Tomahawk Rib Eye with Black Trumpets (c) (Erin Kornfeld and Erica Leone)

If you're not interested in adventure, Ducks Eatery is not for you and neither is chef Will Horowitz

It may not always be be pretty, but give Will Horowitz some salt smoke and time and he will change the way you eat


Manny Howard
March 9, 2019 10:30PM (UTC)

To run a small New York City restaurant not only founded on the promotion of marginal meat but the transformation of fine dining's conception of the role of vegetables (and fruit!) on the plate requires a warrior's spirit. Will Horowitz, executive chef and co-owner of Ducks Eatery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has featured duck’s tongue taco, watermelon ham, cantaloupe burgers, alpaca stew and vegetarian charcuterie on his menu. He has the zeal of many chefs, and the dedication to make strong food moves like this more convincing than mere stunt cookery. This week he publishes his first book "Salt Smoke Time: Homesteading and Heritage Techniques for the Modern Kitchen." It is equal parts manifesto about his embrace of permaculture and a DIY manual for the modern homesteader. He spoke to me at the Salon studio about his journey, why we have to change the way we eat and how we can do it without sacrificing flavor and artistry.

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Hi, I'm Manny Howard. This is Salon Talks. Today I'm here with Will Horowitz the author of "Salt Smoke Time" and the owner and executive chef at Ducks Eatery and Harry and Ida's meat supply company here in New York. What a book this is.

Thank you.

I love a lot of things about it. I love the combination of heartfelt manifesto and DIY. There's a great combination. How did you come to . . . what were you thinking when you started this project?

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It's simple and I relate to the same way chefs start doing a restaurant. It's a combination of saving up all of this intensity and creativity and they just want to get it out. And half of it might be insecurity and half it's passion.

Right.

But at the same time, you have as someone was silly enough to give you a deal to do something. So you just want to get it out there. And for me, this is a combination of so much of my past. It's this guides of being a chef from the DIY stuff, from sustainability, from permaculture, to learning how to live and work off the grid. And this is a decade later of going down the road of being a chef. This is my circle back into it.

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Right. But can you describe to me that process as you started to get into the permaculture? Where were you,? How old? What was going on?

I think for me, I originally grew up here in New York and I got into a lot of trouble as a kid, like most chefs and writers, and I ended up getting sent away when I was about 16 to one of these primitive survival high schools in the woods. And that led me down this adventure for years of just being obsessed with studying native American traditions and indigenous traditions from all over and really had this desire to be able to live off my own two hands. And that led me down a ton of different directions and eventually led me to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where I studied permaculture in this art form of how do we create systems by studying nature.

Right.

And so much of that resonated with me from wilderness survival and primitive survival. This idea of being able to see natural ecosystems and patterns that are already going on in nature and create lifestyles out of them.

Can you describe that seeing natural lifestyles and patterns? I mean, not and lifestyles. Patterns. Life cycles.

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Sure. Absolutely. Well, for me it's just this idea, and this kind of takes us down a strange direction maybe, but it's this idea that we're able to really walk in the woods and, or even the park here and say "How are these different faunas and trees and topsoil, how is this all working together?" What's doing the composting here naturally? What grows best in the shade here? What grows best when it has sun before the leaves hit in this time of season? What is the unison and symbiosis? And then how do we take those examples and apply it to maybe a garden at home, maybe a restaurant, maybe a food system, maybe the entire world.

Right. Well, how do you apply it to a restaurant?

It might not be possible in New York City, but we try and for us at the restaurant, at Ducks Eatery, it's been a great example as that, we've decided that we wanted to build a business that hopefully worked with good farms but also lent itself to be accessible to the community we live in. In order to do that, a lot of it was picking up other people's waste. So using scraps, using the off cuts that nobody wants, using vegetables and trying to transform them into really stars of the show in their own beautiful art form itself and really just trying to take our own direction. But all based on these old ideas of not letting a single grain go waste and really adding value to wherever we could get our hands on.

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Right. And when you talk about scraps, other people's scraps, you're talking about old food, you're talking about-

Yeah. All of the above.

Duck's feet?

Yeah. I mean, I think when we opened Ducks Eatery, and Ducks Eatery it was actually named after somebody. It's not a duck-centric restaurant.

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Inspired by some guy named Duck?

Yeah. When we first opened we actually got a lot of people angry because people would come in expecting it to be like the I hop of duck. And the only duck we had on the menu was actually a duck tongue salad. The first six months, that didn't go very well. But I think...

What did you replace it with when you got that.

