Dinner with the queen of brunch

April 28th, 2017  |  Published in NYSD2D 2017, Uncategorized

Dede Lahman eating dinner in her Upper West Side apartment. Photo: Nina Friend

Restaurateur Dede Lahman eating dinner in her Upper West Side apartment. Photo: Dede Lahman.

By Nina Friend

There is one thing restaurateur Dede Lahman does in the privacy of her Upper West Side apartment that she won’t do anywhere else: set down her utensil, pick up her plate, and lick off whatever’s left. Whether the buttery remains of Pommes Anna, morsels of bacon from spaghetti carbonara, or sticky residue of the lemon caper sauce that topped a piece of halibut, Lahman loves to eat anything cooked by her husband Neil Kleinberg, a classically-trained chef.

On their first date, Kleinberg pulled foie gras out of the freezer and fried it, and Lahman said to herself, “I think I’ll definitely marry you.” That was 16 years ago. Since then, the couple has opened two restaurants in New York – Clinton Street Baking Company in the Lower East Side and Community Food and Juice in Morningside Heights – saw their fluffy blueberry pancakes named the city’s best by New York Magazine, and expanded their restaurant brand internationally.

Her red hair pulled back into a messy low bun, Lahman sits at her dining room table, hunched over her phone as she finalizes the caption for an Instagram post. She squints at a picture of a burger and fries and types in hashtags like “#dinner” – a way for her to further her goal of publicizing Clinton Street Baking Company’s dinner menu, since they’re known primarily for brunch and desserts. Lahman’s minimalist approach to Instagram mimics Kleinberg’s food style: no prissiness. “It’s just like, this is a cheeseburger. What goes behind it is great. It’s grass-fed beef, we make our own bun, we get the best ketchup, pickles from the Lower East Side, the fries are hand cut downstairs,” she said. “But I don’t need a story. When we present food at the table, there’s no novella behind it. It’s just, this is your f-ing cheeseburger, eat it.”

The whole “casual pancake thing” was an accident, Lahman said. In 2001, she and Kleinberg met by chance at the Greenwich Village fish and chips shop A Salt and Battery. They started dating right away. Kleinberg was opening Clinton Street Baking Company at the same time, and ten months later, the couple got married. A month after that, by which point the restaurant had been open for about half a year, Lahman bought out her new husband’s business partner. She needed to have a say, she said, and “not just be the wife.”

While in the beginning there was confusion about who would do what, Lahman let Kleinberg focus on the food so that she could spend time building their brand. “Our partnership is very easy,” Lahman said. “Now we hardly even need to say anything to each other. We know what he’s doing, we know what I’m doing.” At this point, the only thing they really fight about is food. “He still gets attached to things like a panna cotta,” Lahman said, “And I’ll be like, you’ve been trying to do panna cotta for ten years, it’s just not worth it.” Lahman always uses business analytics as the basis for her argument, and Kleinberg always relents. “It’s not about taste,” Lahman said. “It’s about selling.”

Lahman worked in editorial at Seventeen magazine and was a brand consultant at Coca-Cola. At one point, she turned out a weekly vegan buffet for sixty people at a West Village yoga ashram. And then, in 2013, she decided  to expand their mom-and-pop bakery concept to new outlets in Tokyo, Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok, and Nagoya.

At four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, the restaurant’s tables are almost all filled. The red ketchup bottles match the red of the plastic chairs and door covers, as well as the outdoor benches that make it easier to brave the weekend brunch wait. One party of three women has a plate of chocolate chunk pancakes to share, in addition to their scrambled eggs and omelets. This is the type of place where you order extras for the table. But not for Lahman. “When I go to Clinton Street I just eat a kale salad,” she said. “I gain weight just by looking at food.”

Lahman has worked to move Kleinberg away from using so much bread in his home cooking, toward incorporating more protein and vegetables. They’re trying to teach their ten-year-old daughter, Jade, who loves to be in the kitchen with her dad, about healthy eating. The family has dinner together every night, a luxury that comes with financial success and time. Though Lahman is 45, Kleinberg, who is 58 and has two other children from his previous marriage, has been working in New York City kitchens since he was 19. He doesn’t have to work the dinner shift anymore, at least not at the restaurants. At home, he’s still on duty.

“If you add the soy sauce too early,” Kleinberg says while holding the bottle over a pan of frying rice –

“It’s going to stick,” Jade says, finishing her dad’s sentence.

Kleinberg, who has gray scruff on his face and wears black rectangular glasses, drizzles the liquid over the pan, making the vegetables sizzle. The narrow kitchen starts to smell like scallions and sesame.

Neil Kleinberg and his daughter, Jade, butchering the chicken that they'll use for dinner.

Chef Neil Kleinberg and his daughter Jade, butchering the chicken that they’ll use for dinner. Photo: Dede Lahman.

“What next, kid?” Kleinberg asks his self-assured daughter, who is wearing a miniature chef’s jacket, as he dumps dirty dishes into the sink. He tells Jade to CAYGO, which stands for “clean as you go” – a word they developed to remind each other that there’s less of a mess at the end if they scrub the stovetop and wipe the counter while they cook.

Jade finds a small ramekin in a drawer and packs it with a few scoops of fried rice. She flips the little bowl onto one of the gold-rimmed plates that Kleinberg set in a line on the counter, taps it, and then lifts. The rice, peppered with carrots, peas, and egg, comes out in a perfect dome. Kleinberg shouts “Woo!” and Jade packs the ramekin for the next plate.

Kleinberg swoops by his daughter and elegantly places soft snap peas and bok choy next to the rice, followed by three pieces of teriyaki chicken on each plate. “A wing, a thigh, and a leg,” he says three times, repeating himself with a meditative quality. “All the plates have to look the same. We’re a democratic family.”

At their long wooden dining room table, decorated with candles that they light every night, the family of three gnaws on chicken bones before tossing the remains into a collective bowl. Lahman asks Jade if she’s remembering to close her mouth while she chews. This is the time when they teach Jade manners and talk about what happened that day. For Lahman, family dinners involve “candles and togetherness.” For Jade, they seem to be more about having the focused attention of two busy parents. When she gets home from school, Jade doesn’t like answering Lahman’s questions. Instead, she always says, “Let’s save it for dinner.”

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