Chef de Cuisine, Maialino
About the Chef
Chef Jason Pfeifer has always had a strong passion for food. After graduating high school, he hiked up the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, where he lived in the woods and developed an extreme fascination with mushrooms. A year later, Chef Jason hiked to the Sunnybank Inn in North Carolina, which gave him the opportunity to forage and cook for the Inn guests. He went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America and did his externship at Gramercy Tavern, where he stayed after graduating for about two years before moving on to work under Chef Thomas Keller at Per Se. In 2009, he helped to open Maialino, a neighborhood trattoria from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, located in Gramercy Park. Chef Jason has been cooking at Maialino for the past five years, taking a short break along the way to work at Noma in Copenhagen. As Chef de Cuisine, he creates delicious, comforting dishes that celebrate local ingredients and draw inspiration from both Rome and New York City.
Maialino: 2 Lexington Ave (at East 21st Street)
Chef Jason Pfeifer at Maialino
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in North Carolina. I lived all over – Raleigh, Durham, Hot Springs, and Candor. I moved around a lot when I was a young. I spent most of my youth there, but lived in Minneapolis briefly before moving to New York.
What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
Barbecue is such a huge thing in North Carolina. I remember going to family reunions where there would be whole pigs cooking all day long, and everyone would run over to take pictures when they flipped the pig to the other side. (Laughing) It was a lot of fun. As far as my family goes, my mom worked as a pastry chef for a local bakery and my grandmother was also very talented when it came to pastries. My grandfather was really the only savory cook. Every year, my mom baked me a cake for my birthday and it was always elaborate. I remember one year she made a cake with football players all over it. (Laughing) My family was an inspiration to me when I was a kid, and I always associated food with fond memories.
At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
What I’m getting from the market that I’m in love with right now are Asian pears and apples. They are exceptional. For me, being so close to the Union Square Market is awesome. It’s such a great resource for finding ingredients at their peak. I fall in love with ingredients here and there throughout the year, and if I find one thing that really stands out, I fixate on it and incorporate it into the menu in different ways. Currently, we are using apples in a raw fluke crudo dish and Asian pears in a radicchio salad with balsamic and parmesan.
What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
I would say just a good chef’s knife. It is the hardest thing for me to cook in other people’s kitchens now, especially when I go home to see my family and they want me to cook. That’s why I started flying with my own knives. (Laughing) It’s such a basic tool for chefs, but a lot of people don’t realize their importance and how much easier cooking becomes when you have a good, clean, sharp chef’s knife.
If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
My all-time musical love is Tom Petty. I saw him in concert with my dad when I was thirteen years old at a big amphitheater called Walnut Creek in North Carolina. I remember the free-spirit feeling that was in the air – it was such a cool, relaxed vibe. Since that one show, Tom Petty has been an artist that I listen to on a daily basis. I also listen to a lot of blues and jazz. John Coltrane is one of my all-time favorites as well. I love to cook and listen to music at the same time. My musical taste does have a big influence on my food, and I can definitely feel the direction in which I go culinary based on what I’m listening to. Taking into consideration all of the experiences from the different restaurants that I have worked in, I consider which components are going to be elegant and which are going to be rustic, and I try to bring them together. When it comes to plating, we try to achieve ‘harmonious scattering’. We don’t want things to look too intentional, but we do want them to look beautiful.
Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Going back down South is always awesome for me. Barbecue is the first thing I get as I start heading down there. I have a motorcycle and I take it down 95 all the way to Carolina. Once I hit Virginia, I start hitting all of the roadside stops. I hit up all of the Virginia barbecue and then once I get to the Carolinas, I check out all of that barbecue, too. It’s amazing. Outside of the US, I had some incredible food when I was in Denmark – really interesting stuff that I had never tried before. By far, my most prominent memory of international cuisine is the time that I spent in the Philippines. I was in Manila for a few days and traveled around the rest of the time. It was such a profound experience. I got to try so much interesting food: balut (boiled duck egg with a small embryo inside), dinuguan (a savory stew made of pig’s blood and innards), and much more. And I really got to be a part of the cooking process. When we opened Maialino, the menu was heavily influenced by my trip. Someone said, “Hey, let’s do this whole roasted suckling pig”, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve done that before! This is how we did it when I was in the Philippines.” We had all of these suckling pig legs left over and I said, “Well, I have an idea. Let’s do crispy pata!” So we had crispy pata (a Filipino dish of deep fried pork legs) on our menu, along with chicharrones with a vinegar dipping sauce, which I ate as a street food every day in the Philippines. I was there for two weeks and it totally changed my world, food wise.
If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I would be a mechanic, for sure. (Smiling) I have an obsession with motorcycles! If I’m not in the kitchen, I’m at home playing with an engine. I took one of those career assessments when I was really young and the results said I should be a mechanic or something where I could use my hands. As a child, I was also interested in art. So cooking for me is a blend of all of those things — I’m able to use my hands and senses as well as my artistic side to create something beautiful.
Which chef do you admire most right now?
Let’s see. That’s a really hard question because there are so many great chefs. Each one is very unique and there are different things that I appreciate about each person’s style and cuisine. I’ve had the privilege of working for a few truly amazing chefs, including Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno, who are some of the greatest influences in my life. Working with Rene Redzepi was unlike anything I’d ever done before. And then there’s Michael Anthony and Nick Anderer, who are both incredible. They are all so different and inspiring in their own ways.
When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I love a restaurant called Hagi on 49th Street. It’s a little hole in the wall that serves lots of crazy offals and weird fried things. It’s super simple and they have an awesome cheap sake menu. Such a fun place! I’ve had some great meals at Estela and I enjoy Ignacio Mattos’ food. I live in Brooklyn, right by Roberta’s, which is my go to, for sure. I think that Roberta’s has had an effect on the neighborhood in the same way that Maialino has had an effect on this area. We tried to model Maialino after a Roman trattoria and make it feel like an extension of the neighborhood, and Roberta’s has done the same. It’s such an amazing spot and the food is fantastic.
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?
I spent about two and half years of my life as a vegan and another couple of years as a vegetarian. At the time, it was about knowing where my food was coming from and being conscious of my health and what I was putting into my body. As I became a chef, I realized that there are really great reputable sources for proteins and fish. Instead of cutting those things out completely, I focus on finding great places to work with to source those ingredients from. If I had to give up anything, I guess it would be sugar and fat, as hard as that would be. I love eating meat and fish and I definitely can’t give up vegetables or starch!