I mean, the first time we made it, we get whole ducks now from our friend's crest and farm on long island, and we break them down and we use every part possible. But I think the first time we started really making our name at Ducks was we had some butchers who had some leftover goat necks and lamb necks. And we started taking those and before that I had spent a lot of time living in Nepal where, a popular addition of Pola in Northern India, Pakistan there is Paya which is a goat or lamb feet in a curry stew. And when we first wanted to do that, I got I run the restaurants on my sister and that was a hard no.

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What did you do? Necks are okay but feet are not?

It's the funniest thing. So even with the food culture, the way it is right now in New York and really internationally where you can serve people, any type of weird thing under the sun for at least a lot of western culture, the thing that we haven't latched onto here is textures. I can serve you any insect you want and probably have a great article in eater about it. But if I dare to serve you something that's gelatinous, or fairly, it's again, it's a media. Feet, it's still difficult unless we're deep frying in Rome, it's not necessarily something that people want. For me it was my ultimate hangover food for years, but the neck was incredible because we were able to get it inexpensive for one, still from good farms. It was originally they were just doing it up for going to dog feed and it has a lot of meat on it. I mean and even those making hamburgers at home or something like that, knows that they get the neck. The neck's the one that's most fatty bone of most flavorful cuts of meat.

The goat neck and the lamb neck had a ton of meat. It was easy for us to do and it's about three, four days process. And within a couple of months it was took off on TV and stuff and that was really one of the reasons that the lights are still on right now.

That's right. The goat neck.

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Yeah. It's the goat neck.

And you've pivoted away from meat as the focus of the restaurant too of late. Is that right?

We have definitely. And it also, I mean with the goat neck, I mean listen, you do something like that, it's the same differences as when we see the rise of skirt steaks or something like that. They become so popular that all of a sudden that $2 a pound when you go to whole foods or somewhere is now $18 a pound. You got to be careful what you share with people and what maybe you keep in your own house. But with that being said, we started at a certain point selling so many goats, I had this Gary Larson cartoon in my head of a bunch of neckless goat farms and my head around the field. But we're constantly moving and we constantly have to switch up and constantly have to see what's next, what's going to be different. And a lot of that is curiosity but a lot is survival to be honest as a small business. And right now actually, the big focus for us has been vegetables. And the past two years, I should say, I spent trying to work on ideas to add value to seaweed. And that's been the big one for me too.

But really right now we're shifting gears and not just because of costs, which does play a factor, but also just sustainability. And it's not that we don't want to eat meat, we just want to reduce the amount we eat and we want to create more variety in general.

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What are the food costs on seaweed? The high end stuff like dulse. Is it getting close to the original cost?

It's still, at least for Western culture there's a few Scandinavian countries that are a little ahead of us for sure.

Right.

But at least for the northeast here, it's really very much still in its infancy.

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Okay.

But we have incredible nonprofits like GreenWave by the thimble islands outside of New Haven, and they're helping people build more sustainable seaweed farms. And I should say also when we're talking about seaweed, I'm not talking about the giant [Inaudible 00:09:19] and stuff that we're getting and the wild artismal seaweeds like that because anything that we pick wild on humanity, we're just going to fuck up. [Crosstalk 00:09:29] That's a guarantee that's going to happen, right? My house resemble what we think is now per population. And we actually do have a seaweed history here. We actually have about 80 years of history of people farming, but really what that meant was tearing down wild Kelp forest up north for agriculture in the Midwest. And I'm trying not to do that. That's the goal.

Right. Working with GreenWave.

Sustainable seaweed farming is interesting and it's a simple really, well, maybe I'm oversimplifying it, but is as taking out two bullies and being able to set a line and be able to see that and we have hatcheries opening up all over helping people supply it. And the beauty of it is zero input.

Right. It's harvested just like lobster traps, right? I mean there's a line and . . .

Yeah. It's harvested like lobster traps. I mean the beauty of it is that you're not watering it, you're not feeding it. You're really just going out there to check on it and make sure your lines don't get tangled. Make sure some angry lobster guy over there, didn't go through it. I don't know how familiar you are with the lobster world, but . . .

Yeah. Pirates.

It's brutal and it's tough. And we talked before this interview a little bit about Long Island right?

Yeah.

And we've seen the shelf to fish decline in Long Island over the past 20 years has been. It's massacres in industry and those rise in temperatures that helped just ignite all these soft shell diseases and stuff for lobster are slowly creeping their way up towards Maine. We're seeing what's good right now is right in line for a devastation to the entire industry,

And lobsters in fact migrating North into colder waters from Canada.

