Dan Mackenzie | Hard Times and Fine Dining in New York City

Dan Mackenzie | Hard Times and Fine Dining in New York City

Dan Mackenzie grew up on Long Island. Exposed to the kitchen at an early age he fell into the trade as a result of not having a direction in life. Since entering the kitchen he not only developed a passion for food and cooking but also learned the intestinal fortitude that’s needed to succeed in it.  His story takes many twists and turns on the road to Bodega Negra at the Dream Hotel, where Dan is currently the Executive Sous Chef. If there’s one thing that’s to be learned from his story, it’s that if you want something bad enough, you should be prepared to walk through hell and back in order to achieve it.

Where are you from originally, and how did you first get started cooking?  I’m originally from Long Island. It has a lot of wealthy families, but there’s also a lot middle-class people. My family was more on the poorer side. But, we did all right—we didn’t ever really go without. My dad always worked in restaurants. One of my first jobs was working in a dish pit. I always had that experience and knew that that was a good way to make money. I always liked the kitchen, because where I worked, the chef was always in charge. So, that was something that I was always attracted to.

So from that initial interest, what was the progression of developing your cooking skills? At first, I was a jackass. It’s not like I started cooking and became Top Chef. I was still a kid, and still had a lot of kid distractions. I wasn’t really focused. One of my teachers got me a job. I was doing garde manger at this turn and burn place. It was nothing special at all, but it was my first cooking job. It kind of set it up and made me realized that I could do it. I was doing a pretty good job, you know, with the whole “yes chef” kind of thing. From there, my mom wanted me to go away to school. I ended up getting a little bit of money from a SUNY school culinary program. My mom thought it would be best to get me a way from my friends, cause they were a bunch of trouble makers. So, she sent me away to school. But, as soon as I got there, I was just the same asshole—I barely made it through a semester before I had to come home. My grades were horrible, I wasn’t taking anything seriously. The only thing that I was about was partying and chasing girls.

I remember my dad pulled me aside and told me that I had to get a job right away or I was gonna be out. He said, “Listen Dan, you’re not the smartest guy in the word, I’ll tell you that right now. I hope your back is strong because you’re going to be working hard for the rest of your life if you keep this shit up.” That kind of stuck with me.

I got a job right away with this guy Chef John Montgomery. He took a chance on me. That’s when I started to understand what cooking was all about. I had a tough sous chef that would work me too—and I saw the craziness and the way they acted. It was kind of like the whole Anthony Bordain pirates thing. I just started to enjoy cooking from there, that got me really into it. I remember trying to make dishes on my own, and they were just so bad. I wasn’t there yet. I didn’t understand how flavors work and were connected yet. Chef Montgomery ended up leaving the restaurant where we were at, and I followed him to help open his new place. I was a very loyal cook to him.  That’s what got me serious.

I ended up going to the Art Institute in New York City and worked with some really great chefs. Dennis Foy, John Montgomery pushed me—but this guy took it to a whole other level. He had brought Tom Colicchio up through the ranks. He was just this old school military psycho and would really mentally challenge us every day. There were days where you didn’t want to be there or be around him. There were days when he would act completely bipolar. One minute he was so nice, the next minute he was ripping into you telling you that you’re worthless.

So after the Art Institute did you stay in New York? I’ve always worked in New York. After that, I worked with this guy Dan Lotti.  Dan and I got along really well. He saw how I worked, and saw that I had the discipline. We started hanging out and drinking beers after work. Eventually, he set me up with a stage at Eleven Madison Park. It was the weirdest thing ever. I staged against two other cooks, I felt like it was some kind of Chopped competition. They made it really competitive. Everyone was watching and you’re working in a really tight space. It was a really unique experience. I ended up winning the stage battle because Dan had worked there. He told me what ingredients that Daniel Humm liked and gave me all of these tips. So, I had a huge advantage from that perspective. They offered me the job, and I stayed there for a year. It was a very intense and unique experience working there.

