Had April Bloomfield not missed a crucial deadline in her early search for a career, today she might be writing tickets in the U.K. instead of rocking some of the hottest grub on the New York dining scene.
The acclaimed chef behind Manhattan's The Spotted Pig and, now, The Breslin once dreamed of joining the police force in her native Birmingham, England.
In other words, she wanted to be a cop.
"I didn't want to ever cook," Bloomfield said in recent interview at The Breslin, which occupies an oak-heavy, beautifully dusky space in the Ace Hotel on 29th St. "My two sisters were always cooking. I wanted to be in the police force, but I didn't get in because I just so happened to procrastinate a bit, and I hadn't gotten my application in at the right time. ... So I kinda left it too late and my mom kinda sat me down and was like, 'What are you gonna do?'"
The answer, said Bloomfield, was literally right before her eyes.
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"I saw my sister walk past, and she had her chef whites on, and I kinda looked at her and was like, 'Maybe I'll just give cooking a go,' just to tide me over until I could, you know, reapply for the police force. I went a couple of weeks later to turn up to the college that my sisters were going to at the time, because they were both there. And I fell in love with it."
When Bloomfield and restaurateur Ken Friedman opened The Spotted Pig, New York City's first gastro-pub, in February 2004, it was as if the West Village food gods had fulfilled a culinary yearning the dining classes didn't even realize they felt. With its pub-inflected seasonal British and Italian menu, the restaurant soon had patrons jamming Greenwich and 11th Streets and enduring Odyssey-style waits for a table in the back and a couple hours in gastronomic paradise. That first year it grabbed a Michelin star, which it has kept for five consecutive years.
It was a breakthrough for Bloomfield, but it wasn't a bolt from the blue. The Spotted Pig gig came after a number of standout apprentice roles, beginning with cook positions in various kitchens throughout London and Northern Ireland. Bloomfield did a turn at London's renowned River Cafe, under the guidance of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, and another at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
Bloomfield and Friedman are back at it with The Breslin, which opened in October 2009. Bloomfield designed the menu to spotlight a variety of meaty dishes, like terrines and sausages. Early crowds and rave reviews make it look like the duo will succeed at repeating -- or, rather, updating, elaborating and expanding on -- The Spotted Pig trick.
Bloomfield said her desire to cook, and cook more, and better, always came naturally.
"I don't think I really pushed myself into [cooking]," she said. "Well, obviously I did, because I had to make a decision, but I just found it really natural because I really wanted to give it 110 percent. You know, it wasn't anything that was ever blasé. I made a decision and I wanted to stick to it and I just really, really enjoyed it. I ended up doing it a second year, and you know it was an amazing time and I learned so much."
It took awhile before she began to think she was actually any good at cooking, however.
"Not for awhile, for a long time actually," she said. "I wasn't the most confident of cooks, but I just persevered and I wanted to learn and I wanted to be a sponge and I wanted to be better than the next person and I wanted to learn as much as I could, so I just kept pushing, and it took me a long time actually to be confident in my technique and my ability as a cook."
Bloomfield said her first memory of food was her grandmother's cooking.
"You know she used to cook the most fantastic roast dinners, and I just remember the crispy roast potatoes and the creamy mash and the peppered onion sauce," Bloomfield said. "You know whatever it was and you could smell it, and all the windows would be steamy on Sunday afternoon, with her kind of slaving away at the hot stove. And we would [be outside] playing, and come in, and it would be all humid and smell really good."
Her mother wasn't necessarily a model in the kitchen, Bloomfield said, but there were other lessons to be learned.
"You know my mom wasn't so much such a great cook," she said. "But I don't know, I think I have a very strong mother, and it's funny, because both of my sisters -- I have two sisters, and I'm the baby, but they all work hard. I'm not sure where I get it from and I'm not sure where they get it from, but they must get it from somewhere. ...I like to work. It's fun to work. It's what I do."
As she worked her way up, Bloomfield began to develop her repertoire, improving her sense of flavor and taste. It was 10 years before she had a real breakthrough, though, she said.
"The turning point for me was working at the River Café, and I hadn't really tasted -- I'd been cooking 10 years at that time -- and I hadn't really tasted food that vibrant and fresh. It was kinda like someone hit [you] on the head with a pan ... and I was like, 'What have I been doing for the past 10 years?'"
It's now been six years that Bloomfield has called the United States home. As she tells it, the transition has amounted to constant work with doses of high (and low) comedy.
"I was ready to move," she said. "But it was difficult for me because people couldn't understand what I saying, for one. I probably had, obviously had a thicker accent than I have now. So you'd call up suppliers and they'd be like, 'Where are you from?' and I'd say, 'The Spotted Pig?' and they'd be like, 'No I don't know that.'
"And then my American sous chef would call up and be like 'The Spotted Pig' -- and put on this faux cockney accent. And I'd be like, 'How did they understand you?' ... It's difficult sometimes with the cuts of meat, and sometimes the fish quality or the meat quality might be different from back in England, or the cuts are just completely different."
Bloomfield dismisses the old saw about fine British cuisine being a contradiction in terms.
"I think British food, it's had a bad rap," she said. "People like Fergus Henderson, and Tom Aiken, obviously Gordon Ramsay, you know they've kind of -- they're trying to make that impression go away. I think that's a good thing, because it is wonderful ... to get that perfect roast beef with like some duck fat roasted potatoes. You know it's not all gray mush. And there's English people doing Italian food, which I had a great opportunity of working at the River Café with Rose and Ruth, and I mean they're so talented, hugely talented, and they have a fantastic palate, and they can go to Italy and bring something back and completely make it their own, and so you know it's still British. It's made by a British person. I think people say that British people just can't cook in general. That's -- that's not true."
Bloomfield may seem like a machine of perpetual motion, but she does take down time.
"What makes me not burn out is pretty much having a cup somewhere on my own, or just by the pass and I'm drinking tea and just, you know, just take certain moments of the day where I can just take a moment to think about stuff," she said. "And mornings if I don't necessarily have to be up so early, I can read a cookbook or go online, and I have my cup of tea there, and you know then you get inspired. And eating out too helps you not burn out and helps you remember and be in touch with the industry pretty much."
Then there are the times when leisure means even more than a cup of tea in a crowded kitchen. Bloomfield recently traveled to Mongolia.
"I like hiking. I like fishing," she said. "I love fishing. I started that a few years ago. Sometimes I go upstate. And I've gone fly-fishing in Colorado a couple of times. And I just recently came back from Mongolia, and I fly-fished there. I was pretty much fly-fishing many hours of the day. I think they were probably like worried about me, my friends, just like, 'She's been gone a long time.'"
Are there moments when Bloomfield looks back on that missed application to be a police officer, and wonders what might have been?
"No regrets," she said. "No regrets. But there was a point in my life where I reapplied for the police force, and I was like, 'OK I'm going to do this, and if something happens it's just not meant to be.' So I called for an application, they sent me an application, and it was for the transport police, and it wasn't what I wanted to do, I wanted to walk the beat. I was like, 'It's just obviously not meant to be.' And I just carried on cooking, and here I am today in New York.
"The reason why I wanted to join the police was because I wanted to work with people. I actually first wanted to be social worker, but I thought I'd get burnt out a little bit too much. But I wanted to chat and I wanted to kind of be around people, and so I think there's some similarities [with cooking], because you know you are constantly around people. You end up, you know, building a family pretty much, so you know it's a good thing I think."