Power Punk: April Bloomfield

Gastro-pub Girl comes to town; backed by Ken Friedman, Mario Batali-and maybe Bono-a British chef is ready to change the way New York thinks of the words ‘Spotted Pig.’

Red-striped watch cap pulled low over her eyes, 29-year-old April Bloomfield was moving fast through the frosty air of lower Sixth Avenue when I asked her if her new job had given her a sense of power.

“That’s a strange question,” said the Birmingham, England, native from the midst of her shiny green parka. “Nobody ever asked me that question.”

A few weeks from now, Ms. Bloomfield will have an answer. She will understand the instant power-and pressure-that comes with the two-fisted distinction of being both the latest chef anointed by Babbo’s Mario Batali, and the culinary architect of a potential new dining concept in the city. Three months ago, Ms. Bloomfield left her job as a sous-chef at the celebrated River Café in London and moved to New York-a city she’d never even visited prior to her interview-to take the helm of the Spotted Pig, on the site of the old Le Zoo at 314 West 11th Street. The Pig is not a restaurant, said its owner Ken Friedman, a former concert promoter and band manager who has worked with the Smiths and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. Rather, it is a “gastro-pub”-one of those wonderfully utilitarian British terms for a dark-wooded bar that serves fine food.

In Ms. Bloomfield’s recipe book, that means a range of simple and hearty Italian and British dishes culled from 12 years of working in some of London’s finer kitchens. Ms. Bloomfield said the menu will include “smoked haddock chowder, roast meats, good pastas, a nice ragout”: food that could be just the ticket for a city fatigued by the kind of culinary overachievement exemplified by another British chef, Paul Liebrandt, who served-on one plate!-a dish that involved scallops, squab, sea urchin and chocolate crisp at the late Papillon.

Not that Ms. Bloomfield will be able to escape the media blitz. New York’s food press loves nothing more than a new buzzword to bubble and squeak over, and soon they’ll be dissecting whether the Spotted Pig-which will seat approximately 50 when it’s finished-is New York’s first gastro-pub, or a gastro-pub at all. In the meantime, the gossip columnists have begun speculating about its investors: New York magazine recently reported that U2 lead singer Bono, a friend of Mr. Friedman’s, is an owner, which Mr. Friedman isn’t confirming or denying. “I’d rather have Bono as a customer than an investor,” he told The Observer.

As for Mr. Batali, he hand-picked Ms. Bloomfield and will probably have a small percentage of the place (as will Ms. Bloomfield), but he described himself as a “consultant” to Mr. Friedman, who will run the front of the house.

Still, the involvement of Mr. Batali, one of New York’s first rock-star chefs, as well as the hint of at least one actual rock star, will be enough to insure that Ms. Bloomfield will be up to her tongs in hype when the restaurant opens in January.

But if she can bull through that initial onslaught and plant the culinary flag for the gastro-pub in New York, then the city’s next British invasion may very well involve chefs instead of tabloid and magazine editors.

That, and we may all find ourselves developing a taste for Spotted Dick.

Mr. Batali sounded confident that Ms. Bloomfield could stand the heat in her kitchen. He chose her, he said, because “she’s a straight-shooter,” because “she has worked in great places,” because she came recommended by another Brit (famed “Naked Chef” and River Café alumnus Jamie Oliver), and because during a whirlwind interview-cum-food-tour of New York eateries in April that included dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai, lobster roll at Union Square Café and head cheese at Mr. Batali’s pizzeria Otto, “she understood everything that was wrong with the food we ate and everything that was right about it.”

Mr. Batali said that Ms. Bloomfield got the Spotted Pig gig without having to cook for him. “Didn’t need to,” he said.

“She’s a hilarious ball-buster,” Mr. Batali said. “And in ways that you don’t even hear until you walk away and you realize, ‘She just busted my balls!’ That’s what I like about her best,” he added. “Sense of humor has a lot to do with being successful in the kitchen.”

But Ms. Bloomfield just looked like a fair-haired, pink-skinned club kid in her tight black T-shirt, dark jeans and white-with-black stripes K-Swiss athletic shoes as she sat in the Sucelt Coffee Shop on West 14th Street at lunchtime on Dec. 4. She was continuing her crash course in New York cuisine, and Mr. Friedman had brought her to the cramped eatery for a taste of Latino fast food.

