Down the Aisle:Lee Desrosiers

Head Chef and Manager of Achilles Heel Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

Some people dream of a place where they can go on any night, find a dark and quiet spot, order a drink, and feel both perfectly at home and at the same time completely transported. For me, Achilles Heel started as a cozy spot for an afternoon coffee or drink, but soon also became a go-to for both special occasions and typical Sunday nights. As Lee and I discussed mentors, inspirations, and routines, it became clear that Achilles’ enduring charm is characteristic of his way of working: principled yet curious, meticulous yet playful, and striving towards the perfection of simple things in a way that is uniquely his own.

So looking at your resume- I mean, you don’t really have one- but after doing some digging on the internet, it seems like you have been working all around the country doing all kinds of things in the food industry. Can you tell me where it all started?

I came here to NYC from Cape Cod in 2009, when I was in my mid-twenties. I was into food but I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I was mostly cooking as a hobby.

What was it about food that peaked your interest in the beginning?

I guess it started with me being really interested in farming and making wine. When I was up in Cape Cod, I worked with small farmers and winemakers, and started working with oysters. The whole New England thing was really nice. The work I did with oysters is what got me in the door here (Marlow and Sons).  It was the only real food experience I had.

So what did you do, walk in and say, “I can shuck oysters, can I work here?”

Yeah, I told them how much I loved food and that I really wanted to learn how to cook.  They said, “Hey, you can shuck oysters and you know how to work really hard. Why wouldn’t we want you to work here?” So it all kind of fell into place. I started cooking here and it felt really good, really natural to me.

Who were you cooking with when you first came here?

The head chef at the time was Sean Rembold. It was a really amazing time here. There was a lot of talent.

What year was that?

It was 2009- so Sarah Kramer was here, who went on to open Glasserie. Ben Jackson was the sous chef here, who went on open Drifter’s Wife in Portland.

That’s amazing. What do you think the draw was for so many inspiring cooks to come to one place? What drew you to Marlow and Sons?

There is definitely an ethos behind everything. That in itself created a strong community. I could eat dinner here and feel good about where the ingredients came from. I needed to know that the food that I was buying was coming from a good place. I cared about being part of a healthy food system and supporting farmers who are doing things the right way.

Right- you were essentially helping these small farms stay in business.

That was an important thing Andrew (Tarlow) did. He cut out the middleman. We were working directly with the farm, even with meat, which was the biggest thing. It was pioneering at the time. He built relationships with these people, and then we had the means to process everything here at the butcher shop at Marlow and Daughters.


“We look it over, meditate on it – not in a hippie way (laughing). We get inspired by the uniqueness of the animal.”

 

You work a lot with meat now- did that transition happen at the butcher shop at Marlow and Daughters?

I worked as a chef there, not a butcher, and we were essentially able to go to the butcher shop and request anything we wanted. I became fascinated with the process of breaking down an animal, since that isn’t something you necessarily have to know about being a chef.

So by working there you were able to get involved in the breaking down of these animals and learn more about what you were using in the kitchen?

Yeah, definitely. I knew that it was going to help me be a better cook. I was really into figuring out how to make a different restaurant that does interesting food and does it all in the right ways. A lot of restaurants are operating on a broken food system. They go through a big distributor. The meat’s untraceable, and it’s labeled as “grass fed” but you don’t really know the farming practices. A lot of these places are just removed from that essential part of sourcing and knowing the meat they are serving.

What do you look for when sourcing your meat for Achilles Heel?

So we still get all of our meat for Achilles through Marlow and Daughters. We source through Kinderhook Farm up in the Hudson Valley. I can call them 2 months in advance for a lamb and they will put it on a schedule to go to the slaughterhouse and from there directly to Marlow and Daughters.

So that’s an ideal situation for getting meat… Tell me what usually happens with store bought meat or with other restaurants that don’t have the same practices you guys have.

