Talking Murmura, Mystery Meats, and Monster Mushrooms with Neel Patil of Brooklyn's The Pines
THE INNOVATIVE YOUNG CHEF TALKS ABOUT HIS PASSION FOR SEASONAL DINING, REGIONAL INDIAN FOOD, AND BROOKLYN DINING
he second time I met Neel Patil he was taking a picture of a giant maitake mushroom with his iPhone, posing his hand next to it for scale. The mushroom, impressively ruffled and convoluted, was easily the size of a respectable watermelon, and he had to encircle it in a fond, full-body hug to lift it off the table—it must have weighed close to 7 pounds. A forager had brought in the massive fungus to The Pines, the Gowanus restaurant where Patil is the chef, just as I arrived. The staff all came out in turns to take pictures of the thing. Patil laughed in bewilderment as he played with ideas of what he might do with this sudden and massive bounty, stroking his chin in mock-evil contemplation.
This is not an uncommon predicament at a restaurant that prides itself on the seasonality of its menu. The season turns and the menu follows, unexpected ingredients arrive and you have to improvise new dishes to show them in their best light.
One of the two pastas currently on the menu at the restaurant is a plate of slender little agnolotti stuffed with a delicate farce of braised beef shank and sweet potato, served with kohlrabi and kohlrabi greens, and napped with a buttery mushroom and beef jus. The dish is resplendent with autumn—rich, luxurious, and yet with an unexpected brightness from a radiant splash of leek oil, herbal against the warm notes of root vegetables, mushrooms, and beef. The plate is emblematic of the menu at The Pines, a study in restraint and elevated rusticity. Seasonal ingredients deployed in striking and thought-provoking combinations, and put together with a pastoral elegance that conveys Patil’s strong connection with the farms that supply the restaurant.
The first time I met Patil, though, had been just a few weeks earlier, on one of the last truly warm days of September. We sat in the backyard of The Pines in the rapidly changing Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus. Tucked away between the real estate honeypots of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, Gowanus’s transformation is still roiling. The restaurant has played no small role in the change, having earned a reputation as a vanguard in the culinary movement that revived the formerly sleepy warehouse district.
When I arrive at the restaurant, Third Avenue, just outside its door, is a maze of orange construction cones and safety netting. But the backyard of the restaurant couldn’t be more removed from the tumult outside. Surrounded by potted herbs, we sit in the shade of a pergola that covers a large part of the backyard. The wooden table is scattered with Concord grapes that have fallen from the vines overhead, whose leaves filter the noontime sun into a honeyed mildness.
Our talk ranges wildly, from our shared experience of having mothers who are excellent (and opinionated) cooks, to the divergent schools of thought on the texture of a proper puran poli, a stuffed flatbread that goes by several names and is made differently in several parts of India. Patil is a mercurial talker, and veers unexpectedly from the traditional way to make murmura, a kind of puffed rice especially favored in the western Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, to the oddity of his being a Hindu who both works with, and eats, beef. In between all our food talk, he weighs in on being part of a tiny minority of young Indian chefs working in the industry, and how he’d like to bring the food of Maharashtra (home to Mumbai and Pune, his parents’ home towns) to a wider audience, by presenting them in ways that feel true to his own culinary sensibility and training.
A giant maitake mushroom delivered by a forager
Rohan Kamicheril: This backyard is gorgeous. This must be pretty popular.
Neel Patil: It’s pretty popular with neighbors. And we have a lot of regulars who come in. We run it Tuesday through Thursday. Evenings only—we’re only open for dinner.
RK: How long has the restaurant been open now?
NP: Four years. I just finished up three years here in August.
RK: And where were you before that?
NP: I was at Char No. 4. I was there for two and a half years. So I’ve been in Brooklyn for a while.
RK: I was sad to see Char No. 4 close.
NP: Oh yeah, it was a beloved place. But they had a good run. A lot of really good whiskey. You know, they were set up alphabetically. They had their top shelf, and below that they would have A–Z. And my friends and I would just try them all!
