When I was invited to dine at FireBird, I was not expecting much. The area is known for sub-par restaurants with Prix-Fixe theater menus. I could not have been more wrong. FireBird is lovely in every sense of the word. The restaurant is decorated in classic Russian luxury. There are golden details, beautiful paintings, antique furniture. But what’s really impressive is the almost modernist take Chef Paul Joseph imbues on classic Russian dishes. I left immediately wanting to go back. I am thrilled that Chef Joseph took time to answer a few of my questions. Seriously, read on…and make reservations. I think their Valentine’s Day menu would be a perfect way to experience FireBird.
Blanca Valbuena: While everything I ate at FireBird was delicious, I remember how amazing the vegetables were. This was the reason I asked to meet you. Imagine my surprise when an almost vegan Rastafarian Chef came out to meet me. How did you end up as a meat cooking chef?
Chef Paul Joseph: I wanted to be a successful chef and be recognized at what I do by my peers. To do so, I knew I had to take everything in the kitchen very serious. Whether it’s fish, meat, pork or vegetables. My philosophy is everything has its purpose and reason in the kitchen, nothing personal was too interfered with what I do in the kitchen that would reflect the dining room.
BV: Tell me a little more about your background; did you grow up cooking, or was this something that developed later in life?
CPJ: Growing up, I always had a love for numbers. And throughout my teenage years, any organization that dealt with math I would join it. I went to college and earn a degree in accounting. My change of career came when I’d realized as much as I love math, I was doing the same thing days in days out, crunching numbers as an accountant. One day I took a part time job at a very unusual place for a future chef to begin a career in culinary art. There, it reminded me of growing up in Haiti as a child in a semi-large family where it was a ritual that all four of my siblings’ and i must know how to cook as part of our household choirs. The two oldest and I had to rotate on the days of the week for cooking responsibilities. These were fun days and bragging right days, allowing one to say, he-or-she is the best cook in the family. But at times one didn’t want to boast to much as it would have you cooking for the entire week an addition to your other choirs. From that moment, my first cooking job and the thoughts of my childhood memories, I knew there was no turning back for me. I became fascinated with my work as a line cook and my new environment. I recalled telling myself “This is it, cooking makes me feel happy, adventurous, it fills my heart with joy.” At that point I knew my love affair with cooking would begin.
BV: You’ve worked at steakhouses like Bobby Vans, and your proteins are spectacular. Being a vegan, how do you get to such perfection in your meats?
CPJ: I am very particular with the meat proteins that I served to my guests. I put a lot of respect and understanding in each ingredient making sure the dish is balance and support each other intrinsic flavor. My research and continue studies, it allows me to fully understand the full aspect and essence of any ingredient which I intend to use to create a free range meat or a game dish. As a vegetarian chef, I tell everyone, I’m not cooking for my own preference in a restaurant setting that’s why I have a kitchen at home. I cook with the inspiration of total guest satisfaction, catering to excite and create memorable dining experiences that not only meet our guests’ expectations; to exceed beyond their imaginable thoughts
BV: You have cornered almost every aspect of the market, from catering to executive chef. What would you say is the biggest difference between the two?
CPJ: Both positions allow one to be very creative in menu planning, cooking and plate presentation. The differences between the two are management level and production time.
A catering chef has a forecast-function sheet with an accurate food selections and guest counts, which makes it a little easier to plan with purchasing, staff scheduling and productions. Also, having the benefit to precook and pre-plate at the time of an event. On the other hand, the restaurant chef does have to be very conscious on how he plans his day to day production and service. He/she have to function on accurate timing from mise en place, cooking, to plate service in conjunction with the front of the house.
BV: FireBird is inspired by Stravinsky’s ballet. Do you take inspiration from the ballet in your dishes, or is there another force; another muse behind your creative forces?
CPJ: FireBird is best known for its décor, collectable arts, rare Russian books, and for having the original costume from Stravinsky ballet, and mostly for being name by the late Baroness Irina von der Launits. My role as the executive chef is to bring and additional art form with my cuisine. And my art is not just for the food to look pretty on the plate, but too create a symphony of flavors in the mouth to enhance our guest overall dining experience at FireBird
CPJ: Russian cuisine is a multi-culture expanse of the old Soviet and accent by French influence. Like any culture its foundations were set by peasant cooking from wheat, rye, millet. Cured meat and fish is a favorite especially during the winter. Soup and stew are among family traditions as of fish and game meat. Here at FireBird, the menu focus on the well-known regions like Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and the Baltics, and occasionally, I will add a not-so-well known region to the mix. Every dish is composed to surpass our guest expectations, while remaining authentic and true to the region and the dish itself
BV: Who in your life has influenced your cooking the most?
CPJ: A lot of people have influence and made a big contribution in my cooking. to name a few I’ll start with my loving mother, who’s cooking to this day always pleases my soul. Chef Scott Cutaneo of the former Le Petit Chateau, who introduced me to the basic, yet fundamental of classical French cuisine. Philippe Lièvre of Le Rendez Vous, for the love and passion of French food by using only fresh ingredients. My loving wife, who makes sure that I stay consistent with my craft and that I don’t get side track with my cuisine.
