April Bloomfield on Vegetables, ‘Cagney & Lacey,’ and Fresh Starts

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·Food Features Editor
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Bloomfield making tagliatelle with one of her mentors, Ruth Rogers, at London’s River Café. Photo: April Bloomfield, Instagram

On Sunday, March 29, entrepreneurs, food writers, editors, and cooks of all ages came together to celebrate women and food at Cherry Bombe Magazine’s second annual Jubilee conference. Panel topics included heavy hitters such as world hunger and how to give employees with criminal records a second chance … right alongside lighter fare such as the best dishes to serve at a dinner party, and how to make sure fun work stays fun.

Chef April Bloomfield’s first restaurant in America, The Spotted Pig in New York City, “changed how we eat in New York, and certainly in America,” said Gail Simmons, who interviewed Bloomfield for the conference keynote. By serving upscale food in a pub setting, Bloomfield dropped England’s popular gastropub concept on an unsuspecting American public that promptly went bananas for it, and for menu items such as feather-light sheep’s milk gnudi with brown butter and sage, striped bass, and Roquefort-topped burgers. 

Although now the casual-upscale dining movement has overtaken the dining world, it was a revolution when Bloomfield opened the Pig in 2004. Since then, Bloomfield has opened a fish restaurant (The John Dory), a taco shop (Salvation Taco), another gastropub (The Breslin), and an Italian eatery in San Francisco (Tosca). 

Renowned critic, writer, and author Mimi Sheraton, when introducing Bloomfield, called her food “lusty” and “marvelous,” saying that she loved the chef’s cuisine because although it “looks innovative, it’s rooted in tradition; you don’t feel as if you’re on another planet while you’re eating it.” 

Here are a few highlights from Simmons’s chat with Bloomfield, from why she’s long dreamed of being an New York Police Department employee (hint: she really likes donuts) to the importance of taking breaks now that she’s a restaurateur with almost half a dozen establishments to her name. 

Gail Simmons: So let’s go back and start a little bit at the beginning…you wanted to be a cop.
April Bloomfield: Yes, it was so strange, but I was completely obsessed with Cagney & Lacey…I was really drawn to those strong woman police characters on police shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I liked the hierarchy, the idea of the order and the laws that you have to have. It was something I really, really wanted to do.

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Photo credit: Melanie Dunea/Ecco/AP Photo

GS: Why didn’t you?
AB: I procrastinated. I was about to turn 16…I had two sisters. [One day] my sister walked in; she was wearing her chef uniform at the time. I was like “Ooh, I really like that uniform.” 

GS: What are your early memories of food?
AB: My grandmother was an amazing cook. I have very, very fond memories of being in her house on a Sunday with Frank Sinatra or some old crooner singing on the radio…She was really organized, she’d have all her mise en place on the stove ready to cook. I just remember those steamy windows and that general sense of warmth and happiness.

GS: Did you get that same warmth in professional kitchens after you graduated from culinary school?
AB: It was still inviting, although I didn’t want to cook at the time…I walked into the kitchen and saw everybody cooking. I told myself, “This is not what I want to do right now but…I’m going to give 110 percent.” We all had to give our names. This woman gave her name and said, “I don’t want to be here.” I thought, “This is very frustrating; I’m gonna give this a chance. I have a chance to learn something.” I wasn’t gonna be so blasé. 

GS: When did it click?
AB:  I was cooking a long time until I realized it clicked. I really enjoyed my jobs, but it clicked working at the River Café in London and working next to [the owners]. I really just kept pushing myself every day. 

GS: At The River Café, what was the major difference?
AB: It was two women owners. They were just very much more relaxed in general, Rose [Gray] and Ruth [Rogers], much more fun to work with. They were very passionate. They’d go to Italy; they’d come back; they’d recreate what they’d eaten in Italy. I’d never worked with anybody before…who had that palate: bright acidity; complex. They were the best four years of my life. If I hadn’t gotten a job at The River Café I don’t know what I would have been doing now. 

GS: Did you think about America?
AB: Yeah, definitely. Secretly it was my dream to be NYPD. I wanted to basically eat donuts and drive a cop car. I eat lots of donuts. I forgot the question now; I got all excited.

GS: The River Café was at the epicenter of a culinary moment in London. You were a sous chef; you decided to leave and come to the States. That’s a big move at a pivotal moment. Why?
AB: I got offered this opportunity and felt like I’ve always lived my life openly and been flexible. That’s created a lot of opportunities in my life…I was ready for a life change and wanted to go where I could start fresh, eat different food, meet different people, experience life.

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Jimmy Fallon with Bloomfield. Photo: April Bloomfield, Instagram

GS: How’d you end up opening a gastropub?
AB: Ken [Friedman, the co-owner] wanted a place where he could hang out; [he wanted] this amazing thing that the English have… a topnotch pub. [I thought] I wasn’t really interested in a gastropub, [but] I’m gonna roll with it… do restaurant quality food in a casual setting. Kind of made something really special. It’s phenomenal to see 11 years in that we’re still open and going strong.

GS: What do you cook at home?
AB: Regular stuff. Something comforting, roast chicken with roast potatoes, lots of greens. Salads, pastas, all that stuff.

GS: Any ingredients you miss from home?
AB: Yeah, a thing called kippers, split fish. It’s smoked and gets really salty and sweet and you just have it for breakfast. They’re so full of flavor and amazing. I miss those.

GS: Your second book, after A Girl and Her Pig, is called A Girl and Her Greens. Why are we having this moment with vegetables?
AB: Everybody who thinks of me probably knows “nose to tail.” I love vegetables. I think they’re the most versatile thing. You can substitute them for meat; they have the same texture and flavor. I love every vegetable.

GS: What’s the recipe in that book I should make tonight? 
AB: Fennel anchovy gratin with potatoes and cream. It’s delicate and beautiful. The texture is very melting…you can press a spoon through it. 

GS: How do you find balance in your own life?
AB: I’ve been cooking a very long time. I wish I’d had more responsible chefs who could teach you how to balance…It could have really helped me: not drinking too much; stretching…Being 40 now, I kind of feel like I’m 60. I try to say [to my staff], “Look, you have to take time off.” I’m going to try to lead by example. I like to take walks. Go fishing.

GS: What are you excited about for spring?
AB: Ramps. Peas. I’m a big fan of peas.

GS: It’s part of your cliché.
AB: They call them English peas for a reason.

GS: When you opened The Spotted Pig, what surprised you most?
AB: We forgot to order the plates! Just as the customers were coming through the door, the plates were coming in at the same time. 

GS: What’s your favorite thing to eat?
AB: Chocolate. I love chocolate. Meat. Anchovies. I’m pretty even-keeled. I even ate a cricket once. You know what I wouldn’t eat is a witchetty grub. I’d eat pretty much anything else.

GS: What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
AB: A mezzaluna. Pestle and mortar—rustic, hearty old-school tools. 

GS: Any chef you haven’t had a chance to work with yet that you want to work with?
AB: Alain Ducasse, Michel Bras, some of those kind of Frenchy guys. I want to go see that stuff. I’m not done yet. There’s still much more to learn.

Editor’s note: Yahoo Food Editor in Chief Kerry Diamond is co-founder of Cherry Bombe Magazine.

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