Chef on the Grill: Nate Smith

Photo: Danny Kim

Does Brooklyn finally have its own Spotted Pig? That’s been the speculation ever since it was revealed that the gastropub’s former chef de cuisine Nate Smith had signed on as chef at Dean Street, the Prospect Heights successor to Tavern on Dean (755 Dean St., at Underhill Ave.; 718-783-3326). There are certain similarities: Owners John Longo and Rob Gelardi have enlisted Smith to collaborate on a bar with great food, and Smith describes his style as simple, fresh, and unfussy, a legacy of sorts from the Pig’s April Bloomfield. But Smith is his own man and Dean Street its own beast—one where Smith will offer his La Frieda-blend burgers with or without cheese, and where his wife, baker Sophie Kamin, is responsible for morning scones and muffins plus the same sweet and savory hand pies she introduced at Gowanus’s Four & Twenty Blackbirds. Though originally from Santa Cruz, with a stint cooking at San Francisco institutions like Hayes Street Grill and Farallon, Smith has lived in Brooklyn for a decade and, as befits anyone who pickles his own cucumbers and cures his own sausages, has become quite attached to the place. Here, he tells us why, and shares his thoughts on chicken wings, pig’s heads, and gnudi pop-ups.

How do you compare Manhattan and Brooklyn, foodwise?
I feel that there’s a new food culture happening here. There’s a little more of an emphasis on neighborhood restaurants. To be honest, that was always my goal. I’ve always wanted to move forward with these sorts of neighborhood taverns. I thought the Pig should not do hotels but do these little spots around town and have a bunch of them.

What made you get involved in the Dean Street project?
Taking over this Tavern on Dean space was really attractive to me, because it had a history, and was a place that I didn’t necessarily want to completely change into this new crazy restaurant. The place has so much character and felt really comfortable.

Are there any challenges associated with that kind of history?
Yeah, I’m a little nervous about that. A guy rolled up in his car today and was like, “Are you gonna have those chicken wings on the menu?” The thing is, we’re not opening Tavern on Dean. I had very serious conversations with [Rob and John] about, I’m not that guy, if they want that guy they have to find someone else. April had that conversation with Ken [Friedman]. I think he wanted to do soy dogs, or some sort of veggie burger.

Besides things you won’t do, is there anything you can’t do?
Yeah, when I started talking pig heads I think the owners got really nervous. I just told them they don’t have to eat it. Obviously I want to sell the food. I want to build a certain trust with people and then hopefully get them to expand and try new things.

Will you be bringing any of your signature dishes from the Pig?
I’ve got a pork pâté. The deviled egg was the first thing I ever got on the menu. I’m making a burger the way I want to eat it—with bacon and cheese, and you can get mayo and pickle.

Shoestring fries?
No, skin-on russets. I might serve those with a horseradish mayo.

How do you feel about the term “gastropub”?
The term’s a little awkward for me. I’m not from England. But it’s a style of dining I fell in love with, and I’m giving nods to England on my menu. I’m doing curried cauliflower, and that’s from April telling me that gastropubs started when chefs would go in and do a night, like a pop-up, and do something like curries. They didn’t take over a full kitchen and make it into a restaurant.

How do you define Dean Street? What is it?
I would say it’s an American bistro but at the same time it’s really more of kind of a bar.

A bar that’s aspiring to Michelin stars?
I feel like that really kind of stifled us at the Pig. It made us hold back. I would do pasta over there, but April wouldn’t even let it go to the second floor. She felt like it lost its quality when it got up there.

So you’ll be doing pasta at Dean Street. Will there be gnudi?
No, no gnudi. If I do do a gnudi it wouldn’t be like the Spotted Pig’s. Maybe as a pop-up night.

You mean if April comes to cook?
Yeah, right? That would be cool.

Chef on the Grill: Nate Smith