Why Maialino’s Jason Pfeifer Should Be Your New Favorite Chef
North Carolina-born Jason Pfeifer never planned on being a professional chef in one of the biggest foodie cities in the world. A country boy at heart, he fell in love with the outdoors at an early age. After hiking the Appalachian Trail and traveling up and down the east coast, Jason learned a ton about cooking, foraging his own meals along the way. The trip made him so obsessed with cooking that he decided to attend the CIA [as in the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency]. After continuing his education, he found NYC to be the hub of all the restaurants he aspired to be a part of, and it all started at Gramercy Tavern. “The intensity and drive it takes to perform in NYC has kept me rooted here,” he explains. After two years, Jason accepted a position at Per Se and then wound up joining the opening team at Maialino in 2009. But since then, he has traveled to Denmark to work as an apprentice to Rene Redzepi over at Noma, also known as the best restaurant in the world. Upon his return, Jason was named the Chef de Cuisine at Maialino in 2013, and just this year, he was nominated for Forbes 30 Under 30.
We had a chance to sit down with the ultra talented chef to learn more about his passions, guilty pleasures and what he recommends at one of NYC’s best Italian restos, Maialino. Read on for to learn more about Chef Jason Pfeifer!
How does it feel to be nominated for Forbes 30 Under 30?! That’s a huge accomplishment!
I was so overwhelmed. I am incredibly lucky to have been granted the opportunity to work alongside so many great chefs who have shown me through their actions and mentorship how to grow in this business. I felt immense gratitude to each and every chef who took the time to nurture my progress throughout the years and also for those who have allowed me to do the same for them. Without all these talented individuals none of this would have been possible for me.
What was it like working at Noma? What was the most valuable lesson you learned there?
My time at Noma was like a kick in the face. It was the most driven and tight knit crew of chefs I have ever worked with. Some of my colleagues from Per Se had made the move to Denmark and they welcomed my presence with open arms. I’ll never forget the first day prepping wood sorrel and all of a sudden Lynyrd Skynyrd comes on the radio and Rene comes rolling in like a rock star. Experimentation of flavors, fermentation, pushing the boundaries of what is considered fine dining. It was like learning how to think like a chef all over again and in such a progressive way.
What’s your signature dish?
The signature dish at Maialino is of course the Maialino. Slow roasted suckling pig seasoned with fennel seed and kosher salt and then blasted at high heat to crisp the skin. But I’m most proud of the pasta selection we created. We keep classics like Bucatini all’ Amatriciana and Spaghettini alle Vongle but our Maialino creations that came from the desire to use excess product became my favorites. The Garganelli with braised rabbit and Castelvetrano olives is one of my most prized.
Is there a no-fail dish that you have to try when visiting Maialino?
Our menu evolves based on the seasons and what’s available at the green market. I am an ingredient driven chef so when you dine at Maialino look for the items that are market driven. The best dishes are usually the simplest only because the ingredients really speak for themselves.
What is your favorite food trend right now?
The idea of foraging for ingredients. Living in the city I rely heavily on purveyors to offer up new and interesting ingredients and since foraging is “in” I’ve had access to some more obscure items from my past like chicken of the woods mushroom and wine berries.
What ingredients do you find to be highly underrated?
Weeds. Purslane, nettles, dandelions and lambs quarters grow in excess all over the place. I can find them all over my own neighborhood in Brooklyn. Not only do they provide unique flavors but some provide exceptional nutritional value as well.
What is your guilty food pleasure?
Ice cream, hands down. I once ate an entire half gallon of mint chocolate chip to myself.
You must be filled with food knowledge. For foodies and home chefs, can you give us one life-changing cooking tip?
It’s all about ingredients. In all my experience as a chef I have come to learn one very precise factor that separates fine dining from just dinning. The best meals are created with the best of ingredients treated with care and simplicity. Natures done the work for you your job is just to find it whether foraging for it in the woods or in your local market.
What is your favorite restaurant in New York?
Impossible question to answer. There is so much great food and so many talented chefs that to pick just one would be an injustice, but my overall best dining experiences have been at Gramercy Tavern. I feel like family every time I come back and the vegetable driven cooking of Michael Anthony suites my particular tastes.
What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten and where did you have it?
On the top of Knob Creek mountain in Virginia. I had spent the whole day hiking with a friend we called Free Man and in our day we managed to fill a large zip lock with morels and ramps. When we finally arrived at our shelter on the top of the mountain in the pouring rain we were greeted by a few other hikers and their dog. One played his banjo and sang while the rest of cooked up all our mushrooms and ramps and other findings from the day and we filled ourselves on the best the woods had to offer. I’ll never forget that day and it was the first taste of the morel I had ever had.
On your day off, where can we find you?
I’m on my Harley every moment I’m not working. Motorcycles have become a haven for me in the same way that hiking was in my early years. The traveling jones never left my body and to hit the highway on the weekends or take trips down south or out west have given me the freedom I’ve always sought.
What do you order at a coffee bar?
Depends on the coffee bar. Rome has incredible espresso bars but that’s the only time I drink espresso, my daily routine is cold brew coffee from Counter Culture. I can’t live without it.
If you could have lunch with anyone in the world, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Tom Petty. His music has carried me through my life. I was hooked after my first show with my father when I was 11 years old. But besides being a huge fan of his music the thing I stand in awe of is his longevity. To think that even after such an illustrious career that has spanned decades he is still creating music that is relevant and rock in is amazing. I hope to have that same endurance and longevity as a chef.
Images shot by Nicole Franzen