Eric Korsh: The Chef’s Chef

By Alex Witchel - Originally posted by The Cooks Cook Magazine

Eric Korsh is the best chef you’ve never heard of.

He doesn’t have a personal publicist and he hasn’t appeared on television. When he walks through the dining room, he doesn’t enter in a spray-tanned gust of bravado, obsequious staffers clinging to him like lint. He just wants to see how his customers like the food.

These days the dining room is Danny Meyer's North End Grill in New York City, where Korsh, 39, became executive chef in May 2014, succeeding the esteemed Floyd Cardoz. Using Cardoz’s custom-made kitchen, with a wood-burning grill, two Josper charcoal ovens, and a plancha with four heat zones, Korsh is turning out a roast chicken for two that rivals the one at San Francisco’s Zuni Café, and a steak marinated in red wine vinegar, garlic, black pepper and rosemary that’s fragrant with wood smoke. You don’t want to just eat his food, you want to elope with it.

"My food is technically sound and bright, but not necessarily flashy and over the top." Korsh said. "Being able to roast a chicken really well doesn’t make you famous."

Maybe not, but it was good enough, in 2009, for San Francisco magazine to give him, and his wife, Ginevra Iverson, the Rising Star award at Eloise, the restaurant they owned in Sebastapol, California. That was after Korsh spent years cooking in New York at Picholine, Prune, Saul, and Café des Artistes, among other places. "After making no money and being under so much pressure for so long, the idea of owning a restaurant on the west coast with a garden seemed an idyllic life," he said. "And for half a second it was magical. Then Lehman Brothers fell apart and Sonoma tourism fell apart. We started with one hundred twenty people a night, which fell to thirty to twenty to ten. Some nights there was no one at all."

That was devastating, certainly, but Korsh, who has been cooking professionally since he was fifteen, proved resilient. Sitting in the dining room at North End Grill on a summer Monday, just back from a week’s vacation, he seemed almost relaxed. With his trademark black glasses and intrinsic aim to please, layered with a persistent low-grade worry, he usually seems to be facing a perennial exam week.

Indeed, he was a sophomore in high school when he started cooking weekend breakfasts at Otto’s Shipwreck Diner in his hometown of Northport, Long Island. A year before that he had washed dishes at Bonbori, a Japanese restaurant there, after school.

"At both those places, people accepted me as an equal," he said. "I was not picked on as I was in school. At Bonbori, I was included in this restaurant family the way I wanted to be included in middle school and the first year of high school and was not. I was a nerd and cool kids ran everything. But outside, I was an integral part of this family." (There was also precedent for a restaurant life: before Korsh’s father became a commercial photographer, he was a line cook for Henri Soule at New York’s Le Pavillon from 1958 to 1961, and then at La Cote Basque.)

After Eloise closed, Korsh and Iverson returned to New York, and Korsh became executive chef at the Waverly Inn. Within two years the couple opened Calliope, a farmhouse-style French bistro in the East Village. "It was the first time in my career," he said, "that I was able to conceptually and philosophically go after something and have the technique to back it up. It was what I had started 15 years before at Picholine. It was the most satisfied I’d ever been." A year and a half later, he and Iverson split with their financial partner and left the restaurant.

"One night, I admit it, I had a couple of glasses of wine and wrote Danny an email to say I was looking for work," Korsh said. "He had been in to Calliope a number of times, brought his family. Five minutes later I heard back from him."

What followed, Korsh said, was two months of interviews, followed by a tasting. "Usually that’s five to eight items," he said. "They wanted 17 courses and I only had two days to plan it. For three and a half hours Danny and two of his partners sat behind a glass wall and watched me cook every course, watched me bring it out." A few days later, he was hired to take over North End Grill.

"Eric is a chef’s chef," Meyer told me recently. "He loves being in the kitchen and he lets his food do the talking. Here’s a guy who began his career as a diner cook and has paid his dues by working with really good chefs, owning his own places and all along, he never lost sight of one salient fact: that the only real point of being a culinary professional is to provide pleasure for the person who ordered and paid for what you’ve cooked."

Korsh noted: "At the end of the day what I do is really a trade. You know how to cook the chicken or you don’t, though people try to convince us otherwise. Watching TV does not make you a great chef. Neither does paying thousands of dollars to go to the Culinary Institute. Experience, time, and dedication are all the things that make a tradesman great. Just because there are twice as many restaurants now doesn’t mean there are twice as many good cooks automatically. When I started in New York it was hard to get hired. You can get a line cook job anywhere now."

The line cooks in his kitchen are a varied group; one young woman came from a job making sandwiches at the Bronx Zoo. "I’m looking for bright and engaged people," Korsh said, "not resumes."

He led me through the open kitchen, which was built in 2011.

The Josper charcoal ovens were about to be retired and replaced by wood-burning ovens. It seems they were outmatched by the thousands of covers the restaurant does each week. "They are so hot," he said, "that the doors are warping and breaking the pins." The plancha and the wood-burning grill are holding up just fine.

"Other kitchens have one oven at 500 degrees, one six-burner stove and aluminum pans, where everyone struggles to make beautiful food," he said. "It’s an incredible opportunity I have to cook with wood here. The key to honoring that is to keep it as simple as possible."