Farmers who want to sell their meat to NYC restaurants have to send it to a USDA certified slaughterhouse, from there they have a mass production operation where they can take that slaughtered animal and make bacon, sausages… They can grind it up, make cuts, and put it into cryovac bags. That’s where a distributor buys their meat from. They will say, “Oh, this restaurant needs pork chops.” And the restaurant gets their cryovac bagged pork chops. It ends up going through so many hands. Every steer is different, and depending on those differences, there are better and worse ways to divide it up.

Right, so many of the butchers in these huge facilities are just going through the motions getting from A to Z cutting up the animal.

Yep. boom- boom- boom (gesturing hand at cutting up meat). It’s pretty amazing to watch, but it’s definitely just muscle memory.

So the difference when the meat comes to you at Marlow and Daughters is what?

When we receive the whole animal here, we look it over, meditate on it – not in a hippie way (laughing). We get inspired by the uniqueness of the animal. Like, “Wow, it’s so amazing how fatty that cut is”, or, “I’ve never seen that cut like that, let’s sear it this way and it will be so delicious.” We really get a microscopic view on it.

I was in Italy this past summer and saw this breed of cow called chianina– they are massive animals. So huge.

Italy’s meat industry is very different than ours, in a good way. Those animals are able to mature a lot more than the animals we get in America.

Is that because of how often Americans eat meat?

No, it is because of USDA regulations. There was a mad cow scare a decade or so ago. That influenced a lot of regulation. You can’t eat animals older than 2 years old unless the spine is taken out. So anything older than 2 years has been butchered, no pun intended, so there is no spine when you get it. It’s already butchered for you.  

So you usually have to slaughter a cow within 2 years here in America?

In order to get the best deal for your meat, yes. There are some people who raise their cattle to grow older. That is a challenge for grass fed farming. You have to get those animals up to weight and with a nice finish within that amount of time. In Italy and France there are 10 year old steers and the muscle structure is insane. They get really big muscles, and sometimes it’s a little leaner, but the flavor is really mature and delicious.


“The best dry aged beef I’ve ever had smells like buttered popcorn.”

 

What is a good rule of thumb for buying good meat the market?

You want to have really bright red meat- nothing brown or muted and dull in color. Also, a good way to tell a good finish on a steer is the fat cap.  The one on top of this rib eye here is pretty good, but I would say a bit more is even better- like almost a half an inch. Then you want to look inside in the muscles. You can see the fat inside that loin, they call that inter-muscular fat. That’s why people love Wagyu beef so much.

How do you dry age beef here?

You regulate the humidity and airflow and give it time to sit on the racks. Over that time the flavor is going to become concentrated. You will start to get all of this mold growth on the outside and think, “This looks crazy!”, but as soon as you cut away that little bit of mold it’s going to be bright red inside. The best dry aged beef I’ve ever had smells like buttered popcorn. You cut it open and it smells like buttered popcorn.

The Head Butcher at Marlow and Sons, Josh, chimes in:

J: Dry aging creates a bark on the outside which we trim off over time. It’s one of the reasons dry aging is so expensive. The meat also loses a lot of water weight over time. These pieces will lose about 5 pounds of water weight, which means more concentrated flavor, but ends up being less weight on the scale when you are paying for it.

We walk inside the meat storage where Lee begins to tell me every about single thing inside the fridge. His enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge is incredible.  Looking at all of these animals, it’s clear that being a butcher is no small job. It’s serious work- and a lot of work.

So these are almost all whole animals? Are they essentially just hanging around (literally) waiting to be cut up?

Exactly. They are waiting to be made into cuts, sausages, you name it.

This is from Evans and Evans, a great place up in the Catskills. They use to be sheep dog breeders and would always have a small flock of sheep to help train their dogs, and then over time they thought to themselves- maybe we should also be sheep farmers. I can already tell this sheep looks amazing. I can see there is some great fat on it.

Do you guys shave off that fat?

No, no, we keep it. Fat is flavor. That is what I’m realizing more and more after working with these animals- it’s not all about the cuts. I mean, each cut has it’s different qualities and the fibers are different, but pair a little bit of lean meat with enough fat, and it’s going to be delicious.

So you do collaborations often.  Have any of them stood out in a good or bad way to you?

