Chef and Tell with Alex Seidel of Fruition
Lori Midson Fruition owner-chef Alex Seidel with his son, Jack
"We set out to do a small, simple restaurant, not to blaze any trails," says Alex Seidel, executive chef of Fruition, the indelible American restaurant that's been the object of everyone's affection since he and co-owner Paul Attardi opened the place two and a half years ago on East Sixth Avenue's restaurant row. "The positive reaction has been fantastic, but we never expected this kind of attention," confesses Seidel. "I'm just a simple chef who cooks food."
The Wisconsin native began working in kitchens when he was just fourteen, then studied culinary arts in Portland, Oregon. From there he moved to California, where he cooked alongside luminary chef Hubert Keller. He continued to hone his craft in several other noteworthy West Coast kitchens before packing up for Vail and nabbing the chef de cuisine gig at Sweet Basil. Several countries and cooking stints later, Seidel landed on the doorstep of Mizuna, where he was the executive chef for four years before leaving to open Fruition.
Since then, Seidel has combined his zeal for cooking with his lust for farming. Earlier this year, he unearthed Fruition Farms, a ten-acre swath of land in Larkspur that's currently home to a hoop house that grows greens; two goats, Frick and Frack, that live in a big, red renovated barn; and more than a dozen chickens and one rooster. Soon the barn will house an additional 50 to 75 sheep. Seidel is also adding a greenhouse that will shelter the stunning vegetable and herb microgreens that he and Verde Farms owner Josh Halder cultivate, a dairy that will produce small-batch sheep's-milk cheeses, a second hoop house, honeybees and farm-to-table dinners. "Josh and I have been meeting at the bar and talking about this farm for over a year, and we're finally seeing it happen," says Seidel.
I recently sat down with Seidel at his farm, where he talked about tractors, his penchant for pork and cheese, the virtues of the lowly potato, his 27-course marathon dinner at Alinea, why he loathes lobster and the absence of rules in his kitchen.
Six words to describe your food: Technical, honest, soulful, thoughtful, approachable and clean.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, fun, sarcastic, focused, driven, happy, shy, busy, anal and precise.
Culinary inspirations: Regionality. I get excited about where products come from and how they're produced. Every country in the world can be proud of something that's harvested, caught or raised from inception, and in America, every state is known for something, whether it's Alaskan halibut or Wisconsin cheese. When I first started cooking, it was all the unknown ingredients that drove me to learn more about food and cooking.
Most undervalued ingredient: I'm from Wisconsin, which is all about meat and potatoes, but even if I wasn't, I'd still say that the potato lends itself to the most comprehensive range of recipes of any vegetable I know. We're always playing with different potato techniques at the restaurant. Right now we have potato risotto on the menu, but in the past we've done potato latkes, fingerlings and gnocchi. We've even done potato sauces. I don't know why we've never had mashed potatoes on the Fruition menu...they're the pomme de terre. Seriously, who doesn't love some good mashed potatoes?
Best food city in America: Chicago's culinary scene has been coming into its own for years, and now I think it serves the best, most creative food in America -- without the attitude and stuffiness you find in some New York City restaurants. I think Chicago chefs have been more successful in introducing their style of food to a less adventurous clientele. The Windy City also happens to be the home of my favorite meal ever, which was a beautifully executed, 27-course dinner at Alinea that was just an amazing array of food with so many different ingredients. The whole idea behind it was to shock the palate, and it worked out really well.
Favorite New York restaurant: I think Per Se, Daniel, Jean-George, Le Bernardin and a few other New York restaurants are some of the greatest restaurants in the world. But Blue Ribbon is a restaurant where I've also enjoyed myself on many occasions, because it's a late-night dining destination for chefs to meet and talk shop while enjoying trotters, terrines, foie gras and bone marrow. They also have great cocktails.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Rules are for children, or for those who don't know any better. I'd like to think that we have neither of those in our kitchen. I only ask that you have pride, respect and attention to detail for what you're doing.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was 21 or 22 and working in a high-volume trattoria in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I bullshitted my way onto the sauté station. On my last day there, I was pretty buzzed, and it took all of thirty seconds before I dumped hot braising liquid from a hotel pan all over me, lost my footing and wiped out in the dirty sauté pan container. Not only did the cooks laugh at me, but it was an open kitchen, so the customers saw me lose it, too. It was the last time I ever went to work with any alcohol in my system.