The chef-owners at their restaurant. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

Chef FeaturesNew York

15 Questions with Chez Ma Tante’s Aidan O’Neal and Jake Leiber

By Emily Wilson

Chez Ma Tante is a charming, bare-bones bistro located on a quiet block of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, owned and operated by two rising star chefs: Aidan O’Neal and Jake Leiber. You might be familiar with their burnt-edged pancakes doused in pure maple syrup, and you should definitely know about their immensely satisfying pork shoulder dish, accompanied by stewed lentils and salsa verde. The cooking at Chez Ma Tante is simple and often hearty, and no short on flavor—but there’s more to this restaurant than just that. Coming off their first birthday and a recent spurt of critical acclaim, we sat down with the two chefs to chat about the ups and downs of first-time ownership, what it means to be a neighborhood restaurant, and the philosophy that’s so central to Chez Ma Tante.

Resy: How did you meet?

Aidan O’Neal: It’s a funny story. So, my old boss Hugue [Dufour, M. Wells], when he gave birth to — he didn’t, his wife did — but when they had their first kid, I went with a mutual friend to the hospital, and on the way to the hospital, we picked up food at Barbuto to bring them —

Jake Leiber: Pasta.

A: So Jake made a bunch of pastas for Hugue and Sarah. And that’s where I met Jake. And he actually cooked their first meal as parents. That was 2013.

J: Totally coincidental.

And then you reconnected at Cafe Altro…?

A: We’ve been in touch over the years. Honestly, it was Jonathan Waxman and Hugue and that really produced us.

Jake putting the finishing touches on a stracciatella dish. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

How did you decide you wanted to open a restaurant together?

J: I think it happened pretty organically. I left Altro and we would spend a lot of time hanging out and talking about restaurants, without the intention of doing anything serious — [Aidan] was still the chef de cuisine at Altro, and I was taking some time off of cooking, unsure if I even wanted to be in restaurants anymore. And then, over many, many bottles of wine, we found that we were very in tune with how we felt about restaurants and how we philosophized about restaurants. It became pretty obvious that collaboration would be easy and fun.

A: We just wanted to open up a restaurant. But not a conceptual restaurant — just a restaurant.

J: That was one of our big jokes. When we had that moment, we were like, ‘What’s wrong with the concept of a restaurant being restaurant?’ That was kind of a pivotal moment.

Between your two distinct styles, what is similar and what’s different?

A: Well, our backgrounds [are different].

J: Yeah, [Aidan] has a background in French and mine is in Italian. But both styles have their own element of peasant cuisine and rusticity that I think are what attract us to both to food, more so than fine dining, so that’s a common thread. Also, style-wise, we both come from fast and frivolous environments that are fun and loud and not quiet and passive, or anything like that… They’re all very direct and mean, big, fun kitchens — boisterous kitchens. I think that’s also a place where we connected and it was obvious that Chez Ma Tante was not something that was ever going to be precious. And the food is the same: it’s not precious.

Can you talk a little bit about your collaborative process? How did you make the menu together and, if you’re creating a new dish, how does it come together?

J: Our process is very organic; it’s almost exactly the same way that the restaurant came about. We’re just kind of sitting around, bouncing ideas back and forth and then obviously at a certain point you have to put it into practice. One or both [of you] go off to make it, and then this process happens again when you’re breaking it down and talking about what’s necessary. If the dish sucks, we trash it. We’re very quick to judge if something doesn’t work at all, if it’s just garbage. If it has promise, we’ll tweak it and work on it. Even if it’s on the menu, we’ll tweak it until we like it.

A: I think we also both have a very clear understanding of what kind of food works at this restaurant. We know what the limitations are for our kitchen and for the kind of food that should be served in the dining room. We have a pretty clear idea of what the food should be, so quite often we’re on the same page, even before the dish is fully conceptualized, because we try to stay within the box that is Chez Ma Tante.

J: We’ll get excited about the same bad idea (laughs).

A: Yeah, and then we won’t do it.

Oyster and parsley; stracciatella with English peas and fava beans. Photo Credit: Mike Grippi.

Is there anything on the menu that’s signature Jake or signature Aidan, or is everything pretty collaborative?

J: No, I mean, it’s funny, because we both have our own little restaurant families and I have people that come from my family, and are like “Oh, I can taste what’s you and what’s Aidan,” but honestly, sometimes when they tell you what they think it is they’re actually wrong. So, I like to let it just hang there.

What are your five essential ingredients?

A: Onions

J: Garlic and bay leaf.

