Published May 04, 2012
April Bloomfield harbors a deep fear that keeps her from joining the ranks of tattooed top chefs. But it's not the needles that bother her.
"I'm so scared it wouldn't come out perfect," she says of getting a tattoo. "And I'd have to look at it for the rest of my life."
"Perfect" is a big thing for Bloomfield, the British-born chef credited with launching America's gastropub craze. Known for being obsessive and utterly undistractable, her bold, brilliantly executed food — redolent of pig and fat, washed vibrant with salt, lemon and spices — has redefined perceptions of British fare and elevated "pub grub" to new heights.
Bloomfield was just 29 when she was hand-plucked by Mario Batali and rock-n-roll restaurateur Ken Friedman to open The Spotted Pig in New York's West Village in 2004. Since then "The Pig" — as it's known to fans of its meticulously achieved casualness — has been joined by two more restaurants under Bloomfield, all of them star magnets with lines regularly out the door.
And yet, the woman who presides over the stove at that most unusual of animals, a Michelin-starred pub, remains unconvinced that she's made it.
"I still worry that I could be better," she says. "That's where standards come from, from not wanting to settle. The fear of not being good enough propels you."
Raised in the working class city of Birmingham, England, Bloomfield came to cooking when her plans to be a policewoman fell through. Her passion, discipline and earnest determination immediately set her apart and won her spots in some of London's best kitchens.
She cooked at Kensington Place, were Princess Diana was a regular, and with chef Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum. She learned the gastropub style under chef Adam Robinson at The Brackenbury and spent four years at London's iconic River Cafe, where she rose to sous chef. Through all this, Bloomfield was the only one who ever worried she wasn't good enough.
"She wanted to learn, she wanted to push herself," says Ruth Rogers, chef-owner at River Cafe and perhaps Bloomfield's most important mentor. "She wasn't ambitious in a status way, but to really be a better cook."
It was River Cafe, whose illustrious alumni include Jamie Oliver, that delivered Bloomfield's style-defining epiphany. It arrived in a bowl of walnut pesto.
"We had new season, thin-skinned walnuts, juicy and sweet," she says. She describes blanching them in milk, then closes her eyes as she gently grinds them in her imaginary mortar and pestle, remembering the marriage of earthy nuts and sharp garlic. "The walnuts were sweet, creamy and when it hit the warm pasta it just all opened up," she says, spreading her hands.
"You know how when you eat something amazing you start to shake?" she asks. "You nod or something? That's what happened. It was a life changing experience."
That bowl of pasta inspired Bloomfield to focus on simplicity, on coaxing new levels of flavor from what are already the best, freshest ingredients. River Cafe was also a kitchen with no regard for fashion or crazy ingredients or trends, say alums. There was just food, and expert technique that could showcase everything it had to offer.
"That is one of the things that makes her food great," says Peter Begg, head of food development for Jamie Oliver. "She's constantly interested in doing things and trying things out and not caring what anyone else does." When Friedman and Batali asked Oliver who might fill the chef's job at his new gastropub, it was he and Begg who suggested Bloomfield.
At The Pig, Bloomfield serves up crispy pig's ear salad and a char grilled burger with Roquefort (more on that later), but it is the gnudi — tender sheep's milk dumplings topped with fried sage — that cause universal swooning.
Her other restaurants include the John Dory Oyster Bar, where she turns her attention to seafood, pairing chili- and cilantro-spiked mignonette with brisk oysters and stuffing squid with chorizo-studded paella. And though she has made her name on stalwart, meaty dishes, the big secret is that she can have her way with the humblest of vegetables.
"It's incredible what she can turn a carrot into," says Jessica Boncutter, chef-owner of the San Francisco restaurant Bar Jules and a friend from River Cafe days. "The layers of flavor she can develop out of a simple thing is mind-blowing to me. That's her talent really."
At her third eatery, The Breslin, one recent rainy morning Bloomfield feeds a visitor curried lentils and baked eggs flecked with little surprises of chili, and a true English "fry-up," complete with spicy, house-made black pudding and a tomato stewed and pressed with the back of a spoon until its sweetness is deep as caramel. But most surprising is a bowl of crisp, deep-fried peanuts, meant to be eaten woody shells and all. She got the idea while watching a show where people were boiling peanuts. Her first thought: "I wonder if you can fry it in pork fat," she says. "Any time I get something new in I say, 'Let's fry it.'"
For Bloomfield, there is one right way to do something. In her recent cookbook, "A Girl and Her Pig" (Ecco, 2012), she practically smacks the hand of would-be improvisers, writing that though you might be tempted to follow a recipe loosely, "on the first go please try it my way."
She even forbids substitutions in her restaurants, not even for customers like Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, who reportedly once questioned the Roquefort on his burger. The party line is that substitutions slow down the kitchen. But the real reason?
"That burger's perfect as it is," Bloomfield says.
It's not crazy to suspect that Bloomfield's tight hold might be a way to impose control on her world as a whole, to keep on track a life that might have gone off the rails.
She says she came to New York — a city she had never seen until she arrived for her interview — because she'd hit a dead end. "I wanted to go where I could start again," she says. In her book, she thanks friends and family and, finally, "The Man Upstairs for giving me passion and a second chance."
When asked why she needed a second chance, she deflects: "I don't think I want to talk about that."
Today, Bloomfield is looking only forward. She and Friedman are exploring new projects, new ideas, that he says are likely to take them to new cities.
"Part of what you can do when you create the brand that we have, you can open anywhere in the world," says Friedman, a former talent scout with Arista Records. But where is less clear. Could be London, could be San Francisco, he says, could be Montreal. "It's really what do we really want to spend time on in our lives."
The goal is to expand, but also to provide venues for their talented farm team, Friedman says, the cooks and wine personnel who have learned at Bloomfield's elbow and are ready for their own place. Whatever comes next will of course bear the hallmarks of Bloomfield's discipline and excellence. And perhaps by then she'll have a tattoo.
"I have this obsession with pea pods," she says, considering the empty space on her forearm. "They're just really nice to look at. They can be perfect."