Johnathan Adler of Franny's: "People Are Looking for Soul and Connection"
Cooking was a focal point in Johnathan Adler's childhood home--"My mom always smelled of garlic, the kind of garlic that's in your veins," he recalls--but he entered the professional culinary world thanks, in part, to sibling rivalry. "I always thought of myself as a better cook than my sister, and I was territorial about it because she was better at everything else," he says. "And then she, as an editor at Harper's, started working one day a week at Prune. So I said, 'Fine, I'm going to get a job working in a kitchen, too.'"
He landed a job at now-closed Strega in the Hudson Valley, a pit stop he meant to last four months before he started a "real job" in Washington, D.C. "It was very technical," he says. "I hounded the chef to let me come to work three days a week." Six weeks later, he met an Italian chef on a train who promised to let Adler work in his kitchen after the young cook had fulfilled his current commitment. At that point, Adler knew four months wasn't going to be enough, so he called what was supposed to be his future employer and told it he wasn't ready to jump aboard.
When his tenure was up at Strega, Adler planned his Italy trip, and right before he departed, he ate at Blue Hill Stone Barns. "I thought, 'Wow, I have to work here,'" he recalls. So he e-mailed Dan Barber while he was abroad, who told him to come into the restaurant and chat when he returned. Adler did so, and after trailing the kitchen, Barber told him there were no jobs available. "Being a financially prudent 23-year-old, I said, 'Great, I'll work for free,'" says Adler.
He started working five days a week, heading into the city to train in other kitchens on his days off. It wasn't long before he started receiving job offers elsewhere, but he held out, and just when he thought he was going to have to accept one--because he was out of money--Barber offered him a paid position.
Adler worked most of the stations at Stone Barns before he left in 2006, at which point he headed to Europe to spend some time at St. John and Arzak, introductions Barber facilitated. When he returned to the States a few months later, he had a single-minded focus on working with Thomas Keller. "My dad used to say, 'If you're gonna be a bear, be a grizzly,'" he says. He began trailing in other illustrious kitchens, including Eleven Madison Park, but none of them felt right. Finally, he went to walk through Momofuku Ssam Bar, then under construction, with David Chang, who'd become a friend. "He said, 'It looks like you should be working for Per Se,'" Adler recalls. When Adler agreed, Chang called Jonathan Benno on the spot, who was looking for cooks. A few days later, he had the job. "It was one of those moments when you walk out of a space, and you have no idea what's going on around you. I was so excited," he says.
Over the next two years, Adler engaged in what he says was a "philosophical lifestyle encompassed in a kitchen. It was the most encouraging, inspiring, creative time I've ever had." He left, though, when he realized he was incapable of separating his personal life from work. "I couldn't have a conversation with a friend without drifting off and thinking about work," he explains.
At that point, Danny Amend, an old Per Se colleague, had taken over the kitchen at Franny's, a Park Slope restaurant both men loved, and he began hounding Adler to join him as a sous chef. Adler finally agreed, and after a year and a half, he'd worked his way up to co-chef.
By the end of 2011, the chef was starting to get itchy feet, and he contemplated making 2012 his last year at Franny's, which still had yet to move from its original location. "I didn't want to stay in that space," he explains. "I knew the limitations. I was tired of its quirks. I felt like we'd molded it to all the forms it could be. So it was either start a new project with Franny [Stephens] and Andrew [Feinberg], start a project with Danny, take another offer, or take some time off and do my own thing."
He set a January 2012 deadline to decide and put in his notice, and just before he was ready to break the news to his bosses, they showed him the new space. "I was like, 'Okay, I'll do that,'" he says. The new, larger Franny's opened in March with Adler at the helm; Amend will open Marco's, in the old Franny's space, later this year.
In part one of this interview, Adler weighs in on vinegar good enough to sip off a spoon, his distaste for fresh bananas, and what culinary school doesn't teach.
On the next page, Adler talks about his mother, the alpha cook.