A: Parsley, lemon peel. That’s about it.

J: Yeah.

A: Bay leaf. Onion. Parsley. Lemon peel.

J: Garlic.

A: Garlic, yeah, garlic. Mustard.

J: Dijon, yeah yeah, lots of Dijon.

A: Eggs.

J: Lots of Dijon, lots of eggs.

A: Lots of eggs.

Cocktails. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

Why did you choose Greenpoint?

J: We didn’t really.

A: Greenpoint chose us!

J: Yeah, Aidan lives here, but the restaurant kind of fell in our lap, which was great, because I don’t think either of us really felt we would’ve had an opportunity like this.

A: I mean, I always wanted to do a restaurant in Greenpoint. I’ve lived here pretty much since I moved here, it’s been my neighborhood, so it’s selfish.

J: …But you run here, and you have an attachment to it.

In what ways has the neighborhood has played a part in the restaurant, both from the beginning, and how it’s evolved?

A: Well, Greenpoint is a great neighborhood. There are a lot of families in Greenpoint. It’s a little bit like Red Hook, it’s a little bit off the beaten trail. You kind of visit Greenpoint or you live here, so it’s unique in that sense, because it’s not connected to any major train that goes into the city.

J: I think it’s an interesting neighborhood because it’s like any of the other neighborhoods that are gentrifying, or being gentrified, in that the people that have been here have been here for a while, even if we’re talking about young transplants. And young transplants really take ownership over their neighborhoods, which I find a little bit silly. Because I was raised in New York. But, they have a lot of pride in where they live and…

A: Are you talking about me?

J: They have a lot of pride in where they live. And so I think at first people looked at Chez Ma Tante like it was a new, expensive restaurant; like it was emblematic of gentrification. I felt a little bit of a resistance because of that, and I think a lot of other people — who are actual gentrifiers in the neighborhood — were probably happy about [Chez Ma Tante’s arrival]. The backlash felt a little strange because we wanted to do something that’s not precious, but we also wanted to do something nice. We made a point of saying we’re not serving burgers and fries. You can have burgers and fries anywhere. But it’s going to be grilled meats and fish and salads. And falafel — how wrong could you be? But having two people make a $16 falafel as opposed to a $5 falafel that you can get at Oasis is totally different. I don’t know, I just think that people that lived here, especially those very much in opposition to say, Williamsburg, weren’t happy [because they felt that Chez Ma Tante was] kind of Williamsburg-y… but it’s not Williamsburg-y. The neighborhood, at first, was tough, but on that same point, once people like something, once they become accustomed to it, they’re incredibly happy that it’s there. Once they even discover it. It took us a while to get discovered and for people to warm up to it, but I feel very warmly received now. But in the beginning, not so much.

The tables-and-chairs interior of Chez Ma Tante. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

I know you’ve said that you’re influenced by unassuming eateries, such as trattorias, pubs, that sort of thing. Could you elaborate on that, and potentially give some examples?

J: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with where we’ve been trained. So, for me, specifically, working at Barbuto for seven or so plus years had a lot to do with the aesthetic choices that we made. There were things that we naturally agreed on. It’s a very tables-and-chairs restaurant. Big windows, but not really any decoration to speak of. And Aidan felt very influenced by St. John, which is another bare-bones, tables-and-chairs restaurant. It was very easy for us to agree that we didn’t want art on the walls and that we wanted people to come in and project themselves on the walls. That’s what’s cool about good restaurants. Not necessarily having a place to —

A: We didn’t want to get in the way. You don’t want to get in the way of someone enjoying themselves. You know, it’s not that we dislike art, it’s the opposite. We might like art so much that we wouldn’t want to ruin art with our restaurant. I don’t want to impose too much of our ideas or get in the way of people having a nice time, and a good bottle of wine. And I think, to what you’re asking, the small cafés and things… it’s about the simple pleasures in life. You know, having a nice amaro, having a good pâté… the simple little indulgences, when you can afford them. I mean, what else could you want? Just a little indulgence every now and then… every day!

When people come into your restaurant, how do you want them to feel?

A: At home. And relaxed, like they can come here all the time. I think our clientele reflects that. You see hipsters, you see young kids, you see people from the Upper East Side, you see families, you see tourists. Anyone walks in here and they feel like they can be here. We’re not stylish, and we’re not trendy, it’s just a restaurant and a good place to have dinner. That’s all we could ask to be.

