Popularity is relative, and especially in the digital age. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers online, but be completely unknown in the streets — massively famous on Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, but lack any kind of real, authentic cool in person. For our new series, Coolest Person in the Room, New York-based photographer Megan Walschlager pinpoints all the people whose energy is contagious regardless of their following count or celebrity. Meet Phillip Basone – the NYC-based chef with a Rick Owens habit.
Tell us about your day job:
I am a chef. Right now I work at a restaurant in Chelsea called Elmo. I'm the executive chef and pastry chef, so I run it all and manage the whole thing. The food is super-American – not like a diner really, but there are so many options.
How did you get to where you are now?
I've been working in restaurants forever. I remember I was like 14 when I got my first restaurant job, and it was like cleaning squid for calamari, washing dishes and making salad dressing at the fanciest Italian restaurant in my town.
Where are you from?
Connecticut. I left like two weeks after I graduated to come here [NYC] for culinary school when I was 18. Then basically it all started at Barbuto. I had my internship there when I was in school, then I became a line cook, then I quit, then I moved to Philadelphia, then back to New York –
What were you doing in Philadelphia? Was that when you were testing kitchen appliances with old ladies?
No, that was like when I moved back to NYC and started working at Barbuto again, then quit again. I still don't really know why they let me in there. But then I was at a point where I didn't really want to work in restaurants, but I didn't go to college so all I had was this food degree, so I started interning at Saveur Magazine in the test kitchens just testing recipes and they would have me write some articles here and there.
And then that turned into me meeting all these older women in the food magazine world. I ended up at Good Housekeeping and the test kitchen there was too full because the women would never want to leave those jobs once they got it, so they put me into the appliance area and it was literally just like testing anything food related with a science kind of background. Like what Tupperware is the least stain-resistant? So, I would literally microwave like a million different kinds of Tupperware with tomato sauce, empty it out and dish wash it, take it out and record it. And that's what I did for weeks. But I was also 21 and the money was pretty good and it was kind of cute. I didn't even know this existed as a job.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
And that's in New York, right?
Yeah, it's in the Condé Nast building, so it's like this super glamorous – the whole floor is all appliances and anything kitchen related. And it was fun to test out appliances because now I know, like, what I want to buy.
Then I went back to Barbuto and I was the sous chef there for two weeks and then Jonathon [Waxman], the owner, was like, "Okay we're gonna make you the chef now." And then a few weeks after that they opened another restaurant and pulled the pastry chef, so I became the pastry chef as well. I was there for a year and a half and that was definitely the highlight of my career by far.
So, does being the executive chef mean you get to set the menu?
It totally depends on where you're working. At Barbuto, Jonathon gave me a lot of free reign, but of course I had to stay within some sort of context of the restaurant — of being like seasonal and Italian, and everything he represents. Then when I moved to San Francisco for him, I had real full reign on the menu, but keeping in mind kind of what he would do and what he would want. But I also worked for that man for 8 years, so I kinda knew what he wanted at that point.
I watch a lot of food documentaries on Netflix, and I have gathered in my amateur food knowledge that it is not typical for a chef to both cook and bake — is that true?
Mmm, a lot of the really successful chefs that I've met — like Jonathan Waxman — he started baking breads and loved pastry and then became a chef. Then Justin Smillie, who I've worked with at Upland, obviously knew how to do pastry and is amazing with breads. So I always looked up to them like, if you want to be an owner of your own restaurant, then you need to know how to do everything. But more importantly you need to do it better than everyone who works for you. So I was always like, I want to be the best, I want to learn everything. And baking is fun — it's so much more zen. If you give yourself a day out of your work schedule to bake, then it's really appealing.
How did you get interested in cooking?
Honestly it's kind of sad, but also kind of whatever. I just didn't really have any friends when I was little, and I would just watch the Food Network after school and start mimicking what they would do on TV. We had a little TV in our kitchen and I would just watch the Emeril Live show. It would replay at 3pm the next day and that's when I would watch it because we weren't allowed to stay up 'till 9. Then it just got to a point where my mom would take me to the grocery store and be like, "Get what you need to get to fix dinner."
How old were you?
I was 13 or 14 when I really started making, like, full meals for my family. And also my parents don't really cook either, so they were both really on board with someone cooking at home. So they were totally supportive from the beginning. They're really cool.
What is your favorite thing to cook?
I love to make lasagna and home-y type of things. Lasagna is also my favorite thing to eat too, so I think that's why I like to make it so much. And I love to make pernil. My ex-boyfriend was Puerto Rican and his family taught me how to make it. It's the whole pork shoulder with crispy skin — it's just so moist and delicious. I used to make that for the boys a lot when they would come over for dinner because it's so easy. And honestly I just hate to butcher things — like at work. That's my least favorite thing about being a chef. I always get in trouble with that, but I'm, always honest in my interviews: I hate butchering and I'm not very good at it. Just giving you a heads up.
Well, we all have our strengths and weaknesses! You also have a relationship with New York nightlife — how did you get involved with that?
Well, I started going out when I was 18 when I moved to NYC — so don't come for me for being underage, I guess.
I don't think you can retroactively get kicked out of the club.
