Chef Ben Pollinger
Ben Pollinger leads New York City’s Oceana as the executive chef with his brilliant direction and extensive knowledge. His unique style of cooking that beautifully blends the freshest seafood with the highest quality ingredients has received outstanding reviews by acclaimed critics and has maintained the restaurant’s Michelin star since 2006. In addition to being the executive chef of one of New York’s finest restaurants, he is also the father of three children, an advisor for several educational programs, and a benefactor to various charitable organizations.
What made you want to be a chef?
I wanted to become a chef because I had taken a job in the kitchen when I was in college. I did not intend on becoming a chef and it was just a part time job, but as I worked there longer and longer I really fell in love with the energy, creativity, and activity in the kitchen.
What do you think of the importance of having cooking experience in foreign countries?
I worked for a full year with Chef Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monte Carlo and it was an amazing experience, not simply within the kitchen. I learned how to cook with such precision and attention there. I was also exposed to a different flavor palates from the cuisine along the French Riviera. It was really its own type of cuisine. There is a general lightness, more reliance on vegetables and seafood, more olive oil, and just an overall cleanness in flavors. It was life changing to be immersed in the different culture and understand how other people look at food from a different perspective than you. Whether you are cooking or not, it is critical to learn.
Do you have a mentor or chef who particularly inspired you?
Floyd Cardoz is the most significant mentor in my career. I worked for him for several years at Tabla in New York City, I was his sous chef and then his chef de cuisine. He gave me the skills to become a chef, to run and manage a restaurant and kitchen. Just as important, he taught me the authentic use of spices and genuine Indian techniques and ingredients. I wouldn’t have been exposed to that anywhere else, and it really shaped how I cook today. By adding to the ingredients and techniques in my repertoire, I truly understand spices, and use them in both an authentic manner and in new ways.
What is the most important aspect of cooking to you?
The creativity in coming up with new recipes and the continual development of myself as a chef. Also teaching my cooks and sous chefs how to run a kitchen, to create new dishes, and supporting them as they grow in their career.
What do your knives mean to you?
A cook’s knives are a reflection of him or herself. How do they take care of them? Do they keep them clean, protected, sharpened, and organized in such a manner that they are easy to use?For me, how you take care of your knives is the single most important thing in the kitchen and what says the most about you as a chef.
Do you have any advice for chefs who are thinking about buying their first Japanese knives?
Begin with a Japanese Western knife like a sujihiki or a gyutou, especially if you have been using European style knives. You’ll have the best of both worlds with a little bit different style of blade and a better weighted knife. Once you’ve master the use and maintenance of those knives, then move on to other knives. I think it is important to start with two to three knives and increase the number of knives as you increase your skills and proficiency. Rather than using many knives that you don’t use or use very well, master using one knife.
What is your goal for your profession?
My goal for my profession is to create an environment where I inspire the people who work with me. I want the cooks in my kitchen to become better cooks, and my sous chefs to become chefs that can move on to lead their own kitchen.
What is your advice for aspiring chefs?
My advice for aspiring chefs is to have patience and take care of yourself. What I mean by patience is to make sure you’re really learning the fundamentals of cooking in a good kitchen. Not just learn how to cook, but also how to organize the kitchen, manage your time, and work well with others. That takes time, so don’t rush to become a sous chef or executive chef right away. Take your time and learn how to do it the right way.