What made you decide to leave the best restaurant in New York? It was really becoming a lot. They promoted me a couple of times, then we got the four stars, and we had a shitload of interns. Everything got turned up. It was already a hundred miles an hour, and we went to two hundred miles an hour. It really drained me honestly—just being a cook. Being asked to push yourself every single day, after just a year of that … you have to be really mentally strong. Not that I wasn’t, I just feel like I was young and I wanted a life too. I was tired of being poor—being asked to do more and more and not being given any kind of compensation financially. I’m out of college and I’m trying to pay rent, and I don’t even have any money for a beer at the end of the week. I’m there for ninety hours a week and only getting paid for fifty. It was a great experience, it was just time to move on.

After that, I worked with John Fraser. That was a one star Michelin, three star New York Times spot. That was actually a really great job. I was only there for six months, but I really feel like the type of food that they were doing and the way that he was running the kitchen, I just really enjoyed the way that John Frazier approached food. He was also trained by Thomas Keller and worked at French Laundry. So, he was kind of a minimalist. There were certain dishes that required almost a whole day to prep, but they were simple—he was still trying to make money at the restaurant. EMP wasn’t about making money, it was about winning awards. His approach was much different. He was also very vegetable-focused. He would say that anyone can cook a piece of meat or piece of fish perfectly, but can you make everything taste really good around it. I never thought of it that way. I was always focused on a dish in its entirety, not taking it piece-by-piece. He kind of deconstructed it for me in my mind. I really feel like my philosophy now and the way I cook, I owe a lot to him.

That seemed like a big learning experience for you, but you were only there for a short time. What happened, and what’d you do next? I ended up going home one weekend and I was playing basketball. I hurt my ankle pretty bad. I couldn’t go to work for a week, and they were really in the slow season. I basically came back to go to work, and I got laid off. They had to make cuts because they were in the red. It was kind of a bad situation, I sucked it up though.

How long were you out of work? I wasn’t out of work for that long. I ended up doing this thing in Brooklyn. After that, I kind of needed a little bit of a break from fine dining. I went to this place in Brooklyn and took a sous chef job. It wasn’t a big place or anything. It wasn’t a great job. Eventually, the chef that hired me got fired—then I got promoted, sort of. I wasn’t even named head chef, I was just asked to run it. I had a chance to change the menu a little bit, and I was doing some nice stuff. I was also able to bring one of my friends in to help me cook. That eventually all fell apart too, that restaurant ended up closing.

I had a couple of other bullshit jobs before I eventually got to Aquavit.  I decided that I needed to do something for myself. I quit my job and applied for a sous chef job online at Aquavit. I ended up getting a call back, doing a trail, then I did a tasting—and they offered me a job. I took it right away. They had a one-star Michelin already, and we were pushing for two. They had a really talented team. I was just so impressed with everything they were doing. I worked there for a year, and I felt like that matured me into becoming a sous chef. I left Aquavit after a year because I was scratching the ceiling, they were never going to make me an executive chef or open another restaurant—I was what I was, and that’s all that I was going to be.

After Aquavit, I went to Brooklyn winery for two years. It was very uneventful. It was an easy job. It was a nine-to-five job for the most part. After that, I met this girl at a party that works for the Tao Group. I sent her an email, and we set up a one-on-one interview with one of the chefs. He and I had a conversation and just kind of hit it off. We set up a trail, and the chefs at the trail liked me. When you talk to a chef that’s serious, it’s almost this brotherhood kind of thing. You start talking about where you worked, and everyone knows everyone. I got along with these guys and showed them that I could cook a little bit. That led to a tasting, and I crushed it. Ralph Scamardella, who’s the corporate chef and one of the partners in the Tao Group, personally hired me—which was kind of a big deal for me. I was super excited about making more money and having more power—they’re opening like six more restaurants over the next year-and-a-half. So, the opportunity to go run one of the Tao restaurants and move up quick was really appealing to me too.

