Chef Andrew Whitcomb began cooking at the age of thirteen in the kitchens of his hometown in Maine. Growing up in the countryside, positioned in between sweeping coastlines and snow-topped mountains, he was very aware of his rural surroundings. From the adjacent farmlands and farmer markets to his parent’s gardens, local and sustainable produce played an important role in his life.
After a brief stint at the University of Southern Maine, Andrew decided to pursue his passion and left to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation, Andrew moved to New York where, in order to jump-start his culinary career, he read every important cookbook on the market from The French Laundry to The Fat Duck. Andrew began working at Colonie shortly thereafter as a line cook and quickly moved his way up the ranks to now overseeing the seasonal menu nightly. At Colonie, Andrew has developed meaningful relationships with his suppliers, making sure to use the best and the freshest ingredients from growers who are practicing smart and sustainable farming. Andrew has even begun intensive gardening at home, where he is experimenting with growing herbs and obscure heirloom vegetable varietals.
Who or what was your inspiration to start a career in this industry and what led you to New York City?
Living in Maine was very hard. Half the year it’s very busy, the other half is deathly slow. Many jobs are seasonal, so you are sent scrambling to find employment in the colder months. I got sick of the cycle and decided to move to NYC after looking at a few other places in the country. I felt NYC offered the most in terms of exposure and accessibility to great food.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career?
Right now, the staffing crisis is the hardest part of the job. People don’t show up, quit unexpectedly, the staff we were able to find is either under trained and looking for more money, or the lack of motivation is crippling. We usually have 12 people in the kitchen; I am currently operating with 7…. Including myself.
What’s your cooking style and philosophy?
Vegetables first, meat and fish second. I try to make sure we are using the most responsible (Organic is not a concern for me with all the smoke and mirror organic laws), financially feasible product we can find. Plant material is, in my opinion, more interesting. There’s more textures, flavors, smells, and varieties even in one product…. I can list off the top of my head 10 varieties of radish that all have different characteristics.
What is your opinion on the elimination of tipping and increase on minimum wage in our industry?
I think it’s going to happen sooner or later, but with a little bit of suffering. The restaurants that are just getting by may not make it. I feel there will be a purge of mediocre restaurants, and staff that may not be committed…. possibly a merger of FOH and BOH as a whole…. everyone shares responsibility in some aspect. It’s interesting to see everyone’s point of view on how they deal with the increase costs, eventually the prices will have to increase…. the question is when and how?
You’ve eliminated 95 percent of the waste at Colonie. Explain.
Tying back into the previous questions, it has been a mission of mine to eliminate costs for us as much as we can, that means making everything here and not throwing product away. I will use old stems to make into salts and vinegars. Cores, Skins, and Leafs… Dehyrdrate, Infuse into vinegar, burnt into charcoal…. They all become seasonings. We have little “food waste”…. Other wise we would send it to a farm to be composted or fed to the pigs.
What’s your opinion on local sustainability? And do you look for loyalty from your suppliers or do you go to bid each week?
I think local sustainability is becoming a bit cliché and over used. If you aren’t investing money into your local economy… how will they have the opportunity to grow? I try to support as many of the local farmers, that fit the parameters and within reason, as I can. That changes almost every day though, depending on what’s available. We have strict guidelines for the quality of product, and the farmers won’t send anything sub standard. Sometimes it gets a little tricky because we are sent scrambling looking for products… when say a deer has eaten a field of carrots… where can we find more carrots and stat!!!!
Talk about some of the key cooking equipment pieces you’re using in the BOH that make your life easier.
I’m a traditionalist. No circulators or Combi ovens, we don’t even have a convection oven. My two favorite pieces of equipment are my microplane, and Cuisinart Pressure Cooker. Both are super versatile and open up a wide range of techniques.
What role does the vendor community on both the equipment and food supply side play? And in your opinion, is today’s salesperson providing the level of service you need to succeed?
I go straight to the source. I like seeing the cows, picking the beets…. the truth is in the pudding. Mother Nature doesn’t lie. I understand the sales aspect of it, but I always want to know more, why, how, what? Many of the farmers are my friends and I love being able to connect with them and learn, as I show them new ways to use their products.
Do you feel that this industry suffers too much from Zagat and Yelp? Are consumers depending too much on a review?
I don’t really care honestly; most of those sites are a breading ground for negativity. We know we are doing the right thing when there’s a line out the door 30 minutes before we open and people will wait the 90+ minutes for a table. We have tons of regulars, and having the open kitchen I am able to convey our mission to even more guests. The food is rustic, refined, and simple. I will know immediately if someone doesn’t enjoy their experience, and getting direct feed back is more important to me.
Looking down the road, where do you see yourself in 5 years?
That’s a great question, hopefully still pushing harder to change the perception of responsible dining.