Nina Clemente, Chef
8/6/16 Staatsburg, NY
In the worlds of art and agriculture, there are long histories of communication and exchange between the Hudson Valley and New York City.
Today, with the growth of the farm to table movement, it’s not only the artists and their gallerists that are receiving attention but also the farmers and growers that supply and inspire some of New York’s leading chefs.
Hotelier and restaurateur André Balazs recently invited Nina Clemente to create the menu for The Standard Plaza, which is adjacent to the High Line, using selected ingredients from Locusts on Hudson — his beautiful upstate farm set along the Hudson River.
Nina, the daughter of artists Francesco and Alba Clemente, was raised in a home where art and food were deeply entwined and a fluid reminder of her Italian heritage.
Enjoy Nina's menu at The Standard Plaza until the end of September '16
Q's & Photos by Kate Orne
Learn more about Nina Clemente
What’s your upstate connection? Having grown up in NYC, upstate was always this mystical place full of nature, gnomes and magic. It wasn't until I started working at the Standard Plaza that I got to experience its beauty and inspiration first hand. Now I look forward to those dreamy days of riding the train up along the Hudson River and visiting the farm and foraging for new ingredients and ideas while wandering the grounds.
How did your childhood inspire your cooking style? Spending my summers in my mother's seaside town of Amalfi taught me that, when in season, the simplest ingredients need little manipulation to taste extraordinary. I let the produce speak for itself. My food is an expression of my surroundings and infused with a good dose of beauty and flavor inspired by my upbringing.
Which of these guests made a lasting impression on you? All of them. Even at a young age, I was moved by the political inclinations these artists brought to light. It instilled a sense of justice that I work hard to pass down to my own child and all the people around me.
How did you come to The Standard Plaza? A pop up dinner at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood led to a tasting for André Balazs that I did in my 1911 barn, my current residence in LA. After three hours of endless dishes, surrounded by the art hanging on my walls, I believe André was hooked. This eventually led me to move back to New York to take up the summer residency at the Standard Plaza.
What culinary likes or dislikes have you discovered in New York versus Los Angeles?
Likes: The gluten free craze has definitely not taken the same toll in New York that it has in Los Angeles. Celiac disease definitely exists but the number of people claiming to have it is drastically disproportionate to the people that actually do. I'm Italian: flour, extra virgin olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano run through my veins.
Dislikes: People in LA are much more open to anchovies than people in New York. If they'd only give the ones I get from Cetara, a tiny seaside town on the Amalfi coast, a chance then they'd understand the true flavor. (Cetarais famous for its anchovies.)
Does a sense of intimacy with your guests have any influence on your cooking? I cook to gain that sense of intimacy with my guests. I've always considered myself to be an artist, food being my medium. When I express myself with a dish, I gain true pleasure in seeing my customer’s reaction. It's always been bittersweet that my art is literally consumed but if I am able to leave a lasting impression without the physical remnants, I can be truly proud of my work.
And what about cooking for private clients versus at a restaurant like The Standard Plaza? As people let you into their homes to feed them, cooking for private clients is very intimate. It also tends to be lonelier work because I’m executing it alone. The restaurant tends to be more thrilling as I feel as though I am inviting people into my home, yet I have the support of a full staff. I also have an amazing team of employees that can execute my vision, which makes for a more fun working experience overall.
Best dish to cure a nasty hangover? Pizza, pizza and more pizza. (Laughing) Top it off with a beer and you're cured.
Most valuable lesson your parents taught you: My parents instilled an amazing work ethic in all of us (one sister and two brothers). With their success they showed us the world, gave us access to the best education and fed us the best home cooked meals. Having given us that foundation, once we hit a certain age, they made it clear we had to conquer our own worlds and that this could only be achieved through hard work. We all continue to do so in our own rite.
Things you did in your father’s studio that pissed him off: My dad was a very, very patient man. We also grew up in his studio so I feel as though he had to be. I don't have any recollections of anger in our living / his workspace. Being surrounded by his work as a child, I have fond memories of using his sculptures as dolls and wrapping gauze around their heads, using red sharpies to highlight their injuries. The only memories of frustration that I can recall were regarding my schoolwork and my reluctance to getting it done.
A lasting memory of your father at work in his studio: I remember Jean-Michel Basiquiat doing a portrait sitting for my sister and me when I was four years old. As my sister vigorously drew him, I just sat, pencil in hand, completely mesmerized by his beauty and aura.
If you hadn’t become a chef you would have…? I would have become a photographer. I am still in love with 35mm film. I remember spending countless hours in the darkroom during high school and college. I love the magic of capturing a moment. Digital film has stolen those moments away so I continue to shoot with my old Leica. Framing and catching these moments in time brings so much joy when one looks at them years later.
Work aside, what keeps you up at night? My beautiful daughter, Indigo. When I get home at 1am, after a long day away from her, even though she's not yet three, we lay in bed and she tells me all about her day. Usually, over and over again, until we both drift off to sleep.
Do you have a green thumb? Yes. Having a child is a great reminder that this world is not ours but theirs to inherit. It's the little things that I've passed down to her such as turning the water off while brushing our teeth, not throwing inorganic matter on our streets, recycling, composting…. if we all pass these on we can eventually make a difference. Now, when a napkin gets swept away by the wind, I get yelled at by my toddler, “Mama don't litter!!” and I find myself running down the street to grab it and dispose of it properly.
Has your father’s artistic sensibility influenced your food? Both my mother and father have impeccable taste. I grew up surrounded by spectacular art and objects. All of this has influenced the aesthetic of what I put together. Color, texture and flavor, of course, are my most important notes to hit.
What would you recommend that André grow in his garden at LOH? I let the farm dictate the menu. I've always loved drawing inspiration from the farmer’s produce rather then pushing for what I want. Growing food is their art so recommending something seems a bit selfish.
‘Farm to Table’ is becoming a mainstream movement but, in your experience, how common is it for a restaurant to grow its own ingredients? Having spent 10 years in California, I've been spoiled by the quality of ingredients available to me year round. When I met Zach, the main farmer at Locusts on Hudson, it was March in New York. After doing a fairly unsuccessful tasting with produce from everywhere but New York, and which tasted of cardboard and chalk, I literally hugged Zach when I met him. He was bringing me real produce that clearly came bursting with flavor and I was immensely grateful. If every restaurant had it's own farm, we'd all be eating much better food.
What have you learned from the farm at Locusts on Hudson about growing food? What I've always suspected but have finally now seen first hand: Growing food is very hard, especially when you're doing it responsibly and caring for the surrounding environment. We should all support our small, local farms. Supermarkets usually only carry produce and fruit that are the 'perfect' shape or color but this doesn't guarantee flavor or nutrients. Next time you see a curly carrot or yellowed kale at the farmer’s market — buy it!! All those little 'faults' are actually nature in its truest form. Less waste, more love.