An Interview with Daniel Holzman
Yummly sits down with New York's resident "meatball guy" to talk fine dining, pizza, and ... opossum?
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It only takes a few minutes on the phone with Daniel Holzman to know that you've got a live one on the line. Within minutes of making introductions, the 40-year-old chef and restaurant owner is earnestly discussing opossums with me. "We have an opossum that lives in the tree next door," he says. "I'm into 'em! They're like a cute rat."
"Did you know they play possum? Did you know about that whole situation?" he persists. "In LA they're all over, so what happens is: You're driving, it gets scared, it plays dead. They'll be in your driveway just lying there, so you throw it in the garbage … and then you wake up in the middle of the night, 'cause four hours later, it'll wake up screaming. So if you ever come across a dead opossum, just gently push it to the side of the road. It's probably just playing possum."
PART ONE: THE CHEF'S JOURNEY
ON MOVING TO THE WEST COAST
The native New Yorker moved out to Los Angeles in November 2018 after hiring someone to run the day-to-day business operations of The Meatball Shop, a collection of restaurants co-owned by Holzman and his partner Michael Chernow. "I love New York City so much," says Holzman, "but — this is a trend now — I live in New York for 10 years, and then I need some time off. It's just really intense and I need to get my sense of perspective back."
"[In] New York," he continues, "everything is like 'the center of the world.' It's crazy. The problem is you get caught up in that; you have this fear of missing out. LA starts out feeling like a small town when I first get here."
Daniel Holzman's Grilled Swordfish with Salmoriglio on Yummly Pro
FROM FRENCH PHENOM TO MEATBALL MAESTRO
Holzman started his career at the age of 15 when the prodigy began cooking under Eric Ripert at the iconic New York restaurant, Le Bernadin. At 19, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America before heading to the West Coast to cook for such well-esteemed restaurants as Palladin, Napa, The Campton Place, Aqua, and Jardinière. Everything was on the up and up for Holzman, and yet … something wasn't quite right.
"Just like this thing about New York being the center of the world and having that fear of missing out?" says Holzman, "When you're working in these fancy 4-star restaurants, you get kinda caught up in this world of this fancy 4-star food is 'the best' quote/unquote. And if I'm not doing that, I'm not really advancing my career. At some point, I just got a little fed up with the structure of the kitchen. I like to have fun, I like to enjoy myself, and I love cooking because I get to be myself. And in the French kitchen, I wasn't really able to be myself. And so I started to feel really conflicted about it."
Things began to change for Holzman during his time working at Axe (pronounced "ah-shay") in Venice, CA. Axe, which closed its doors in 2014, was an early player in the farm-to-table food movement, focused on quality, sustainably-farmed ingredients and healthy dishes. It was Holzman's first time outside of a classically French-run kitchen.
"It was really weird and liberating to just be able to go to work and not shave," Holzman reminisces. "Working at Axe was like, Wow, you can cook food that's delicious, that you're proud of, and USE great ingredients; but you can also have a good time doing it."
His stint at Axe was followed by a move to San Francisco, where he eventually became a founding chef at SPQR, a highly-esteemed Italian restaurant. Holzman, who had only been to Europe once before, began traveling to Italy several times a year and fell in love with Italian food. Again, in comparison to the strict French cooking he had grown accustomed to, he found Italian cooking to be liberating. And delicious.
Chef Holzman's Linguini Pesto Alla Genovese from Yummly Pro
Once the honeymoon period with Italian food was over, Holzman found a balance between his formal training and what he had learned in his travels to Italy. "You get back to the middle," he says, "and you're like Wow, actually, both of these are pretty amazing. There's different ways of doing it. And I'm really thankful and happy that I have experience in both because I get to decide."
GETTING TO THE MEAT OF THE MATTER
In 2010, Holzman was ready to return to New York for his most risky venture yet: opening a restaurant built around a single (meaty) concept. In the ultimate counterpoint to his expensive 4-star dining background, Holzman and childhood best friend Chernow conceptualized a restaurant that was affordable, accessible to the masses, and focused on a universally appreciated food: the meatball.
A risky move, yes, but also a smashing success. Holzman and Chernow published The Meatball Shop Cookbook a mere year after opening, and the casual dining mini-empire is going strong today with eight locations in New York, Connecticut, and D.C.
"When we started opening The Meatball Shop," Holzman recalls, "I thought, You know, you've worked in all these really reputable restaurants, and opening this restaurant you're going to kind of give up your culinary cachet; you're going to give up your ability to become an appreciated chef."
Daniel Holzman's Meatballs and Tomato Sauce on Yummly Pro
So was it worth it? When asked if he has any regrets, he responds with a positive attitude.
"What wound up happening is that I kind of got my cake and ate it too," Holzman summarizes. "The ONLY downside — if there even is a downside — is yeah, I got a little painted into the corner as the meatball guy. If I wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth, I could say Wow, it's a real BUMMER that everyone knows me as the go-to meatball guy. I could also say that I'm really thankful — I got everything that I wanted. The only thing that's a tiny bit frustrating [is] every time I go to a restaurant, I get served a bowl of meatballs."