I met this boy when I first moved here on gay.com. It was basically a MySpace type format but for gay guys in major cities. And I met this guy off it and he used to take me to Greenhouse and Markus [Kelle] used to do the door there and I instantly fell in love with him and was obsessed with everything about him. I thought he was one of the coolest people I had ever met. And he was always really sweet to me and would let me in and help me out. From there, he would do so many parties, so it was like wherever Markus was, I would go because I could get in. Some nights — like at Westgay, I would literally stand outside all night and just bullshit with him — I wouldn't even step foot into the party.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
Do you have specific going out routines?
Not really. I hate to say it but I will try to skip dinner. Like if I know I'm going out I will have breakfast and go to the gym, and then it's just liquids from then on. I always do a face mask, but other than that it's not that serious.
What is your go to drink?
Tequila and water.
I just like water better.
Alright. What about ice?
Ice for sure. It has to be cold. And a lime. I hate when they give me lemon. I hate lemon and tequila actually. But I mean if someone gives that to me, I'm not not gonna drink it.
Right. So, what's your schedule like as a chef? I assume you're not working 9-5.
It's either shifted way earlier or way later. Typical hours are like 7am to 7pm or 11am to close — which is like 1am. Right now I can sort of make my own hours as long as I meet a weekly minimum, but at Barbuto I was working like 11am-1am.
Do you like that?
Yes and no. I love not working on Mondays and being able to do everything that I wanted to do while no one is around — like the gym is empty no matter what. But I hate working Saturday nights or having to wake up after a Friday night out and having to go in to work on a Saturday while everyone is like, "Let's go to brunch and be cute while we're all hungover!" And I'm just stuck at work by myself. So it always denied me the social life I wanted — I've always had to make the extra effort to go into work the night after going out or else I wouldn't really have a life, but I'm still here and it hasn't killed me yet.
My Netflix food research has also taught me there is a nightlife ring comprised of all restaurant workers that go out together after the restaurants close — can you confirm if this is true?
Totally true. I used to go to that, but it's like, would I rather be with all my gay friends or would I rather be with a bunch of chefs' bullshitting about food? Honestly, I'd rather be with my friends. And that's just me being a young gay guy trying to be a chef in New York.
Your personal style is very like goth, Rick Owens — do you wear that under your chef jacket?
That is so ridiculous. I would never.
What do you wear? Your off duty look is like head to toe Rick Owens — do you own things that are not Rick Owens?
I do own some things that are not Rick Owens. I wish I could say I didn't because that would be the craziest thing in the world and I would gag over myself. I just need to make like an extra $100,000 for that to happen.
But, no I literally wear a wife beater or sometimes nothing. Those things are hot. It is a shirt, so I don't think you need to wear something under it. Then I wear these baggy cotton chef pants and I wear Crocs. Hideous Crocs.
What do you think are the coolest spots in New York?
I'm a big breakfast sandwich guy, so literally right across the street at Murray's Cheese, they have these two little griddles and they make the best sandwiches in the world. I've eaten thousands of them. I get butter-toasted bread, scrambled egg whites with avocado, but I add bacon and cheese to it. It's this really good Swiss cheese. But they just make it so well. I think it's just a shit-ton of butter that they put on it or something. I always bring everyone there and they agree that they're the best. I also love Molé in the West Village for Mexican food — it also has my Mexican boyfriend Victor's stamp of approval so that's usually what we eat. If I'm feeling cute, then I love to go to the Standard Bar and Grill.
Everyone responds like that when I say that's my favorite restaurant.
I've never been there and I've never thought that it might be good which is why it surprises me.
I love it. I just think it's really chic and it's all my favorite things when it comes to food.
Do you sit outside?
Inside, outside, at the bar — whatever. It's like oysters on the half shell, amazing cocktails, shrimp cocktail and an NY strip. That's all my favorite things and I'm very happy. Whenever it's my birthday or date night with Victor, that's where we go.
I also love to go to kitchen supply stores. I love to go up and down Bowery and go to all those random places. I have a big collection of plates and little cups and stuff, because I used to really love taking pictures of food and I would obviously need like a rusty old fork and a tin plate for those, so I would go to Junk in Brooklyn a lot. I love it there. They just have millions of plates and cups.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
Do you have a favorite kitchen item?
I love my blender just because I use it all the time. I have a stand mixer — the one with a million attachments. I'm into that because it's like a juicer, a grinder, you can roll pasta, make cookies — it's all in one.
What's next for you?
My goal for the summer is actually to find an outdoor space — I don't know exactly what I want it to be — but like some sort of pop-up food thing. I'm kind of at the place in my career where I don't know if I want my own restaurant, but I want a place that brings people together through food and I don't want it to necessarily be this super high-end tasting menu, like how I've down at other pop-ups. I kind of just want it to be this fun, outdoor space where there's really good food there, but also brings all my friends together not at a club at 2am. I would love to do a monthly summer BBQ party with all my friends — and even if I just had one grill I could make it work.
I feel like you have exceptional work experience as a chef for your age.
Uh, well, I definitely was so proud when I became a chef at Barbuto because I was 22 and that was kind of unheard of. In hindsight I was like way too young to have that job [laughs], I totally admit it. But I do know how to cook and I'm very cocky about that, I guess you could say. I do know how to cook. And it is kind of a weird industry that's so hard to navigate and figure out what you want for yourself, so that's why I am trying to do things like this.
Would you want to have your own restaurant?
I do, but what I want is so specific in a way it definitely would not make me a lot of money, just being realistic. But if I could have it, I totally would.
Follow Phillip Basone on Instagram (@_phillip_basone).