Chef Marco Canora Keeps Things Classy at Hearth Restaurant

Chef Marco Canora seems like a pretty chill guy, despite tales he can tell about his micro-managing days helming up the kitchens at Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and his short-lived but much-loved Insieme, the Michelin-stared fine-dining space in the Michelangelo hotel he opened with partner-sommelier Paul Grieco. With manageable menus executed at his several Terroir locations, Canora can keep his focus on Hearth, where teaching and motivating have taken the place of having his eye and fingers in at all times.

But the one location doesn’t mean he’s bored, and on Hearth’s menu you’ll find plates created with a lot of heart, trusted ingredients, and impeccable execution, rather than dishes cooked purely for the sake of innovation. He’s patient, now, and tries to foster patience and consistency in his staff. This allows him to continually give outside his restaurant, and he’s often a face at the larger food charities of the city and with his own organization, NYC Food Flood, which he started with chefs George Mendes, Seamus Mullen, and Andrew Carmellini after Hurricane Sandy, so that they could efficiently take funds to make food they’d hand out directly to those who most needed it, quickly and with warmth.

You’ve had Hearth for ten years now, and from what I can gather you seem to be a traditionalist in the best sense of the word. Where is that rooted for you, in your pre-chef life? It came from home. I grew up in a very kind of Tuscan aesthetic, which means it was very simple, and very focused on ingredients. We had a garden, and it was really about going to pick a zucchini flower, and dipping it in a simple a batter of flour and water—real complicated, right?—and pan-frying it in olive oil and putting some salt on it. That’s the kind of food I grew up eating, and that’s what’s resonating with me today.

That’s what I strive for, that kind of simplicity. When you do that well it has the power to kind of transcend the simplicity in terms of the reaction you get—it just tastes really good.There’s just beauty and I’m not bored by simplicity. I think there’s other arenas to be innovative, right? Innovation isn’t about just coming up with coffee cream with wasabi foam. There’s innovation in all aspects of what I do; running a kitchen is a logistical jigsaw puzzle.

Since you’ve had this restaurant for ten years now, do you find it less common to have young chefs who are as inspired to focus on the small steps of consistency?Yeah, I think it’s a huge pitfall for young cooks. They fall into that kind of trap of being turned on by innovation rather than by the execution of things. I’m constantly preaching that it’s about the little things; the real challenge is executing things on a daily basis consistently and doing it well. And unfortunately I think that there seems to be a lack of patience in the world, right? Especially in the newer generation, there’s not a lot of patience and I think that’s for a lot of reasons but it’s kind of unfortunate.

How does having Hearth and Terroir and not expanding extremely assist that? I can have relationships with people here; I’m here five and a half days a week. And I make connections with people, whether those people are my employees or the guests. And I think the more and more our faces are in these little machines and it’s all about social networking and such, I hope the trend is going to be going back towards this face time. Not only does it feed me and make me happy, but I see that they like it, too. And I can’t tell you how many times people are in awe of the fact that the chef of the restaurant is here. And it’s like, isn’t that a fucked up world we live in where the guest is like, “Oh my god, what are you doing here?” This is my restaurant! But that’s a product I think of this growth thing.

That’s what I strive for, that kind of simplicity. When you do that well it has the power to kind of transcend the simplicity in terms of the reaction you get—it just tastes really good.

Do you feel you have enough space that you could take a step back from the kitchen if you needed to? I’ve tried over the last five, six, seven years to become less and less of a control freak, because I don’t think that’s a great management style. Early on in my career when I was running the kitchen at Gramercy, when I opened Craft, when I opened this place, and then when I opened Insieme… my god, man, I was such the micro-managing control freak. It’s nice to be here all the time and not be that. It’s the best of both worlds. I’m here all the time and I care and I watch and I’m very invested in it, but I’m not that control freak.

