Q&A: Rob Newton on Sustainable Southern Cuisine
Rob Newton is not your typical Brooklyn chef. He doesn’t wear ironic glasses, he’s ex-army, and he hales from Mountain Home, Arkansas. But in the two years since he opened his southern-inspired restaurant Seersucker in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Newton has become a minor celebrity in the area. His philosophy is simple: Use fresh, local ingredients from sustainable farms to make food that pays homage to the South and above all, tastes delicious. --interview by Danielle Pergament
Are you one of those people who had a calling and were pulled into the kitchen by a higher force?
Good God, no. I dropped out of college and joined the Army. I was stationed in Frankfurt Germany for two years and I thought I wanted to do something with international studies. But I’ve never been one to sit at a desk. I actually made a list, this was about 1993, and in one column, I wrote, Things I Like To Do and in the other column, I wrote, How I Can Make Money At It. It was a short list. I basically came up with architect and chef.
How did you go from the list to professional chef-fing?
At that time, the stereotype was a big, fat chef, swigging brandy and wearing a dirty apron—and that had no appeal for me. I got a job for a few months working in a restaurant in Jonesboro, Arkansas and the chef there had trained at the Culinary Institute of America. I had never heard of it, but I knew I wanted to go. I also had no idea how I would pay for it. In January 1995, I moved to Vermont for two years, went to culinary school and worked. I was very driven and inspired to actually become a chef. My parents thought I was crazy. But once I got to school, I was introduced to all new flavors. I got an internship at Le Cirque. I trained with French chefs. It was an amazing experience.
How was Seersucker born?
I spent years as a private chef—I was Mary Tyler Moore’s private chef—but I got tired. [My girlfriend] Kerry and I decided to cash in all our chips and start our own place. I wanted to make a restaurant that served refined and updated versions of Southern classics. The food we serve at the restaurant is the same food I grew up eating. Contrary to popular opinion, Southern food doesn’t begin and end with fried chicken. And it was important to use the food from the farmer’s market—it’s right outside our front door. Food tastes better from the farmer’s market, it’s healthier, and it’s important to be part of your community. You should know your farmers.
You have strong opinions about serving local food and wine.
Nothing makes me angrier than a restaurant that calls itself local but serves wine from Argentina, Spain, Italy. If you are going to call yourself local, that pertains to the beer, wine, spirits, and food. Same goes for my water. Do I need to fly water over an ocean and store it in plastic bottles? It’s ridiculous. No one needs water from the Alps or from Fiji except the people who live in the Alps or in Fiji. I filter my own water and I don’t charge for it.
Are there things you won’t serve?
I’d never serve swordfish or tuna. If the Wildlife Conservation Society and Monterey Bay Aquarium say it’s endangered, I won’t touch it. I took shrimp off the menu recently. For every two pounds of shrimp you catch, there are thirty pounds of by-catch. That broke my heart. It’s important that my customers can trust me, that they know I know where the food comes from and that it is responsibly raised.
What’s next for you?
Kerry and I are opening a Vietnamese restaurant down the block from Seersucker. There’s no good ethnic food in this neighborhood, and yes, you can make good Vietnamese food with local ingredients. The only thing I couldn’t find within our borders was fish sauce, so unfortunately, I had to break my own rule to get it. The restaurant will be called Nightingale 9—that was an old phone exchange from this neighborhood. I’m going to take the same sensibilities that are important to me and apply it to a cuisine I’ve been passionate about for fifteen years. And hopefully, you know, people will dig it.
- 1qt quinoa
- 2qts of stock or water
- 2 lbs assorted mushrooms (criminis, shiitakes, and hen of the woods)
- 2 bunches of chopped kale
- 3 shallots
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 3 T coriander
- 1 T allspice
- Olive oil
- Cider vinegar
- Shaved cheese
Bring quinoa and liquid up to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook 20 minutes. Meanwhile sweat shallots and garlic, add mushrooms and cook until tender and liquid evaporated, season.
Toast spices and grind. In large wide pot/rondeau heat olive oil, add spices and let toast. Add cooked quinoa and mushroom mix.
Kale can be added to mix at end to wilt or can be cooked and shocked in ice bath.
I add cider vinegar on the pick up.
--images courtesy of Rob Newton and Seersucker
Danielle Pergament is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times.