So, they placed you at Bodega initially. How long have you been there? I’ve been there since December. So, it’s relatively a short time—almost four months. I kind of went right into the fire. December was so busy there, it was insane. Bodega is our main focus, and that’s our brand over there. But, Bodega is not owned by Tao, it’s only a contract. We also have a contract with the Dream Hotels for all of the food and beverage programs. So, I’m not just running Bodega, I’m running the room service program, the banquet program, there’s a cafe. The food and beverage program is huge.

How do those menus balance off of each other? Are you doing different styles of cuisines for each? Oh yeah, absolutely—our walk-ins are packed with all types of stuff. The banquet menu is huge, and it has every type of option that you can think of. There’s lounge and room service menus that are like… I don’t want to say diner, very comfort food influenced. Then you have Bodega, which is the main restaurant in the building. That’s very focused on Mexican food.

Have you changed the menus or added anything since you’ve been there? I’ve done a bunch of specials, and we do a lot of test kitchen stuff. The great thing is that because we have such a big food program, our food costs are pretty low. We keep a solid cost. So, a lot of times the chef de cuisine and I will get some nice ingredients and do some test kitchen stuff. I don’t cook Mexican food. I work in a Mexican restaurant, but I don’t cook Mexican food. I do a dish concept, and then we have to try to make it Mexican. It’s cool. This is the first time where I don’t have to work the line so much at this job. I’ll go weeks without working the line, and I just get to play with dishes. My chef will be like “here,” and hand me a truffle and say “make me a dish.” It’s cool that that’s what they pay me for—to come up with shit. They’re using me more for my mind than my back. I don’t want to be working the line at 50 years old. I want to be running the show by then.

How would you describe your style? You have a very diverse resume. That’s such a tough question. I knew that question was coming. I don’t really like to put a label on it, I like to say that I cook good food. If you look at my Instagram, I got everything from fresh pasta to some crazy modernist cuisine type shit. It kind of depends on my mood. I like to think that my food style is kind of like music. Someone like Kid Cudi would be a good comparison. If you listen to his albums, they’re all over the place. He’s got some rap shit, he’s got some experimental / conceptual music. He’s got some top twenties shit that he throws in there every once in a while. He does singing, he does some rapping—he also talks about some shit that’s pretty deep. I feel like that’s kind of like my style. It’s kind of all over the place. But, if you listen to a whole Kid Cudi album, it’s almost like a tasting menu for your ears.

How did you get connected with True Cooks? Actually, when I started working at Aquavit I started an Instagram. I would always make dope plates, and I wanted to take pictures of them and remember them. A lot of the times when I was at Eleven Madison, you weren’t even allowed to have your phone on you. It was much more relaxed at Aquavit and I was able to take pictures of the food. So, I started an Instagram and I ended up seeing True Cooks along the line. I would always just tag my shit with them. I always hoped that I would get on the team, but I hadn’t really heard anything until recently. Then I finally talked to Chad. The first time we talked, I felt like I had known him for ten years. That’s kind of how I fell into it. I’ve just been about that whole community, I like what it represents.

I definitely get the ethos of humility, dedication, and sacrifice from your story. What does True Cooks represent to you? I think that says it best, adversity too. There’s so many times where I thought about not wanting to cook anymore, and just do something else. It was one of those things where I put so much effort, time, and years into this—I don’t know anything else at this point in my life. This is all I know, and I’ve put everything into it. It’s such a hard job, and it’s such an under-appreciated job. Especially when you’re young, and you’re just trying to learn.

What advice do you would you give to a young chef aspiring to reach your level? I have a couple of different points of view on that, depending on how I feel on a given day. I would say that if you’re really serious, you’re going to have to really sit down with yourself and really think about this. It’s not as glamorous like people make it out to be. If you want to do this, I would say to make sure that you start young—because this is not an old man’s game. When you start to get into your late twenties, you start to feel it in your knees and back. The long hours take a toll on you. I’ve been away from the line enough, I feel like I would really have to push myself to get through a service. So, you really need to push yourself, learn the basics, you have to really fully commit to it. There really is no such thing as a halfway cook. It’s all or nothing.

Follow Dan on Instagram here

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