Where did that come from, the micromanaging? And what made that change?When you have a small restaurant and you’re the chef, it’s about the vision you have. It was insane; I wanted to touch everything, I wanted to control everything, and “if you didn’t like it then get the fuck out of my way because I’ll do it myself.” I saw myself becoming this stressed out, unhealthy, kind of miserable guy who was never going to grow. And I don’t know… one day I was just like, this is ridiculous. I’m never going to cultivate people if this is who I’m going to be.

How did that affect your menu?Sometimes it’s hard for my ego to say this, but it’s way better. I think my attitude today cultivates a better team of people, and that Hearth is the best it’s ever, ever been. Ultimately it is because I’m more effective now than I was then, in terms of seeing things, in terms of making a difference, in terms of cultivating people and creating a team for all the right reasons and wants to be here.

Does mentoring and fostering cooks mean more to you now than it used to?Yeah. Trusting your chef de cuisine or sous chef kind of feeds them and makes them work harder because now they care more, right? The perfect example of this; Alice Waters was at the bar the other night. And I went out and chatted with her for a good 40 minutes, and she was going to sit at the pass and have dinner with her friend, and I had a prior engagement. And at eight o’clock said she was going to sit at the pass and I was like, “That’s so great, but unfortunately I’m leaving.” And she was completely gracious and she encouraged me to go. But I think that says so much about the fact that I’m not that guy anymore. There was no way in hell—even two years ago—that I would leave if Alice Waters was sitting at the pass at Hearth. And for George Kaden, my chef de cuisine, I think that in a lot of ways it meant a lot to him, that I was like, “I completely trust you.” And of course he understood, and I’m sure the food was as perfect if not better than what I would have done if I was here.

And what a gift for him to get to do that. He was thrilled by it. And I think that sends a good message to the cooks, and a good message to everybody, that I totally trust all of them to do what we do. And, god, it took me so long to learn that lesson.

Terroir has a small food menu, but does it help you get a jolt of something new without straying too far from Hearth? Totally. The process of raising money and finding real estate and watching the build out and creating the menu and that initial… it’s like dating. The courtship is great, and I’m really fortunate and happy to have had the growth we’ve had with the Terroir locations. That totally feeds a side of me that wants to create more things. And I’m starting to feel like I’m ready to engage in another kind of birth of a restaurant. I’m still relatively young and I feel I have a few more concepts in me that won’t be more Terroirs. I just want to be careful about how I do it. And as much as Insieme was so great, it was in a hotel, and it was union, and they dangled that carrot; the capital. And I bit. And ultimately I’m better for it and I’m glad I did it, but looking back it wasn’t the greatest strategic move for me. So I’ll be more careful next time.

You started the NYC Food Flood after Hurricane Sandy. Where did that level of urgency to help start for you? That was born at my time at Gramercy Tavern. One of Danny Meyer’s priorities is being involved in the community. And those priorities have been with us since we opened Hearth ten years ago. It’s something Paul Grieco and I believe in and have always been supportive taking advantage of opportunities to raise money for organizations. George Mendes called and asked if I’d do a dinner, and we did and it’s like we collectively kind of had a light bulb of how it’s kind of amazing that there aren’t more chef-driven food charities out there. It’s kind of amazing how we have this ability to raise funds so easily, and we all have plants where we could produce food and we could have these kinds of events.

What did you do after? I bought these “fry turkey at home” kits at Home Depot, like $48 each, and we have a truck and we loaded it up with two burners and two pots with paper cups and spoons and we were handing hot soup to people. And it was really cool. We cut out the middleman. In the beginning, everyone donated everything; there’s so much generosity surrounding big dramatic events like that.

We’re still trying to establish a non-profit, and man, what an enlightening experience that has been. It is no joke. The hoops you jump through. So it’s been a long story and who knows where it’s going, but the beauty of it for us was that we control it and can do as much or as little as we want. But it’s pretty remarkable how easy it was to raise money so we could do what we love: give great food.

You all have restaurants that I think foster loyalty, so I’m not surprised your clients stepped up to support you. Yeah, they’re incredibly supportive. We’ve built that customer base and I think that we could do two three, four events a year to raise money for NYC Food Flood. But it becomes a job in of itself, and that’s the nut to crack. It becomes all about time.