RK: What about before Char No, 4—Can you tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
NP: I grew up in New Jersey, in the suburbs. Ten minutes outside Princeton.
RK: What was the name of the town?
NP: South Brunswick.
RK: So when you see the signs for the Brunswicks on I-95, that’s one of them?
NP: Yeah. If you’re talking about the Indian community, they’ll certainly know it.
RK: Is it true that all Jersey towns on 95 are known by their exits and their diners?
NP: Oh yeah. We’re 8A.
RK: And your diner?
NP: Oh, diner! Hmm, I don’t know—wait, it’s the Omega Diner! Everyone will definitely know that diner. Anyway, I grew up there. My mom is an amazing cook. That’s the kind of food I’d like to cook here in New York.
RK: And are your parents first-generation?
NP: They were born in India and they came here. But they’ve now lived in the States longer than they lived in India.
RK: Where are your parents from in India?
NP: My mom’s from Pune. My dad’s from Mumbai.
RK: And both Maharashtrians?
NP: Yeah, yeah, Maharashtrians—Patils.
RK: What kind of food does your mom cook at home?
NP: Lots of vegetables. Lots of good chicken and goat curry. I eat everything. My mom won’t touch beef or pork. My dad isn’t so strict. So we were able to eat hamburgers and hotdogs at home.
Agnolotti with beef shank, sweet potato, kohlrabi, and leek
RK: But your dad would cook that?
NP: Nah, I would cook that. I mean, I would try—I was young.
RK: At what age did you start cooking?
NP: Probably 16 or so. My mom would make rotis and I’d make chakkli with her. She makes the best chakkli. I wish I had some but I just finished them yesterday! I should have saved some but I couldn’t.
RK: It’s an art. Getting the coil of dough to stay in one piece is a real pain.
NP: Oh, she crushes it. She’ll just knock our rotis and chapattis like no joke. Her puran poli should be famous. They’re insane. Hers aren’t wet. They’re thin and a bit drier.
RK: I actually prefer the thinner, drier kind. The thick ones are popular in the south—and they’re nice. But all my friends and family give me a hard time about liking the drier ones.
NP: Yeah, my Maharashtrian buddies and I are always saying how you can’t find Maharashtrian food anywhere. It’s a lot lighter in style, a lot simpler.
RK: Apart from making chapattis with your mom, where did you train?
NP: I went to ICE in the city. I’ve probably been working in restaurants since I was 15.
RK: Where did you work as a kid?
NP: Oh, Dunkin’ Donuts, working the counter at the local seafood spot...
RK: Was that a hard sell for your parents? Culinary school versus college?
NP: Not really. I went to one-year college—
RK: It’s just that the stereotype of Indian parents is that they all want their kids to be lawyers or engineers.
"I think I’m one of just a few Indians in the business—I mean, how many young Indian chefs do you come across?"
NP: I tried engineering. I didn’t like it. And I wasn’t doing very well. So I left, took some time off, and worked with my parents for a little bit. They own a few daycares—they’re not in conventional "Indian" professions, either. So, when I told them I wanted to go to culinary school, they said, “Sure, go Ahead!"
The backyard at The Pines
RK: Were there a lot of other Indians in your class?
RK: In school…at all?
NP: No. I don’t think so. I think I’m one of just a few Indians in the business—I mean, how many young Indian chefs do you come across?
RK: I can’t think of any others. Older ones, maybe.
NP: Older ones, sure. But that’s old school. There’s far fewer newer, younger chefs who are Indian. There’s Babu Ji. A buddy of mine works at Vinnie’s in Williamsburg and he was doing Indian pizzas for the specials once in a while. I think there was a channa masala pizza once.
RK: I could dig it.
NP: The food I cook here is farm-to-table, it’s sustainable. The owner of the restaurant is from the Catskills and he’s very Catskills-driven, so we work with a lot of farms and producers from the area and they have some of the best stuff that I’ve ever tried. Every week they send me a list of what they’re growing. And we say, OK, we want a case of this, a case of this, a case of this.
