Christopher Villano
On the waterfront with Brad Stillman and Buzzy O’Keeffe
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To Hell with Hell and High Water

Bryan Miller - March 2014

There’s no stopping a guy like Buzzy O’Keeffe. Considering that it took 12 years to get the permits to build The River Café in the first place, it’s no surprise that he would rebuild after Hurricane Sandy no matter how much time and money it took. Bryan Miller goes behind the kitchen doors to check out the pains and pleasures of starting over.

On the evening an unruly customer by the name of Sandy claimed a table at The River Café in Brooklyn, Buzzy O’Keeffe, the owner and a longtime mariner, was confident his floating restaurant would weather the storm. So much so that he drove to Manhattan to check on his other establishment, The Water Club, perched over the East River there.

“That’s when the storm reversed direction, and things got bad,” O’Keeffe recalls. Marooned in a storm of allegorical proportions, with three-foot-deep water swirling around him, he could only imagine what was transpiring over at the city’s most romantic venue.

“I didn’t think the cafe would be there,” he shrugs. Five hours after a record high tide, around 3 a.m., he made his way back. “Utter devastation” is how O’Keeffe described it toward the end of a near 15 month reconstruction.

The kitchen was flooded almost beyond repair. The barge on which the restaurant sits was nearly dislodged. The day after the hurricane, as the chef inspected the damage, an employee shot a video of a fish swimming in the dining room.

Fortunately, O’Keeffe, an imperturbable, Bronx-raised Irish Catholic pragmatist, had prepared for a rainy day, but not 12 hours of it.

“I’ve always been a believer in good insurance,” he declares.

While O’Keeffe declines to specify the cost of renovation, he acknowledges that a large part went into the kitchen.

“Everything was floating, ruined,” Mark Thompson, the construction manager, explained a month before the cafe reopened.

Thompson pointed out that replacing the kitchen had taken far longer than expected, partly due to complicated plumbing and electrical issues.

Some restaurateurs would see a kitchen wipe-out like this as an opportunity to start anew, both conceptually and design-wise. But that is not the case here. Virtually all of the equipment was chosen with the goal of facilitating, not transforming, the cafe’s longtime culinary mandate: turning out creative contemporary American cuisine with meticulously sourced local food.

“If I had to say how the new kitchen compares with the old, it’s in design changes to improve traffic flow, safety, and overall efficiency,” notes executive chef Brad Steelman. “We keep up with what’s new out there, but we’re not about bells and whistles.”

A strapping, likable fellow, Steelman was quick to point out an innovative temperature control system that maintains the kitchen temperature between 95 and 100 degrees at all times. It is strong enough to eliminate drafts in the dining room caused when swinging doors allow two weather fronts—the tropical kitchen and the cool dining room—collide.

A blast chiller stands at the ready for speedy, safe cooling. “Rather than hitting food with cold air, which can dry it out, this draws heat out of the food,” Steelman explains.

Nearby is a large saucer-shaped stock cooler, which reduces the time for cooling 15 gallons of stock from six hours to two.

Next to it is a 60-gallon self-contained convection steamer—it creates its own steam rather than rely on the building’s heating system—and a 15-gallon Swiss braiser. This allows cooks to make stock, chill it, and cook with it, taking no more than three steps.

The stovetops—one on each side of the 9-foot-long main cooking station—are called “S” because of the shape of the grates. They are flat, unlike raised individual burners. This makes it easier, and safer, to move pans around. At one end is a large plancha.

One of the more nifty innovations is a pair of walk-in coolers used to store vegetables, spices, and other ingredients. They have three little carry-out windows, like a Good Humor truck. A 32-inch-deep stainless-steel smoker with a large heating coil is situated for easy access. Steelman likes to use fruitwood chips and cherry wood.

By design, almost every major piece of equipment is made by American manufacturers.

“That’s the way Buzzy is,” says Thompson. “He wanted American, and he has very, very high expectations of everyone.”

Off of the main kitchen is a sparkling new system for storing fresh seafood. Two steel boxes hold four sliding drawers filled with flaked ice—there’s a machine to make that, too—combined with refrigeration.

A short walk from the stoves is a glass-fronted, 12 by 10 foot space called the chocolate room. It’s not all that different than most air-conditioned pastry areas, save in one respect: it enjoys one of the most awe-inspiring views in New York, from the battery to Midtown. Steelman explained that, when it was built, it was entirely walled-in. “I said, ‘Hey guys, this place has a million dollar view—put in a nice window.’”

Hurricane Sandy inundated the cafe’s famed wine cellar, which held about 700 bottles, including one of the finest West Coast selections in the country. (Fortunately, the main stash of about 35,000 bottles is kept in secure off-site warehouses.) Bottles that were not shattered were ruined by extreme temperature variations, or left unsellable because their labels had been damaged. The cafe’s new temperature-controlled wine room is about 25 percent larger than the previous one.

Aside from the removal of an unsightly ceiling-mounted heating vent, the cafe’s floating dining room has been faithfully restored, from oak paneled floors to handcrafted brass lamps. Surprisingly, a vintage Steinway piano held its ground during the flood as tables and chairs bobbed around it. But water damage to its soundboard left it unplayable. O’Keeffe has replaced it, to the tune of $75,000. To assure it’s in flawless shape for his piano player of 30 years, Steinway’s leading technician verified its perfect pitch (but alas, not buoyancy).

O’Keeffe realizes that overattention to detail in his reconstruction project might carry its own risks. Summoning his Jesuit sensibility, he adds. “I’m leaving some imperfections here because I don’t want to offend the gods. You can’t be too perfect.”

Former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller is a food and wine writer living in Tarrytown, New York.

Equipment

  • Blast chillers, stock chiller Traulsen
  • Chocolate room induction plate Cooktek
  • Convection ovens Blodgett Ovens
  • Convection steamer, Swiss braiser Groen
  • Dishwashers, meat slicer, mixers Hobart
  • Fish file Victory
  • Ice flaker Scotsman
  • Plancha, ranges Jade
  • Smoker Alto-Shaam