There is a cadre of devoted Brooklyn eaters who crave more than a good meal when they go out to eat, and restaurateurs all over the borough have stepped up to the pulpit. They are eager to satisfy those of us who enjoy nothing more than learning about the provenance of our food, how a dish was conceived, and about the traditions that have gone into the creation of our dinner. Organizations like Slow Food, best-selling books by authors like Michael Pollen, and proselytizing chefs like Alice Waters have redefined our relationship with food and have created a new sub-culture. We are their disciples – the “foodie” of the ’80s redefined: wannabe food anthropologists, amateur chefs, food bloggers, and greenmarket devotees. And when we go out, we want to be among those who share our ardent love for food and desire to learn the minutiae about what we’re eating—and if it’s not asking too much —be entertained at the same time.
Our urge to increase our edible education is not news to John Tucker, often spotted on his bike somewhere between his house in the South Slope and his shoe-box size restaurant, Rosewater, on Union Street. Intense, articulate, affable, he has been hosting special dinners at his restaurant for seven years. “I never went to college, and I have a lot to learn, so these dinners are an opportunity for me to study something new and then share what I have learned with people over a meal. For me, having an event dinner is an excuse to buy a new book for the place.” The first dinner Rosewater held, in 2000, was titled “Game and Rhone Wines,” and they have branched out from there. “We have done dinners about the history of salt, a “smoked” dinner, two pigfests, heirloom wines, one called “Mollusks and Muscadet,” and every October we do a dinner to celebrate New York Wines and Dines.” The restaurant averages five special dinners a year that thematically dovetail with the seasonal and local theme of Rosewater. In fact, Rosewater has been a “locavore” restaurant since well before there was a name for it. Several years back Tucker got busted by the Park Slope Food Co-op for buying widely unavailable local produce to use in a menu item at Rosewater. Apparently, the co-op allows people to buy ingredients for their own consumption only – not others’.
Tucker doesn’t invite outside speakers to educate his masses. “I wanted to put the onus on me. My chef, Marcellus Coleman, and I get to stretch ourselves. It is a wonderful way for us to do something different, to break up the routine. We close for normal business, and we just do this one thing. We break out of the box and get a lot of satisfaction from it by sharing what I have learned. I have done almost all of them with myself as the primary speaker.”
And when Tucker gets an idea for a dinner, he takes his education seriously. “For the salt dinner I put in about 13 hours of work after I read the book Salt.“ (Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, is a book for the truly food–curious. A 500-page tome describing salt as the catalyst for all historical events, it alternates between fascinating and stultifying.) For this dinner, the challenging part for Tucker was how to transform all he had learned about the history of salt into a menu. “It was so great. I started by talking about how we take salt for granted and how salt is key to everything that we use—and how we need it to survive yet don’t crave it when we are salt deprived. As I was talking, the staff brought out bread that was made without salt. I asked everyone how it tasted. Of course the answer was that it tasted awful and looked flat and dead. Then we brought out the same bread made with salt, and it was completely different and delicious. We went from there: We tasted briny oysters, salt-cured meats and cheeses, and duck confit. At the end of the meal I asked if anyone felt that they had had a salty dinner. No one said yes, because even though everything was cured or brined, the salt was never overbearing. In between courses, I talked about how salt shaped the history of our world. Massive wars have been fought over it. India’s struggle against the British started with salt, and it led to the British finally getting kicked out.”
The owner/chef duo brainstorm continually about special dinners, and they have no lack of ideas. “We can get really geeky. We’d love do an all-offal dinner, but who would pay money to eat that?” Tripe five ways, anyone? And as adventurous eaters as Brooklynites are, it is hard to imagine a dessert made from animal innards.
Sometimes the dinners can be an education for the crew at Rosewater in surprising ways. “Two years ago for “Porkapalooza,” we roasted a whole pig outside behind the stoop line. A couple of weeks later we got a visit from the Health Department because someone had complained that cooking a pig outdoors was ‘unclean and inappropriate’. Naturally we were baffled, because in our view cooking and consuming the whole animal is not only clean but very much appropriate. The inspector wrote up a report saying that there was no evidence of unclean outdoor cookery going on and that the original complaint of a “fool pig” being cooked on the sidewalk had no credence. This year we renamed it the “Fool Pig” dinner. I had no idea that I needed to get a permit for a block party and outdoor cooking, so this summer I cooked the “fool pig” in my backyard and brought it to the restaurant.” (Presumably not on the back of his bicycle.)
Diners at Rosewater get more from of these dinners than an edible education. There are times when a night out isn’t about the intimate anonymity that most restaurants are designed for. “These dinners are about a communal experience with strangers. I take the reservations, and I put a lot of thought into the seating plan. I have gotten to know a lot of the people who come. I am leading a dinner that is all about the back and forth. We all interact about what we are eating and why. Over the course of the meal people speak about the topic at hand. It is completely different from going out with your husband or girlfriend to chill. It is about coming together with friends and family who are eating together in order to share the same experience. It is about meeting people you have never met before. They get incredibly loud. People float out of here.” After five-course meal with five different wines, “float” is definitely the right word.
Some diners don’t know what to expect when they come to their first dinner, so Tucker tries to give folks a clue over the phone. “They have to be looking for a different kind of dining experience and want to mix it up. But there are always some people who couldn’t care less about the topic at hand but come anyhow. I don’t discourage anyone. We have 60 or 70 regulars, and we can seat about 30 people at each dinner. There are those who come once and don’t come back, but I don’t get a lot of complaints. Some of the locals think it’s too precious, but that’s okay because most people really enjoy the experience. It’s a dialogue for everyone in the room,” says Tucker.
As much as Tucker himself is the draw for many people who come to these dinners, that was never his intention. “I never wanted to be the personality of the restaurant, but I know my presence is reassuring. It is my hope that I am not the reason why people come here.” Yet he is at the door greeting regulars with a bear hug and welcoming new customers with his big hearty grin just about every night. At six-foot-four and well over 200 pounds, in a restaurant that seats 30 he’s hard to miss. And you don’t want to miss him. “You know, I’ve had an odd career arc that has led me to all of this. My last real job was as route sales supervisor for Wonder Bread in New York, and I then I got a job tending bar at Brownies [on the Lower East Side]. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I was hired by Peter Hoffman at Savoy to be the manager, something I was absolutely unqualified for, and it opened up my world. The whole reason I started doing these events at Rosewater is because I enjoyed it so much at Savoy.”
Will Tucker triangulate his bicycle route and add a new restaurant? “It makes me really tired to think about it.” And suddenly he looks tired. “I’ll probably expand someday, somewhere. Maybe do more events. Rosewater is my great passion, and my wife helps me make it happen. We have three kids at home, and working a lot of nights is not conducive to family life. But somehow we make our life work. It makes me happy.” And his devotion makes us, his followers, very happy too.