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Public notice: Chef draws attention with personal style

| Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007

Roaming the globe, Chef Brad Farmerie plucks flavors, culinary techniques and experiences from diverse cultures.

He then filters these references through his personal, contemporary vision to realize a unique brand of fusion cuisine. The former Pittsburgher says his eclectic cooking style focuses on "richness, acidity and texture." But a restless curiosity and an adventurous palate bolster bold explorations. This is not your '90s fusion.

"First-hand food experience in various cultures is absolutely essential," says Farmerie, explaining his commitment to world-ranging travel. "It's better than culinary school. You can read all you want about seafood in Southeast Asia, but it's not the same as sailing down the Mekong eating fish right out of the water."

As a result of the chef's wanderlust, diners at Public -- his flagship restaurant in New York City -- encounter unusual ingredients: sumac and pickled limes from India; yuzu from Japan; Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia, black vinegar from China, avocado oil and game from Australia and New Zealand. But they will find the dishes maximized for flavor, easy to love, and not trapped in exotica.

In a North Vietnam village, Farmerie once ate a 10-course snake dinner, including a still-beating cobra heart. But he's not likely to repeat that experience. And don't expect to find it on Public's menu. On the other hand, you won't find chicken or beef on the menu either. The chef enjoys serving less common items -- guinea fowl, wild boar, venison -- introducing diners to new tastes.

The menu changes frequently, although some popular items linger longer. The chef's style of "free-spirited fusion" produces such fine dishes as marinated white anchovies on quinoa croquettes with spicy saffron aioli; grilled scallops with sweet chile sauce, crème fraîche and green plantain crisps; and grilled kangaroo on a coriander falafel with lemon tahini sauce and green pepper relish.

Public offers thoughtfully-selected wines -- especially well-aged antipodean bottles, purchased through special auctions in Sydney, as well as artisinal labels that pair brilliantly with the kitchen's exuberant food. The restaurant also features a special chef's choice wine reserve program, and its wine focus spills over into The Monday Room, a next-door wine bar.

The Chef

Brad Farmerie grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from North Allegheny High School -- as did his brother, Adam, of AvroKO, the design company that conceived, designed, owns and operates Public. He attributes his career choice -- and his inspiration -- to his mother, Linda, an avid home cook who grew her own organic garden, before organic was a buzzword. She cooked "from scratch" and baked all of the family's bread -- "none of that fluffy white stuff," Farmerie notes.

"Chefs have parents who are either terrible cooks or wonderful cooks," says Farmerie. "Our mother is an amazing cook. She exposed us to lots of ethnic food and seasonal organic vegetables. We grew up eating well."

Pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at Penn State University, Farmerie earned extra money cooking in small restaurants that offered enticing opportunities for creativity. Two years into his academic studies, he realized that he enjoyed his sideline better than the rigid rules of mechanical engineering. Cooking claimed his passion and set his career direction.

Meanwhile, his brother Adam, living in London, suggested that Brad join him there. In the mid '90s, a culinary revolution was transforming that city's dining scene. The chef-to-be crossed the Atlantic, earned a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and worked around town for high-profile chefs -- including Raymond Blanc, of Le Manoir a Quat' Saisons and especially New Zealand-born Peter Gordon. The planned year's stay in the UK stretched into seven years.

These London years gave Farmerie a solid foundation of culinary skills. He also found a key mentor in Gordon, a leading "fusion" chef who connected him to the wonderful wines and products of Australia and New Zealand. He first worked for Gordon in 1996 at The Sugar Club, and later, in 2002, helped him and Anna Hansen open The Providores and Tapa Room. He then decamped for New York City. In 2003 he, brother Adam and AvroKO launched Public.

The Restaurant

Located in New York City's Lower East Side neighborhood of NoLita, Public expresses what's been dubbed a "municipal" aesthetic.