So, back to the food for a second. You were saying that it’s clear what is Chez Ma Tante; that you know what makes sense for the menu. I know you don’t define the cuisine in a specific way — you don’t say we’re British, or we’re French-Canadian — but could you put into words what is Chez Ma Tante, exactly?

J: Especially in the beginning, you’re kind of forced to define yourself. So those are labels that we weirdly adhered to for the first few months. But to be perfectly honest, I have become less and less clear about how to define the food, so no, I don’t have an answer for that. Unless you do? Which I’m willing to entertain.

A: I mean, we buy pretty humble ingredients. I don’t think you’ll ever see luxury ingredients on the menu. But in buying humble ingredients, we try to buy the best that we can. We try and buy the best chicken, the best olive oil that we like, or good vinegars, lots of good onions, and lots of potatoes. And lentils.

J: Yeah, we have a nice pantry. We started deferring to European, which is funny. I mean, you read the Pete Wells review, and I thought he handled it really nicely, because I think he really got us. But he was like ‘Well, people have been calling it a Canadian restaurant, I guess they’re referring to the Canadian-born chef Aidan, who’s from Vancouver, which is not French Canada, it’s not Montreal, even though he cooked in Montreal.’ He pointed out that there’s kind of this silly need to define something, but that it’s not really even worth your time.

Pork shoulder with salsa verde and lentils. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

You spoke a little bit about your mentors, but are there any other chefs you really look up to, or restaurants whose food has been particularly inspiring for you?

A: Ruth Rogers — Ruthie Rogers, at The River Café. Fergus [Henderson, St. John], for sure. Honestly, we geek out about chefs all the time— I love Pascal Barbot [Astrance]. I don’t think we’d ever cook his style of food, but I love his enthusiasm for food.

J: I was talking about Pascal the other day with people, and I don’t think a lot of people understand how influential he was, [at least] for us when we’re sitting around joking about cooking. The way we built this kitchen is in complete opposition to the way people are building kitchens now, spending a lot of money on really great gear or, there’s a lot of open-fire cooking right now, so there are a lot of custom builders. [The industry is] kind of exploding in that way, and we were just like…

A: Ugh, gross.

J: We didn’t have any money, and we said let’s just buy the most stock, ordinary stuff. And I wanted to cook in cast iron, but I saw this picture in Pascal’s techniques book — his Astrance book has a techniques section — and he’s cooking all of his shit in…

A: Teflon.

J: In Teflon!

A: It’s inspiring.

J: With painter’s spatulas. And we were like, he’s one of the most brilliant chefs of his generation, [and he’s] using just Teflon and painter’s tools. That’s awesome. So we both said we’re just going to buy a bunch of Teflon pans and sauce pots, and if you look in the kitchen, that’s all we have. We don’t even have sautée pans. So, we grill things and we cook in pots, and…

A: Boil. A lot of things are cooked in water.

J: Everything is boiled. Boiled and grilled, and that’s it.

You mentioned the Pete Wells review, and you were also just given a nod as one of the Best New Restaurants in America in GQ. What are you most surprised by, in terms of how both critics and diners have received Chez Ma Tante?

J: Is it strange to say I don’t find any of it really surprising? I find it more surprising that people like it as much as they do than what they pick up on because… you put yourself out there. I’m not going to say an artist, but as a craftsperson, you stick your neck out to be criticized when you become a public entity — which is a restaurant — and if you’ve never really been judged before, you have no idea how anyone’s going to perceive you, or how you project your personality. So, for people to understand us in a way that actually feels right is the most surprising part. It’s a relief that you don’t feel like you were playing yourself or projecting anything that’s not real.

A: I’ve been surprised that people have gotten it, as well.

J: from Sietsema to Wells…

A: The Robs.

J: The Robs. They’ve all kind of nailed what we were going for, and I appreciate it.

Al fresco dining. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

To that end, what are you most proud of? Or maybe it’s just that, that people do understand what you’re going for.

J: After the review, we had a chance to address the staff and I was so excited that I DM’d Pete Wells personally. I’d never spoken to the man in my life, and I just said to him, “Pete, thanks so much for hearing us. It was always a pleasure to have you.” And I thought it was very important; I mean, he understands the importance of words. It was very short but I meant it, that I felt very understood at that moment, and that was critical.

A: Proudest of? I have to say it’s the staff. The people that work with Jake and I? Amazing. Really dedicated people. We’re very lucky. Lucky to have the people that we have. Because for a while we didn’t have anyone, it was just me and Jake. Once the momentum is rolling and everyone is contributing to a restaurant that is improving, and everyone wants to be apart of it, pushing forward…. the energy gets better and better, the restaurant improves and improves, and then, at one point, you’re watching all these great things happen around you. Some of the staff might be already ahead of you on fixing certain things, or making things better… and that’s inspiring.

