Brooklyn, N.Y., chef serves simple ingredients in striking combinations
After bounding around his Philadelphia hometown for a few years, first as a teenage would-be artist or skateboarder and later as an educated, Justin Hilbert moved to New York to work in the phantasmagorical kitchen-laboratory at Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant wd~50. From there he integrated himself into New York’s cultural swirl with a spell as a chef for illustrious private dinners and a gig at the notorious downtown cabaret and clubhouse The Box.
His life is quieter now at Gwynnett St., a progressive but comparatively reserved restaurant that Hilbert helped establish as one of the marquee new eateries in the rising Brooklyn, N.Y., food culture. On an outer edge of the Williamsburg neighborhood, he puts forth a seasonal menu split between earthy simplicity and idiosyncratic presentation. Adish with broccoli and buttermilk comes with a surprising addition of ash, while the starter menu has been known to include a strikingly green gem-lettuce soup served cold with roe, cured egg yolk and crème fraîche.
TITLE: executive chef
at Gwynnett St.
HOMETOWN: Warrington, Pa.
RESIDENCE: Brooklyn, N.Y.
BIRTH DATE: Aug. 8, 1979
EDUCATION: associates degree in culinary arts; Johnson & Wales University; Providence, R.I.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: cooking at wd~50, opening Gwynnett St.
When did you know you wanted to cook for a career?
I always thought I was going to be an artist. I was making animation and things like cartoons and comic books, and I was supposed to go to art school. But I always worked in restaurants. I started as a porter at 14 and then did garde-manger, then made my way up to cook. As a kid I also loved skateboarding and thought I wanted to be a pro skateboarder, but none of that was happening, and I really enjoyed cooking.
I always needed money to buy skateboards, so my friend got me a job at a Best Western as a dishwasher. I made salads there, too. Then I went to another restaurant, and that’s where I started to cook.
When was your first exposure to true fine dining?
I went to culinary school and then did a stage in England at a one-star Michelin restaurant. But when “The French Laundry Cookbook” came out [in 1999], that was the first time I really knew what things were. I was two years out of high school, and it blew my mind. I read it every day for a while, looking at it over and over. That and the Jean-Christophe Novelli book “Your Place or Mine?” which came out around the same time.
What brought you to New York from Philadelphia?
I never really thought about going to New York. I was always a little bit intimidated by it. But I had eaten at wd~50 and talked to Wylie Dufresne. Anyone can: You go on a kitchen tour there, and he says hi and has a little conversation with you.
I’m sure that everyone who eats there probably goes in and says they want to come in for a stage. But he said, “Yeah, sure.” I thought I would never make it there, but I went in and did a stage for a week, and then [then-executive pastry chef] Alex Stupak was looking for someone in pastry. I had some pastry experience and embellished it to say I knew more than I did. I trailed him for a few days, and he offered me a job. I moved up to New York a week later. ... It was great; I was meeting all these people I was reading about in newspapers and magazines. I was learning all these new techniques.
How would characterize what you learned there?
I can’t really characterize it as more than just a sense to think about food in a different light and to always be pushing forward to do something different. [Dufresne] really wants everybody there to push forward and create. You can’t go backward — you can never go backward — with flavors or combinations or techniques.
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How did you move from there to cooking private dinners?
I was broke, and my friend had just opened a cafe in Tribeca. I met someone there who became a friend: Damian Loeb, a really talented artist. He introduced me to some people. He has a lot of friends in high places, so I started [doing] dinner parties at people’s houses. Then I met Simon Hammerstein [creator of The Box] and he offered me a job. So I worked there, by myself pretty much, setting up a snack menu for late night and then doing all of their events, whether it was a fragrance launch for Givenchy or something for fashion week or a party for a movie premiere or dinners for silent investors.
What brought you back to restaurant work from the easier life of doing private dinners and events?
You can only do so much by yourself and with yourself. Only those people you’re making dinners for know what you’re doing and can enjoy your food, whereas in a restaurant you can do so much more.
Brooklyn has been exploding with intriguing new restaurants for a few years now. What’s going on?
You have a lot of chefs who have worked in [Manhattan], and it’s twice as expensive to open a new restaurant in the city as it is in Brooklyn. It’s due, too; why should all the fine-dining restaurants be in [Manhattan]?
Before I found Gwynnett St. I had saved some money and planned on opening up a small garage space, putting a kitchen in and doing a kind of mini speakeasy dinner every night for 40 or 50 people. But then I met [owner-operator Carl McCoy] and did a dinner for this space, and he said, “OK, you have full control over the kitchen. You can do whatever you want.” That was the first time anyone had ever said that to me, and I work as hard as I can every day for that.
How did you want to distinguish Gwynnett St. from so many other new restaurants in Brooklyn?
Personally, I feel like a lot of the food out there is the same or very similar in many places — this rustic attitude and foods that are local and organic. That’s great, but if it doesn’t taste good, who cares where it’s from? Ever since the recession there’s been this trend for simple, homey food, which can be delicious for what it is. But I wanted to give people something different. We wanted a New York restaurant without the pretentiousness of so many fine-dining restaurants. You can wear flip-flops and a tank top here, as a lot of people do. I wouldn’t go out to eat that way, but who cares? You don’t have to have a suit and tie on to eat a nice dinner.
How much does your cooking style owe to your past?
We use techniques that we’ve learned in the past, but we don’t use them to say, “Hey, look at us. We worked at wd~50, or Del Posto, or The Fat Duck.” I’m not trying to showcase what I learned at wd~50 because wd~50 is wd~50 and can’t be recreated. To emulate something else is not something we’re interested in.
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