“Is there anything else you’d like to share about her?”
“The one thing I will say is that she should have been in the spotlight a long time ago. I’m happy that she’s getting some recognition now, but it’s been a long time coming.”
After Ayesha Nurdjaja, the acclaimed executive chef and partner behind Shukette and Shuka, hangs up, her parting words float in the air. Why had it taken so long for Vicki Freeman, Nurdjaja’s partner and the restaurateur behind some of New York’s most longstanding neighborhood restaurants, to get national attention?
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It was only this year that the James Beard Foundation named Freeman as a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category alongside her partners Marc Meyer and Chris Paraskevaides (Nurdjaja was also named a finalist for Best Chef: New York State).
The trio behind the Bowery Group owns and operates five restaurants in New York — the newest being the nearly year-old Shukette, a dazzling display of live-fire Middle Eastern cooking powered by Nurdjaja; the oldest being Cookshop, a 17-year-old Chelsea fixture with a farm-to-table ethos before it (and the neighborhood) was cool.
And in between the two: Vic’s, Rosie’s, and Shuka, restaurants whose neighborhoods they inhabit and whose residents they cater to are as cherished and treasured as they come. So, why isn’t Freeman a more recognizable household name in the league of big-time New York City restaurateurs?
When we meet in Cookshop’s maze-like basement, outfitted with a gym, a library, and a pool table for her employees, the bespectacled restaurateur shows up dressed all in black (Freeman is a born-and-bred New Yorker after all). Over the course of two hours, Freeman offers me a glimpse into her impressive, three-decades-long career, though you’d never hear her say it as such. No, in her words, she got to where she is either “weirdly” or “organically.” (She’s extremely humble.) But the recurring thought that comes up with every one of her stories, is this: Freeman’s got a knack for picking the chefs she partners with. And not only picking them, but for truly trusting and empowering them thereafter.
See for yourself.
Marc Meyer and Cookshop
In 1993, Freeman met her partner in business and in life when she hired Marc Meyer as the head chef at Vix, her very first restaurant. They were married four years later.
Freeman went on to open the first of the Bowery Group’s restaurants, Five Points, in 1999. Four months in, she convinced Meyer to take a leap of faith and leave his executive chef position at Ark Restaurants to come in as her chef and partner. She snatched Chris Paraskevaides, her old roommate who, at the time, was the director of operations at BR Guest Hospitality. And so, their restaurant empire began.
Freeman is brutally honest about the hurdles and lessons learned from opening Five Points — couples counseling, sleepless nights, insecurities about the restaurant, and all. Five Points was championing a true farm-to-table menu from the start, but nobody cared or knew then. That all changed with Cookshop.
Meyer had been itching to do a whole animal butchery program to further his vision, but it required a restaurant with space, lots of it. It was whilst on a bike ride that he happened upon the 3,500-square-foot space on the corner of Tenth Avenue and 20th. Freeman jokes that she didn’t even want to visit it. This was pre-High Line, Chelsea Market, and designer shops, and she refused to be in the middle of nowhere.
She relented, finally, and was about halfway done with the walkthrough when she told Meyer and Paraskevaides to call the broker — it was kismet. It felt right.
On opening night in 2005, a huge six-foot chalkboard that was supposed to list wines by the glass was left blank amid the crazed pre-service rush. “Just put the names of the farmers and farms,” Meyer said, of the purveyors they were partnering with. That chalkboard — which still looms large in the dining room today — catapulted them to fame; no one was name-dropping their producers like that back then.
Cookshop only blossomed from that point on, and at 17 years old, it remains a Chelsea destination for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many people have praised them for how smart they were in picking the space, but Freeman is extremely honest, again, “We were actually dumb in taking this space. We didn’t know any of this stuff* was going to happen” (*any of this stuff meaning the High Line, et al).
And it was at Cookshop where Freeman experienced what she deems one of the most gratifying moments of her career: The first night the restaurant reopened after it closed during the pandemic.
“I just think I cried the whole day,” she smiles. “People brought us flowers and Champagne. The neighborhood was so happy to have us reopen.”
Angel Andrade and Rosie’s
“Angel is why we did Rosie’s.”
And so, Freeman introduces the next chef she and Meyer championed: Angel Andrade, Rosie’s chef de cuisine-turned-executive chef, who helmed the restaurant from the moment it opened in 2015 and up until December 2020. Before that, he was the executive sous chef at Cookshop for nearly a decade — in total, Andrade was with the Bowery Group for more than 15 years.
Freeman jokes that Meyer may have been Mexican in a previous life, explaining his deep admiration and respect for Mexican cuisine and culture. He studied under the great Mexican cuisine authority Diana Kennedy and made frequent trips south of the border to the invitation of his Mexican kitchen colleagues. One of them was Andrade, who brought him to his home of Puebla, Mexico many times, where Meyer would make goat roasts with him and his family.
