Gregory Gilbert, the executive chef at The Setai Fifth Avenue in New York, is not the sort of guy who hogs the spotlight.
The hotel’s signature restaurant, Ai Fiori, is operated by Michelin-starred chef Michael White, but Gilbert is responsible for much of the culinary heavy lifting at The Setai, including catering, in-room dining, any needs of the property’s residences, and its nonsignature restaurant, Bar on Fifth.
In addition, Gilbert periodically shares his facilities with the personal chefs who accompany some of The Setai’s high-powered guests, and this fall, he’ll be offering dishes created by his mentor, Rick Moonen.
Gilbert worked under Moonen, who is lauded for his seafood expertise, at Manhattan restaurants The Water Club and Oceana before getting his first executive chef job, at age 25, at Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Here, he discusses plans for Bar on Fifth's menu, including Moonen's dishes, and what it's like to share his kitchen with personal chefs.
Why are you offering other chefs’ food on Bar on Fifth’s menu?
Rick Moonen was in town and we were discussing a lot of changes at the bar, and I thought it would be fun to have guest chefs give us three items that are small — little bites. It’s not like I’m promoting my next-door neighbor. He’s out in Las Vegas, and our guests travel a lot, so it’s good cross-promotion.
One of the items you’ll be serving is a Blue Point oyster with cucumber-ginger mignonette and phytoplankton caviar. What is phytoplankton caviar?
Phytoplankton’s basically the seaweed that whales eat. It’s going to be one of the biggest superfoods coming out. Rick made a purée of it with fresh clam juice. We marinated it with American sturgeon golden caviar overnight, and it just tasted like crisp ocean and was this beautiful green color.
I’m also doing a Louisiana shellfish gumbo with clams, mussels, lobster, shrimp and scallops that Rick had on the menu when I started working with him in 1992, and he always had the same Jonah Bay crab cake, which I’m doing with cucumber salad, nuoc cham [a Vietnamese condiment of fish sauce, sugar and citrus] and avocado tartare.
You also have guests who travel with their own chefs, right?
Some of them do. I’ll discuss with the chefs what they want to serve and what we have in house. They come down to our kitchen and my guys on the line will help them out if they need it.
Do you charge them?
We charge them for the food, yes. But our staff just helps free of charge. Usually I buy the food and they cook it without our help, and it works great.
Is that common in hotels?
It depends on the hotel and the kitchen. The last hotel I worked at, the kitchen was extremely small and we barely had room for ourselves, let alone a guest chef.
Have you picked up any ideas from the personal chefs?
One of them had this amazing ginger tea recipe. It didn’t have any sugar. It had a little bit of honey, and then there was a ratio for ginger — peeled, crushed, steeped for 20 minutes, covered for 40 minutes and then cooled down. It was just the right balance.
What menu items are your customers enjoying enjoy these days?
We have a salmon tasting on the bar. It’s a seared salmon toro — that’s the belly — then a tartare and a sashimi, and that sells tremendously.
Oysters have always been a very big seller, and lobster cocktails.
What do you have planned for the fall?
We’re going to be putting on an Idaho smoked trout with truffle potato salad and Champagne-chive emulsion. That will be on the lunch menu, along with wild king salmon with potato parsnip cake and baked lemon.
We slice it in half and cure it overnight with salt, sugar, thyme and red pepper flakes. We butter the flesh side and cook it for five to seven minutes so it starts to get golden brown, and then it’s ready to squeeze a nice, warm, sweet juice.
What’s going on the dinner menu?
At dinner most of our stuff is shareable items. So we’ll be doing a shrimp and avocado tartine, a smoked salmon roulade with cucumber slaw and toasted brioche, and poached lobster tartines with cucumber, mango and basil aïoli.
Do your guests ask much about where your seafood comes from?
Yes, I think people are much more conscientious about sustainable fishing. I definitely think that has a huge influence on people now. Six or seven years back that wasn’t as much the case.