The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 3
AN INTERVIEW WITH
CHEF KERRY HEFFERNAN
by Timothy Cooper
After graduating second in his class from the Culinary Institute of
America, Chef Kerry Heffernan worked at Montrachet, restaurant
Bouley and Mondrian with a host of world-class chefs before
becoming executive chef of the Westbury Hotel's famed Polo
Restaurant. He then opened Eleven Madison Park as executive chef,
leading the restaurant to a James Beard Award and Esquire
magazine's Best New Restaurant, among countless other
accolades. He developed the original Shake Shack menu with
Danny Meyer, was executive chef at South Gate in NYC and is a
consultant for the private restaurant 15 CPW.
Chef Heffernan is currently the chef of the seafood restaurants
Grand Banks (on a historic cod schooner moored at Pier 25 in
NYC), Pilot and Island Oyster. He serves on the City Harvest Food
Council and cooks for Share Our Strength, Project by Project, the
Central Park Conservancy and the Madison Square Park
Conservancy. A seafood conservation advocate and outdoorsman,
he's won multiple charity fishing tournaments. He served as a
guest judge on "Top Chef All-Stars" and appears on "Good Catch"
on Amazon Prime, among other media appearances.
How did you start in this business?
I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who were very focused
on good food, especially French food and amazing technique and
quality ingredients. I graduated high school early and then started
working in classical French fine-dining restaurants at the age of
17 in New York City - full-time, which is sort of unusual. Then I
went to France for a summer to apprentice and bicycle around and
stage, before starting at the Culinary Institute of America. I was
the youngest kid in my class, but I also probably had a lot more
experience than the other students - especially in those days.
change quickly. Oysters and other bivalves and mollusks are
responsible for a huge amount of sequestering of nitrogen and
changing it into oxygen. So they filter a huge amount of water
The water clarity in the Hudson is pretty extraordinary right
now, especially compared to what it was 15 years ago. My business
literally could not have existed 15 years ago. The river just smelled
too bad in the summer. It was just rank.
A number of conservation efforts - the Clean Water Act even
more than the Billion Oyster Project - have resulted in a far
cleaner New York City harbor. And to see that the current
administration literally wants to roll back the Clean Water Act to
benefit a tiny number of people in a few industries, and impact
every coastal and lake and riverine system - it's just mindboggling that people would put up with it.
A lot of the work I do is with NGOs and groups that are trying
to increase the quality of the water and the whole marine
ecosystem, like Group for the East End in Long Island and Billion
Oyster Project right here.
Grand Banks, a celebrated oyster bar aboard the historic wooden
schooner, Sherman Zwicker.
What led to your first executive chef position?
If I started cooking when I was 15, it was probably 15 years before
I took a true leadership position. I was doing school and
apprenticeships and working with David Bouley, Alfred Portale,
Tom Colicchio and others at various levels of skill and leadership.
With Alfred, I was a chef de cuisine. With Tom, I was a sous chef.
So it was getting close to that ultimate stage of running your own
menu and having all the responsibility before opening the doors.
What was it like once you reached that stage?
People think that it's all about you and a single pan of fish and a
sauce, serving to one guest. But you're responsible for everything:
the hiring, the firing, the payroll, the food costs, the purchasing,
the prep, the mechanical issues and other problems. Maybe there's
a leak or a fire or a snowstorm. All of that is on your plate before
you ever get to be in front of that one pan serving that one guest.
The idea of what people imagine a chef is going to deliver -
"I'm going to be a chef at a restaurant; I'm going to be doing this
one thing" - it just isn't like that, for the most part.
What brought about your interest in seafood sustainability and
I've been fishing since the mid-90s. I grew up on the water, but I
didn't realize the gifts and riches I had right in front of me. I went
back to it a little later in life, first as recreation, and then I was
struck by its immediacy - the depletion of a resource and the conservation that ensued.
Let's talk about striped bass. When I first started fishing striped
bass, a moratorium had just ended. Fish had to be 36 inches or
bigger, and it was rare to see that many fish around here in New
York City. So conservation efforts followed. That translated into a
great abundance of fish in the early 2000s for anglers and chefs. I
would utilize those wild striped bass on the menu because it was
abundant, and I could see it firsthand.
But I saw pretty quickly - as soon as 2009 or 2010 - a big
difference in what we were able to catch recreationally. I stopped
serving it, and I haven't intentionally killed a striped bass in five
years now because I think that it's really important to give them a
break while the species recoups.
This time of year, there used to be fish right nearby, at the Statue
of Liberty, in abundance, on the surface. There just aren't now. It's
sad. The stewardship goes back to when I was at Eleven Madison
Park. Danny Meyer has a sense of how important of a stakeholder
the community is. We are stewards. We make sure that we can
source and bring to the guest a level of product that is not only
high-quality but, in the best-case scenario, is local and sustainable
and, at the same time, the best available.
