Martha's Andres Valbuena: Pop-Up Restaurants Are Like an Embryo -- They Need to Become a Person
Martha (184 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-596-4147) chef Andres Valbuena loves a challenge. The Venezuela native set out to travel after a short-lived career in graphic design, landing kitchen jobs with internationally acclaimed chefs like Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, James Beard Award-winning Florida chef Michael Schwartz, and Andoni Luis Aduriz at Basque country's Mugaritz. "I saw certain people that I wanted to work for and pursued my dreams," he explains. "I wanted them to mentor me. I would push push push until I worked for them."
He relocated to the States 12 years ago after he fled Venezuela and was granted asylum, and after cooking in restaurants in Florida, California, and here in New York City, he was ready to give up on the business completely. "This is a very crazy business," he explains. "There are a lot of egos out there. It was not about food, it was about celebrity -- that rubbed me the wrong way."
It didn't take him long to realize he missed cooking, though, so he launched a supper club, challenging the structure that had repelled him. When that was successful, he began thinking about a his own space. "I thought, why can't I translate that to a brick-and-mortar place?" he says. "I will treat employees like my family." He signed a lease and put together the Brooklyn Sandwich Society, marrying the fine dining concepts he'd learned to one of the most humble dishes on the planet, and running a kitchen where his cooks called him "Andres" instead of "Chef."
He soon realized, though, that a sandwich shop wasn't going to pay the bills. Instead of shuttering, he opted to retool. Earlier this year, Valbuena converted the Brooklyn Sandwich Society into Martha, a more refined restaurant informed by Asian flavors, taking on a completely new challenge as he set out to master a different part of the global culinary canon.
In this interview, he weighs in on his personal philosophy, the direction supper clubs are heading, and what he'd like to do next.