We're really only a few degrees off at this point. Trying to, with access to an industry like this, I dip my hands into farming and stuff like that. But my skill set right now is being a chef. And for me being a chef is really telling the story and my story has been to add value, figure out how do I add value and how do I translate seaweed. Right now, maybe it's averaging anywhere between $2 the cheapest to about $10 a pound for seaweed,

That's a lot.

Yeah it's a lot for sure but it's still, like I said, just in its infancy and this stuff only works if we can figure out how to add value and at the same time, accessibility.

And figure out a way to make sure that these lobster guys switching over can actually feed their family off at the same time. And it's a tough job but my idea for this stuff is that by using these kinds of ideas that we're working on and mapping out through preservation, through smoking, through curing, through pickling, all these different things. We get actually they're used to add value to things. They add shelf life to things. To make stuff into something delicious that wasn't performing necessarily. And that's the idea of a chef these days. If we can do that, you have the power to connect struggling fishermen and farmers, to struggling restaurants, to struggling communities. And that's the beautiful sense of it.

And probably, the only thing harder than being a chef is being a farmer or a fisherman.

Man, they're both hard these days, man. I mean you're looking at these fishing communities with some of the highest Opioid rates in the country, you're looking at local farmers are in the red. Our systems are all screwed up right now. I mean, we have this idea of farming that's our small farms are mirroring giant, huge agricultural systems and they don't function or fishermen are overfishing or restaurants are geared towards the 1%. It's just a mess.

Right. And everything's going to the dumpster behind the restaurant.

And meanwhile we have these generic 40% waste statistics of food going into the garbage.

Right. Right.

It's baffling as how we got here, but at the same time, when you take a step back, it's actually not that crazy. It's actually quite simple when that was happening.

Reasonable considering the stimulus. That's right. Another one of the other things that I really like about the book is that, I mean along these lines, it's got a little bit of the survival thing in here. But it's also the most peaceful book I've ever read on the topic. A lot of this stuff has, a lot of these conversations are very alarmist about the end and all this dramatic stuff. But your tone in this book is peaceful and generous and hey, this is how I do these things. I want to share the information with you. The nice thing is that you've sourced the information that you have so well. Everybody gets credit in this book for the things that you've learned. As you read it, you really feel like you're grateful for the information you've learned and you're excited to pass it on.

Well, because this is a conversation it's not referenced right? I mean every information right now is so much more interconnected and moving so much faster than it ever has. This is we are constantly learning things about these fields and how to apply them, and that's the most I could ever hope out of something like this.

Yeah. And when you turn from the techniques, which are all fascinating and some quite detailed.

Just a little.

Yeah. I mean there's some stuff in there I'm drawing schematics cause I'm reading this, trying to figure out the cold smoke, the route for the cold smoke into my salvage refrigerator, which I'm looking for one with the glass front. Some of this stuff is a real project and some of it is totally intuitive and really quick. I'm going to ask you to describe this quick pickling technique. Something that you can use for all kinds of food and something that a viewer who's getting ready to build a cold smoker can do beforehand.

I'll be honest with you. The toughest part about writing this book for me was putting recipes down just a lot of my friends are the complete opposite. They're working like scientists in their kitchens and I can't get enough of it. I love every second of it. I love being around it. But for me, we don't use recipes in my kitchens. Even my professional kitchens, maybe for the most important things like pickling something or curing something especially anything that has to be shelf stable that we're drying, like meats and stuff that could have harmful pathogen potential, that's stuff were really serious about. When it comes to any other recipes and things like that in the kitchens, and there's thousands of them, I teach based on taste and feel.

Okay.

And that's what we do. And there're some chefs that work for me that despise it every second when they can't deal with it, and I happily refer to them to one of my million friends that are fantastic [Crosstalk 00:16:57] really being technicians as chefs, but for me it's about really understanding the principles of these things deeply and really being able to feel them and really be able to understand them. And it goes hand in hand with the farming stuff to really being able to get a sense of what you're looking for and what you want to that something. And once you learn those, and with the beauty of it is that they become applicable to such a wide range of other things. I care less that people are imitating something that the recipes for me are secondary in terms of the finished dishes. Great. You want to make something that's really fancy like this? Awesome. You want to just apply it to a big bowl your chips or something? That's even better to me because the idea of just taking these techniques and applying them to a lifestyle.

Right. Right. But some of the recipes in here, some of the fine, the plated stuff, the art in book suggest otherwise, right? I mean, there is some beautiful looking stuff in there. It doesn't look like you just got the theory down and then dumped it on a plate. This is . . .