RK: How often do you change the menu?
NP: I’m more of the seasonal type. Some places pride themselves on a daily menu. I’m not into that. I like consistency. If I’m getting a cool product from the farmers, I can say, OK, I want to do a dish with this. We have the flexibility to throw on a dish or take one off. So in a sense, sure, the menu changes daily but we’re not coming up with dishes every single day. If it’s the season and the farmer has amazing broccoli, I’ll get a case of that and put something together.
RK: What’s the process of coming up with new dishes?
"Tweezers are pretty much banned here...It’s got to taste good. I’ve had beautifully plated dishes that just don’t taste like much."
NP: My sous chef and I were sitting right here yesterday coming up with new fall dishes. I mean, it’s not quite fall yet.
RK: Almost there, though!
NP: That’s the problem. You can say, OK, Labor Day is over, now it’s fall! But I look around and I still can’t put any heavy stuff on the menu. I probably still have a month to go. So we’re coming up with ideas. My dishes are super simple. I don’t use tweezers. Tweezers are pretty much banned here. You put it on the plate and you make it look nice. But it’s got to taste good. I’ve had beautifully plated dishes that just don’t taste like much.
RK: It’s sort of become an epidemic.
NP: I mean, it’s Instagram, too: it’s all food porn, it’s all gorgeous.
RK: Do you know this guy, Jacques La Merde?
RK: He’s hilarious. He’s on Instagram—
NP: Oh wait, I have seen that!
RK: He does stuff with Doritos and—
NP: But it’s a fake account, right? I mean, not a fake account, but—
RK: Yeah, he takes junk food and says, can I make this look beautiful? It doesn’t mean it tastes good.
NP: Or maybe it does, who knows? A deconstructed Big Mac? I’ll go for that any day! I’m not a snob when it comes to eating.
In the kitchen at The Pines
RK: What would you say is the biggest cultural influence on the menu?
NP: We call ourselves a New American Restaurant. But we certainly have plenty of French technique. But that’s all across the board with restaurants. I just hired a kid from New Jersey who’s Italian, so he brings a lot of Italian influences with him. My sous chef is from Brooklyn and he’s been cooking in cafés for a long time. I was working at a Southern restaurant so I like BBQ. We just take from here and there and everywhere. Sometimes I try to do something a little Indian but not really.
For New Year’s I’m trying to do something that’s more in line with my style of Indian food. Like an Indian tasting menu. I did one at Willow in Bed-Stuy last year. It’s closed now but we were doing a thing there called the “Sous Chef Series,” where we’d make foods influenced by our heritages. It was a bit of a shtick, but it was fun. And I got to do things that I wouldn’t ordinarily get to do. I did a duck with Indian spices. And mango pickle and seared Brussels sprouts together.
RK: Did you make the mango pickle?
NP: Yeah. Well…my mom did.
NP: I’d like to get into that kind of cooking. Sort of like inventing new Indian food. Does that make sense?
RK: So when you cook at home—or, actually, do you even have time to cook at home?
NP: I cook a little bit at home.
RK: And when you do, do you cook any Indian food?
NP: No, not really. I mean, I cook…actually, never mind—I don’t cook at home [laughs]. We make smoothies and snacks and sandwiches and stuff. Fresh salads with whatever we have lying around. Nothing extravagant.
RK: Do you ever visit India?
NP: We were back there about three years ago. My mom probably goes every two years or so. I go every three or four years. I have plenty of family there—mostly in Pune and Mumbai. My dad’s family is mostly here in the States.
RK: What are your thoughts on Shrewsbury biscuits?
RK: Shrewsbury biscuits.
NP: Oh. They’re awesome. We used to get them at Kayani Bakery when I was younger.
RK: Just checking. This is the litmus test—good thing you passed or this interview would be over!
