ABOVE: LISA GIFFEN. PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL MCCARTHY
Should you visit Brooklyn's Maison Premiere, chef Lisa Giffen just might surprise you. The jazzy, New Orleans-style bar, located on Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue, is famous for its oysters on the half shell (they offer nearly 40 varieties, with about 20 up for grabs during $1 happy hour), and large selection of absinthe and world class cocktails from head bartender Maxwell Britten. Less well-known is Giffen's carefully curated menu of small and large plates, with its impressive array of seafood. Though it's been almost a year since the food program was introduced, Giffen still finds that some patrons don't realize that there is more to eat than cold seafood from the raw bar.
Initially hired as sous-chef under Jared Stafford-Hill, with whom she worked at Alain Ducasse's Adour (which has since closed), Giffen was promoted to executive chef last month. Her resume reads as an interconnected web, a culinary six degrees of Kevin Bacon. A gig, initially unpaid, at Dan Barber's Blue Hill introduced her to Juan Cuevas, who got her a position at Ed Brown's now-shuttered Eighty One. Cuevas was her connection to Adour as well—he had previously worked with chef Didier Elena at another Ducasse operation, Essex House, and made a timely introduction.
It's an accomplished CV for a young chef (Giffen is 31), though it would have been hard to predict based on her earlier history: an ex-pat childhood in Germany was followed by college in Arizona, where, she says, "I just wanted to be as American as possible. Things like iceberg lettuce were a big deal to me because they didn't have it in Europe!" A sales job with Sharpie brought her here to New York, but it wasn't long before business dinners at the city's finest restaurants convinced her to trade in her markers for chef's knives.
Now, she's the head of her own kitchen in a popular oyster bar, taking full advantage of the vast selection of seafood available to her. The menu currently highlights spring ingredients like ramps, which seem inescapable during their all-too-brief season. In one dish we sampled, Giffen paired the wild alliums with periwinkle sea snails, reminding us of a less garlicky escargot. When we spoke to Giffen, she was in the midst of dinner service, but she stepped away for a quick chat in the restaurant's enchanting back garden, which will be opening for the season. We discussed her hope that Maison Premiere's food will soon garner just as much attention as its raw bar and drinks, and she shared her preparations for this weekend's Great GoogaMooga food and music festival in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. If Giffen can take a break from feeding throngs of hungry food-lovers, she's particularly looking forward to sampling bites from Pok Pok and M. Wells.
SARAH CASCONE: Obviously you've worked with some great chefs. What did you learn from them?
LISA GIFFEN: I think my biggest influences were probably working with Juan Cuevas and then with Didier Elena at Adour. That restaurant was just a dream; it's such a high level of culinary "wow-ness." Working with such great people, you just want to absorb everything and ask a million questions. You quickly realize just how much you don't know, but that's why you're there. I learned all about food, technique, the history of food, managing people... They taught me about cooking seasonally and how to respect the ingredients and extract the most flavor out of the simplest things, like vegetables.
CASCONE: What was it like helping develop the menu for Maison Premiere, given that the cocktails and the raw bar items were already so successful? Did you collaborate with head bartender Maxwell Britten, or draw from the cocktail menu in any way?
GIFFEN: Our bar program can be inspiration. For instance, we have an off-menu absinthe panna cotta that's a little special treat that we include on the tasting menu and serve to customers on special occasions. And I work together with Maxwell and the bartenders to incorporate seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruits.
Because of the oysters, I think I have more opportunity to work with different types of seafood than I would almost anywhere else. We have sepia on the menu, we were able to bring abalone in from California, we use all different types of methods of cooking scallops, we have periwinkles... All stuff that if I wasn't working at a seafood-oriented place, I probably wouldn't have the notion to put it on the menu.
CASCONE: Periwinkles are those little snails that I remember seeing as a kid on the beach at low tide, and we'd pick them up and they were kind of muddy and sandy and after marveling at how gross they were, we'd throw them back. It's not something I ever would have thought to eat!
GIFFEN: I've worked at other restaurants where they've used one or two little pieces in a dish, but here it's just this big, luscious mound of periwinkles on toast. And we get to do that because people want seafood here, and they expect the unusual!
CASCONE: Do you think that people are more adventurous in the types of seafood that they'll try here because that is your specialty?
GIFFEN: I think so. To start, there are all those oysters, and you have to be pretty adventurous if you eat raw oysters. We have one of the largest selections in America. It's good to have diners who will take risks with their food, because you can put stuff like frog legs on the menu and people are excited to order them.
CASCONE: Maison Premiere's décor is very evocative of the old French Quarter. How familiar are you with the flavors and traditions of New Orleans cuisine, and how much of that style of cuisine do you incorporate that on the menu here?
