Matthew Levine and his New York City team are true cocktail & culinary artists, food & beverage professionals, and hospitality operators & owners. We caught up with Matthew and Chef Joe for this fun, unique, and slightly mind-blowingly-inspiring interview.
Cater.com: I know that you put a strong emphasis on local, organic and sustainable. What would you do if a client, hosting a large event wanted menus largely composed of ingredients that were not in season?
Matt Levine: At the end of the day, we are here to serve our clients and do our best to honor every guest request, while we have a strong emphasis on local, organic and sustainable, it’s important to give the client what they want, while also staying true to our ‘market to table’ concept, sustainable fundamentals, and organic mission statement; but just because an ingredient might not be in season for us right now, it’s in season somewhere, we will do our best to source it wherever it may be!
And on another note, Chef Joe has ability of utilizing neighboring farms, and regional local markets when putting together catering menus for events outside of New York City. For example, we recently put together a proposal to cater the backstage artist tents at a pretty well known music festival, while doing so, we were able to stay true to our concept, of a “locally sourced” menu, utilizing what their surrounding farms and markets had to offer.
Cater.com: You’re competing for business in a city that has hundreds of amazing restaurants. How have you managed a top ten position in TripAdvisor.com reviews from all of New York City?
Matt Levine: First and foremost, it’s extremely humbling, the day I saw we were Ranked #1 out of 12,009 restaurants in New York City, it was extremely rewarding from an operational perspective, it’s somewhat of a [small] validation of all of our commitment and hard work, the fact that our guests took the time out of their day to leave reviews, shows that they care about us, about our restaurant-and our dedication to provide them with a lasting dining experience. However, most importantly – it’s a reminder we need to be consistent each and everyday, to reinforce our values each and every service, our expectations and standards are set to a higher bar. New customers are anticipating, while repeat guests are expecting an excelled experience…we have some local guests that dine with us 3-4 times a week; it’s a true honor.
Cater.com: Can you share some examples of how Chalk Point’s cuisine is focused on “market to table” practices with multicultural influences? What are some potentially surprising ingredients or flavor combinations that people may find on your menu?
Matt Levine: On the top right corner of our Chalk Point Kitchen menu, we list all of our partners, where we source all of our Bread & Dairy, Markets & Specialty Purveyors, Meat & Poultry, Fish & Shellfish Mongers, and the farms where we source all of our Vegetables while utilizing our NYC backyard of Chinatown and Little Italy to create bold flavor profiles and innovative high-level composition.
Some examples that represent our concept best are our ‘Bar Harbor Mussels’ featuring homemade kimchi, and house smoked bacon, ‘Kung Pao Broccoli” featuring bean sprouts, water chestnuts, peanuts and pickled thai chili and our “Whole Roasted Local Parsnip” featuring union square apples, pickled mustard seeds and cauliflower. While my personal favorite is our “Grilled Watermelon” featuring sweet chili, feta, Thai basil and lime.
Cater.com: What are some ways that you’ve made the mission of sustainability part of your daily operations?
Chef Joe: We always make sure to shop the local markets as much as possible. We also communicate directly with the farms to find out what is in season or available at that specific time. Our meats are always responsibly farmed & humanly raised. Lastly we adhere to Blue Ocean Institute & Monterey Bay aquarium guidelines to make sure our menu choices. Adhering to these types of due diligences keeps us on a sustainable path.
Cater.com: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to make their event as “green” as possible?
Chef Joe: It is all about the little things. The stuff that most people do not think about. Where are you sourcing your paper products and what are they produced from? Think about how far the product has to travel to get to you. For example, Alaskan salmon vs Arctic Char from Northeast Canada. How much water do you use? Do you serve bottled water or do you use a filtration system? Do you recycle, reuse or reduce? All these little actions add up to make a big impact; good or bad, so pay attention to them.
For catering events think about your waste. It is easy to use a lot of product and have waste. What ever your product, find multiple uses for it. Paper products make a big impact, so try and use all recycled products and also recycle as much as you can at the end of your event.
Cater.com: What’s the most challenging catering request that you’ve ever received and were you able to fulfill it?
