There are great, only-in-New-York stories of the old Empire Diner in West Chelsea: the debauchery that would ensue when the nearby leather bars emptied out in the early hours, the limousines that deposited fancy, sozzled punters outside for some late-night chow, the piano playing, the celebrities, crush, and craziness. It was one of those places you might have to wait 45 minutes for a table at 3 a.m., and where businessmen coming in for a morning coffee might be seated inside the distinctive railroad-style spot next to club-kids ending their evening revelry.
Before bidding it farewell in 2010, its former owners said they served “Chelsea residents, actors, police commissioners, athletes, gangsters, such luminaries as Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, and anyone carrying a New York City Guide Book.”
But after 30 years, the lease was passed to someone else, whose venture failed (The Highliner), and now a celebrity chef has moved in: Amanda Freitag, the very stern-seeming judge of Food Network’s Chopped, which pits chefs against each other in cook-offs featuring odd, juxtaposed ingredients. Freitag and her two business partners are determined to turn the 75-seat Empire into “the modern version of a diner.”
“People are happy to see this place alive again,” says Freitag, sitting in the Empire’s back room, now filled with photographs of her and her partners' families. Dressed in chef’s duds, Freitag is not at all the frowning mistress of braised pork belly that she portrays on TV; the one who grimly notes the taste deficiencies of badly composed salsas and gloopy risottos. “I get edited pretty heavily,” she claims. “They want us to look tough and intimidating.” Instead, the real-life Freitag laughs, smiles, and is bracingly candid.
The chef grew up in Cedar Grove, New Jersey where family life was “busy and the food terrible.” Her father Paul worked for a computer company, while her mother Kathleen was a manager at Verizon. She and her two older brothers Jason and Justin ate quick, “sometimes frozen” meals. Freitag claims she was a good student, but a procrastinator: she would study for tests with an hour to go and ace them. She stayed up late, hence her ease with late nights now, and her fondness for working intensely in the moment.
After seeing Ted Kotcheff’s 1978 comedy movie, Who’s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?, starring George Segal, she felt inspired. “America wasn’t taking chefs seriously at that time,” she says. Rather than attend another four years of school, at 15 she began work as a busgirl, then attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. It was there that she learned every basic kitchen task, from chopping to making roux and stocks.
At the Institute, she experienced sexism for the first time, when one of her lecturers asked her whether she wouldn’t rather be at secretarial college. “I tried not to think about it,” Freitag says. “I tried to think of myself as a chef not a woman, but obviously I had to prove myself double.”
“I’m naïve,” she says. “Most of the time I wouldn’t realize it was happening. I saw myself as a woman who could do everything the guys did, sometimes better. But they would treat me differently. They would offer to carry my buckets of stock, whereas if it were another guy he would be expected to get his own. Later, as a sous-chef and chef people would not respect my authority. They would listen to male chefs over me. I had to say, ‘I am your boss, and as I respect you, I ask for the same respect. I don’t think a woman-run world is the answer, just true balance.”
When it came to cuisines, Freitag experimented with Thai, French, and Italian cooking, before settling on American, having being most inspired in the mid-90s under Diane Forley at Verbena. “It was my foundation,” she says. “I worked every single station. I learned about foods and seasonality.”
Using these skills, and those she learned as chef de cuisine at the Upper West Side restaurant Cesca, and as executive chef at The Harrison in Tribeca, Freitag plans to “redefine the diner in the modern day of foodies and a chef-driven world.”
The grilled cheese at the Empire Diner, for example, is made on brioche bread, with oven-roasted tomatoes and sharp Cheddar and Fontina cheeses. Instead of regular chips, root vegetable crisps are served on the side. There are also patty melts made from rye bread, Swiss cheese and onions, and proper entrees, like pork chop, trout amandine, and steak and potatoes.
Getting her to choose a favorite is tough—“They’re all my children!” she exclaims—but eventually she caves, admitting to a soft spot for the octopus salad. “The flavors are sweet, salty, savory, spicy, and creamy. It’s got everything.”
“The mission is to still make it feel like a diner,” Freitag says. “You’ll be able to eat anytime you like (not yet, it’s only open in the evenings). People are happy to see this place alive again.”