GIFFEN: It's not so much about incorporating New Orleans flavors but we do try to capture some of its essence. I admit I don't personally have an expertise in the food from that region, but our menu is my interpretation of what it could be, like our frog legs with gumbo.
CASCONE: What is your favorite thing to serve at the restaurant?
GIFFEN: We have a sablefish, a black cod, that gets some baby broccoli rabe on the bottom, with spring onions and green almonds. It's a perfect spring dish right now. There's a small window for the green almonds, and the baby broccoli rabe comes from our assistant general manager's parent's garden. She brought it in one day and suggested we could use it for the family meal. I opened up the bag and I was like "Absolutely not—we're going to put this on the menu!" It's one of the best broccoli rabes I've ever eaten, and I like being able to take inspiration organically like that, rather than planning out the menu really rigidly. That broccoli rabe inspired me to put the whole dish on the menu.
CASCONE: It sounds so delicious. Obviously it's a fairly small menu. How often do you change things up? Any exciting in the works now that you've been promoted?
GIFFEN: It can change a lot based on the availability of seafood. Sometimes you get an influx of say, mackerel, so that goes on the menu, but then the fishing season for mackerel will end, and you have to make adjustments. In general, I like to change things every month or so, in part to adjust to the changing seasons. Things are popping up locally now that it's spring, like rhubarb and carrots and peas.
I just want people to come here and eat. People already come here for the oysters and the cocktails and it would be great to marry the success of that with a really successful and lasting food program. It's hard because we've been known for our cocktails and oysters for over two years, and some people still don't realize we have food too. But then again, we do a great six course tasting menu, and some customers have come back three and four times for that. I just want people to be excited about tasting the food here and wanting to come back again and again for their favorite dishes.
CASCONE: Let's talk about this weekend's Great GoogaMooga. You'll be selling wood fire grilled oysters. Is this a special or part of your everyday menu? What makes it a good dish for large crowds?
GIFFEN: It is not something we serve here because we don't have a grill! It will be fun departure from our usual raw oysters—grilled oysters is a classic dish to serve at a summer beach party, so it will be great for the festival. We're using Blue Point oysters from a small oyster operation in Connecticut called Norm Bloom & Son. It's nice for us to have the opportunity to showcase our relationships with our harvesters.
It's an easy dish because we don't have to shuck oysters to order—we just put them on the grill and they pop open when they are ready. Pour on a little sauce verde and they are good to go. There's not a lot fuss to the dish. The oysters are the star, and the sauce is simple: olive oil, capers, anchovies, garlic and herbs. It's just a slurp of deliciousness in your mouth. They also come with a built in serving vessel, with the shell.
CASCONE: Are there specific oysters that taste better cooked than others?
GIFFEN: Definitely. Some of the smaller ones don't seem to taste good warmed. And there's some that actually plump up a little bit when you cook them, and the Blue Points are really good for that.
CASCONE: At last year's GoogaMooga, there were definitely a few hiccups. People were very upset about the long lines and food shortages. Are you concerned about keeping up with the demand from the crowds, and were you at all hesitant to participate?
GIFFEN: We read definitely the reviews from last year, and chose our dish accordingly. This year, each restaurant is only serving one dish, rather than a whole menu, which will help keep lines shorter and service easier. GoogaMooga represents a lot of chefs and restaurants that I respect and admire, so it's good to be part of that group. This will be first festival Maison Premiere has served food at, rather than our drinks, so we are excited!
CASCONE: In the lead-up to last year's festival, people had a lot to say about the restaurants and the chefs taking first billing over the musical acts. What are your thoughts on the argument that food has become this generation's rock-'n'-roll?
GIFFEN: I don't know if there's really a trend of music versus food, but I think people are more involved with what they are eating and care more about what they are eating. The success of many places in Brooklyn now is based on consumers being aware of the origins of their ingredients. People are spending more money eating organically and seasonality.
CASCONE: It's not so much food versus music, but that people are as excited about food now as they used to be about music.
GIFFEN: Exactly! Look at how many food TV shows there are versus MTV—they don't show music shows anymore! I definitely respect that that's what people want to spend their money on. It opens up a lot of opportunities for purveyors and farmers and fisheries. As a chef you get to try things and people will understand the specialness of an ingredient and the labor that went into a dish, whereas before it might have gone over people's heads. If there is a demand for quality products, that is what the market is going to provide.
GREAT GOOGAMOOGA BEGINS TODAY AND RUNS THROUGH SUNDAY, MAY 19 IN PROSPECT PARK IN BROOKLYN. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON MAISON PREMIERE, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.