Meyer wanted to open a restaurant with Andrade, Freeman recalls, and was adamant about sticking true to Mexico’s culinary traditions. And so, Rosie’s was built, with Andrade pulling heavily from his own family recipes to inspire the menu: dishes like tlacoyos and pollo en mole poblano, with fresh tortillas made from masa nixtamalized in-house.
When it opened, Rosie’s was written up among the likes of Cosme for bringing a new wave of higher-end Mexican cuisine to the city. And seven years later, it’s still an East Village standby centered around a wood-fired comal, where expert ladies press and flip fresh tortillas throughout the night.
Hillary Sterling and Vic’s
As Freeman puts it, no one was planning for Vic’s to happen. No, Freeman and the rest of the Bowery Group crew were in the middle of building out Rosie’s when she had the (mis)fortune of running into her good friend, Missy Robbins, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Bleecker.
“She was like, ‘Which way are you walking? I have this chef I want you to meet. She’s incredible.’” They ended up walking two blocks and spending three hours talking about a chef Robbins insisted Freeman and Meyer meet: Hillary Sterling.
Seen that name in the food press lately? As Ci Siamo’s executive chef, Sterling has received a parade of accolades. But do you know where she worked at last? At Vic’s, where she was the executive chef and a partner for seven years.
“I immediately knew it was the right fit,” Sterling remembers of her first meeting with Freeman. “[Vicki] seemed intent on really giving me a platform that allowed me to discover and hone my style for the first time in my career.”
After tasting Sterling’s food, Freeman and company closed Five Points after 18 years in business right then and there. They transformed it into Vic’s, so that Sterling could be in total reign of what would become a lauded and beloved Italian kitchen.
“Greatest decision we ever made,” says Freeman. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved Five Points. We were open 18 years — I was proud of it. And I was proud to move on.”
Ayesha Nurdjaja and Shuka + Shukette
In 2008, Freeman and her partners opened a rustic American restaurant named Hundred Acres. After nine years, they pivoted the space to turn into something completely different. Why? You know it by now: because of a chef, Ayesha Nurdjaja.
Nurdjaja was hired to be Hundred Acres’ executive chef in 2015 (she became a partner within the year), after meeting with Freeman for a job interview that wound up turning into a “two-and-a-half hour conversation about life, travel, food, and restaurants,” Nurdjaja recalls.
Though her background was in Italian food, Nurdjaja had Middle Eastern cuisine in mind when she joined, and little by little, started sneaking more turmeric onto the pork chops and subbed the chive biscuits for pita. On New Year’s Eve of 2016, Nurdjaja finally put her foot down.
“I was like, ‘I can’t do another prix-fixe menu. I want to do a night in Marrakesh. I want to make it look like a shuk in here, hang silk from the ceilings, and have a Middle Eastern family-style feast.”
Her gamble paid off: Freeman and the team revamped the Hundred Acres space at night for two months, closed for a week, and then launched Shuka in the fall of 2017.
Freeman is quick to point out that she never planned to open a Middle Eastern restaurant. Nor did she plan for Vic’s and Rosie’s to happen, or even Cookshop to an extent. But after seeing what Nurdjaja could do, Freeman planned for something else. The two of them took trips to Israel and London for inspiration, and started to dream of a long counter where the cooks would be out in the open.
“Being a chef, you’re always in the back, right?” says Nurdjaja, “Back of the house, downstairs, the basement. All the times you’re cooking, the food goes out the door and you never get to see the reaction. But what is it like for a cook or a chef to see people’s instant reaction to your food?”
After a pandemic-delayed opening, Shukette welcomed diners in July 2021. The James Beard nomination for Nurdjaja came less than a year later, but for her, having Shukette be fully her own means something else.
“In my 20’s, I wanted the Michelin star,” says Nurdjaja. “I wanted to be recognized. But when I’m at my pass at Shukette, look down, and all 30 seats at the bar are filled and the restaurant’s humming … What more could you want than that?”
Toward the end of our chat, I ask Freeman what it was like receiving the James Beard nomination as a semifinalist.
“I was actually gobsmacked. I mean, no one’s ever really known us and that’s fine. People I hadn’t heard from for years were calling. The biggest surprise was that I was really excited. I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever.’”
But Freeman deserves the recognition. Not only for championing and backing chefs she believes in, or for truly committing to a farm-to-table ethos at every single one of her restaurants, but because she is incredibly successful. It takes a lot of savvy, resilience, and gutsiness to be in the New York hospitality industry in the first place, let alone for three decades.
Again, she’d never tell you this herself. And she doesn’t need to: Her restaurants speak volumes. Go to any of them and you’ll feel it, the warmth and thought that’s infused in every dining room, from the playful mismatched antique cutlery (last seen at Shukette), to the genuinely attentive service (last experienced at Cookshop). It’s not only her chefs whom she caters to; it’s her customers, too.
Whatever anyone says, one thing’s for sure: Vicki Freeman is a veteran New York restaurateur who still very much loves what she does.