On the (Willow) Road With Chef Kevin Chojnowski
When Kevin Chojnowski was 10 years old, he worked on a local farm, picking strawberries, beans, and peas. It was his first dip into the food world, but it made a lasting impression -- by 15, he was waiting tables and helping in the kitchen, prepping and washing dishes, at a nearby restaurant. When he enrolled in a vocational center for high school, he decided to try the culinary program, forsaking the engineering classes he'd thought he wanted.
That led to a placement in the kitchen of New England Culinary Institute in Burlington, Vermont, where he learned about New England's cuisine. Chojnowski was eventually persuaded to enroll there, and an internship took him to an old-school French restaurant -- "not something I wanted to do all the time," he says -- before he made his way to New York City via Riverdale, where he worked in a restaurant anchored on seasonal American menus.
Chojnowski's break came when he was hired by Todd English to join Olives, and he spent seven years working his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine. "That was a great environment," he says. "We worked across from the Greenmarket. A sous and I would throw dishes together on the way into work. It was a great opportunity to work off each other."
When he left, Chojnowski joined the team at Public, where, he says, the Asian ingredients really interested and inspired him. He was exposed to markets in Chinatown and Flushing, and learned what it meant to weave Southeast Asian flavor into cuisine in a Michelin-starred kitchen. "I learned how important consistency is," he says of his time there, though he acknowledges that it was a very hard kitchen to work in.
After a short break from the industry, Chojnowski landed the executive chef role at Willow Road (85 Tenth Avenue, 646-484-6566), where he's implementing a menu of seasonally driven and locally sourced American food. He's been there for just less than three months.
In this interview, he talks about making the transition to the executive chef role, New York cuisine, and how he deals with Yelp reviews.