Duck breast with roasted beets, pickled beets, beet yogurt, crispy buckwheat, and nasturtium leaves. Photo credit: Neel Patil
RK: And do you call it chiwda in Marathi?
RK: Do you have a favorite chiwda place?
NP: A place? No, just at home.
RK: So your mom makes chiwda?
NP: Yeah, she makes chiwda. Her family was actually in the murmura business. So they would be puffing rice in the basement.
RK: Did they use the small stones in the big kadhai?
NP: I think so. There was all this huge machinery. They don’t have the store anymore, but they’d be doing it out in the back.
RK: It’s a phenomenal process—the only reason I know about it is because of YouTube.
NP: So through that I picked up a bunch of puffing techniques that we use here. We do puffed rice—murmura, basically.
RK: How do you puff it?
NP: We cook it in water till it’s mushy, almost overcooked. Then we dehydrate it till it’s at about 10-percent water content, so it’s flexible and not brittle. And then we fry it at 400°F and it puffs up like popcorn.
RK: So you use rice—
NP: We use rice, we use buckwheat, we use rye berries. Any grain that is starchy and will pop. You can do chips. We do it with tapioca. My mom makes all her own yogurt. So we make our own yogurt at the restaurant.
"If I have friends who want to start making yogurt, I’ll give them a little cup of mine to start"
RK: Did you start with your own culture?
NP: No, I just bought some freeze-dried, three years ago. And it’s just been going, and it changes, depending on the environment, the humidity, everything. It’s specific to this address in Gowanus. I’ve given some to my mom. If I have friends who want to start making yogurt, I’ll give them a little cup of mine to start. We do butter, crème fraîche, sour cream.
RK: So you culture your butter too?
NP: We culture the cream and then make the butter out of that.
RK: Which is actually how a lot of people make butter in India. You talk to older cooks and they almost always say that they grew up making cultured butter.
NP: It’s not new—it’s just a good way to make butter. And we get buttermilk out of it, which goes into our cakes. The butter’s on our bread plate right now. The crème fraîche is in a dish with cabbage now, to add a little acidity to it. We make our own ricotta, which is basically just paneer. And you can use the whey for some kind of broth. Reduce it and maybe make a pasta broth out of it. I’ve heard of people using their whey to make beef stock—just using the whole animal. I think that’s pretty cool. I tried the stock once. I didn’t love it.
Pole beans with charred onion, pickled pepper,s and trumpet mushrooms. Photo credit: Neel Patil
RK: Well, that doesn’t sound particularly kosher, either.
NP: I guess not [laughing]. But that’s another thing, I work with beef.
RK: Do you eat beef?
NP: Yeah. Do you?
RK: I do. I actually grew up Catholic. My parents were Catholic so they eat, almost literally, everything.
NP: So yeah, I’m a Hindu who eats beef and cooks beef and breaks down whole animals. I don’t think you see that very often. I mean, all my friends eat beef, too.
RK: Growing up in India I had a lot of Hindu friends who would eat beef but wouldn’t cook it at home.
NP: You roll with the times. I probably couldn’t bring it into my mom’s house. But I could grill it outside.
RK: When you go to Pune are there things you particularly seek out to eat?
NP: We mostly eat at my aunt’s house. I also really like the places where they set a thali set in front of you and the servers come by and serve the food right onto your plate.
RK: Are there dishes that she makes that your mom doesn’t?
NP: Well, there was one time my aunt made goat balls. I was just like, “What is this?” My mom just said, “I’m not even going to tell you.”
RK: Oh goat testicles. I thought you meant goat meatballs.
NP: [Laughing] Yeah, testicles. I was like, “It’s all right, I guess.” And then she said, “Well, it’s testicles.” And I just said, “Oh great, fantastic.” And I just kept eating it. It’s her specialty.