Freitag claims she never rests on her laurels. She works extremely hard, always has. She owes money to a lot of people, she says smiling ruefully. She’s a perfectionist and her own fiercest critic. “I have to do well for me and all the people who work for me. New York is probably the toughest, most expensive city to open a restaurant in. But this isn’t an ego trip, I want the restaurant to live on in people’s minds. I’m motivated by the fear and anxiety of failure. When I competed in Iron Chef and felt I wasn’t doing well, or all through my career at those moments, it just made me more driven.”
Reviews, she concedes, are “difficult,” though “not as weighty as they used to be. I think if you’re making good food in a good neighborhood and [you] honor your neighbors, you’ll do well,” she says. “I want the restaurant to live on in people’s minds.”
Being a celebrity chef, though, sometimes means a harsher spotlight on new ventures. Her Food Network-colleague Guy Fieri opened a new restaurant and Times Square and received a drubbing in The New York Times.
“It was almost a comical bit of writing. It was obviously a case of ‘Here’s a huge celebrity TV chef, let’s annihilate them, lets tear them apart.’ If Guy had come up through New York’s culinary scene the review would have been very different. Guy’s a very smart businessman [who] opened something in Times Square. He probably never imagined he’d be reviewed in the New York Times. It probably did him a favor: It bought more light to the restaurant than it would have had before.”
Despite being a New York chef herself since 1992, Freitag knows her own fame has “definitely helped” secure this, her first restaurant. “I always wanted my own place,” she says. “I feel I’m about fifteen years late. Along the way I was trying to find my voice, style, and home.” No matter how many celebrity commitments Freitag has, she wants to stay in the Empire kitchen, she says, even when prevailed upon to “wipe the grease and aggravation off my face” before posing with customers.
Not that she’s giving up TV anytime soon. Freitag says she loves how creative and tense Chopped is—the cooking is done in real-time, she insists—though recalls every judge felt physically sick after one challenge saw the contestants having to use ingredients consisting of a cabbage, Durian fruit, lime Jell-O, and a hot pepper. “Nothing you can make with that tastes good. Nobody could. Nobody did.” Her fellow Chopped cohorts Mark Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian and host Ted Allen have already dropped into the Empire for a bowl of chili on top of some French fries—“like true chefs,” Freitag says.
When asked, Freitag concedes that our society has become a bit food-obsessed, what with the fetishization of certain ingredients, the insanity of restaurant trends, the primacy of celebrity chefs, errrmmm, like her. “Yes…we’ve gone overboard a bit. Kids are foodies, everybody's a critic, everybody’s a blogger, everybody’s taking a picture at dinner and tweeting it. I think a little bit is lost, a communal sense of sitting down and having a meal together, if we go too foodie-crazy.”
However, she won’t ask you to put down the camera if you want to snap a picture of her Empire Diner dishes. In fact, she takes pictures of food herself—for reference rather than tweeting—when dining out at “high end” restaurants like Jean-Georges, Nougatine, and Eleven Madision Park. She’s also a “huge” pizza and burger fan, enjoying the former at Company and the latter at Burger & Barrel. But if she wants something “really greasy without knowing where the meat is from?" That she reserves for Corner Bistro in the West Village.
Her partner in all this eating and cooking is an ultrasound technician named Raphael, her boyfriend of four years. “He’s benefited from my job for sure, traveling, eating at different places.” She isn’t sure about marriage or having children, after all, she says, “I’ve just had this restaurant baby.”
Next, Freitag hopes to make an “inspirational” primetime food series, or advise a movie star playing a chef in a role. She says she received the best advice from her father, who, when she was burdened with nerves preparing to face Bobby Flay in an Iron Chef competition, told her, “This is what you do, you’re good at it. When you walk out of here, you’ll go back to work. Why not just have fun with it?”
Her father, Freitag says smiling, “was absolutely right” and his advice stuck with her.
“The TV is a plus-plus. I must remember to enjoy it. The business and being in the public eye brings so much pressure, and you can make yourself physically sick with all that stress and anguish.” She pauses, then laughs. “But at the end of the day, it’s just food.” Freitag laughs cheerily. “At the end of the day you’re feeding people and having fun.”
The Empire Diner, 210 10th Avenue, at 22nd Street (212-596-7523)