Down the Aisle:Danny Newberg

Owner and Head Chef at Joint Venture Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

Danny seems to me like one of those guys who will say "yes" to any challenge. His creativity seems boundless, whether it is in developing new combinations of ingredients for his dishes, or in organizing new collaborations for his business. As we walked around Chinatown, it was clear to me that Danny loves what he does- every bit of it. He didn't hesitate to jump at the opportunity to talk to me about dead fish, dried mushrooms, or even coagulated blood. It's easy to see how his adventurous personality translates into his fast-paced and nomadic business- Joint Venture. We urge you to find a seat at one of his ever-changing tables in the near future.

So why Chinatown?

A lot of people think that everything in Chinatown is bottom of the barrel produce and associate the low prices with bad quality, but actually a lot of these markets have figured out a way to cut out the middleman and buy directly from the farmer. They get their produce in such high quantities that they are able to sell it for reasonable prices.  I mean just by looking at some of it…it’s great quality.  You can tell by the way they smell that the vegetables and fruit are fresh.

Chinatown is also inspiring because of all the different types of dried fish and mushrooms.

Like this. What is that, a dried squid?

Yeah. There is this one dish that I make at all of my events- a ceviche with buttermilk and fermented chilli. I also make a dashi but I add the squid and shrimp…I’m always testing it with new flavors.

Smell that! (holds up a fragrant dried trout)

Smells pretty stinky.

You really have to sniff this stuff.

Right…which goes against my first instinct when in a dried fish market in Chinatown…

I don’t know why but it’s just interesting.  It keeps things exciting for me to experiment like this.

So how long have you lived in NYC, and what were you doing before you started Joint Venture?

I’ve lived here for 8 years, and I have worked for a bunch of people.  I ran the kitchen at Estela, and that’s when I really started roaming around Chinatown because the restaurant was so close.  I’m constantly switching it up- buying different types of fish, then seeing how it tastes with what I’m into making at the moment.

I make a cashew anchovy sauce with charred cabbage, and I always get the cashews here…  Then you see these really hard dried up roots. They’re usually for making tea or infusing things.

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“A lot of people think that everything in Chinatown is bottom of the barrel produce and associate the low prices with bad quality, but actually a lot of these markets have figured out a way to cut out the middleman and buy directly from the farmer.  They get their produce in such high quantities that they are able to sell it for reasonable prices.”

 

When did this curiosity begin to come to Chinatown and buy random products to test out?

I traveled to South East Asia for 4 months, and all I did was go to markets and eat.  I cooked in few kitchens, too.  It’s all about feeling it out, smelling it, cutting it, looking it up, trying to re-hydrate it so if it’s edible, experimenting with it, and looking at other recipes to see how people are using it. Then you morph it to work in your own way.  

This spot over here in Chinatown is really good too. I have been here at 5 pm/6 pm at night and they start auctioning food off. They have it pre-bagged. It’s all very fast and in Chinese, so I am not quick enough to understand, but it’s pretty cool to see.

As a chef have you always been interested in spending a good portion of your time experimenting.  Is that your style?

I’d say it’s my style as a person. I don’t know, I mean, that’s what keeps things interesting. I’ve loved working in restaurants for a long time but the monotony of it kills me.  Not being able to do my own thing. I’ve butted heads with a few people because I tear off into my own tangents.  I get it- why they would be upset with me, but now that’s what Joint Venture is about in general.

How did Joint Venture begin?

It began because I left Estela, somewhat abruptly. I had worked for Ignacio for a long time, and when I left there I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a plan. I just couldn’t go back to work for someone else. I got a lot of offers to be a chef at other spots but I just… I don’t know…It’s a super broken system.

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“We can cook in a Japanese restaurant, we can cook on convection burners, we can cook outside over open fire!  I mean, food is great, but it’s also just food.  It’s more about everything else and I try to incorporate that into the experience.”

 

More broken that a lot of systems within different industries?

More so, because restaurants are so essential- it’s what everyone eats.  No one understands that no one is paid right.  Everyone is overworked.  It makes for a hostile environment.  Like servers that work 7 hours get paid 3 times as much as the guy that works 15 hours.   You don’t get to live a very healthy lifestyle because of it.  It consumes you so much.  It’s like you show up to work already behind.  It’s really fast paced and relentless at times.

