Kate Telfeyan moved to Bushwick to be closer to her job. At first, that job was the Bushwick debut of Mission Chinese, which she had opened as its head chef in 2018 following a year of working as a line cook at Mission’s since-shuttered location in the Lower East Side. The one in Bushwick closed too, briefly, during the onset of the pandemic, and this was around when her lease ended and she decided to move yet again, but to Ridgewood this time. It was there she befriended Mike Stamatelos, another expatriate who recently moved to the neighborhood after he felt burnt out by his work as a McKinsey consultant. In Ridgewood, he had opened an Austrian restaurant that he named after a Moby song. The restaurant was part of a local developer’s extended project to gentrify the neighborhood and, like the colonial police inspector who tells Franz Fanon that his work made feel like “something was wrong,” Stamatelos began to feel something wrong in the air too. The developer’s latest project had been another vaguely European cafe, located a block away and named, this time, after a dog. He complained about it to his shared landlord and then to a blogger last month for New York’s Grubstreet. Then he decided to open a new restaurant.
“Our mantra-slash-vibe changed a bit last year,” Stamatelos said in an interview.
When Porcelain had been an “Austrian” cafe (retrospectively, Stamatelos puts the words in air-quotes), its menu was assembled by a chef named Jeremy Griffiths who purportedly worked at Soho House beforehand. These menus were often written in a somewhat cursive font in a little book that was placed at the front of the restaurant. You had to bend down to read it. This matched a certain idea of the place — it had been used by the nearby church for youth clubs before notable catholic Martin Scorsese converted it to a restaurant that was used in his mobster epic The Irishman. The whole Austrian thing had been inspired by a German deli across the street, and a designer Stamatelos hired invented a fictional backstory story that corresponded to the collections of black and white photographs that still hang on the walls like axioms from a forgotten conspiracy theory. But most of that energy is gone now, along with the schnitzel sandwiches that Time Out had written of so fondly and the mushroom-stuffed strudels that felt somewhat inventive on their own terms. For a while, during the first year of the pandemic, these had been replaced by notched-up deli sandwiches, complete with miniature pickles that were easy to ship out when the pandemic had shut down indoor dining. Stamatelos had begun directing donations to the Ridgewood Tenants Union and had volunteered his street corner for a local city council candidate’s election campaign. And on Saturday nights, Stamatelos’ cafe began playing host to a pop-up Telfeyan ran called ‘Vaguely Asian.’
“I’m adopted, so I grew up in a white household with a very Western kind of cooking, but I sort of discovered Korean food as I was discovering my background, as I grew older,” Telfeyan said. She said that “vaguely asian” is an idea she has been drawn to for a while, the way it relieved her of the burden of authenticity and permitted experimentation on the geographical edges. It benefited her immediate culinary background, in addition to her personal one — Mission Chinese had been part of a wave of restaurants that sought to redefine the idea of what ‘Chinese’ food was and had come up with a hot and spicy menu of kung pao pastrami and “thrice-cooked bacon” to take the place of pork fried rice and plates of szechuan. Like Telfeyan, Mission Chinese’s founder Danny Bowien had also been adopted and, like Bowien, Telfeyan had an eye for smart kitchen experiments. Each week, she would come up with a different menu full of possible pairings that could be read like so many messages in the sand. Nori fried pork chops with a side of shrimp, doused in perilla. Mackerel noodles and rice cakes served with a thick ssamjang paste. Miso-braised wings and a plate of pork skin jelly. The best of these was the week she did a dan dan lasagna that came in a cardboard box half-soaked in a rich pool of sauce.
“At the end of the day, what makes people emotional about food is its connection to them. And a lot of that connection is nostalgia. For me, dan dan lasagna seems like a natural inclusion of a dish that harkens to your childhood but has flavors that are maybe new to you,” Telfeyan said. In her year since working for Bowien, she’s grown reflective of those formative years of high-brow culinary fusion and hype. In an essay that was published in the New Republic last year, Telfeyan addressed abuse allegations leveled against her old boss by another chef, Angela Dimayuga. “I have no reason to doubt Dimayuga when she claims that Bowien was a ‘verbally abusive, deeply manipulative,’ and ‘tyrannical’ boss,” Telfeyan wrote.
Last month, Telfeyan took over the kitchen at Porcelain, where she also joined Stamatelos as a co-owner, her debut as a restauranter. She’s not the only refugee from Mission to land in the neighborhood: Eric Tran, former sous chef at Mission’s Lower East Side location, also debuted as the sudden chef-owner of Falansai in East Williamsburg last year. Telfeyan says that most of what she learned working as a manager under Bowien was what “not to do.”
“I’m not Mission. My time there was very valuable but I did not come out of it wanting to be the next Danny Bowien,” she says. Her menu at Porcelain is part of a project she’s been working on for most of her life as a cook and, she adds, “it’s important to me that my personality and style of cooking stands apart from that experience.”
It was hard to use the kitchen at Mission for anything beyond Bowien’s own ideas, and she sees Porcelain as a place where that vision can take on a life on her own terms.
“If you’re the number one right below a chef personality, it’s going to be challenging to get your own vision through,” she adds. Her menu at Porcelain tries to make these things work for an afternoon cafe. A new permit from the city permitted the restaurant to make its outdoor tables permanent and, on most afternoons, they make the quiet corner in Ridgewood feel like Soho. In a little bowl, you can get a tofu pudding ($8) that has the texture of grits and comes with savory granola, black vinegar, scallion and, optionally, thin pork belly strips. Elsewhere are crepes stuffed delicately with butter beans and a vinegar slaw ($14) and a light pork and watermelon salad ($14).
Stamatelos says that part of Telfeyan’s appeal was “the opportunity to have this be something that we could really kind of stretch people’s minds with, gastronomically.” While an ambitious aim, perhaps, some of the menu’s most interesting surprises are also easiest to swallow. The ‘MEC’ (mortadella, egg, and cheese) is at the lower end of their menu ($9) but easily outpaces similar takes on fancy bodega egg and cheese sandwiches that could be found nearby vaguely European cafes. Unlike those, the one at Porcelain is made with kashkaval, a nearby Polish deli staple that Telfeyan’s kitchen prepares with an astonishing creaminess. Ditto the baked goods, available if you come early enough and where discoveries include twisted Korean donuts called kkwabaegi and thick buns filled with custard. The donuts are a direct nod to something Telfeyan says she found in Korean neighborhoods in Queens but hadn’t seen anywhere in Ridgewood.
For better or worse, the ongoing pandemic brought her here and it solidified her decision to stay.
“This idea of hopping on a train and going somewhere else, cooking there and then coming home is no longer something I find appealing,” she adds.
Porcelain is located at 880 Woodward Avenue, just off the Forest Avenue M station. You can keep up with their hours on their Instagram. Andrew Karpan is a writer based in Ridgewood and you can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected]
Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan
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