Feasting: Chef Kevin Chojnowski of Oleanders

Feasting is our column dedicated to cooking, grilling, eating and discovering what’s on the menu across America and the world.

Did you know the oleander is a poisonous (but gorgeous flower) here in Charleston? During the Civil War, Southern ladies would invite the Yankees in for refreshments and serve oleander tea. They would die, the ladies would steal their shit and bury them.

The Manual’s captain and editor-in-chief Cator Sparks told us this tale when we first talked about Oleanders in Brooklyn’s McCarren Hotel & Pool. But that’s not the only historical storyline the restaurant references. Inspired by the Fern Bars of the 1970s and 80s, the decor and menu take you back to a time when these flora-filled and sweet drink-serving water holes first emerged. Historically, they were characterized by things like Tiffany lamps, brass, ferns and other greenery and came at a time when it was finally socially acceptable for single women to go out alone. In other words, fern bars were pickup bars.

Though Oleanders is much more of a restaurant than this typically pub-like place, Chef Kevin Chojnowski (formerly of Willow Road, Public and Olives) references the time with old school dishes like Lobster Thermidor and Beef Wellington alongside casual favorites like a burger served on an English muffin. The cocktail program, developed by James Beard award winner Dale DeGroff, has modern versions of sugary vintage drinks such as the Grasshopper and Long Island Iced Tea. Go upstairs before or after your meal to the rooftop bar Xanadu, overlooking nearby McCarren Park and offering a stunning view of Manhattan’s sweeping skyline, for a pre-dinner cocktail or nightcap to get the full experience.

To learn more about Oleanders and how Chef Kevin finds inspiration for the menu, we caught up with him to pick his brain and snag his favorite fall recipe to make at home.

photo Leonardo Cestari_-50You started developing a passion for food and cooking when you worked on a farm at age 10. Does this influence how you choose ingredients to feature on the menu? Do you look to the changing seasons for inspiration?

I am greatly inspired by the seasons. Growing up in Vermont where there are such drastic changes from season to season, it gets embedded in you to think that way. I spend a lot of time in the greenmarkets and I’m always looking to do something new and different within the seasons, whether it’s heirloom tomatoes in the summer or that first braised dish in the late fall. Or all of the green things that start popping up in the spring like ramps and asparagus. As a chef, you begin to look forward to each season for what it brings.

The Oleanders menu is full of throwbacks like Clams Casino and Beef Wellington. What are some ways you’ve reinvented classic dishes to make them fresh and modern?

One of the biggest differences between when these dishes became popular in the United States and now is that today we have access to many more high-quality ingredients to work with. We work with all natural, hormone-free and humanely raised meat, wild fish and a great selection of local and seasonal produce. Even in New York City, chefs didn’t have access to this quality of ingredients 30 years ago. So that’s a big modern upgrade in my eyes.

photo Leonardo Cestari_-35

Also, some of these dishes when prepared classically were really rich, served with heavy dressings or thick cream-based sauces. For instance, a Crab Louie had generally been served as chopped up iceberg lettuce with spears of asparagus, hard boiled eggs, crab and dressed with a thick mayonnaise-based dressing. To me, there’s something wrong about feeling like you have to run to the gym because of the salad you just ate. So instead, I replaced the chopped iceberg with some beautiful wedges of baby gem lettuce, dressed it with a light buttermilk vinaigrette and served it with Alaskan king crab and a vinaigrette of fresh asparagus, flavored with orange and Thai chili. This is a simple preparation, but it eats so much more refreshingly and is much more green and vibrant – to me that’s how a salad should be.

Related: Feasting: Chefs Share Their Favorite Grilling Tips & Recipes

Oleanders is modeled after the fern bars of the 1970s and 80s, which exudes this kind of casual elegance where it’s okay to wear a sportcoat or a swimsuit after laying out by the pool. Do you keep that in mind when creating new dishes? What kind of experience do you want diners to have when eating a meal at the restaurant?

My goal is for everyone who comes through the door to have a great experience regardless of what they’re wearing. What’s fun about this menu to me is that it goes in two directions. The first is classic dishes like the Beef Wellington and Lobster Thermidor – dishes that a guest in our restaurant probably hasn’t had in a little while because they aren’t commonly on menus everywhere. And the second direction is a homestyle dinner we’ve all grown up with – pork chops and applesauce, a big burger on an English muffin and our take on potato skins, served with caviar. Either way, it evokes an experience where you’re brought back to an earlier time, where you remember experiencing these [dishes] last, maybe even as far back as your childhood.

photo Leonardo Cestari_-24

Is there a favorite fall recipe you could share with our readers? Perhaps something fit to please a small crowd when entertaining at home?

The fall dish I’m really looking forward to is Coq au Vin. There’s something very comforting to me about a well prepared whole chicken paired with a big red Burgundy wine.

Coq au Vin (serves 2 – 4 people)

1 3lb chicken
750 ml red wine
1 carrot cut in 2” pieces
2 ribs of celery cut in 2” pieces
¼ lb pearl onions, peeled
1lb button mushrooms, cleaned and whole
1 head garlic cut in half lengthwise
¼ lb slab bacon cut into ¼” batons
1 spice sachet – 4 sprigs of thyme, 5 parsley stems, 1 bay leaf, 1 tsp of whole toasted white pepper and 1 tsp of whole toasted coriander seed wrapped in cheese cloth and tied together with butcher’s twine
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken stock

1. In a pot over medium heat, reduce the wine by half. Chill and set aside.

2. In a two gallon container, place the chicken, carrots, celery, onions, button mushrooms and garlic. Cover the chicken and vegetables with the reduced wine and refrigerate overnight.

3. The following morning, drain the chicken and vegetables from the wine and dry on a tray lined with paper towels. Season the chicken well with kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Reserve the wine.

4. In a large pot over medium heat, render the bacon, stirring continually with a spoon. Once the bacon is crispy, remove from the pot. Place the chicken in the pot skin side down and sear all sides of the chicken until golden brown. Remove the chicken and set aside. Add the reserved vegetables, sautéing for two minutes. Add the flour and stir continually for one minute. Add the red wine and chicken stock and bring the pot to a simmer, continuing to stir so the flour mixes into the liquid.

5. Place the chicken and bacon lardons back into the pot, season the pot with salt. Cover the pot and bake in a 325-degree oven for an hour, making sure to baste the chicken every 15 to 20 minutes. When done, the chicken should be tender and pull off from the bone without any resistance.

Serve with creamy polenta and the braised vegetables from the pot.

To learn more about Oleanders, Xanadu and the McCarren Hotel & Pool, visit chelseahotels.com.

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