The Fat Radish’s Phil Winser:
Hospitality for All Seasons

Photos by Matt Rubin (www.mattrubinphoto.com)

Restaurateur and designer Phil Winser prefers to trust his gut. “Sometimes the best projects are when you just jump in,” the co-owner of Silkstone —a multi-tiered hospitality and production company responsible for restaurants The Fat Radish, The Leadbelly, and The East Pole—says. Winser is referring to his new project 58 Gansevoort, a home-for-hire in the Meatpacking District that combines the intimacy of private dinner parties with the amenities of a professional kitchen.

But ‘jumping in’—that conviction inherent in a good idea, along with the will to withstand a steep learning curve— has long been Winser’s formula for success. It is how he and longtime friend and business partner Ben Towill went from operating a small catering company out of their apartment to becoming two of the most prominent men at the helm of the farm-to-table movement in New York.

While ‘jumping in’ might be Winser’s jumping off point, it is his attention to detail for the dining experience that makes his projects so in-demand. 58 Gansevoort is strategic in its curation: an Explorer’s Club for the downtown set, with crocodile skulls and encased butterflies hanging against exposed brick walls. When we meet at the space it is the first taste of spring, and Winser is in the middle of seasonal menu changes. The sense of renewal is palpable: new ingredients, new projects, the future.

ON HIS NEW SPACE

58 Gansevoort was a very quick, fun, personal project. I wanted to create a space that we could use for hosting dinners, or that friends and clients could use. It is 100% meant to feel like someone’s home. I want the space to feel lived in. It’s designed to be used for whatever you want. Chefs can come in and use the space; we’re going to start a series for out-of-town chefs who can come here for the week. It is also a place for us to feature some of the brands that we work with—McIntosh, for instance, they make the best sound systems in the world—and have a place for them to show off their stuff.

In a home, everyone always gravitates towards the kitchen. We wanted to play off that, so we built this big kitchen island for people to stand around. And I like the idea that you can come up here and hang out all day or all evening, which has been happening and is really nice. I even take meetings here. But we also ensured that it is functional as a space. Most home kitchens are set up to host small groups, but we’ve been able to create a professional kitchen here—there is extra space and a back-of-house kitchen and commercial refrigeration and commercial ovens, even if they don’t look it. The kitchen works practically as a space, which is the most important thing.

ON TRAVEL

One of the great things about working with food and hospitality is that you can take it anywhere. Traveling for work is an amazing way to get to know an area, like the [Casa Fat Radish pop-up] we did in Brazil. But it can also be somewhere as close as when we did Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk, or maybe soon we’ll do another project nearby, in a different part of New York State.

I think all inspiration for dishes can come from restaurant experiences while traveling—they’re all based on eating and meeting people. That’s kind of where I started: I was very bad at learning languages but I always found that communicating through food was an incredible way of understanding people in a culture. You go to someone’s house, see how they cook and who they are and what they like to eat. I always bring that back—that and memories.

“IT WAS 11 A.M AND HE HAD A GLASS OF WINE IN HIS HAND. THERE WAS NO MENU.”

I recently had one of those favorite food memories in Cuba. I’ve been going to Havana a lot over the past three years, and recently I went to an Italian restaurant called Le Corte de Principe in Miramar. Out came this huge chef who had run away from Italy like 15 years ago and had set up this incredible restaurant with very old-school cooking. It was 11 a.m. and he had a glass of wine in his hand. There was no menu. You could tell that he is really just doing it for the love it. It was really an amazing experience. Places like that are becoming increasingly rare. So many of my best food memories are ironically never in big, fancy restaurants.

ON ENGLISH FOOD, FAMILY

I spent the first part of my life in London and then moved to Oxfordshire. It was really beautiful there, in the Cotswolds. When I was young, I spent holidays either traveling with my father on one of his expeditions or in England. We spent a lot of time in Sussex in the south with my godfather, who was a chef, and his wife, who I think is the greatest chef in the world. She had three boys and they had this farm and vineyard. I feel very grateful for the holidays on the farm down there. British food was a huge part of my childhood. The idea of the bringing everyone together for a Sunday roast was and still is such a part of English culture and of my family—we did it all, and it was very traditional, like in all the books. Beef with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes. Chicken and leeks. Those classic combinations. Love it. Miss it. Now I can’t wait for Sunday.