Oh yeah, one thing definitely comes to mind. Eric Werner from Hartwood in Tulum came up and we did this dinner. They are insanely popular in NY and it was the first year I was at Achilles so it was definitely the biggest dinner I had put on there at the time. We had a whole team of cooks in the bar, it was insane. We had a whole swordfish, ceviche, and a whole tuna. We were set to do this pork belly dish and we didn’t have an oven at Achilles Heel, so I thought we would put in in an oven overnight at my friend’s restaurant and it would be good to go in the morning. I called my friend Dave and asked to use his wood burning oven overnight and he agreed. When I went to pick up the pork belly in the morning and opened the oven, they were just completely incinerated. Something happened where someone must have hit the switch so that the oven was at 750 degrees all night long. I was like, “I am so fucking screwed.” All of the butcher shops had not gotten any deliveries in the last day or two, so all I could find was pork shoulder, which I ended up getting instead.  I boned the whole thing, butterflied it all out, seasoned it again, and asked my friends at Alameda to use their oven. It was ready just in time and no one knew the difference. It goes back to my saying that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a belly or a shoulder as long as you have the right distribution of fat and lean meat.

So back to your story, what came next for you after working at Marlow and Son’s?

I actually left and moved to Martha’s Vineyard.

Really? It sounds like things were going well for you in NYC- Why the sudden move?

I moved to a farm, so it was mostly about getting closer to the source of what we were doing at the restaurant. I wanted to smell the ocean again. I was new to the city and had been there for 4 years and I just had this pull to get back to where I came from. I got hooked up with a guy Chris Fischer (Beetlebung Farm) who had a farm out there, and he was opening a restaurant for the first time. He was originally doing these dinners in his greenhouse, but then people started asking him to open a restaurant. I went up to be part of it.


“We would source everything from the island there, and even raise our own animals. We worked very closely with each farm and would hone in on their specialties. If someone made really great feta or were very talented at raising lamb, we would work with them to develop recipes based on their products.”

 

Did his farm also have animals?

His farm focused on vegetables, but his family’s farm raised grass fed beef, pigs, everything.

Did you guys ever cook anything he grew at Marlow and Sons?
At times he would bring in wild oysters and other things that grew on the island, which is how I got to know him. I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy knows a lot about ingredients, raising animals, even hunting”. Sometimes he would bring us wild Canadian geese. I knew this was definitely someone I wanted to spend some time with and learn from. I moved up there and got a little cabin at the back end of a farm close by.

Back to the land!

We would source everything from the island there, and even raise our own animals. We worked very closely with each farm and would hone in on their specialties. If someone made really great feta or were very talented at raising lamb, we would work with them to develop recipes based on their products.

So you became immersed in the entire process. Truly farm to table.

It was a big success- we even fed the Obamas.

Oh really? What did Obama order?

He had lobster. We did this baked lobster with lobster roe butter. Michelle had some mussels.

So how long did you stay up there for?

One year.  From there we did a road trip out to California and did a few dinners along the way, which was really fun. We started with a pop up in NYC and then made our way west. We did a big dinner at Scribe Winery in February and I remember thinking, “Man, it’s so cold back east, I’m going to stay.” So I ended up working at Bar Tartine, and I have always loved their food.

Who was the chef at Bar Tartine when you were there?

Both Nick and Courtney. They were amazing at so many things, like fermenting and making everything from scratch. Most importantly to me was their use of Japanese cooking techniques and flavors.

Is there anything you miss about the food from Northern California?

Sometimes, yeah… but I really feel like the soil is richer on the east coast. In the height of the season celery root is better tasting here than there. Being on the east coast makes you really focus in on certain ingredients when they are at their peak.

So where do you grocery shop for yourself, and how often do you make trips there?

I don’t… Honestly, I’m at the restaurant so much that I don’t have time to grocery shop or make meals for myself at home. Even if it’s my day off I’m like, “Oh, it’s a research day.” I like to go out to eat at different restaurants to see what people are doing. You know… I feel like I don’t even really “eat” that often. I’m constantly grazing at work, and it’s like one long continuous meal.

So how do you start your days? Do you do a breakfast at home or out?