As the name implies, the restaurant's concept references all manner of public spaces, institutions and government entities. Also, by extension, it evokes qualities of public service, community and accessibility. On the restaurant's debut, in competition with all major architectural design firms in the country, Public's designer/owner AvroKO took home two James Beard Awards -- Outstanding Restaurant Design and Outstanding Restaurant Graphics, an unprecedented sweep.

The building itself -- erected in 1886, redesigned in 1920 and gutted for this restaurant project -- originally housed two electric companies: Brush Electric and United Electric Light and Power. Prolific inventor Thomas Alva Edison, credited with, among many other things, generating the world's first power utility distribution system, is said to have worked at one time from an upstairs office.

Public's welcoming, vibrant space functions on many levels. A vaulted brick ceiling prompts anticipation of the sort associated with the gilded era of railroad travel. A small parlor, with fireplace, offers intimate comfort. A soaring, sky-lighted, sunken lounge gives grace to industrial chic. In the private wine room, you're immersed in a beautiful surround of wine bottles. In the dining room, the old loading dock door opens to fresh air in warm weather.

Notably, the AvroKO team pulled many elements from old public buildings.

A wall of vintage brass mailboxes visually defines Public's wine program. Individuals purchase memberships, receiving a box number and key. Each month, Brad Farmerie selects a fine bottle and slides it into the box along with his tasting notes and suggestions for food pairings.

Old public library wooden card catalog drawers file past menus. The shelves above stash lifestyle books and magazines from the '30s, '40s and '50s. It is, in part, an homage to Brad's and Adam's mother, a librarian at Northland Public Library.

Salvage from a defunct schoolhouse yielded frosted glass bathroom doors.

Throughout, rough materials contrast with rich woods. Retro light bulbs and fixtures find modern expression. Sleek contemporary idioms counterpoint nostalgia.

Even the restaurant's award-winning graphics continue the message. Menus, printed in Courier typeface, on manila stock, arrive on clipboards. All collateral materials simulate government-issue record ledgers, library cards and office forms -- lined, stamped and numbered.

Public's design seamlessly cues the concept of public access, approachable food and an egalitarian gathering place. But its fresh edginess avoids thematic cliche.


Company blooms from Carnegie students' creativity

Four smart, talented students met while studying at Carnegie Mellon University. Each had distinctive skills and mindsets, but Adam Farmerie, William Harris, Greg Bradshaw and Kristina O'Neal discovered that they shared a passion for innovative, provocative design. In 2000, the young friends brought together their diverse expertise to establish AvroKO (www.avroko.com), one of the most forward-thinking design firms in the market.

AvroKO's press materials describe the New York City-based firm as an "idea engine." Its name is reportedly inspired by the Avro 512 aircraft: "a collection of parts, each with its unique role, seamlessly combines in a high-functioning machine."

This gifted group, with an infectious camaraderie, revels in inspired design solutions that are not only "outside the box," but also expressions of an integrated, organic creative process -- a subject to be covered in their first book, "Best Ugly," set for release in April.

In addition to the four principals, AvroKO has grown to more than 25 employees, currently focused on two types of projects: self-propelled and client-driven.

Public -- wholly conceived, designed, owned and operated by AvroKO -- was the firm's first self-propelled venture. The Monday Room is another.

Additional Information:

The Brad Farmerie file

Title: Executive chef of Public, New York City.

Born: March 12, 1973.

Hometown: Pittsburgh.

Education: North Allegheny High School; Penn State University; Le Cordon Bleu, London.

Work History: In U.K. 1996-2002: Sugar Club, Coast, Chez Nico, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, The Providores and Tapa Room. In New York City, 2003, opened Public

Career Highlights: Opening Public three years ago achieved Farmerie's goal of heading his own kitchen by age 30; named by Food Arts magazine, in October 2006, as one of 10 'Emerging Tastemakers' in the USA; named a 2005 'Rising Star' by StarChefs; named by Global magazine one of the top 50 'Chefs to Watch'; working with the world's top chefs at charity events.

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