Q&A with Yvan Lemoine, Executive Chef/ Partner— Gitano Garden of Love, The Jungle Room, Casa Nomad
Last summer, Yvan Lemoine transformed a vacant lot at 76 Varick Street which spans a 24,000 square foot city block into a seasonal haunt that makes downtown Manhattan feel a world away.
He opened Gitano, the Tulum-inspired tropical jungle setting for craft cocktails and seasonal fare. The sizzling summer pop-up closed for the season and moved indoors to the nearby James New York Hotel renamed as Gitano The Jungle Room. This summer Yvan made some changes to the outdoor venue and renamed the site the Gitano Garden of Love.
Yvan may only be 37, but he’s no new comer to the industry. He received the Daniel Boulud/C-CAP Scholarship to attend the renowned Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and honed his skills with celebrity chefs at restaurants in the city including Cyril Renaud at La Caravelle, Jacques Torres at Le Cirque, with Rocco DiSpirito and Sam Mason, and The Tao Group.
He worked at Le Neuvieme Art, a 2-star Michelin restaurant in Lyon with Chef Christophe Roure. Yvan has authored two books: Food Fest 365!: The Officially Fun Food Holiday Cookbook and Comidas USA. He has appeared on Food Network Challenge, on Chopped and was runner up on Giada De Laurentiis’s team in The Next Food Network Star Season 8.
When you took over the vacant lot last year, what were the key items on your agenda?
Initially, we had taken on an incredibly ambitious project and timeline to convert an empty, dusty lot with no city utilities or even connections into a full-service, 450-seat seasonal restaurant and bar in three months.
We envisioned we would be able to set it up in three months, and made it happen by June 22, 2019. Or so we thought. Construction continued for the rest of the season but we had to open!
You built a food and bar scene from scratch, on a vacant lot without a kitchen or storage, how did you do it?
I’ve opened many large-scale restaurants. Mostly with the Tao group and the last project was Union Fare another 24,000 square foot location with a restaurant and food hall. Gitano was built in a 24,000 square foot space in the middle of Soho. We were fortunate enough that Gitano is an amazing concept that was born in Tulum so it came with a wonderful story and fans from all over the world. Importing a slice of the beach jungle was no easy feat. Working with my partners James Gardner and Melissa Perlman we were able to re-create the magic in the middle of the city. James and his partner Andrew designed and conceptualized the décor, importing artisanal napkins, glassware and all the small touches that make the space authentic. We brought thousands of tropical plants from Florida and that made it amazing and gave it its soul. We literally brought just about everything in tractor-trailers from Mexico! We are also fortunate enough that Mexico is having its golden time in the sun with NY’ers. We love Mexican food, culture and Mezcal! To produce the food we installed a wood-burning oven and grill to cook all our food. This again made the food authentic so it tastes like it tastes in the jungles of Tulum. We also had to meet the high standards of the NYC DOH so we rented 2 industrial emergency-relief mobile kitchen units to provide the firepower, refrigeration and sanitary infrastructure to deliver the best quality experience to our guests. Tao group is the best in the business as far as building and running incredible large-scale restaurants. I just put in place everything I learned from them. Together with some luck, and amazing design and team, Gitano was a success!
What does Gitano Garden of Love offer the neighborhood?
We have a beautiful garden with vegetables, herbs, and fruits. We work with schools to educate kids about urban farming, nutrition and sustainability. We also have meditation in the back reflecting pool for when NYC becomes a little too crazy.
You are a hands-on chef; tell us about running two restaurants.
I’m on the line cooking the whole time at both kitchens running back and forth between them all afternoon. As the head chef, I try to work all the different stations so I can see what could be improved and what works well.
You partnered with the Tulum based group, what’s your intention for the NYC based restaurant?
Our intention is to grow Gitano into a world brand!
With a focus on the food this year, what can diners expect to see on your menu?
Ceviches and tacos are on the menu-sea urchin ceviche, soft shell crab taco, and tiger milk prawn with coconut glaze ceviche. We enlisted well-known and award-winning chefs to work with me to create the menu including Mike Bagale, former executive chef of restaurant Alinea in Chicago; Jose Luis Hinostroza, head chef and partner of Arca in Tulum; Blaine Wetzel, head chef of Willow Inn on Lummi Island; Daniela Soto-Innes, partner and chef de cuisine at Cosme and Atla in New York.
Tell us about the Bar program and cocktails that you serve.
We are a mezcaleria! Mezcal is the original tequila and we carry a vast array of the most delicious and unique Mezcals in the world. We use all fresh juices for the drinks and focus on the highest quality ingredients. All tropical and refreshing our cocktails are not to be missed. Salud!
Tell us about your new project.
I head uptown to Nomad to the new restaurant I’m opening, Casa Nomad. I’m overseeing everything from the construction to the food and drink menus. New projects are a lot of work, but they’re exciting. We’re doing healthy fast-casual during the day with salad and brown rice bowls. At night, the space will be a neighborhood bar with cocktails and small plates.