For me, and maybe it's my own internal hypocrisy a bit, but I consider myself an artist by trade and sometimes my passion overtakes my rational thought process and I also at the same time is all these beliefs stand true to me. I also love cooking. I love it and it's finer points and I love creating an incredible experience for people.

Right. Right. When you were growing up, you grew up, a part of the time out on the North Fork in Long Island where you mentioned earlier that seafood is really the... Without it you're nothing. You're lost.

It's an irony that we were originally known here in New York for smoking brisket and meat and stuff like that. We were raised really on big old fashioned New England clambakes on the beach and fishing and really doing everything ourselves.

Right.

And that's really where my heart is most of the time.

And even with the clambake, you bring these great flourishes. It's a very tried and true both process or ritual and recipe. Right? I mean, I think everybody either has a picture of it in their mind or not, but will you bring to it, which is the far edged element, which I'd love to talk more about, is you just add a little, suggest adding a little dried rose hip to that.

The irony of that is that, hopefully my grandma's not watching this. She's 98 and in a nursing home in Greenport right now, so I don't know what online video she’s watching but she would kill me if she saw that. She would rip my head apart if she saw a thing in there. That's as far as I would ever imagine taking it.

Do you look over your shoulder when you're thinking “maybe rose hip would be lovely,” to make sure nobody noticed it?

Oh! Yeah. Just the idea, the thought of that would be devastating to her? I actually have to show her the book for the first time this weekend.

Oh! Yeah?

We'll see. We'll just have a thumb over that.

Next page. Well, she's going to be very proud, I think.

And these are, like I said, they're tried and true because that's not my recipe. It was my family's for a very long time and those are the things that got me into cooking and so on. And to me that's as beautiful as any 20 course plated meal out there.

Now, when you were in Naropa, Naropa, for people who don't know Is a Tibetan Tradition Buddhist Foundation. Did you go from the things that you learned at Naropa and in the tradition of, the mindfulness tradition and into cooking because it gave you direction? Or did you-

I grew up cooking and so I also growing up in New York, I grew up working at pizzerias and stuff like that and with all my friends, and was my grandma's [Inaudible 00:21:39] as well. And the irony is actually my father was a cardiologist, so I had to grow up eating a whole lot crappy tofu food dishes too. It was actually American 1980s tofu was really rough. Now that I actually love that freaking tofu. It's in a different style.

My step dad put some very bad tofu on the table.

But I originally went to Naropa for writing. I was in the Jack Keroac Institute School of Disembodied Poetics, and that was really a big part of my life when I originally went, got dropped off in the woods. With that too was all the a mixture between Tom Brown, primitive survival books and enormous amount of Emerson and transcendentalism and through the whole dial in the whole world. And that led me into later on in life to full of the beatnik error.

And it does?

Yes it does. It's a natural, I think, transformation of stream of consciousness style of writing, which is ironic because now I look back on Emerson stuff and I'm just like, "What the fuck is going on here?" In certain ways. That led me to Naropa and what's interesting for me is that my transition was this, was that I saw a lot of the writers that I was excited about move towards a lot of writers, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcoholism and most of which actually just try attempting to transition into a lot of Buddhism at the time. And that's really the emblem of Naropa. It was also served by famous to [Inaudible 00:23:32] but it was also served by Alan Ginsburg at the same time. And when you look at all the later Carol Dweck book, so you see a lot of that transformation that people are trying to get into and some of them made it and some of them either died by train track in Mexico somewhere.

But for me, and their brain programs pretty intense, it didn't make me feel healthy too, right? To be up at night writing 50 page manuscripts and chain smoking cigarettes and stuff. And I went into the Buddhism thing, of course, then later on I opened the bar. But I ditched all that and went straight into the Buddhism thing at a certain point. And that's been, Buddhism thing was a big part of my life there for a long time. And I wouldn't say that that's been something that I continuously practice as a religion, but certainly in its core, the idea of, through stillness, being able to connect to something larger than yourself is a big core belief for me. And how it relates to our connection to the wild and nature.

Yeah. Well, it's in here. If you come out of the gate, very strong with that message, and it's a spellbinding beginning for two, a book that ends up with some beautiful recipes, It's a fantastic book. Thanks. Will.

Thank you. I appreciate it.

Yeah. Great to talk to you.

Likewise.

Find all the Salon Food Talks here. 

 


Manny Howard

Manny Howard is executive producer of Salon, and the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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