As with so many restaurants in New York City, the battle to survive has been waged on many fronts. The Musket Room in Nolita represents how flexibility has enabled how many restaurants have stayed focused on their patrons throughout the Pandemic.
The Michelin-starred restaurant built its pre-pandemic reputation on long, luxurious prix-fixe dinners. That evolved over the last year into expanded outdoor dining and a foray into takeout and delivery. As patrons return to the Musket Room’s indoor dining room which features state of the art UV filtration and its outdoor garden welcomes guests, Total Food Service chatted with Chef Mary Attea to get her read on business.
Who sparked your interest in cooking?
I grew up in a household where my mom cooked all the time, and my dad cooked as well. We were always eating homemade meals and my grandparents cooked a lot also. My passion for good home cooked food and just my love and enjoyment of food came from my family.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Buffalo in upstate New York, before I moved to New York City for school
Any culinary educational training and what did you take from that experience?
Yes, I went to the Institute of Culinary Education. I’ve always been a person who loves education and learning. The schooling at ICE helped to lay the foundation for what I wanted to pursue. It really was a place to learn, it allowed me to step into kitchens already having an understanding.
Can you share your career track with us?
My career in the restaurant industry began in the front of the house, where I worked as a server to help pay for school. I tried to go into the kitchen once a week to see what it was like. That job led to me attending ICE where I was able to intern at Annisa, which was Anita Lo’s restaurant in the West Village of NYC. I loved my time as an intern there and after I finished my internship, there was an opening in the kitchen. I took the opening and worked my way up to be the first CDC of the restaurant. I worked there for six years until the restaurant closed in 2017. After that I did a couple of short stints at two NYC restaurants; Vic’s Restaurant in NoHo and High Street on Hudson.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I would say it’s elegant but not fussy, I draw from a lot of inspirations. I would say it’s sort of Contemporary American, globally inspired dishes. I like to present my dishes in a way that is nice but, not doing a million steps for every component on the dish rather, I focus on the flavors and keeping them to what they should be.
What attracted you to the opportunity at The Musket Room?
About a year-and-a-half ago, I started talking with the owner at The Musket Room, Jennifer Vitagliano. We really connected. She was looking and the timing kind of worked out. After a few months of talking and finalizing, I started here.
How has the last year for the Pandemic impacted your approach?
Our approach has shifted, we closed for three months due to COVID-19 right after my first few weeks here, so that was a little different. We were working with a barebones staff in the beginning, in addition to putting up structures for outdoor dining, so we had to make a lot of adjustments. But we’re excited now with the weather warming up for outdoor dining and more people being allowed to dine inside.
Where did Takeout & Delivery fit in your strategy to survive and grow?
Before the pandemic we were not much of a take-out restaurant, we had the reputation of a sit-down fine dining restaurant. We adapted some dishes for a takeout menu but mainly focused on outdoor dining in our back garden, or have guests dine inside when it is available.
As you look at your menus, what is your approach to the design and equipment of your kitchen?
Well, it’s difficult because you have to design something that makes sense and is obviously executable in your kitchen. In terms of equipment, I don’t really have a range brand preference. There were some pieces left over from before I got here, and we added a
Rational, which we now use for everything.
What role does RATIONAL and combi cooking play?
We use our RATIONAL to support our full menu. With our duck and chicken dishes, we start our dishes on a flat top to sear the skin and then use our RATIONAL for finishing. It has also become the centerpiece of our in-house baking program with our signature sourdough bread. We can set the temperature and just load the bread in the oven and the RATIONAL does the rest of the work.
How has combi cooking enabled you to re-energize your menus?
I try not to let the oven direct how or what I cook, but with combi cooking and the RATIONAL unit I can use them to cook a lot of different dishes including smoked salmon. Combi cooking has helped guide us. It has given us a lot of options when it comes to designing our menu, it has influenced how I am able to cook something or finish off certain dishes.
What’s your read on where we are headed with the impact of the RFF grant money on our industry?
I think it’s been a lifeline to so many restaurants that lost a considerable amount of income last year. I think the money is going back into getting the restaurants back above water, fixing equipment and paying the staff.
What’s your approach to building the team in The Musket Room kitchen?
I looked to build a team of people who care. I don’t care how much experience you have. If you have excitement and passion and want to learn, I want to teach you.
What do you see in the crystal ball?
Right now, we’re really excited because it feels like life is finally coming back. We set out to do a whole relaunch of the restaurant last year and that obviously got pushed aside. We’re finally able to step into that role again and really define who we are as a team, as a restaurant and rewrite the story of the place.
To learn more about Chef Mary Attea and The Musket Room NYC, visit their website.