IT ISN'T A SIMPLE THING to reinvent a restaurant, especially for a tough crowd like New Yorkers. But if anyone is up to the task, it's Sam Hazen, who last fall reopened the idled Veritas, a wine cellar that happens to have a restaurant upstairs. Hazen is a veteran of such iconic spots as New York's La Côte Basque and the Quilted Giraffe and London's Le Gavroche; in recent years he's lent his talents as executive chef at the flashy and busy Tao locations in New York and Vegas. He returned to New York to cook in the kind of environment he savors: intimate and elegant — but not so elegant that it scares many people away. We recently asked him about the culture shock of transitioning from Tao's corporate machine to taking over as an owner at Veritas.
RH: How did you adapt your skills from intimate fine dining to a high-volume Asian-themed place like Tao?
Hazen: The Tao founders told me they were planning to do an Asian restaurant and asked what I thought. A question always asked of me is “how does a person like you cook Asian food?” I respond that once you learn how to cook, it doesn't matter what you're cooking. So I told them that if they wanted me to do Asian food, they should send me to Asia. I ended up spending time in Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan, then I came back and tested all the different dishes. I considered how they would work in the kitchen, whether the menu would overload one station. That's how we came up with the menu.
Tao was a machine. They had a great kitchen to work out of, which I designed. I made it idiot-proof. Two to three weeks into it the restaurants were well-oiled machines.
RH: And how did you end up involved in Veritas?
Hazen: It's the same story as earlier in my career, when I went from Cascabel to Tavern on the Green. Someone begged me to come take over the restaurant. I have a great staff, including Alex Williamson, who is my chef de cuisine, and Emily Wallendjack, the pastry chef. So the food is great and the service is great, but we have to keep pushing to make sure it's getting better.
I haven't been as excited as I am about this restaurant. The people here are probably the best staff I've had. I've worked at lots of places. I've done fine food, and after cooking all my life, I can treat any style. What I'm good at is looking at equipment and thinking: How can I produce from this kitchen, what can I do that will make it work?
RH: What's your approach with the revamped Veritas? Does the wine drive the food, or vice versa?
Hazen: Having 50 seats and being close to the Union Square market, we pay more attention to detail. Where Tao was a one- to three-pan pickup, here I can do a four- or five-pan pickup. I can pay more attention, cook more to order instead of making something for speed and doing 100 portions a night.
I'm doing everything I've learned how to cook. I didn't take any chances here. I can roast the best chicken in the world, so we have a great chicken here. Everything I've learned and preached applies to this restaurant: Use the best ingredients and pay attention to them.
I think both the food and wine are designed around each other. I worked closely with Ruben Sanz Ramiro, the wine director, on the menu. So there's cheese, a lot of beef and oysters. We drove the menu toward things that go with wine, and stayed away from things like cilantro that don't.
I didn't know what to expect regarding the wine sales. Early on we had someone buy a $900 half-bottle of wine. We also serve food at the bar, with a different menu, and we had people spend a short time there — but $6,200 on wine. On OpenTable.com we track “wine whales.” We had a British couple who spent $4,800 on wine. With 77,000 bottles, there's probably not a wine cellar in the country like ours.
RH: Among the big names you've worked with over the years, who taught you the most valuable lessons? And who did you like or admire the most?
Hazen: After culinary school, I worked with Charlie Palmer and Jean-Jacques Rachou at La Côte Basque. I totally admire them.
Barry Wine at Quilted Giraffe was truly an inspiration. Albert Roux at Le Gavroche inspired me forever, and still does. I was the only American there at the time. They called me Chef McDonald. I hear Albert's voice in the background telling me to make sure I do things right.
RH: Do you have any guilty food pleasures?
Hazen: I live on the Upper West Side, and I love my Dinosaur Bar-B-Que fix once every couple of weeks. We always have good food at home. I love ice cream, and I like a good hamburger.
RH: What fun ingredient, technique or gadget have you tried recently?
Hazen: Butter poaching. We butter poach a filet at 110 degrees, with infused herbs until the internal thermometer reads 90 degrees; steak at 110 is rare. Then we pan roast it with the butter/herb mixture so an herbal crust forms on it. When you microplane the Roquefort on it, it's amazing. I was going to call it “butter-poached filet” on the menu, but that didn't sound as good as “roasted filet mignon.”
I think one of the fun things about a menu is having some hidden stuff to surprise guests. Our descriptions for the servers tell them things they should know and what guests like to know. I like pleasant surprises.
RH: Is there a tool or ingredient that you're never without?
Hazen: Maldon salt and olive oil. I like the salt's texture — it looks like crack cocaine, or at least how it looks on TV shows. It has incredible crystallization that adds texture to the food.
RH: You've been hired as a consultant for other operators. What do your clients need most?
Hazen: My full concentration right now is on Veritas. But in consulting I get involved in designing the kitchen, the menu, training the staff, openings and more.
At the end of the day it's a business. And it's not the amount of business you do, it's what it costs to do it. By planning carefully I can control costs, but often people don't pay enough attention to these things. A lot of incredible chefs can't figure out the labor and the food end of it. The keys are planning hard, being persistent and not cutting corners. Seven out of 10 restaurants close for a good reason.