NP: But other than that, my mom makes really good pani puri. I did a big savory pani puri for that dinner I did at Willow. I made a huge puri with semolina and fried it. It puffed up and got crispy and then I threw it in the dehydrator for a little bit. And then for the dish I broke it open and filled it with stewed lamb and potatoes, shaved, pickled cauliflower, and garnished it with mint and cilantro. And then on the side we served a tamarind-whey cocktail.
RK: It sounds great.
NP: I think I did roti nachos, too. I made chapattis at home, dried them, fried them up and served them with a lentil hummus.
RK: And you made the chapattis, right, not your mom?
NP: [Laughing] I did. But my mom makes kickass chapattis—they’re kind of her signature. Chapattis and bhindi, or cauliflower, tomdale. Do you know what tomdale is? Do you get it here? What is it?
RK: Do they look like little cucumbers?
RK: You get them at Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. They call them tindli, though, which I actually thought was a Marathi word. Is it not?
NP: No, I don’t think so. But I also don’t know what it is in English.[Ed.—It turns out they’re called ivy gourd]
RK: My mom used to call them gherkins when we were growing up.
NP: Are they gherkins?! They’re not cucumbers are they?
RK: Well, I think she called them that because they looked like cucumbers. But they’re not. Because the inside isn’t anything like a cucumber. As a kid I hated them and I’d always see them and go, “Oh, cucumbers!” And then I’d taste them and that was always a rude surprise.
NP: [Laughs] I love them!
RK: Are there other Maharashtrian dishes that you wish people knew more about?
RK: And they use a lot of kokum right?
NP: Oh yeah. They make a drink with it. I kind of like that—
NP: I’ve only had it a few times. It’s purple right? I only tried it for the first time when I went to India a couple of years ago and my mom said “You have to try this.”
RK: It’s an interesting flavor.
RK: It’s acerbic but it has such great depth, too.
NP: Very interesting and very weird. But I kind of like it.
RK: When you think about combining Indian food with your culinary training and the kind of food you make here, what would that look like?
"I cook a little bit with my mom. Mostly I just watch her cook and get yelled at a lot!"
NP: Like the rustic cooking that I do here but with more spices. I’d make my own spice blends. Garam masala and stuff like that. I’d use more Indian pickles.
RK: Are there Indian techniques that interest you too?
NP: Not so much. Every time my mom shows me how to cook I’m just like [throws hands up in the air] “What are you doing?!” I’ll be skimming the fat off a curry and she’s screaming, “Don’t touch that!” I’ll want to make a nice, clear rasam and she’s shouting, “Don’t touch it!”
RK: So there’s sort of a paradigm difference between you and her?
NP: Totally! She’s always like “You’re doing it wrong!” and I’m like “No, YOU’RE doing it wrong!” So we definitely fight about those kinds of things. We’ll be cooking in the kitchen and she’ll be staring at me and I’ll be staring at her.
RK: So when you go home, do you cook?
NP: Yeah, I cook a little bit with my mom. Mostly I just watch her cook and get yelled at a lot. [laughs]
RK: I think that’s normal.
RK: Were there famous cooks you idolized growing up?
NP: I appreciated—and still appreciate—Floyd Cardoz. I think he’s the main guy we should all be watching. Between Tabla which he had for 13 years, and then he would do one-off Indian things at North End Grill. And now he’s got a new spot, Paowalla.
RK: Are there other cuisines that you particularly like?
NP: Oh, sure, I love Korean food.
RK: What about it do you like?
NP: I just think it tastes good! And it’s different. The problem with so many Indian restaurants is that the food is all the same. Which is what’s so great with places like Babu Ji—they’re trying something different. Otherwise there’s no innovation. There’s a bunch of trendy things popping up, like Goa Taco, and I think Indian food is getting ready to be on-trend. I think the Indian community is becoming more mainstream now, too—there’s Indian actors who are doing well, and comedians. I think the next food trend will probably be Indian food. And I’m pretty happy about that. I think we’ll finally have our day.
RK: Well, here’s hoping. I'll keep my fingers crossed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.