Table Talk with Chef Preston Madson and Chef Ginger Pierce

Current Gig
Executive Chefs at Freemans, Peels, and Isa

About the Chefs
Chef Ginger Pierce began her career at Grapevine, a catering company in Northern California, while attending culinary school. Across the country, Chef Preston Madson was cooking at a small Italian restaurant in his hometown in Georgia before moving to Oregon to work at a pizza microbrewery. Both chefs wound up at Roxanne’s, a raw food restaurant in the Bay Area, where they met and began dating. Together, they moved to New York City and spent time cooking at Barbuto under their mentor, Chef Jonathan Waxman. Chef Ginger moved on to work at Provence and Five Points, while Chef Preston went to Cookshop, Provence, and Hundred Acres.  Several years ago, they became the Executive Chefs of Freemans, Peels, and Isa. Along the way, Chef Ginger and Chef Preston got married and had a little boy named Sebastian. They have worked side by side in the same kitchens for eight of the eleven years that they have known each other.

Freemans: 191 Chrystie Street (between Stanton and Rivington)
Peels: 325 Bowery (at East 2nd Street)
Isa: 348 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 

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Chef Preston Madson and Chef Ginger Pierce at Freemans

Where did you grow up?
Ginger
: I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. When I was four, my family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. My entire extended family stayed in Alaska, so we often spent summers and holidays there. A lot of my culinary influences are from Alaska, like fishing and learning the different ways that my grandfather prepared fish. I was also really influenced by the Bay Area, which has such amazing produce. Fresh vegetables and fruits are my favorite things to eat, especially avocados. I could put avocado on everything. (Smiling)
Preston: I grew up in southern Georgia, down by Savannah.  I came from a large family where we had big Sunday suppers every week.  I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom and my grandmother – I learned so much from them. After culinary school, I moved out to the Bay Area where I got into the whole fresh produce thing – everything was really fresh.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Ginger: I was an extremely picky eater as a kid. I mostly just ate oatmeal, pickles, and fresh fruit. I wouldn’t eat cooked vegetables – only raw vegetables. It’s amazing to my parents now that I do what I do as a chef. (Laughing) Simple things were always the most satisfying to me. I remember having beer battered halibut – I thought it was the most amazing thing when I was five years old. (Smiling) My grandfather made smoked salmon – Alaskan style smoked salmon, which is more like smoked trout. Growing up in California, we ate Mexican food every day. It’s one of my favorite cuisines. We also ate a lot of fantastic Thai food, Indian food…
Preston: Yeah, I never had any of that until I got out of Georgia. (Laughing) I grew up eating fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens – all of the usual Southern fare.
Ginger: It’s really funny because I never had true renditions of those Southern dishes until we started dating.
Preston: Yeah – when we started dating and started eating meat again. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
Preston: I’ve been really into fresh shelling beans, like lima beans – they are so good right now. For some reason they came out really late this year. Cranberry beans are great, too, and I’m still waiting to see fresh black-eyed peas.
Ginger: Some of my favorite things to eat right now are stone fruits, like nectarines and plums, but that’s all kind of coming to an end. I tend to get on a kick with something and I just can’t have enough of it. I’m obsessed with marinated beets right now. I’ve also had some great apples this year. Last night we did a salad with marinated beets, apples, pears, Napa cabbage slaw, maple roasted walnuts and an orange walnut vinaigrette. It was pretty tasty. I love slaws. I’m obsessed with them because I want to eat healthy and feel satisfied at the same time – slaws are a great way to achieve that.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Ginger: A good knife. A nice, sharp knife makes a huge difference. You usually just need one good chef’s knife, although it helps to have a small paring knife as well. Another thing that’s great to have is a mortar and pestle.
Preston: That’s what I was going to say! (Smiling) It’s my favorite thing to use at home. We don’t even have a food processor. If we want to puree something, we just chop it finely and then grind it in the mortar and pestle.
Ginger: It’s also more conducive to preparing smaller amounts of things. With a blender or food processor, you end up making way more than you need. We literally use the mortar and pestle for everything we make at home.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
Ginger: Hmm, that’s tough. Maybe classic rock, like the Velvet Underground. (Laughing) Or Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Preston: Yeah, CCR. I’d say that our food is like rock music that’s easy to listen to.
Ginger:  Classic and straightforward.
Preston: Our styles are so similar because we’ve been cooking together for so long. We’ve known each other for eleven years, and out of those eleven years, we didn’t work together for three.
Ginger: We really like working together. And in this industry, if you don’t, you’ll never see each other because you work so much.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Ginger: South America is great. We really enjoyed the food in Colombia. We also go back to California and to the South often because our families are there. Let me think – where else have we been? We had a great food experience in Amsterdam.
Preston: There’s a lot of French influence in the food there, but it depends on what area you’re in.
Ginger: In Amsterdam, there’s this amazing restaurant there called De Kas. It’s in a greenhouse and they grow a bunch of herbs and different things in there. The cool part about Amsterdam is that there are all of these chefs that open small restaurants and do a prix fixe every night. You just show up and eat whatever they are serving. The restaurants are usually so small that the chef prepares every dish.
Preston: I’d also like to go back to Morocco. That was some of the best food I’ve ever had, and the least expensive. You can get a full meal for so cheap.  We’d also love to go to Italy.
Ginger: Yeah, I’d love to go back to Italy and do a lot of eating.
Preston: That’s pretty much all we do on vacation – just eat! (Laughing)

