Q&A: Ward 8's Kenny Schweizer
The just-opened Ward 8 in the North End brings a high-end cocktail den vibe and upscale New American cuisine to a neighborhood best known for mom and pop Italians. In command of the kitchen is executive chef Kenny Schweizer, formerly of the Four Seasons' Bristol Lounge, Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger, Daniel Bruce's Meritage. Not bad for a kid who started off washing dishes at a neighborhood pizzeria. We grabbed Schweizer for a chat to learn more about the most challenging jobs that developed his skill set, and how he brings them to Ward 8.
Zagat: When did you discover your passion for cooking?
Like a lot of teenagers, my first job was in a restaurant: My friend’s parents had a pizzeria in upstate New York. I was washing dishes there, and soon the chef was teaching me everything he knew. That’s where I got into cooking. And it’s where I first learned of the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. He would always say to me, “I always wanted to go to CIA. If you go to culinary school, go there!” And that’s where I ended up.
Z: What was it about the industry you found yourself attracted to?
A lot of it has to do with it being such a hands-on profession. I like the act of making something that you’re proud of and watching somebody else enjoy it. That pizzeria where I started was a real mom and pop place: you’d go out, talk to the customers, take their order, make it and bring it back out. That’s where I started that the mentality that I still like about the business.
Z: What was your first gig where you felt like you really learned the kitchen?
I got the opportunity to take over the kitchen at a café and wine bar in Albany. I was only 21 at the time, and the place had gone through three or four chefs and was going down the tubes. It was a small place, about 80 seats, but I turned it around. It was just me and two other guys I had working for me in the kitchen, and they weren’t culinary professionals by any means. But it was awesome. And that’s really where I learned everything, because I had to do everything from building relationships with vendors to cleaning out the grease traps.
Z: You spent time under Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger. What's something important you learned from a chef of his caliber?
I think the best thing about Ming is that, even though he travels a lot, when he’s in town he’s really in his restaurants. He’s in there, tasting in the kitchen and talking to everyone. I try to model my management by that: when you come in the building you say hi, and when you leave you say goodbye. One of the first things he said at a group meeting was, “I have to earn your respect in the very same way that you have to earn mine.” I thought that was great, to have that kind of attitude toward the business.
Z: What about chef Daniel Bruce, who you worked with at Boston Harbor Hotel?
He's amazing, and if there’s anyone to model myself after it would be him. The work ethic that he has is incredible. Of course, you have to keep up with his kitchen pace: he moves fast, he talks fast, he thinks fast. I remember one time, just while playing golf with him, there was someone on the hole in front of us. So he said, “let’s cut through the woods!” So we wound up skipping holes, playing one hole twice — he just doesn’t want to wait. [Laughs] He doesn’t stop.
Z: What brought you to Alex at The Wynn?
I went to Vegas because I wanted to work in a five-star restaurant. I wanted to see what it was like. The kitchen at Alex was awesome; it was 17 cooks to do a four or five hour service for 150 people. What it taught me was the perfect way to do everything. In a kitchen like that every single person has a job so that every single vegetable, every single piece of fish, every single thing you do is perfection. Plus being around 17 other cooks that are all aspiring to be the best at what they do is fantastic energy. I always say, because of that experience one day I’m going to know bunch of great chefs all over the world.
Z: What was your most difficult gig to date?
In DC, we opened a Westin Hotel that was being turned into a luxury property: the Fairfax Hotel. The restaurant was The Jockey Club. It was the hardest I’d every worked: 110 hour weeks for 148 days without a day off. They fired the executive chef the day before I started, so I had to take over everything. I was in my apartment, putting furniture together, when I got a phone call: “You might want to go in a little early tomorrow.” We rolled out five menus in one day. It was the inauguration year. It was the hardest thing I had to do.
Z: How did you develop the menu concept for Ward 8?
My favorite kind of food is pub and bar food. I love the whole gastropub idea. When Nick told me the concept of what he wanted to do, we were on the same page. And it’s different from the North End; on one side you have Italian, which we don’t want to be, and on the other you have all the sports bars for the Garden. We wanted to keep the price points at a neighborhood level, so it’s a place that people can come to two or three times a week. I lived in the North End for seven years and I’ve seen how the neighborhood is changing. I don’t know if a lot of the more mom and pop places are going to be able to make it.
Z: You've only been open a week, but do you have early thoughts on what might establish itself as a signature dish?
Definitely. The duck wings. We tossed around a lot of ideas in developing the menu, and something we were always wondering was: should we have chicken wings? We ended up with duck wings, and they’re already hugely popular. I might be selling twice as much of them as any other thing on the menu. It’s actually a challenge because they take two days: I cure them for a day and a half, then cook them for four hours. But they took on a life of their own.
Z: What's your own favorite dish to eat?
Probably my braised short ribs. I grew up eating a lot of meat and potatoes. It’s a piece of meat you can put so much flavor in. There's no potato, instead there's a cauliflower puree. I’ve gotten a great response to it too.
Z: Are you already thinking about how you want to evolve the menu?
Right now I’m just trying to teach the menu and get everyone comfortable with it, but as soon as that’s happens we’re definitely going to start playing with specials. And we’ll definitely refine the menu based on what people respond to, though we won’t lose our identity: New American cuisine that’s bold and flavorful. I was once asked, “What’s your definition of American cuisine?” And honestly, I feel like it’s almost anything you think tastes good. Something I liked Blue Ginger is that while Ming had a certain philosophy behind his mixing of cuisines, just the very idea of taking flavors from cuisine and mixing it with another is something great.