PART TWO: CHEWING THE FAT WITH CHEF HOLZMAN
Holzman is nothing if not full of surprises. Among other things, the chef is a competitive jiu-jitsu wrestler, went to a performing-arts high school (yes, the one from Fame) as a flautist, and actively writes for food media publications in addition to being an accomplished photographer.
Holzman more recently delved into the world of home cooking for Yummly's new premium cooking videos, Yummly Pro. Here, we get tips and cooking advice from the world-class chef.
Holzman in his small Brooklyn kitchen
Yummly: I was watching the videos that you did for Yummly Pro and I was surprised to hear that not overworking your meatballs is a myth? I've been told that my whole life! Are there other common mistakes or myths that you see when people make Italian food?
Daniel Holzman: I think in general people misunderstand the word "moisture." It's a misconception that moisture comes from water; it comes from fat. Fat is what makes your tongue think of something as being moist. The other thing is Americans are programmed to think fat is bad. So, I feel like people don't [use] enough oil and they don't use it right.
When I make an Italian soup I add lots of olive oil. Olive oil is the primary fat, [in the] same way that French people might add a ton of cream, and the cream or butter is the flavoring agent. It's a necessary component that people overlook — it drives me a little bonkers.
Daniel Holzman's Ribollita on Yummly Pro
Yummly: What would you say is the one most important thing a home cook could do to become better at cooking?
Daniel Holzman: I tell every single person that the greatest gift you can give yourself is learning how to dice an onion. There's so many onions in all of these recipes. Just learn how to cut an onion properly, and then from that, all of the other vegetables are easier.
Yummly: What's your favorite weeknight dinner?
Daniel Holzman: Order sushi? Order sushi from the restaurant? [laughs] I mean realistically. I love ordering cheap sushi.
Yummly: Has online delivery killed home cooking? Is that what this is all about, really?
Daniel Holzman: [Guffaws] As a follow up to my last question? I don't think so. I think that there's a shift in the way that we cook, though, that's for sure. In the same way there's a shift in how we use restaurants: When I was growing up I went to a restaurant — 10 times? In my whole life? — because it was only for rich people and fancy occasions. Then it turned into, well, a restaurant replaces a home-cooked meal. And now you can order from those restaurants that replace a home-cooked meal.
Daniel Holzman's Bistecca alla Fiorentina on Yummly Pro
Yummly: Who's your biggest culinary influence?
Daniel Holzman: Probably my mom. She actually taught herself how to cook; she didn't really learn from my grandma. But she just was — she still is — very adventurous. She's never followed a recipe without tinkering.
Yummly: Did you pick up that exploratory, tinkering mentality from her? Or did that get beaten out of you with the classical training?
Daniel Holzman: No, I like to tinker. I do, I do. I like to make stuff my own. I have a huge cookbook collection. I've got an issue with cookbooks. I just bought The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani. I'm going to have to start obsessively making pizza.
Yummly: Nice. When I first moved to the West Coast, I was living in the East Bay by one of his pizza joints and it was pretty much the only good pizza I could find on the West coast. I'm definitely an East Coast pizza girl. I feel like the Bay Area can be lacking on that front.
Daniel Holzman: The first time I really worked in a restaurant that did pizza was at A16 in the Marina. They make an amazing Neapolitan pizza, so I kinda fell in love with that Neapolitan-style pizza for a while, like everybody else. But now I've gone full circle. I'm just convinced: New York pizza! I'm sorry! I love New York-style pizza. I also like Connecticut-style pizza, I love Roman-style pizza, I like Sicil ... I LOVE all these different types of pizzas! They're all great! But when it comes down to it, if I had a choice of any of them, I want a slice from Bleecker Street Pizzeria.
Yummly: I TOTALLY agree. You can find some lovely wood-fired pizzas, the Italian style, in this area; it's the New York style that you can't get. There are some that come close. But not the same.
Daniel Holzman: And I don't know why that is. People are like, [said in thick NY accent] "It's the water." It's not the water. It's NOT the water!
You know what? I had dinner with Donald Link from New Orleans, a really famous chef that I looked up to for many years. I was talking about why New Orleans has some of the best food in the world — really distinct — and everyone goes to New Orleans, they love the food, they want the food from New Orleans, but it doesn't really travel well. And he's like, 'Well, the thing is, if you didn't grow up eating it — if you don't know what it's supposed to taste like — it's really hard to duplicate it.'
And I think that's where the pizza thing falls apart. If you don't know what it's supposed to taste like, it's really hard to get it right.
Yummly: Well, trying to teach myself how to cook Indian food — same thing. It's like, I don't have a background in this. And that's where I think it is important for us to learn from people who really know the cuisine. I think that online videos can be a really great thing because, sure, you can learn from a book, but you can't see, you can't hear, you can't smell with a book. I guess you can't smell from a video either, but ...
Daniel Holzman: Being able to learn from a video is just unquestionably better. Period. I learned how to weld from a book. And I spent hours and hours and hours struggling while teaching myself how to weld. Then I looked up a video, and I'm like, Oh man, I'm just not making it hot enough! I can see — he's just doing it hotter. Two seconds on the video from hours and hours of frustration.
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