Jim Lahey, the charismatic chef and owner of the hugely hyped, high-concept pizzeria Co. at 230 Ninth Avenue, has some advice for New York Times food critic Frank Bruni:
“Ray’s is right down the block!”
On Wednesday, April 8, the influential Times critic awarded Mr. Lahey’s stylish new eatery, backed by the formidable food-industry duo of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Phil Suarez, just a single star.
Mr. Bruni had raved about Mr. Lahey’s prowess with his pizza crusts but ultimately complained that “he hasn’t yet nailed the toppings.”
Mr. Lahey, whose menu notably bares no mention of pepperoni, felt the critic missed the point: “The driving force was to change this genre of food-making so it’s not falling into the same stupid clichés, like, the thick crust on the edge and lots of tomato sauce and cheese.
“If you want your cheese and sauce, you can get it [at Ray's],” he said. “They’ll actually put extra shit on for ya!”
The gregarious baker, who also operates the popular Sullivan Street Bakery at 533 West 47th Street, spent the subsequent afternoon trying to keep his troops focused despite the lackluster mark.
“You want to get two,” Mr. Lahey said of The Times‘ hallowed ratings system of zero to four stars. “10 Downing got two. I’ve been to 10 Downing. It’s dogshit!”
Mr. Lahey, 42, has always had a way with words.
When the Daily Transom ran into him at a culinary event last spring, he and Mitchell Davis, vice president of the esteemed James Beard Foundation, had attendees in a titter with their back-and-forth banter about the dubious term “master baker.”
“I have nothing against masturbating,” the quick-witted Mr. Lahey had said at the time, “but master-baking? Master-baking is something you do by yourself.”
A leading proponent of the rather effortless, knead-less method of baking, Mr. Lahey is one of several high-profile restaurateurs now attempting to, um, elevate pizza-making in New York City.
Filmmaker Bob Giraldi recently opened a fancy pizzeria called Tonda in the East Village and brasserie bigwig Keith McNally will be opening another next year at the corner of Houston and Bowery.
“It’s the new food fad,” Mr. Lahey said of the renewed interest in the Italian staple.
The lunch crowd was still bustling at Co. when the Daily Transom popped in for a bite around 2 p.m. on the day of the Times review.
Mr. Lahey walked in about a half-hour later, dressed in jeans, a black shirt and a brown winter cap covering his shiny bald head.
It had been quite an eventful week already for the loquacious chef.
Two days earlier, his wife gave birth to a beautiful, 8-pound, 6-ounce baby girl named Anjali. “I’m in love,” the proud papa said, flipping through photos of the child on his iPhone.
The good-humored Mr. Lahey added that he had taken some “really gross birth pictures,” which he intended to someday use to scare off his daughter’s future boyfriends.
“My brothers made a joke at my expense, saying, ‘How are you going to deal with your daughter when she comes home at 15 years old with a boyfriend three years older than you?'” Mr. Lahey told the Daily Transom. “And without a beat, I said, ‘Well, I’ll probably start doing some of her girlfriends!'”
He added, “Woody Allen can do it.”
The conversation inevitably turned to the day’s disappointing review.
Mr. Lahey said he was surprised that his tiny, laid-back pizzeria even warranted a full-on critique, especially one so soon.
“We’ve been open only 90 days,” he said. “We have not had a chance to even breathe in 90 days. What the fuck are we being reviewed by The New York Times for, you know, 90 days into being open? It makes no sense.
“If I knew we were going to be under the microscope, I would have possibly treated the opening of the restaurant a lot differently,” he continued. “I didn’t open this restaurant to get reviewed by The Times. Otherwise, I would have made the food a lot differently. I would have bought really nice plates and beautiful stemware. And we would have done slightly less informal service, know what I mean?”
Mr. Lahey was nonetheless heartened by a much more flattering review, published two days earlier, by The New Yorker‘s Lila Byock.
“That to me is worth more than The Times,” he said. “This means if I do a book deal—a second book deal—I’m at least at $700,000 now, because that’s all they care about: ‘Were you in The New Yorker?’ Gabrielle Hamilton got an $800,000 advance on a book just because she was in The New Yorker.”
Ms. Byock “gets it,” he said. Mr. Bruni? Not so much.
Even some of The Times‘ positive comments irked the chef.
“The pizza bianca, I think, sucks,” Mr. Lahey said of his own highly touted appetizer, which Mr. Bruni loved. “I think it’s dogshit! I don’t think it’s a good product. And he praised it to the high heavens! That’s one of the products I desperately need to upgrade and work on because it’s not where I want it to be.
“But,” he added, “I just had a baby this week, so I have to stay focused on that. The business won’t burn in a week. Not with all this buzz.”