Tucked away in the historic Cadet Hotel is Pied a Terre, a charming 30-seat restaurant that quietly opened in March as part of a series of improvements to the hotel, which takes its name from the Air Force cadets that were briefly stationed there in the 1940s. Heading its kitchen is Andrew Balick, formerly a sous chef at Azul, where he worked for six years before the opportunity to open the small restaurant presented itself to him almost by chance.
Growing up in Hollywood, Balick loved to cook but it wasn't until his sophomore year at the University of Florida (see the Gators cap?) that he considered cooking for a living. From there, a series of opportunities led him to the kitchen at Azul. The 29-year-old quickly rose up the ranks and learned to refine his cooking.
We spoke to Balick about how he came to open Pied a Terre and why he feels people should experience his tasting menu.
New Times: How did you become involved with Pied a Terre?
Andrew Balick: I was working with chef Clay Conley and, you know, he was getting ready to leave to open Buccan in West Palm Beach and I was already committed to go with him. I wanted to, I wanted to learn. That's where I wanted to be but what I'd never done was open a restaurant, so, you know, my ultimate goal one day was to open my own place. My strategic next move was to put myself in a position where I was going to be learning from experienced people so I looked at that opportunity as how could I not go. Get to open a restaurant with them, with Clay who I worked with for six years so the relationship was already there, and learn from these guys. I knew that going there I would probably get burnt after one year. Financially it wasn't a step up for me but it was going to be a learning point. That's where I was up until this came along where by chance I met the owner of the hotel, doctor Vilma Biaggi.
She came into Azul and had a tasting menu and she was already pursuing my sous chef to work here but I didn't know at that point in time. I wasn't cooking for a job interview; she was just there having dinner but I helped my sous chef put out a tasting menu and it started there. I think she had already had a chef hired for here and she approached me a week later and said: you know I really, really enjoyed my meal there and it was really on par with what I foresee going on at this restaurant that we're going to open and I would love to invite you to the property to see it, tell you more about it and just see what happens. I already knew in my mind that I was committed to go to Palm Beach so I was like, well it can't hurt to check it out. So I went, I checked it out, I saw the property. I loved the property and I loved, from the chef's standpoint, you know, being given the opportunity to be the executive chef, you know. I'd been the sous chef at Azul for four and a half years.
It was going to be your thing ...
It's great to do your thing but you know I've never taken a job for money. I dropped out of culinary school, I never finished culinary school, I always put myself in a position when I'm working that it's a step in the right direction for me, it's not just a paycheck or it's not for the wrong reasons, it's to better myself as a chef so that one day when I open my own place, I'm ready. So I had some serious options: do I stay here and try to make a name for myself? Or go with the sure thing with Clay and the guys opening Buccan? It was a really tough decision for me but ultimately I chose this. We're hands on here. I'm physically cooking; my sous chefs are physically cooking. It's really a different kitchen environment that I've ever been a part of. There's not tons of line cooks cooking; it's us cooking, it's us prepping, it's us bouncing ideas off each other and seeing them out from ideas to actual food on the plate, which for me is really cool. I love it and ultimately that's why I took the job.
Was Clay supportive of your decision?
I think he was. I like to believe that he's supportive but I do think it hurt him in a way and it hurt me in a way. Not only was he my chef, we lived in the same building, we had keys to each other's apartments; we were friends and it was really, really hard for me. I mean it was really hard but at the end of the day, like I told him, I'm 29 right now, I don't want to be 30 years old and still be a sous chef. Not that there is anything wrong with being a sous chef at 30 years old but I have higher aspirations for myself and I think that I can do it. It was hard to part ways because we were close for so long and we worked side-by-side everyday.
Tell me about the menu.
We're getting great feedback from people. The menu is small. There's only three people in the kitchen right now. We do everything. The only thing we're not making is the bread. What we want is for people to experience this but to experience it in the form of our tasting menu. I know that's how chefs like to eat. When we go eat at another chef's restaurant, what do you do? Sit back, relax, let me take the menu from you, here come six or seven plates, and to me that's the coolest thing in the world. I want people to come in here and say, hey, I have total trust and confidence in that kitchen, how can I not order the tasting menu? It's $85 for six courses, which to me is very affordable. If you're coming in for fine dining, that's pretty good in my book. And we're super seasonal. Nothing gets changed per se everyday and nothing stays the same. I tweak but it's not every day that I change the whole menu.
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SHOW ME HOW
With the tasting menu, do you send a sample of what is on your regular menu or do you get a little creative?
The people who are going to order it are obviously people who are not sauce-on-the-side type people. These are people who are going to look at the menu, they see what kind of food is being done here and they say I would like to two or three things, screw it, I would like to try the tasting menu. They're kinda adventurous. So all I ask is what are your aversions, allergies of course and what are your preferences. Do you see anything on the menu that you absolutely want included? I want people to get what they want out of it but the flip side to that is that it's a trust thing because you're not going to come in and pick your tasting menu.
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of our interview with Balick.