Northern Spy Food Co.'s Hadley Schmitt: "I'd Rather Be the Disciplined Guy Than the Inspired Guy"
Step into Northern Spy Food Co., and you'll likely spot Hadley Schmitt quietly and methodically working in his sliver of an open kitchen near the back of the space. Though he looks quite young, his demeanor outs him as a seasoned pro, the product of a long career that began when his sister landed him his first restaurant job bussing tables in a small town near Colorado Springs when he was 15.
A couple of years later, it was mere circumstance that got him into the kitchen. "When I was 17, the owner said, 'We need help in the kitchen,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Why not?' Once I started working with food, I really enjoyed it."
He decided to forsake college to keep cooking--"I didn't have a game plan going to college," he explains--and by 21, after a chef left suddenly, he was running the kitchen at that first establishment, a nine-month stint that he eventually gave up to get more experience.
He moved first to Denver with the goal of heading out to New York, and after a year and a half, he was east coast-bound. When he landed in the Big Apple, he spent some time in Rocco DiSpirito's Union Pacific kitchen before that chef became a reality TV star, leaving when the restaurant closed because DiSpirito hit the airwaves and could no longer maintain his business. He moved over to Cru, and then he started thinking about how he might make the leap to a four-star dining establishment.
"Most of the impressions I was getting was that I'd have to start at the bottom or in banquets," he says. But then he heard Gordon Ramsay was gearing up to open a new spot, and he saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. It backfired: "A month in, I was miserable," he says of that move, and it wasn't long before he jumped ship, ultimately hooking up with John Fraser to open Dovetail, which was, by contrast "a great experience."
He eventually exited that kitchen for a six-month traipse through Europe, where he staged in spots like Copenhagen's Noma and Helsinki's Chez Dominique. When he returned to the States, Fraser was getting ready to open his Upper West Side pop-up What Happens When, a concept that stayed in the same address but changed its entire theme--including menu and décor--every month for six months. Schmitt signed on to help, undertaking what he says was an intense challenge. "You're always evolving the menu at a seasonal, market-driven spot, but changing an entire menu every month is still the most challenging thing I've done," he says. "It was great, but I needed a break."
He took it when What Happens When fizzled out, and then Fraser put him in touch with Christophe Hille and Chris Ronis, owners of Northern Spy Food Co., who invited him to take over the kitchen. Schmitt has now been there for two years, and he's tried to elevate the service and his game while staying within the seasonal parameters of the restaurant.
In our interview, he talks about why he doesn't like the word "inspiration," the versatility of vinegar, and why he won't work with red veined sorrel.
Hit the next page for why Schmitt thinks the word "inspiration" is overused.