FRADEI IS A small, marvelous restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and as is the norm for such restaurants, it’s perpetually booked out two to three weeks in advance. The Italian bistro is also one of this year’s establishments blessed by the culinary powers that be (namely, New York Times food critic Pete Wells), so I was excited to sit down with its effusive co-chef Robbie Cox. Leading the kitchen’s creative force alongside chef Sam Schwarz, Cox falls somewhere between chef and storyteller. He speaks with highly specific, razor-sharp detail on almost anything. When I asked him what he thought might be most useful to our readers to discuss, this young punk chef, in all his tatted, pierced, shaved-head glory, had an answer right away: “Seasoning food. People still don’t understand how to season their food.”
Cox’s cooking pedigree is unconventional. For starters, he never went to culinary school. Through a combination of grit and fake-it-’til-you-make-it, Cox worked his way up from small-town Massachusetts joints to New York City’s Boulud Sud, where he showed up to his interview with gauges in his ears and no idea who legendary chef Daniel Boulud actually was. From there, he moved to Christian Constant’s Le Bibent in Toulouse, Paris’s iconic Septime, and Le Rigmarole, a French-inspired restaurant that used a Japanese grill. He then, in the midst of the pandemic, took over and subsequently transformed the kitchen at Fradei.
As someone who got where he is today through hard work, curiosity, and love for the craft, he understands more than anyone that there are no white-gloved gatekeepers to good flavor. Improving your cooking starts with understanding your own palate, and as with anything, truly caring about where things come from. With passion, insight, personality, and just a few expletives, Cox gives us some perfectly seasoned food for thought.
“A lot of recipes, especially the ones I see online, are like, ‘A pinch of salt.’ But what’s a pinch of salt? If you have bigger hands than me, what’s a pinch of salt to you? I think a lot of people will trust whatever is written online. But what it really comes down to is understanding your subjective taste. And your ingredients.
Let’s say you’re making a dish, you’re using eggs, and you need to salt it. Are the eggs super fresh? Are they a couple days old? Are they organic eggs? How you season that dish is going to change depending on all that because of the water content of the eggs. Or, like, it was just tomato season. And everybody wants to work with heirloom tomatoes right now. Are they fresh? Have they gotten a ton of sunlight before? Did it rain before they were picked? A pinch of salt on all three of those different tomatoes isn’t going to affect it the same way.”
“Taste everything, always, your whole life. Season something, taste it. Season something, taste it. The easiest I can describe it is like making a mayonnaise at home. So you make a mayonnaise, and you add what you think needs to be added for salt. And then taste it. Afterwards, you don’t add that same amount twice because double that would ruin it, right? So you just add a small amount, and taste it. Small amount, taste it. That’s the way to season. Just tasting your food over and over and over, is I think what a lot more people need to do. Because most people just make a mayonnaise and say, ‘Yep, it’s done. There’s 10 grams of salt in that, I don’t need to taste it. Because that’s what the recipe said.’”
“If you have spices at home that you bought at the grocery store, I want to tell most people to throw those all out. Where you source your spices from is so important. Because A: The spice trade is horrendous. And B: That thing of paprika you got, like McCormick paprika, from Whole Foods, or wherever you get it? It's probably been sitting on another shelf, in a warehouse, for a year to two before you even got it. There’s no flavor left in that at all. Those basil leaves were probably put in that jar six years ago.
And with the spice trade, like the chocolate trade (and of course I’m not the end-all expert on this), just remember — the origins of the spice trade were horrendous. Like 90% of the reason the world was conquered was in search of spices, so it has roots in blood. And still today, a lot of the spice trade is essentially like slave farming. And it’s the same thing with chocolate. Imagine being a farmer. And you farm squash, you sell your squash, and you’ve never tasted it. Never. You’re not allowed to. You just sell it. That’s it. Most chocolate farmers are not allowed to taste their own chocolate either, or touch it, because of how overbearing the chocolate trade is.
But a company like Burlap & Barrel works hand in hand with farmers who actually get to taste, and sell, and profit off of their products. We work with that company in the restaurant. It’s all fair trade spices and they’re beautiful. And yeah, you’ve got to spend money. It’s expensive. But then also — buy smaller amounts. Are you going to go through a 50-gallon tub of sesame seeds? Probably not. Buy a smaller amount, and really pay attention to where you’re getting it from. Working with fresher, better-sourced spices at home is important.”
“If you want to make something beautiful at home, understanding how to use salt is really important. I love making ragù with fish sauce. One thing that everyone should experiment with at home is a good fish sauce. Spend the money on a good one. There’s a brand of fish sauce that I get, which was recommended to me by a Taiwanese chef. And she could only find it in Chinatown: Megachef fish sauce.