So our job is to make sure that we have relationships with the
best purveyors, aquaculturists and farmers.
What are the sustainability issues surrounding oysters?
The great thing about oysters is that they have a tag that goes on
them as soon as they're pulled out of the water. So that
responsibility goes from the grower to the shipper to the
restaurant, and you can trace it. There's no other food that I know
of that has that level of authenticity, at least not a seafood.
About 95% of the oysters everyone eats are farm-raised.
Whether they're surface cages, on the bottom, somewhere in
between or started in shallower water and finished in deeper water
- all these variables affect the way it tastes.
I was recently at a part of the U.N. Climate Action Summit, at
the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. These people are seeing
the effects of climate change today. They're seeing ocean
acidification having a huge impact - to the degree that the oysters
can no longer calcify and produce shells. That's bad.
Imagine that no more shellfish can properly produce their shells
because of the pH of the water. That's not something we can
Oysters at Grand Banks
On the farm-raised side, there are a lot of great options. I think
farm-raised, for a while, had a bad connotation because there were
some bad actors there, principally in the salmon and shrimp
spaces. But there's a major revitalization of sustainable shrimp
farming, even in Southeast Asia, where it became a problem. Wild
shrimp in the Gulf is generally pretty sustainability caught.
You're working on a salmon sustainability project as well.
On the salmon side, I'm doing some developmental work with
something called RAS - recirculated aquaculture systems -
which is really revolutionary and groundbreaking. It has the potential to be, far and away, the most sustainable way to harvest and
On land, they create these massive concrete doughnuts with
circulating water, in which the salmon swim. They modify the pH
to basically be saltwater; that keeps all the chemicals and
antibiotics out of what's usually done with open net-pen farming,
which is the most popular way to farm salmon right now. As the
name implies, that's done in big, open pens in the ocean. But there,
the tides flush the effluent in and out, creating problems with
escapees and with diseases that could come from the salmon and
be transmitted to the wild salmon. With recirculated aquaculture,
you don't need to worry about antibiotics and diseases, because
you control and clean the water from the beginning.
The other problem with aquaculture, especially in the salmon
space, is the huge amounts of baitfish from the ocean that are
processed into pellets. It's a very economical way to deliver a fatty
fish that everyone loves. The problem is that you're taking this
baitfish away from other natural predators - whales, sharks, other
fish - that have to find other means of sustenance.
RAS uses fish discards like heads and brains of fish from fishprocessing plants that would otherwise go into fertilizer, some soy
to make up the protein and algae. The marine vegetation gives that
ocean flavor to it.
They're creating an RAS plant in Homestead, Florida, and
they're going to use trucks to ship it. The carbon footprint of fresh
seafood has been a problem, because a lot of the stuff that people
eat comes in on a plane from Europe or South America. It's just
not long-term sustainable.
So RAS salmon go on trucks, avoiding that whole step of going
on a plane. This could eventually supply 15 or 20% of the salmon
in the U.S.
What are the challenges of opening something like Grand Banks,
your restaurant on a boat docked in the Hudson?
Alex and Miles Pincus came up with this concept. They found this
spot, and in order to work with Hudson River Park, it had to have
a maritime history component. So they restored this historic vessel
- a 1942 wooden schooner, the Sherman Zwicker - which was a
huge amount of work. It's never-ending. It's a big rotting piece of
We've expanded the menu every year and made the offer more
and more diverse, but it's always sustainable. It's always seafood
or vegetables. We don't have any meat onboard.
The challenges are power and storage. The boat rocks so you're
treading below decks and pouring things into vessels and hot pans,
in very tight spaces. The power is a total of 100 amps. A toaster
takes about 20 amps. So we have to balance that very, very
Then came Pilot, your similar restaurant in Brooklyn.
The good thing about being on a commercial vessel like the
Sherman Zwicker is it's very beamy, and there's a lot of room
belowdecks. It's more stable in the water. Pilot is a racy yacht, so
it's very pretty to look at but with less space, and it moves even
And then there's Island Oyster, which is totally land-based. It's
on Governors Island, which is whole different animal in terms of
Oyster harvesting off the coast of Norwalk, CT
by Norm Bloom & Sons (Fall 2019)
What are some fish that people should be seeking out if they want to
be ecologically conscious? Should those fish be farmed or
Look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide, which
distills it. I have some issues with it, but it takes a while to get peerapproved science to them to review and make sure that it's legit.
Especially here in New York, we have access to a lot of great
sustainable, local seafood. Porgy is a great one that we serve on the
menu. We serve something called Cape shark, also known as spiny
dogfish, in tacos at Island Oyster, and it's in massive supply. It's
amazing, especially battered and fried, and it's cheap, so it's got a
lot of things going for it.