Ben and I met when we were twelve. We lived near each other in England. We would spend a lot of time together while our friends went away on holiday, and we were always hanging out at home. We were BIG fans of Jamie Oliver, and we would cook and bring people over and have parties—it was mostly an excuse to drink underage.

“THERE’S A LOT OF RED TAPE IN NEW YORK NOW. A LOT.”

When Ben was 16 he became very sick. We went from being these naughty boys running around at school and during the holidays, to Ben suddenly being stuck in bed for a year, the doctors unable to work out what was wrong. Eventually they discovered that the pH balance in his body had changed. By changing his diet to an alkaline diet, he got better. When you’re 16, that’s a big thing to go through. That’s when he went on to become a chef. He went back to school in Oxford for it, and dedicated his life to it.

ON STARTING RESTAURANTS IN NYC

There’s a lot of red tape in New York now. A lot. One, it’s not easy to get a liquor license. It’s very, very hard. Two, having enough financials to be able to sign the lease is very hard. And then the amount of time it takes to get through the department of buildings, the health department, and the fire department. Doing construction or changing something can take a year and a half. That time is money. The entry level is very hard. As a result, you’re seeing the rise of big restaurant groups taking over. What we did five years ago at the Fat Radish—where it was me and Ben building the restaurant with our own hands from scratch over a year because we had a very cheap lease—well, leases have tripled over the last four years in our area and it’s much more strict now. Especially if you want to do quality food in a small space, it can be very difficult to create restaurants at the level that we did.

“LUXURY IS THE EXPERIENCE OF GOING THROUGH SOMETHING TO GET SOMEWHERE ELSE.”

With 58 Gansevoort in particular, it was never about the end-product. It was just about the journey of doing it, doing it quickly, making it up as we go along, and going through that process, for the love of design. I love hospitality and I love the food side of it, but I’m also really driven by the design. I love seeing it come to life. The dining experience is not just at the table. There are so many other factors that translate to make dining really incredible. You understand the 360-degrees of a space, and everything—from the smell of a space to the way the lights are to where the candles are positioned—matters. The little details are a huge part.

When Silkstone worked with Krug Champagne, we had this idea about luxury: that real luxury is not about private jets and fancy cars and celebrity, it’s walking five miles on the beach, and you’re hot and you’re tired, and you turn around the corner and there’s something waiting for you. Whatever it is—luxury is the experience of going through something to get somewhere else. And I love that. Bringing that back to our food, I see that in the people who produce our food, in the farms we work with. The amount of love and effort and hard work that the farmers put in, means that we can use the produce really simply and it will taste amazing.

That’s actually where the name Silkstone came from. You see in restaurants this beautiful, sexy theatre; it’s very silky. When you’re in a restaurant there’s this great energy. But when you’re working work on farms and you’re out at four in the morning for lambing, or during the harvest or in the winter —I remember the freezing cold winter and having to feed the cows—it’s an incredibly tough life. It’s the same with chefs in the kitchen. When we’re eating in a fancy restaurant on a Friday night, we don’t think about the guys downstairs who have been there since six in the morning, in this very unsexy, hot environment, men and women working all the time to produce this thing of beauty.

THE FAT RADISH KITCHEN DIARIES

Our cookbook The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries features all the recipes and experiences that Ben and I have collected since we started. Every dish has a story about where it came from. The book is structured similarly to how we govern our lives: through the seasons. I love season changes. Today, that first nice day. This winter has been a brutal nightmare.

A favorite story from the cookbook comes from how we started the business. We had done a dinner down in the Financial District. It was the first ever dinner that we had done in New York as a company and it was seven courses, very over-the-top, and we did it out of our tiny apartment. It went well, but we made such a mess in the building. By the time we got back to the apartment and sorted everything out it was five or six in the morning, and we forgot that we had an event and catering show the next day. We woke up in the morning freaking out, wondering, ‘what are we going to serve?’ The only thing we had left in the refrigerator was this simple root vegetable stack, these pressed root vegetables. Do you think we can make a canapé out of this? It was unheard of; it was just some vegetables. We winged it, showed up an hour late, and everyone had their fancy booths and Ben and I just walked up and started serving this thing, and people went crazy over it. One woman who tried it was in charge of all events at the Time Warner Center. A week later Ben and I were presenting at the Time Warner Center in front of 48 event planners, talking about sustainable cooking and the farm-to-table movement. We’ll never forget the moment: we had one suit between us, he was wearing the trousers and I was wearing the jacket. Whenever I look at that dish, I always laugh.