30th Ave is becoming foodier by the week it seems. Last weekend I spoke with chef Casey Sullivan. He’s the Executive Chef at Queens Comfort, which opened in February this year on 30th Ave just East of Steinway. Casey is originally from Los Angeles but has lived in many different parts of the US: Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas City, Chicago…
“I am pretty into America!” he says. “I am a really big proponent of American culture. And I think that especially in the food world, historically it hasn’t had the respect that it deserves.”
Casey came to New York from Chicago with his girlfriend when she got a job as the head bartender at Café Boulud in Manhattan. The co-founders of Queens Comfort, Donnie D’Alessio and Avery Thompson, were looking for a chef specializing in comfort food. Soon, via a Craigslist ad, Casey joined their team. He commutes to the restaurant from Washington Heights.
Donnie and Avery were in the film business before they set up Queens Comfort. You can tell. Movies are projected onto the back wall (without the sound) and there are piles of film magazines next to the usual flyers about what’s going on in Astoria. “When we don’t talk about food we talk about movies,” Casey says.
It’s clear that the food comes first though. On the rotating menu you might find pulled pork sandwiches, grilled corn with Tabasco and mayo, fried chicken with biscuit. “My absolute favorite food to eat and to cook is fried chicken,” says Casey. “It’s one of the things with the most variances and different schools of thought – everyone thinks theirs is the best.” He adds that he knows theirs is the best in Astoria…and he thinks it’s the best in New York.
“This place is very different for where it’s at,” Casey says. “There are places like it in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side in Manhattan that do well doing this kind of thing. Here it’s new. The reason it’s a success is because people who like it love it.”
Casey buys a lot of the vegetables for Queens Comfort from the Greenmarket in Union Square. “There’s nothing more fun than going to the market and grabbing the green tomatoes and a big bag of corn.” Organically and locally-reared meat is harder to source though. “You’re looking at adding ten bucks onto a dish. We do what we can, and use the local butchers here along 30th Ave – we make a call to tell them what we want then walk down the street to pick it up.”
Casey says that the “career” of cooking used to mean you would follow a European route – the word “chef” is a French word after all. “But I don’t want to eat crepes! I just don’t want to do it! I would be running a losing race if I tried to cook French food better than a French guy. But the same thing holds the other way. Bring any French guy in here and try to get him to cook our food!” Casey did a lot of his training working alongside experienced chefs in Kansas City, where “there’s really great barbeque, and where you can find grits on a fine dining menu.”
Casey says that he sees cooking as a craft. “Like laying bricks, but laying bricks really well. The middle class in this country, the workers, used to be artisans and craftsmen. They didn’t necessarily design great buildings but they built great buildings. Someone designed the Chrysler building, but there were guys who built it, and that’s amazing.
“That’s in some way what I think that we do as chefs. You know, you pay attention to something, you do everything right, you do it the way you were told to do it, you might find faster ways to do it but you don’t cut any corners. That’s a craft. It’s one of the few crafts left in the country that you can make money doing.”