The Ethics of Fine Dining with Chef Jay Rodriguez
And some brief thoughts on the Vespertine article
There is some deep, cosmic irony in the fact that I interviewed Hera NYC’s Jay Rodriguez days before Eater dropped their bombshell article about Vespertine.
According to Eater’s reporting, the cult-like atmosphere inside one of Los Angeles’ most exclusive temples of gastronomy required herculean feats from servers. Working there—as at many a restaurant of its caliber—required an unsustainable standard of constant perfection.
I call this a newsletter about eating and escapism. When I say that, I mean that, yes, I’m going to include weird little essays like the previous issue’s deep dive into food packaging symbolism, but also that I’m interested in how food itself can transport you, how a great meal can give you a much-needed break from reality.
It’s clear that was the pre-pandemic goal at Vespertine, a restaurant that Jonathan Gold once described as feeling like a trip to Jupiter, was to keep you off-balance, faraway, and wholly immersed in the magic of Jordan Kahn’s seemingly impossible culinary creations.
But as the inner workings of the food industry become more and more visible, the incredible lengths chefs demand their staff go to achieve perfection have become pretty suspect.
Which brings me to Jay Rodriguez, a chef devoted to changing how fine dining is done from the inside out. A lifelong industry veteran, Rodriguez started his roaming tasting menu experiment, Hera NYC, by asking himself if he could run “a better kind of restaurant” (and finding a gorgeous, temporarily unoccupied AirBnB space).
Having worked everywhere from Greek diners to high-end spots like Oxalis and Compagnie (where he currently works three days a week), he wanted to “approach hospitality in a way that organic, that is empathetic… that is a force of good change—not just on an individual level within our restaurant—but within restaurants as a whole.”
Hera, named after the Greek goddess, serves $90 vegetable-forward 8-course tasting menus that showcase local ingredients in simple but unexpected ways. Using a subtle approach to the global pantry, Rodriguez makes beet red velvet cakes with labneh frosting, panzanella salad with homemade ricotta and chile de arbol, and serves brussels sprouts with dukkha and tofu. His work has been compared to some fine dining greats, or, as a friend put it to me in a pointed text message, “is going to make Eleven Madison Park look like a joke.”
Hera exists in a sort of liminal space, a “roaming restaurant” that initially popped up in a series of apartments, after which Rodriguez had a residency at Manhattan’s Market Line. This Valentine’s Day, Hera is taking over Brooklyn wine bar Winona’s to celebrate its first birthday.
Rodriguez is still searching for a permanent space, but that hasn’t stopped him from defying industry norms. The literal definition of hospitality is the chef’s priority, and he means that in the most literal sense: “What we want to do is always be different by embracing that, ‘You’re at home’ kind of vibe.”
Shortly after high school, Rodriguez spent a few years in the army. But having grown up in restaurants, he was wholly unfazed by the constant yelling of BootCamp. He and his staff all have stories about “kitchens that have been super negative, [that] have been not-fun places to work. But especially when you’re starting off, you need to work in those places. You have to work, you need to grind, these are the steps everyone else has taken, so you need to take them too.”
At Hera, he wants to break that mold.
“We start with how do we treat ourselves. We’re not working 90 to 100 hour work weeks like a lot of us used to do on my team. We’re not yelling at each other. We’re not throwing things. We’re not getting angry. Yeah, there’s pressure. We love what we do. But we don’t take that out on each other… The number one thing has always been for me, can we change things by starting on an individual level?”
Rodriguez is a smiley, buoyant presence, and he prides himself on his ability to keep an upbeat attitude even amid ego-filled whirlwind kitchens. Beyond that, “I’m glad I’ve worked in those places because it’s shown me what I will no longer tolerate.”
For him, it’s important to always approach both new staff members and everyone who dines with Hera as if he already cares about them: “Guests is such a great word to use. We used to say customers. When I was first growing up in the business it was customers. Then it shifted over to guests, and now it’s like, no, these are my friends.” His staff also have input on the menu and get to own their ideas, even if those dishes end up getting served. Would you want to steal an idea from your friend? No, so he doesn’t do that in his business either.
In the spirit of treating everyone involved with Hera like his friend, Rodriguez chose to give his staff a four-day workweek. That might sound crazy (and his peers have told him as much.) But:
“I have other interests, right? I’m not just a chef, and neither are my team… They are people. And the most beautiful thing to me is when my team comes in after a day off, or three days off in a row, and they say, ‘Hey, chef, I went to the MOMA and I saw this beautiful art, and I want to plate something that reminds me of that art piece.”
He’s also convinced that giving his team (and himself, when possible) longer breaks makes everyone’s experience better. And as for how it works, Rodriguez believes in trying things first and figuring out the logistics later. He still has that schedule a year in, so I guess it’s working just fine.
I haven’t had the chance to try Rodriguez’s food yet, but when I tell you that anyone in NYC should run to get a reservation to his next popup, I’m not exaggerating. If he’s the future of fine dining, I think we’re going to be okay.
Photo Credit: Savannah Lauren
If you require reading material (and perhaps find yourself in a pandemic-induced, overthinking funk), check out The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It was a great reminder that the only life you get to live is yours, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Check out House of Joy on Pell St. in Chinatown for A+ dim sum, gruffly efficient Chinese service, and a heck of a good time. Make sure to grab some pork buns, shrimp rice rolls, and don’t sleep on the egg tarts.