Matt Levine: Last year we were chosen to be the Official Caterer of IMG x Samsung New York VIP Backstage at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week tents, catering Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner backstage for 7 days. This proved to be extremely challenging, given the layout, space, lack of kitchen and prep area. We had 4:00am kitchen call times to prep breakfast in SoHo, while our FOH transported it to Lincoln Center by 8:00am, and similar deliverables for Lunch and Dinner, while also individually catering 9 other shows (Jeremy Scott, Nicholas K, Opening Ceremony, etc.), and oh yeah – we were serving a full house at Chalk Point Kitchen every night, while also catering private events in The Handy Liquor Bar for GQ, Vogue and Vanity Fair that week. I still don’t know how we got through that Fashion Week (smiling), but proud of our team, we even filmed it and put together THIS VIDEO RECAP.
Cater.com: You’re known for having the ability to forecast trends. What trends do you see on the horizon in the food and beverage landscape over the next 5 or so years?
Matt Levine: I would say it’s less about forecasting trends and more about providing needs, guests want to live a more environmentally conscience and healthy lifestyle, and Chalk Point Kitchen provides that, while also adhering to various dietary restrictions (gluten free, vegetarian, vegan) utilizing our ‘market to table’ New York City backyard…
While lifestyles adapt, there area no consistency to trends, more so implementation of activations, ideas and initiatives to become a market leader-constantly creating new content. Trends go up and down; becoming a valuable brand, a brand your customers trust is much more of a commodity. Content and consistency are both important factors in gaining consumer trust, much more than being a quote on quote, “trendsetter.”
While the foundation of hospitality will always be quality food, beverage and sound service, content and information travels faster now than ever…, so it’s important to adapt to a high speed information-driven society and social media landscape. With the growth of geo-tagged apps, photo sharing applications, review websites – guests are truly informed and knowledgeable customers-thus being your biggest asset and promotional tool, ‘word-of-mouth,’ has become ‘word-of-app.’
I can speak on this topic for hours, very passionate about delivering food and beverage in an innovative arena, while providing a creative marketing message, it’s the core of our indieFORK grassroots approach, such as…
Teach, Don’t Preach: The Chalk Point Kitchen Instagram account doesn’t just preach our restaurant but also introduces users to our team, promotes our purveyors, and explores our neighborhood via #FF. While our YouTube Page teaches guests to make their favorite Chalk Point Kitchen dishes at home, while in similar fashion, for my cocktail lounge, The Handy Liquor Bar, we teach guests how to make our cocktails at home via our YouTube Channel. At the end of the day, your marketing efforts are what help get your guests through the door, but it’s ultimately your customer service and quality of food that bring them back (remember that!).
Listen to your social media followers: Information travels so fast…I always train my managers to utilize real-time metrics and social media. We constantly search the keywords “Chalk Point Kitchen” and “The Handy Liquor Bar” on Instagram and Twitter and search our hashtags #ChalkPointKitchen and #TheHandyLiquorBar on various social media platforms. Then we can real-time follow and locate our geo-tag. These social media practices help give us instant information, real-time experience and feedback from guests, while also pointing out any potential influencers and opinion leaders. You get to hear and see from your guests’ unsolicited perspective while also getting the opportunity to fix any potential real time issues.
Produce creative and unique photo-friendly content beyond just food: While perfectly plated and visually appealing food is certainly eye catching, get creative. At Chalk Point Kitchen each and every guest receives a customized chalkboard with their name on it when they arrive. Our dessert napkins are printed with rap-inspired dessert lyrics (to match our old-school hip-hop music) and we have an entire wall dedicated to Polaroid photos of our guests, while we just added a #SustainableSelfie frame for guests to interact with and take ‘selfies.’ Our place settings have quilted tied checkered napkins, fresh flowers, and custom coasters. Besides creating a welcoming home-like atmosphere, it also generates picture-friendly content. We welcome our guests to share our brand and the atmosphere we created, beyond just our food.
Sorry for the long response…, so to sum up your question to 2 words, “create content…”
Cater.com: How do you plan to keep your impressive momentum going?
Matt Levine: You are only as good as your last meal served…