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
Preston: This is all I have wanted to do since I was four or five, so I honestly can’t even imagine doing anything else.
Ginger: I probably would have reverted back to academia, but it’s hard to say. I really enjoy what I do and I can’t see myself doing anything else.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Ginger: There are a lot of people that are doing really cool stuff.  It’s hard to choose just one because there are so many different reasons to appreciate different chefs. I would say the restaurateur that I admire most is Danny Meyer. The level of service that you experience in his restaurants is far and away better than most other places. I’ve been made to feel so comforted and taken care of. We’ve eaten at a lot of nice restaurants, and the experiences at Danny Meyer’s restaurants have been really high quality.
Preston: I’d say Jonathan Waxman. He’s our mentor. We both worked for him at Barbuto – it was our first job here in the city. He’s a great guy.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
Ginger: Ever since we had our son, it’s been so much harder to go out to eat. I’m sure as he gets older it will be easier, but for now, we go to more casual or lunch spots.  We eat at Barbuto a lot. Our fine dining meals recently have been Gramercy Tavern and Maialino. We also love local spots in Brooklyn, like Vinegar Hill House. Hmm, I’m trying think where else…
Preston: I can’t even remember where we ate out last. We mostly just cook at home.
Ginger: We also have a house up in the Hudson Valley area, so we go up there on the weekends and  cook there.  We tend to eat out less during this time of year – why eat out when there are so many amazing ingredients to cook with? (Pause) Oh! I remember now – the last meal we ate out was Korean BBQ in Flushing for our anniversary.
Preston: That was great. Next time we have to go with more people because there was so much food. I was like, I don’t even know what this is, but I want to try it! (Laughing)

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
Ginger: That’s really hard. I feel like my first response would be meat and fish because I’m kind of indifferent to it. Then I thought I could give up fat and sugars…
Preston: But then what are you going to put on bread and potatoes? That would suck.
Ginger: True. Fruits and vegetables are definitely a no go. I could NEVER give those up. I think I would give up bread and potatoes. I don’t know.
Preston: Pasta falls into that category…  that sucks for you. (Both laughing)
Ginger: Hmm, I guess I’d say either bread and potatoes or meat and fish.
Preston: Does bacon fat count as part of fat and sugar? I would give up fat and sugar and then just douse everything in bacon fat or duck fat. (Laughing)
Ginger: Where do nuts and seeds fall? Would that be fat and sugar?
Preston: Well, they re-did the food pyramid recently so there’s no telling where they would be now. (Both laughing) All you need is some bacon fat and you’re good to go. (More laughter)

Table Talk with Chef Preston Madson and Chef Ginger Pierce