While Mr. Friedman pointed out the various victuals behind the counter, Ms. Bloomfield’s blue-gray eyes took in the scene.

“Why don’t we get a little bit snacky?” she said finally, and while Mr. Friedman ordered up a Venezuelan tamale, Cuban sandwich and assortment of empanadas, she talked about the path to the Spotted Pig.

The youngest of three daughters, Ms. Bloomfield originally wanted to join the local police force, but her sisters were cooks and she ended up following them, with two years at Birmingham’s College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies. The school’s restaurant, she remembered, “had a tandoori oven and woks, and just smelling the spices and stuff-that’s what did it for me. I didn’t look back.”

In 1991, Ms. Bloomfield eventually followed one of her sisters to London as a commis chef with Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place in Notting Hill, known as Princess Diana’s favorite restaurant.

Two years later, she went to work for Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum and, briefly, Roscoff in Northern Ireland before returning to Mr. Leigh’s kitchen. From there, she went to work for chef Adam Robinson at the Brackenbury in Hammersmith, where she learned the gastro-pub style: “hearty, good, honest food.” “Finishing-off school” was four years at London’s River Café, built on simple, revolutionary ideas for regional Italian cuisine.

Ms. Bloomfield had read a passage in one of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse cookbooks in which the earth mother of California cuisine “wrote about not stunning the palate into unconsciousness. And I thought, ‘That’s great.’ It just seemed like a natural progression for me to go and see.” While Mr. Friedman struggled with finding a location, Ms. Bloomfield spent part of her summer at Chez Panisse.

In the din of the Sucelt, Mr. Friedman placed a Cuban sandwich, wrapped in white paper, on her plate. “These are the best thing for a hangover after a night of clubbing in Miami,” he said.

She took a bite. “I like the pickle on here,” she said. “It kind of cuts through the cheese.”

Ms. Bloomfield wrapped the other half to go, then wrapped herself in her green parka. It was time to walk to the next stop on the tour, BB, a hole-in-the-wall on West Third Street, for Philly cheese steaks, and then to Pearl Oyster Bar, where Ms. Bloomfield told me that for her haddock chowder, she made homemade crackers.

Around Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street, I asked Ms. Bloomfield, “Are you aware that New York makes rock stars out of its chefs?”

Ms. Bloomfield laughed.

“Uh, somebody called Mario Batali told me that,” she said.

“You know, my food’s going to come first,” she continued as we rounded the corner of West Third Street. “That’s the most important thing. And there’s no compromises.” If Ms. Bloomfield has her way, for instance, fresh tomatoes won’t be served at the Spotted Pig unless they’re in season here in New York. “It’s a shame to serve tomatoes that aren’t perfect,” she said.

“Speaking of rock stars, can I tell you a funny story?” Mr. Friedman said. In late November, just a few days after taking over the lease to the Spotted Pig’s space, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield held a charity wine auction there. Ms. Bloomfield and her small staff cooked prawns in tempura with a spicy coriander mayonnaise, prawns with tartar sauce, chickpea bruschetta with grilled red chili and deep-fried anchovies wrapped in sage.

That night, Bono was present. Mr. Friedman said that U2’s front man declared the prawns the best he’d ever had and asked to meet the chef. According to Mr. Friedman, he told Ms. Bloomfield: “‘Bono wants to meet you.’ She said, ‘Not now, I’m cooking.'” Mr. Friedman explained the situation to Bono. “He looked at me like, ‘O.K., I haven’t heard that in a while-but all right.'”

A little later, Mr. Friedman asked Ms. Bloomfield a second time. This time, he said, “she wasn’t really doing anything, just standing having a glass of wine.”

Ms. Bloomfield was still recalcitrant. “What am I going to say to him?” she asked. “You know: ‘Oh, the shrimp’s really good’ … ‘Oh, thank you, Bono!'”

I asked Ms. Bloomfield if she ever did meet the rocker. She shook her head and laughed the tart laugh of a ball-buster who knew how to cut through the cheese.

-Frank DiGiacomo Power Punk:  April Bloomfield