So now you have things more on your terms- more free, more creative. That’s what Joint Venture is to you?

Yeah!  Now I get to interact with all of these different people. Smart, interesting people.  We try to integrate art and music into the events too.  My good friend Massimo Mongiardo is our illustrator, and I get to work really closely with him on that, and it’s just something I wouldn’t have been able to do anywhere else is someone else’s kitchen.

That’s the whole point..not to be another, “Come to these dinners, sit down, eat…”  With Joint Venture it’s more like, “No, eat with your hands!  Look at the art.  There’s music, different wine, and different locations”.  We can cook in a Japanese restaurant, we can cook on convection burners, we can cook outside over open fire!  I mean, food is great, but it’s also just food.  It’s more about everything else and I try to incorporate that into the experience.

What’s your major splurge item?

Fish… I guess produce too. But mostly fish. With produce it’s hard because if I taste strawberries at the market and the flavor is just incredible, I can’t NOT buy them. That’s the way I shop. I’ll come to the market, and I’m tasting everything, smelling it, looking at it.  I know where it’s been and when it’s peaking in flavor.  For instance, a few dinners ago, I really wanted to do stone fruit with a grilled fish, and there was just no good stone fruit.  The strawberries were the best thing I tasted that day, so I bought the strawberries instead.

Strawberries and fish?

Yeah, I mean, if you taste something that’s that good, you’re gonna have to figure out how to put it on your menu.

 

 

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I used whiting- a small fish.  I call them “baby cod”  because they taste just like cod- they’re amazing.  So I grilled those, added some roasted peppers that were slightly pickled, and then added strawberries with the juice of these pickled peppers.  People fucking loved it. That was straight up experimental, the day of the dinner.

Can we get a quick lesson on buying good fish from you since we’re here at the fish counter?

Yeah, first off, I would never buy this fish- see the eyes, how they are cloudy and grey?

You want bright clear eyes. Then open up this flap here and look at the gills. You want them to be bright red and rich in color.  See this grey eyed fish has a muted red gill.  It’s not fresh.

(Turns over another fish)

But look, when you open the gills on this one, they are bright, richly colored, and the eyes are clear. That’s the fish you want to buy.

 

 

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“When you open the gills on this one, they are bright, richly colored, and the eyes are clear. That’s the fish you want to buy.”

 

So then where does your inspiration stem from?

The market…and the grocery stores in Chinatown.  A lot of my food comes from being lazy. (laughing)  But it forces me to be creative.

Your creativity comes from being lazy… how’s that?

Lazy in the sense where I said to myself, “I need to start writing all of my recipes down. I need to log it in somewhere because it was always just up in my head.” But then I was like.. “If I do that it will be too easy to just dig into old stuff, and I’m not going to write everything down because I don’t want to be in the position where I think, okay I have the menu for next year.” I want to be cooking new stuff.  I want to be forced to create new items, and I want to rely on trying the flavors of things right now and work from there.  

I work on balancing flavors more than ideas.  For so long in restaurants I worked in ideas. Chefs always want you to have new ideas, and there was this point in time where I didn’t understand why my ideas were falling flat.  It’s because I wasn’t cooking MY food, I was cooking theirs. When I first went out on my own I didn’t have much confidence, but it went away quickly when I just started cooking, because the balance of my ideas and the flavors made sense.

You want to go in there?  It’s going to be crazy…Ah yes, Korean melons!

What’s the obsession with this melon?

So this melon has a texture like a cucumber, but it’s mild and not super sweet, and the seeds are edible. And that’s the sweet part.  I often do a version of this in my dishes. This melon is really delicious.

When you travel for work do you find ever yourself making it to the grocery store for yourself?

I think I got this habit from my mom- but she always shopped for the day of when she went grocery shopping.  If I want to cook my own food, I go out and pick up whatever I want that night.  I try to get it a few hours before I make it.

Do you like cooking for yourself at your own home, even after always cooking for other people?
I try and keep it as simple as possible. I get pretty burnt out on my own cooking. The last meal I made for myself was white rice and I ate a can of cod liver with it. That to me is my dream meal. My dream meals at home pretty much consist of steamed rice and something else. When melons are in season I’ll sometimes just eat a whole melon with lime juice and salt.