BV: What is the biggest misconception you see from people just stepping into the culinary field?
CPJ: They all want fame. They want to be celebrity chefs and not having to pay their dues and failing to learn the basic fundamental of the trade. I tell all my interns, being a chef does not make you a great cook. Being a great cook does not make you a chef. One needs to balance both in order to achieve any sort of success.
BV: What is your best tip for a cooking novice?
CPJ: He/she has to be passionate and be very dedicated about the field. They must be open minded and be ready to learn new methods at all times. Focus. Accept criticism, whether it’s good or bad. Be ready to work long hours and understand that your coworkers are your extended family members.
BV: What has been the biggest change to the industry, the biggest disruptor?
CPJ: I would have to say a lack of focus on the basic fundamental of cooking, fresh and healthy ingredients. Too many restaurants are using prepackaged, processed or frozen products on their menus. It maybe good for business as far as labor cost, food cost and inventory controlled goes, but the quality of the product is totally different and the health of the consumers is not taking into consideration
CPJ: FireBird is not just a Russian restaurant in Manhattan or restaurant row. We are a different brand of restaurant. What have our guests coming back while attracting new ones, and building new grounds is that we aim for simplicity with elegance. In the kitchen I only use fresh and local, incorporating only organic grown produce, free range meat, game animals and sustainable ingredients. The décor of each dining room will transform our guests to the era of the old St. Petersburg with a twist of modern Russia. Our front of the house service is rated among NYC best. The wine selections along with our vodka list surprise a lot of our guest. When one dines at FireBird restaurant, they leave with the sentiment of a Tsar-Tanzanian.
BV: What is your favorite cookbook?
CPJ: I don’t have a favorite cookbook per se, since I collect so many. Majority of my cookbooks are used for reference, to understand ingredients since I rarely taste the dishes. I will read a cookbook to learn more about the author, to understand his/her culinary vision, they road to perfection, and appreciate they joy of cooking.
BV: Would you ever consider opening up a vegan restaurant?
CPJ: A tough one… maybe in the near future, I haven’t given it much thought because I’m too busy being in love with what I’m doing at the present moment.
BV: What is the thing that makes you most proud about your kitchens?
CPJ: My culinary team members, from the sous chefs to the stewards. From the way they execute the day to day needs of production, flawless service and how they always look to improve and better the way the kitchen runs and operate. They desire to maintain a clean and organized kitchen.
BV: Any chance of you publishing a cookbook soon?
CPJ: Currently I am working on two books. One is focusing mostly on my works at FireBird, my classical French training years and exploring the world of culinary. The second book is a joint collaboration with my wife and me, a memoir of my journey from Haiti to America.
BV: Can you share a recipe for the home cook?
CPJ: This is one of the signature dishes at the restaurant: Lobster Versasia with avocado butter, lemon citronade, micro herb salad
2 oz Toasted Sesame Oil
1 oz Lemon Juice
2 tbsp Pomegranate juice
3 ½ tbsp Sugar
Whisk the sugar, pomegranate juice & the lemon juice together. Slowly add the sesame oil.
Refrigerate for 2 hours
1 large Tomato ‘medium diced’
2 tbsp Red Onion ‘small diced’
2 tbsp Yellow Pepper ‘small diced’
2 tbsp Green Pepper ‘small diced’
3 tbsp Cilantro ‘chopped’
2 ea Avocado ‘small diced’
to taste Salt & Pepper
3 ea Avocado “smooth into a paste”
In a mixing bowl combine all the ingredients and add 2 tbsp of the citronade. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate
1 ½ lb Lobster Meat ‘medium diced’
2 tbsp Snow Peas ‘small diced’
2 tbsp Roasted Red Pepper ‘small diced’
2 tbsp Green Peppers ‘small diced’
1 tbs Red Onion ‘small diced’
Salt & Pepper to taste
In a mixing bowl combine all ingredients add the desire amount of dressing and season with salt & pepper to taste.
1c Micro Green & Herb Salad
¼c Bull Blood Micro
¼c Chive ‘1 inch cut’
¼c Parsley ‘no stems’
¼c Celery Leaf ‘no stems’
¼c Chervil “no stems”
Mix all ingredients together then refrigerate until serving
Place a 3 ½ by 3 inch ring mold in the center of the plate (9 o’clock position)
add 3oz of the Lobster Mixture
now add 2oz of the Avocado Butter
finish by topping it with the Lobster Mixture
lightly dress the micro and herb salad with the lemon citronade
add salt & pepper to taste
place the salad on the right side (3 o’clock position) of the Lobster Versasia
remove the ring mold
repeat the same steps for the next plates then serve.
FireBird is located at 365 W 46th St, New York, NY (Theater District/Midtown) (212) 586-0244