Jesse Schenker is a walking encyclopedia of gastronomical techniques who’s worked his way through pizza parlors and four-star kitchens. Still, the 27-year-old had a lot to learn when he opened his first restaurant, the West Village’s much-lauded Recette, in January 2010. When a guest at his “friends and family” pre-opening trial run asked if Schenker had obtained his health permit yet, the chef recalls, “I went into panic mode.”
That crisis and hundreds of others have been dispatched, and Schenker, who serves modern twists on the classics (house-made spaghetti with shrimp, stewed tomato chili and sea urchin, and a ragu of sous vide-cooked venison loin with sweet potato puree, chicharon and huckleberry sauce) has developed a devoted following of restaurant insiders, critics, locals and bridge and tunnel visitors looking for an evening of quintessential West Village charm.
Schenker’s earliest memories of growing up in South Florida involve “wanting to be in the kitchen.” He was living his dream by the time he was four, peeling carrots with his great-grandmother. When he got a little older, he’d beg his parents to bring home menus from dinners out. “When my friends were getting dirt bikes and Nintendo [games] I wanted a Henckels knife set and a blender,” he recalls. “It’s strange, but I just didn’t have control over what I wanted.”
The congenial culinary wunderkind started collecting cookbooks (he estimates he owns well over 300) and dropped out of high school to work in restaurants while he earned his GED. He rose from McDonald’s to the haute cuisine kitchen of Café Maxx in Pompano Beach before heading to New York in 2006. The move was foretold: as a teenager visiting the West Village, Schenker, smitten, called his father and excitedly told him, “We’re going to buy a building here one day.”
Schenker found an apartment in West Harlem and staged at Le Bernardin and Per Se before landing at Gordon Ramsay’s The London. In 2008 Schenker, along with Per Se pastry alum Christina Lee and Savoy Bakery owner Brian Ghaw, launched Recette Private Dining, preparing elaborate tasting menus after-hours at Ghaw’s Spanish Harlem bakery. Moving from pop-up to full-fledged restaurant was a matter of reading some sample business plans online, writing his own, and then getting about $700,000 in backing, mostly from a venture capitalist friend of his father. With wife Lindsay (his seventh grade sweetheart, with whom he reconnected 10 years later) running the front of the house and father Scott (a former Kutcher’s — the upstate original, that is — maître d’) as his business advisor, Schenker can dream up new dishes and manage everything else.
The chef is most anxious when he’s not working and says, “All or none, that’s how I live my life. Either do it to the fullest, or don’t do it at all.”