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“It’s not always about the food.  It’s about life, and enjoying each other for that moment.”

 

So you keep it as simple and easy as possible at home?

Yeah, except my girlfriend loves my cooking and wants me to be healthy so I think she tricks me into making more meals at home. She likes to make it seem like it’s for us, but I think it’s more for her…

What’s her favorite meal that you cook for her?

She loves pasta, so she loves the pasta I make for her. I actually think cooking at home makes me more creative because whereas in a restaurant you have every ingredient you could ever want; when you’re at home, like in my house, I always have basic pantry items available like potatoes and beans and I have to get creative with just those things.  Potatoes might be my favorite ingredient.  Sometimes we will keep it really simple, like a piece of fish with potatoes and aioli. I’ll always also have some sort of fermented chili or pickled thing in the fridge, and I’ll throw that on some potatoes.

Sometimes I’ll reuse things that I cooking for my events. Like the other day I was making dashi for the nights’ ceviche.  After the seaweed and mushrooms were done in the broth, I took them out, chopped them up, and added some chili vinegar to it over rice.  It was delicious.

Do chefs get perks when they go to the market? Better cuts, better tomatoes, things like that?

There are not many perks in life that chef’s get, other than the fact that you get to eat a lot of good food during work. You get to try a lot of different types of food you wouldn’t normally get to eat if you weren’t in the kitchen. It helps you build of a library of flavors in your mind. I have an awful memory.  I can’t remember words or anyone’s name, but my taste and smell memory are great.  (laughing)

If you could have anyone, past or present, cook for you, who would it be?

I love it when my mom cooks for me. She is pretty much who I learned from. She is a great cook.

Does she make a meal that to this day you still crave?

She used to make cauliflower with breadcrumbs in butter, and that to me was the craziest thing. I didn’t understand how a vegetables could be that good.

My mom makes my favorite meatballs, and you know that by someone else’s standards they might not be the best, but they are the best to me.

My mom makes the best meatballs too!

Since Joint Venture moves around so much, different locations, and different menus- tell me your dream place to cook, and what does the menu look like?
Outside on the coast somewhere with a fire pit, I love the Northeast, like Providence, and Maine, near Rockport.  To just have people come and join us, sit around a fire, and talk about anything and take their time.  It’s not always about the food. It’s about life, and enjoying each other for that moment.

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Take-aways:

  1. Joint Venturehttp://www.jointventurenyc.com/
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Chameh Melon with Honey Vinegar, Chili Salt, and Lemon Verbena by Danny Newberg

The trick to this recipe is all in the season. It works best in the summer when the melons are perfectly sweet and crunchy. You can use dried lemon verbena, but fresh leaves are so much more aromatic and sweet. This dish can go great as a snack on a hot day, or eaten with spicy grilled chicken, also a great light summer dessert.

Ingredients:

  • 1 Ripe Chameh Melon
  • 1/4 Cup honey
  • 1/4 Cup rose vinegar
  • 1/4 Rresh lime juice
  • 1/2 Diced Mexican chilis
  • 1/2 Cup kosher sale
  • 1 Bunch lemon verbena

Serves

2-4

  • fbny_site_typeforsidebars-05Whisk together honey, vinegar, and lime juice. Taste and check for light sweetness and bright acidity. Set aside.
  • Toast chilies lightly in a pan till they become fragrant. I like to use “chile de arbol”, a spicy Mexican variety, but you can use something smokier or less spicy if you prefer.
  • Once your chiles are toasted, grind them by hand in a mortar and pestle with equal amounts salt to chili until there are no big chunks of chili. If you don’t have a mortar you can do this in a food processor. Set aside.
  • Peel your melon back.  You don’t want any of the skin. Cut the melon in rounds or spheres, whatever you prefer. I like to eat this dish with my finger, not a fork, so really cut the melon however you like.
  • Leave in all seeds.  This is a unique melon where the seeds are edible and the sweetest part of the fruit.
  • Drizzle on the honey vinegar evenly and be generous with it.  Sprinkle on some chili salt, more if it’s a appetizer and less if it's for dessert.
  • Thinly slice the lemon verbena and sprinkle over the top.
 
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