way that it looks on the plate or the way that it gets plated.”
“We rely heavily on tasting our dishes over and over again,” added Pam. “Every dish is about balancing temperature, taste and texture. If we were to have an a la carte menu, where some dishes were more popular than others, we’d have food that’d be sitting around and maybe go to waste,” said Pam. “And for us, creating as close to zero waste as possible is very important. This way, we buy what we need and every product that comes in here is served to people. We know that tasting menus sort of get a rap for being uptight or for special occasions, but we wanted to break that down and make it a fun and causal experience that people could frequent. We wanted to price it where people could feel they could come in every month if they wanted to, or when the seasons change and not just for their birthday.”
“I think it’s a fun experience, not knowing and having the element of surprise and delight when you get something in front of you,” continued Pam, “discovery. Those are the things that are sort of missing from the dining experience now. You read something and you know what you’re going to get. Often people have preconceived notions of whether they’re going to like something or not. If I put on the menu, Black Truffle Ice Cream with Seville Orange, how many people are going to order it?”
We would. But we also understand that it’s not the majority’s default – chocolate. Our night at Semilla was delightful as were our plates, from the Lentil Cracker with Parsnip, Trout roe to the Sunchoke Chawanmushi with Crosnes, Mushroom and Tarragon Oil. When Pam’s freshly baked sourdough bread arrived steaming, we dove in. And our greatest surprise of the night was the seamless transition between dinner and dessert, which maintained a savory palate and didn’t require a change in wine.
“We’re doing all these pairings now where all of the wines that we’re pairing with dessert aren’t dessert wines at all. Orange wines and all sorts of crazy stuff,” said José. “After sitting down for three hours, the last thing we want is 40 chocolates and a cup of coffee.”
We couldn’t agree more. However, it seems that not everyone has perceived his experience at Semilla, as José and Pam have intended. And while they are glad that Pete Wells’ recent NYT review has filled a few seats, they don’t necessarily agree with his review. “A lot of things about that review upset me,” said Pam. “It’s fine if he has an opinion about the food and so forth, but all of the stuff about why we’re doing things a certain way, obviously none of that translated to him. I feel there’s always this dismissive thing about hipsters and trying to be trendy and we’re not trying to be any of those things. This food is not meant for someone’s who’s an experimental artist in Bushwick. It’s meant to appeal to everyone.”
“He sided with the people who believe that by eating a vegetable forward meal, they’re not going to get full. The same people who think that vegetables are cheap, and that anything that’s vegetable driven should be cheap. He sided with people who are ignorant about prices, about the real cost of food. We’re paying $4.25 for eggs from a farmer that we know personally, who brings us maple sap and also brings us vegetables,” said José, who just minutes before had said good by to said farmer who had just made his delivery to the restaurant, which led José to offer me a taste of the maple sap. “It’s why Pam’s ice cream is so good. She uses really good eggs and really good dairy, and on top of that, her skill makes sublime ice cream.”
“And to be frank,” Pam continued, “he barely even tried the wine list. I feel like maybe he’s not into this sort of wine, but he also didn’t open himself up to it.”
“I think that sometimes, what you need to do in order to express yourself and your discontent with the status quo would be to act,” said José. “Do something. Lead by example, rather than waving a flag about it. I think that’s what Pam and I are doing at Semilla.”