I think black sea bass has been well managed. It's a lot more
expensive, but it's a great local, sustainable alternative. Fluke is on
the precipice. It became so popular and had some problems with
recruitment and spawning. So fluke is less of a great choice to me,
and personally I find it a bit boring as a chef. I think people just
went crazy over shaved fluke, and it's a bit bland. Recreationally
it's a big target, but raw, I would take porgy any day. Monkfish is
doing well, so that's back on the list. Lobsters are great.
Oysters are always great because they're a net gain to the
environment. They filter the water, and you don't have to feed
them, so all they're taking out of the water is excess algae. It's a net
bonus. I think clams are entirely overlooked and underutilized -
local hard clams, either for cooking or raw.
I've taken to eating sea robins. That's a little bizarre but only
because people haven't eaten them before. They're a little bony and
not considered a noble fish but just because of reputation. People
were throwing back skate not that long ago, and now it's a major
Tell me about your work with City Harvest.
You don't realize how much of New York City's population is foodinsecure. It's not that there's two million people who are without
food or homeless or going to soup kitchens, but it's that sort of
buffer zone where people have to make a choice about paying rent
or electric bills or putting food on the table.
I've been working with City Harvest since 1998. Through City
Harvest, chefs can inject some glamor around nutrition. We have
the luxury of being able to create videos, demonstrations and
tastings of ways to use products that are in abundance. It's often
surplus from grocery stores; most of it is fresh food. A lot of people
have never really cooked with a butternut squash or seen what to
do with a turnip or kale. So being able to lend your expertise and
make nutrition more glamorous is a lucky opportunity for us.
We're very fortunate in this industry that we get to enact great acts
of charity by doing what we already do.
What's next for you?
We have two more projects on the front burner and two or three
more on the back burner. The two on the front burner are in
Brooklyn. One's a fireboat, reconfigured to be a casual service
place. That's going to be at Pier One in Brooklyn, right underneath
the Brooklyn Bridge. I've got a beer garden planned around that.
Then we have a number of other projects on the books. The
bigger we get, the more people we need. We're always looking for
good employees - in every facet, from servers and bartenders to
The next challenges on my plate: This RAS is a big piece of what
I'm going to be doing over the winter, working with them on
developing recipes and creating awareness around that. Then it's
going to be a push in Washington. We already have a certain party
on our side, and there's a certain party that is firmly opposed to us.
And then there are people in the middle, and those are the ones
we have to work on. Where you can move the needle is where you
need to put in the effort. So that's what I'll be doing.
The Main Course - Winter 2020
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Main Course - Winter 2020
Frequently Asked Questions
Culinary Arts Program
Pastry & Baking Arts Program
Health-Supportive Culinary Arts
Culinary Management Program
Hospitality Management Program
Demonstrations; First Fridays
Classes with Michael Laiskonis
Culinary Management & Business
Beverage Management Program
Knife Skills; Technique
Techniques of Cooking
Butcher Block; Meat & Poultry
Fish & Seafood; Surf & Turf
Italian; Pasta; Pizza
French; Asian; Alumni News
The Essential Cuisines
Brunch & Entertaining
Vegan & Gluten-Free
Techniques of Pastry & Baking
Pastry & Baking; Chocolate
Bread; Sugar; Macarons
Wine; Wine & Food Pairing
Essentials of Wine; Mixology
Beverages; Professional Mixology
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Cover1
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 2
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 3
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Program Overview
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Frequently Asked Questions
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Culinary Arts Program
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Pastry & Baking Arts Program
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Health-Supportive Culinary Arts
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Culinary Management Program
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Hospitality Management Program
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Cake Decorating
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Demonstrations; First Fridays
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Classes with Michael Laiskonis
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Culinary Management & Business
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Beverage Management Program
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Program Overview
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Knife Skills; Technique
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Techniques of Cooking
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 19
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Butcher Block; Meat & Poultry
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Fish & Seafood; Surf & Turf
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - American; Basics
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Ingredient Focused
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Italian; Pasta; Pizza
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Latin
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - French; Asian; Alumni News
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - The Essential Cuisines
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - International; Holiday
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Brunch & Entertaining
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Health-Supportive
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Vegan & Gluten-Free
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 32
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Couples´ Cooking
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Techniques of Pastry & Baking
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Cake Decorating
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Pastry & Baking; Chocolate
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Bread; Sugar; Macarons
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Wine; Wine & Food Pairing
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Essentials of Wine; Mixology
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Beverages; Professional Mixology
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 41
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 42
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - 43
The Main Course - Winter 2020 - Cover4