You are both first-time restaurant owners. What is the hardest thing you’ve learned along the way?

A: All the admin.

J: Plumbing.

J: No, I think that being smart about constructing your deal is a huge one. Uh, what’s the hardest part about being an owner?

A: I don’t know, it’s sticking to your guns, and sticking to what you believe in, and not compromising.

J: I found that came very naturally. I was called mule-headed. [Our original partners] thought we were really cocky, because we had a really good idea of what we wanted to do. I guess we did come across as mule-headed a little bit, because they’re all older and more experienced than us. When they told us we had to change, because at a certain point we were struggling, it was very natural to say, ‘Fuck, no. There’s no way we’re changing.’ I looked at Aidan and I said, “Will you go down with me?” And he was like, “I got nothing else to do.” Later that week, our first review came out in Eater and that changed everything for us. So, I don’t think that’s the hardest part. Sticking to our guns was easy.

A: It’s easy now, it’s easy to say that now. We’re successful.

J: It was scary, but there was no option of backing down. That wasn’t a difficulty. The difficulties, for me, were the day in, day out of not knowing if you’re going to succeed — going further and further into debt, constantly not knowing whether you’re doing the right thing, not paying yourself, just having absolutely no sense of anything. It was completely free floating. To convince myself that it was worth it every single day… there was a lot of anxiety that goes into that.

How do you see the restaurant evolving? You just celebrated your first anniversary. Do you see it continuing on in the same vein, or…

A: Hopefully staying the same. It’d be nice to paint it. And to pursue the food deeper. Better service, better food, but staying true to what it is. I think there’s still a lot of work to do, in terms of really honing in, and building up a repertoire.

The Caesar salad. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

Is there anything on the menu that you’re really tied to, that you’ll never take it off?

A: Caesar salad.

J: Honestly, no. But yeah, Caesar, for sure. We’re both letting people tell us what they want to see around and what they feel is fine to lose. So we’re kind of basing it on that.

A:  I’m really tied to the olives.

J: Yeah, (laughs), really tied to the olives.

A: The pancakes.

J: Yeah, sure… but if we were to just continue creating… if we had to rewrite a menu tomorrow, with no repeats, would it be that difficult?

In unison: I don’t think so.

A: It’d be a different menu.

J: It’d just be a different menu, but it’d be the same restaurant. We’d cook the same style. I’m not terribly married to anything. But I’m happy with it.

Do you ever do off-menu stuff?

A: Yes

J: [Recently,] I was on the floor, I went to go say hi to someone, and I heard an older gentleman ask if we had any green beans. And I said, “I don’t have any green beans. But I’d love to grill you some asparagus.” I know that sounds very simple, but we’re very accommodating because we want it to be a neighborhood restaurant. We know that sometimes the menu seems restricted, but we’re very keen on making sure that people are happy. It’s not like because we’re chefs we think you need to have exactly the experience that we think you should have — we’re not married to that at all.

The duo at their Greenpoint locale. Photo credit: Mike Grippi.

What are your favorite places to eat in New York? When you’re off, where do you go?

A: I go to Balthazar a lot. The bar. I have a martini and the tartare. Pretty solid.

That’s a good one.

A: I like King.

J: I like King a lot, too. I’m going to King this weekend.

A: Hart’s is good.

J: I love Hart’s. Oh, I love Hart’s, thank you for reminding me. Hart’s is a couple blocks from my house, I go to Hart’s a lot.

A: I go to Frenchette way too much.

J: Yeah, he goes to Frenchette once a week.

A: And Balthazar once a week.

J: I go to Uncle Boons as often as possible. I love Uncle Boons. And I love Uncle Boons Sister. Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I will definitely go to Uncle Boons.

J: I love pizza. I go to Roberta’s a lot.

A: Roberta’s is good.

Roberta’s is your favorite pizza?

J: I don’t know about favorite…

We won’t go there.

J: Favorite pizza is a hard question, but it’s my favorite place to go when I just want to…

A: Chill out.

And what’s your go-to order, although you said at Balthazar, tartare and martini?

A: Vodka martini. I really should be drinking gin but…

What about you, do you have a go-to drink at a bar?

J: Dude, I’m a gin martini drinker. You drink vodka martinis?

A: I’m a weirdo.

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