I usually have a coffee and some soft boiled eggs on sprouted rye at Marlow and Sons. Or I’ll go over to Saltie because I love Caroline (Fidanza) and the sandwiches are really good. Those are my sit down, quiet meals.


“It’s like when you pack for a vacation. Start with what you think you need, then cut that in half.”

 

Was your relationship with food growing up in Cape Cod much different than how you eat now?

My family mostly ate mainstream American food. Much of my interest in food was a reaction to eating the type of food I had growing up. I had to seek out the information I know now on my own.

One thing I do remember is eating lobster in the summer with butter that and steamers. It was so simple and tasty, and that became engrained in my mind. I think that is probably why I was so drawn to living on the coast in my mid-twenties, nostalgia for all of that stuff.

My parents are from the east coast and my dad always requests lobster on his birthday.

Yeah, it’s funny, now I don’t even really like lobster that much. It’s just one of those really expensive things that people think is super luxurious but I’m like, “It’s a bug. Come on.”

So let’s talk about Achilles Heel. For me, it has transformed from a low-key coffee and cocktail bar to a really unique Greenpoint institution. Tell me about your vision behind it and how it became what it is today?

Before I made the move to Achilles, I was the sole butcher for Reynard at the Wythe Hotel. That’s where I was first able to focus on one job and do things in my own way. They would get one steer, one pig, and maybe a lamb or two per week. I would work with the chefs there, and would get to accent the cuts with my own style.  I didn’t have to follow any books or recipes. I started from scratch. I would ask myself, “What does it take to make a good sausage?” The answer is simply incredible meat and a bit of salt. Why would you want to mask all of that natural flavor with spices? It was a revelation. 

How did that segway into Achilles Heel?

I wanted to get back into cooking, and I saw an opportunity at Achilles. Thankfully Andrew was really into trying out this experiment.

Achilles’ menu has always felt very adventurous and playful. I’m always surprised and excited to see what is next.

That is kind of how Marlow started as well. We were all cooking on hot plates.

How do you make such a tiny kitchen work to your benefit?

It took months to learn how to cook out of there, at least to the point of creating an actual menu. Also, the grill in the back has evolved and grown over time.

Hearing about your history in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, things have evolved for you organically through following what sparked your interest. Achilles Heel seems to be very reflective of that history and that journey.

Yeah, the space itself also has a lot of unique history. The original bar is still intact, which is over a century old. It was owned by the same family until 2012-2013 when Andrew got in there. It was owned by a guy named John Cadillac. The original writing is still on the window, which used to say “John’s Restaurant and Bar”. Now it just says “nt and bar”. (laughing) Sometimes his family comes in and tells us stories about when their great grandfather owned the bar.

It sounds like you have had many mentors over the years. Does any particular person or philosophy stand out to you?

Having Andrew as a mentor has been huge for me. He has been a really good friend. We have similar ideas about food at a very basic level. Even when he knows something may not seem like the best idea, he allows me to take risks and then see how it goes.

I’m also inspired by the people I work with daily, like Chef Dave Gould at Romans. He just thinks about things differently… the flavors he is able to coax out of meat, especially with a wood burning oven, are magical.

Have you received an advice over the years that stuck with you, which you have adopted into your own practice?

In cooking for Andrew over the years- you grow to welcome his critiques. One thing he has always said over the years is, “One less ingredient.” That phrase is always in my head when I’m putting together a dish. It’s like when you pack for a vacation. Start with what you think you need, then cut that in half. Here, when you are working with all of these amazing ingredients, it’s tempting to want to put it all in there. But you really want to get inside the head of the customer, too. When the chef simplifies, the diner can really focus in on the individual flavors and beauty within the dish.  I’m always striving to have the fewest ingredients on the plate while still having it taste like nothing else out there. It’s very difficult to do.

Take-aways:

  1. Kinderhook Farms in upstate New YorkKinderhook Farm
  2. Marlow and Daughters Meat and GroceryMarlow and Daughters
  3. Achilles Heel in Greenpoint BrooklynAchilles Heel
  4. Beetlebung Farm in Martha's VineyardBeetlebung Farm