Anything but Standard

By Meryle Evans

“One time, I became obsessed trying to make croissants,” says virtuoso chef Dan Silverman ‘84, recalling his culinary exploits as an undergraduate living in Vassar’s Town Houses and Terrace Apartments. “My roommates were also into cooking, and we used to have great dinner parties—though we weren’t great at cleanup.”

Today, after nearly 30 years of experience in top kitchens with numerous accolades—including a James Beard Foundation nomination and a Food & Wine “best new chef” nod—Silverman is leading the culinary charge at the Standard Grill in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District. But it wasn’t a clear path from croissant experiments to celebrated chef.

After graduating with a degree in English, Silverman spent two years in publishing at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. When he realized he didn’t enjoy working at a desk job, his train of thought went something like this: “I love food. My mom [also a Vassar graduate] is a very talented cook, and growing up we always went out to nice restaurants. I don’t especially want to go to law school. Why not go to cooking school? What’s the worst that can happen—I fail and do something else?”

Silverman enrolled at the then fledgling French Culinary Institute in Downtown Manhattan for a rigorous six-month immersion program, learning classic techniques taught by a faculty of French chefs. The Institute, he remembers, was like a one-room schoolhouse, very different from today; re-named the International Culinary Center in 2006, the school now occupies five floors and offers a multitude of courses in varied cuisines.

Silverman happened to graduate at just the right time, as the New York scene surrounding food and dining out was expanding. Weeks before graduation he landed a job with the French-trained but freewheeling American chef David Bouley, who had just opened his eponymous restaurant in Tribeca. (It was awarded four stars by the New York Times in 1990.)

“It was awesome, an amazing experience,” Silverman says of the six-plus years he spent working his way through the various stations of the Bouley kitchen, along with intervals at powerhouse restaurants in France and California. “We started seeing fresh northern seafood. Foragers were banging on the back door. There was wild game from Scotland.” During that time, he says, his style was “seriously French, four- to five-star dining.”

At his next gig, as executive chef at the rustic/romantic 60-seat restaurant Alison on Dominick Street in SoHo, he says, his cooking style was still classic French but a little more relaxed.

He then moved to a larger stage—Danny Meyer’s top-rated Union Square Café, where “the focus was a bit more Italian, which was fine for me,” he says. “I have a Mediterranean soul as far as cooking is concerned—good for a Jewish kid from New Jersey. I am attracted to the food of southern France, Spain, Italy, and North Africa. I love those flavors—capers, lemons, olive oil, garlic.”

After five years Silverman decided, “I’ve squeezed the citrus out of this thing; time to find a new challenge.” He found it by opening the highly anticipated dining venue at the landmark Lever House in 2003. The menu he created (“less Italian, a little more American, but informed by French techniques”) sourced the finest ingredients from the bevy of artisanal purveyors he had cultivated over many years. Leaning toward a more elemental approach, Silverman looked “less to what I can add to a dish, more to what can be removed to make it sing; the fewer the ingredients, the cleaner and more articulate the flavors.”

In The Lever House Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2006) he characterized the restaurant’s cuisine as “grown-up, clear-headed food that is elegant without being fussy.” Critics sang the praises of dishes like fluke tartare with spring onion and orange; crunchy fried okra with Romano beans; and pink grapefruit, avocado, and bottarga (dried mullet roe) salad.

However, that did not mean excluding from the menu such indulgent fare as wild mushroom and leek flan with shaved white truffles; grilled Sullivan County foie gras with quince puree and spiced walnuts; and lobster tempura. Or skimping on seasoning, which Silverman considers key.

In his cookbook he proselytizes for a heavy hand with seasoning, starting with salt and pepper, then adding a different kind of salinity. “Anchovies add a deep understated note, capers seem somehow more exclamatory, bursting in your mouth with a pungent and vegetal tang, while soy can be mellow and almost winey,” he says. It’s not about measuring, he advises, “It’s about tasting. Season when you begin, cook, taste, season, cook some more ...”

The same culinary precepts prevail at the Standard Grill in the Standard Hotel, where Silverman signed on after the Lever House restaurant closed in 2009; the Standard offers bold, fresh flavors and scaled down prices for the chic but more casual crowd cultivated
by the hotel’s owner, André Balazs.

But working at a hotel that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, banquets, and private parties required mastering a new set of managerial skills. “My life,” says Silverman, “is like a big walk in a circus.” His daily routine includes checking the incoming food, seeing that breakfast is set up, lunch started, working with staff on the dinner menu and next day’s lunch, checking in with banquets, troubleshooting, making sure that the sous chefs are on target and the dinner chefs are coming in, and, in between, doing some cooking before heading home to his wife and daughter in Brooklyn.

But Silverman is not one to cut corners. Cooking fish, for example: “We might buy wild shad and striped bass, and based on what waters the fish comes from, we’ll determine what the fish eats, and how firm or tender the flesh is, how long or short a time it takes to cook, how high the heat—there are a lot of variables.”

With years of cooking behind him—four of them at Standard Grill—Silverman knows better than ever that “to do it well takes time, and it’s rarely easy or simple.”

Meryle Evans is a journalist and food historian with a particular interest in social and culinary customs. She was one of the original editors of the American Heritage Cookbook project, and guest curator of “The Confectioner’s Art” at the American Craft Museum.