Ashley Rath is the Chef de Cuisine at The Grill.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interesting in cooking.
I was born in New Jersey but grew up in Syracuse, New York. My first cooking memory is of my dad teaching me how to make scrambled eggs. My parents were adamant that I learn how to cook, and as I got older and they began to be more comfortable working later, I started cooking for all of us.
My parents travelled a lot for work, and I was fortunate enough to go to Spain, France, Argentina, England and China all before I graduated high school. For me, each trip centered around what I would eat.
I wanted to go to the CIA but my family was adamant that a college education would be best, so I ended up going to University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
I know you studied at St. Andrews, what was the transition from intense scholarship to cooking like?
At St. Andrews, I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between food and conflict. I won an award from it and ended up with a job offer from a food sovereignty rights’ NGO in New Delhi. I moved to NYC as I waited for my visa to come through. I did not want to move back to Syracuse, so I found a sublet in NYC. I quickly realized I needed an income and I also wanted to make sure I was not giving up on a dream of mine, so I started trailing in kitchens. Turns out I would have been giving up on a dream if I moved to India.
The transition however was hard – I went from 14 hours a day in a library to 14 hours a day in a kitchen. I screwed up, a lot, but I loved it and decided I’d work as many hours as possible to make a living cooking and build a culinary skill set. To say it was hard would be an understatement.
Tell us a little about your career history.
The first restaurant I worked in is actually two blocks away from where I work now. The chef at the time shouldn’t have hired me; I showed up without proper shoes or knives. But as he put it, I was educated and could speak English. I ended up only working there for a few months, but I learned that kitchens were where I wanted to be.
Eric Korsch, the newly appointed chef at The Waverly Inn at the time, decided to take a chance on me next. It was here that he and then sous chef Ted Rozzi gave me the culinary education I desperately needed and introduced me to the stamina I would need in the industry.
I next followed Ted Rozzi to Crown on the Upper East Side for my first opening. Later a captain at Crown introduced me to Matt Lightner and after trailing 4 times he decided to take a chance on me next. He hired me as a prep cook for his soon to open restaurant, Atera. I felt like I had made it. The kitchen, all the chefs and staff at Atera; it was like nothing I had seen before. The discipline I learned there I carry with me daily.
I next went to Gramercy Tavern where I would spend two years. Through the guidance of Michael Anthony I was able to round out all of the skills I had learned and find my voice as a cook.
I went to California after that and trailed at some incredible restaurants but ended the trip realizing I only wanted to cook in NYC. I helped a friend of mine open a biscuit shop called Empire Biscuit before I found a sous chef opportunity with Major Food Group at Santina. I was sent to open Dirty French first, as Santina’s opening was delayed. I then worked at Santina for almost two years, before I was asked to work on the opening of The Grill, as executive sous chef.
What is your food philosophy
Never drop your standards because of time, pace, space or the people around you. Be as proud of a biscuit you make as an almost impossible razor clam dish. Ignore others that would criticize you for who you work for or where you have worked. As long as you care, put out correct and delicious food, and always work hard, you’re doing it right.
And don’t be scared to screw up, don’t bow out or give excuses. I’ve learned the most through my errors. Just don’t repeat them.
Between Dirty French, Santina and now the Grill you’ve had a pretty intense restaurant opening schedule. What do you love and hate about opening restaurants?
I love the pace and intense drive almost every person involved in an opening has. I love that you set the systems for the kitchen and because of that, you leave a lasting impact. I love that you learn through error, and fix it. I love the lack of sleep and testing of physical limits. I also tire of it at some point but the initial drive is something special. I love cooking new cuisines and dishes. I love openings, but I think that shows.
Are there lessons you’ve learned in the kitchen that you feel apply outside of work?
I believe everything I said in my philosophy applies to outside of a kitchen. I was a shy and unconfident person, particularly in relationship to my body. Kitchens changed that. Be true to yourself, help others, work harder than the person next to you, and most things work out. A bit hippie dippy, but… tough.
Do you sense changes in attitudes about women in the kitchen from the beginning of your career until now?
I’ve been lucky to never have my gender be a real issue in my work life, but again, I think my philosophy speaks to why that has been the case. If you work hard and give it your all, it’s hard for people to judge you because of something like your sex. I won’t say it’s been without bumps in the road, but I try not to dwell on that. I can happily say as the CDC of a huge restaurant with a very big staff, my gender is something that rarely comes up, if anything it is from guests surprised I’m the CDC. I do wish I could find more female line cooks, but I have four on my AM staff which makes me very happy.
Do you cook at home? If so what?
I like cooking pasta at home, fresh or dried. Pasta holds a special place in my heart. My go to is Martelli spaghetti for cacio e pepe. Besides that, it’s normally scrambled eggs and toast or peanut butter and jelly. My boyfriend cooks a fair amount for me when I get home, which is always greatly appreciated. I also have a soft spot for Mighty Quinn’s take out.
Favorite Tools and Techniques
My favorite tools are: my nenox 210 mm gyutou and my neon blue fish spat that most people hate but survived me a year on Gramercy Tavern fish roast.
My favorite cooking technique is cooking over open fire. I worked on the grill station at Gramercy Tavern, where you build and maintain your own fire, and it was a life changer. We cook over wood at The Grill, and it was a huge part of why I was so excited about being a part of that opening, second to the menu.
Are there ingredients you are excited about right now?
I’ve been really excited about the different game birds we have worked with at The Grill. I became very interested in hunting and game when I lived in Scotland, so it has been fun to work with similar products again.
Favorite? places to eat in NY and elsewhere.
I’ve been told I have a lot of favorites, so here’s a short list:
Estella, I’ve eaten there over 35 times
Momofuku Ssam Bar
Runner and Stone
BLT Prime, for their chopped salad and pop overs
Corner Bistro, for a burger
Le Coq Rico, for the Ile flottante
Outside of NYC:
North, in Providence RI
Abac, in Spain
St Johns, in London
The Savoy, in London
High Street on Market, in Philadelphia