I think a good soy sauce goes hand in hand with that. So in that ragù, I put a little soy sauce and fish sauce in it. Because it adds this fermented complexity that you don’t just get from salt. There’s the same thing in Italian cuisine, this fermented anchovy liquid called colatura, and we use that in the same way. It’s like when you need salt, but you need to deliver it in a different way. You know? Like it’s salt plus. Salt plus … umami. Another cool thing is nduja. Nduja is typically super salty. So if you’re doing that on a pasta for example, don’t put as much pasta water in the sauce (pasta water being a way you’d add more salt). Nduja in the pasta is a vehicle for salt and spice at the same time, so you don’t have to salt the dish. Or, if you have a dish, and you’re putting a bunch of shaved bottarga over the top of it, you probably don’t need as much salt because bottarga is really salty.”
“Pepper is the most misunderstood spice. As Americans, we have this salt and pepper culture. People think, ‘Oh, that needs a little salt. A little pepper.’ All the restaurants have a salt shaker and a pepper shaker on the table. But that’s insanity. Salt enhances flavor. You have to have salt. You can’t have a dish without salt. Pepper, on the other hand, is a spice that complements flavors. You don’t put pepper on everything. You don’t need it. And if you don’t use pepper correctly, it makes the dish bitter. If you toast pepper, if you put it in a pan with a chicken cutlet, and it burns on the sides when you’re not paying attention, the whole dish is bitter now.
It’s really funny to me that everyone associates salt with pepper. You even see it in pop culture. But actually pepper has a use and a reason. There are times for it, and a lot of times it’s not needed. Very often people are just unconsciously adding it. Pepper should only be there when it’s called for. Like if you’re making a steak au poivre? Then yeah, you need to have pepper in that.
Also, the ground-up pepper that you see in a shaker at a diner, that falls out like literal ash from Chernobyl onto your dish, is the most horrifying ingredient. It’s literally like ashes falling on Doomsday when I watch people put that on their food — nuclear fallout, Chernobyl ash. Pepper needs to be ground fresh, no matter what.”
I've had jalapeños that are as mild as bell peppers, and jalapeños that literally melt faces off. And that has to do with the terroir where it was grown.
“This all goes back to tasting stuff. If you’re making a dish, let’s say you’re making a ceviche and it calls for half a jalapeño and you have two jalapeños at home. Cut your jalapeno in half and fucking taste it. Try it first. Because I've had jalapeños that are as mild as bell peppers, and jalapeños that literally melt faces off. And that has to do with the terroir where it was grown. The weather, the farm, everything. So it’s super important to taste in that sense.
For heat vehicles, we like to use dried Aleppo pepper, dried Urfa pepper, Espelette. When peppers are dried, not only do they add the right amount of heat, they also add this really lovely fruitiness or smokiness to a dish. I really like the dried Aleppo pepper, it’s pretty mild. And it has this cherry kind of flavor to it, which is sweet. And then the classic Espelette pepper. It’s a little bit finer, more granular than Aleppo. And again, it has this kind of sweet heat to it. It comes from the south of France. It’s expensive, but it’s really good. They have to be cultivated from specific areas, to be called Espelette pepper, just like with Champagne.”
“You should have fish sauce. Good white wine vinegar. Good red wine vinegar. Good olive oil. Good neutral oil. That’s one thing that a lot of people confuse. You shouldn’t be cooking everything with olive oil. It has a higher smoke point. Olive oil is for dressing. Neutral oil, like a grapeseed oil, is for cooking. Have both at home. You need fine salt for when you’re heavy seasoning, like when you’re seasoning pasta water. And then something like Maldon salt, or fleur de sel — a crystallized salt — for seasoning something after it’s done. Like what you see on top of a piece of protein.
And then good peppercorns. Get a small amount and toast it. When you run out, go get more. Start by putting them in the oven until they get kind of aromatic, not burnt. When you pull them out, you should smell pepper. I think a lot of people take Pinterest as the Lord’s word. Like if this says 20 minutes of cook time, that must be right. But everybody’s stove is different. Everybody’s peppercorns are different. So pull them out and smell them. If they smell aromatic and toasty, and not burnt, then they’re done. Then put those in your pepper mill. And again, not a fucking Doomsday amount.”
Here’s to spicing up your life. Ethically and in small batches, of course.
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Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Katie Smith Illustrator
Katie Smith is an illustrator based in Glasgow who is currently studying communication design at Glasgow School of Art.