As a boy, growing up in the leafy enclave of Kent, Conn., Devon Gilroy exhibited all the signs of an obsessive-compulsive destined for a lonesome adulthood fraught with daily battles trying to control the uncontrollable. Ketchup was a big thing, early on—the mere sight of it was cause for alarm. Furthermore, everything had to be cooked all the way through. Different food groups could not be touching, not even a little. He was, his sister Grace told me, “the pickiest eater ever.”
Collecting went beyond cards and comic books. By 10, young Devon was dog-paddling in strange waters.
Mr. Gilroy described discovering “these old black spoons at like a yard sale or something. I remember that I polished them and found that they were like silver. They had all these little things on them. Some of them had chips from the different countries. I remember cleaning them, [being] obsessed with them and I had them rolled up in these towels and I had them stored in my closet. I’d put them there and I’d forget about them but then I’d find another one and it was almost like rediscovering it again because I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that I have this one.’ And then it was organizing and cleaning them again. I had this idea that they were worth money.”
Don’t feel too bad for the little
fella: By 11 he was on to obsessing over a landscaping business. After a year or so of saving, he got a mini-tractor, took the business townwide and was raking it in. That’s cool!
His mother, Mary Miscikoski, owned a small vintage clothing store. On weekends, his father, the legendary New York restaurant-nightclub operator Billy Gilroy—who began as the manager of Nell’s and went on to operate and co-own Lucky Strike, the Match restaurants, Employees Only and Macao—would take young Devon to flea markets to outfit his latest endeavors. The spoons say it all: The boy’s brain was wired to get stuck on a track and repeat.
At the age of 19, on a whim, he took a job as a fry cook at the Grey Dog cafe and discovered that something about the combination of chaos, camaraderie and the ever-elusive quest for perfection in a working kitchen appealed to him. Were it not for his fondness for routine, Devon Gilroy might have missed his calling.
“I very much like things to go a certain way,” he said, “and sometimes when that pattern is broken—initially it drove me really crazy, but what cooking taught me is that you have to really let go of control. It’s not controlling every situation all the time but it’s controlling how you react to all those situations. So it has to be a very disciplined environment, because it can get very chaotic.”
‘He cooked for us and then some girls were there, and then after he was with the girls and then we asked him to—oh, no, I shouldn’t.’ —Artist Dirk Skreber
Now 25, Devon Gilroy is in the unusual position of being able to create his own controlled environment—outfitting his own kitchen, putting together a staff of about 25 people, designing his own menu—as head chef at the East Side Social Club on 51st Street, which is scheduled to open mid-November. The pressure is on.
THE VESTIGES OF an extreme personality are still there. Mr. Gilroy, whose torso and arms are covered in tattoos, has fixated on every element of the kitchen that falls under his domain: the kitchen, the menu, the staff. He’s earned the trust not only of his father, a notoriously no-nonsense animal-beast businessman, but also of deep-pocketed friends who came on as investors (including notorious tightwad photographer Patrick McMullan, model Eva Herzigova and set designer Happy Massy, who is helping with the old-school Italian décor).
“I didn’t invest before because I didn’t have the money,” said the artist Dirk Skreber, for whom Devon worked for as a personal chef. “Then later I have the money so I wrote the check.”
Mr. Skreber said that he particularly enjoyed Mr. Gilroy’s monkfish. Also that Devon was handsome, and that one time, “he cooked for us and then some girls were there, and then after he was with the girls and then we asked him to—oh, no, I shouldn’t.”
His teenage years were a bit of a wash for Devon, who took an interest first in football, then in drugs. He was booted from the South Kent school and, after a year of military school, opted for the GED. He moved to the city and fell in with a wild skater crew. His dad got him a gig working at his pal David Barton’s gym. Mr. Barton’s wife, party promoter Susanne Barstch, employed him as eye candy at her gay parties. “That was pretty weird,” Devon said, noting that his tasks often included standing around on a stage near a guy in a head-to-toe leather suit.
Devon said he had no clue what adventure with “the girls” Mr. Skreber was referring to, but that the opportunity to get paid experimenting on starving artists was a boon to his development as a chef. After putting in his time at the Grey Dog, which has a vast, diner-style menu—“eggs are actually one of the hardest foods to work with because they’re so delicate,” he said—Papa Gilroy allowed him to pick up some hours assisting in the opening of Employees Only. Once the restaurant was finished, his son inquired if he could take a low-level position in the kitchen.
“I was skeptical of the idea,” Bill Gilroy said. “It’s one thing being his father, but to be his boss is something different altogether.”
BUT DEVON HAD already developed his own relationship with the chef there, who was open to the idea, and so Mr. Gilroy gave his blessing. Devon said the chef, who has since departed, like to hit the sauce and ran a sloppy, unnecessarily chaotic kitchen. Devon had himself gone cold turkey on the booze after he noticed his hangovers getting in the way of his mastery of the Grey Dog grill.
After a year at Employees Only, Mr. Gilroy fils decided to take an apprenticeship with David Waltuck at Chanterelle.
“David had a very subtle way of letting you know if something was good or bad,” Devon told me, over a cranberry juice at Macao, his father’s Chinese-themed restaurant in Tribeca. “He’d pick up a carrot that I had prepared and look at it, and then put it down.”
Eventually, the carrots started looking right and Mr. Waltuck hired Devon, who worked his way up to the top spot in the kitchen. Chanterelle is four stars and French: Great experience, but the young chef doesn’t feel he needs to make another cream sauce.
Next came an eight-month stint as the number two at A Voce, under Missy Robbins. It was there that Devon Gilroy discovered what he already knew: His heart belonged to Italian.
Indeed, it’s in his blood. Along with recipes Mr. Gilroy developed on his own, the East Side Social Club will feature some from his paternal great-grandmother Rosemary, who grew up in Naples (one of 12 children), like a striped bass with sage. Also, a distant uncle’s unparalleled fresh mozzarella. The restaurant is a family affair: Grace, who worked the Maritime Hotel for five years, is in charge of the front of the house, and his uncle Jimmy is managing the joint.
Food is not the only realm where Mr. Gilroy’s Italian side expresses itself. “He’s definitely got game,” said Grace, who recently moved in with her brother across the street from the Social Club, which shares the ground floor of the Pod Hotel. Big sis reported a steady flow of model types going in and out of Devon’s room. She recently had a peek at his iPhone inbox. “There were all these texts like, ‘How about I cook you three course meal next week.’ Or, ‘Let me take you to this restaurant and show you about this.’ He definitely knows how to make a woman feel like she’s number one, even if she might be number three.”
Mr. Gilroy told me that if it weren’t for food, he actually wouldn’t like being around people. “I get bored easily,” he said of his love affair with womankind. “It’s like that obsessive side of me. If something’s not perfect, I lose interest.”
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