A few days ago I had the pleasure of interviewing renowned chef and proud New Yorker Harlan Goldstein at his new restaurant Gold by Harlan Goldstein.
He spoke to me about his past and about where his interest in cooking originally arose. We discussed the experience he has had as a chef in many different cities around the globe and he explained why Hong Kong has been his favorite. He told me a bit about some of the tougher times he’s had in this city and how Gold marks a new chapter in his culinary career. He also expressed to me his love for the art of Muay Thai and kickboxing and explained how it helps him relieve stress and clear his senses, which ultimately helps him become more focused in the kitchen.
Throughout our interview I learned about Gold’s menu and the influences behind it, as well as a bit about the wine list and how it suits his food. We discussed the arrangement of the wine list and talked a bit about the impressive and rare vintage wines which make up Harlan’s private collection.
Our interview follows:
Hi, my name is Harlan Goldstein. I was born in Lower East Side Manhattan, in New York. I started as a chef in the kitchen at 14 years old, as an apprentice at my uncle’s restaurant and I started learn a little bit about the trade. Because I was so out of control, my mother had to put me someplace to keep supervision on me. When I was 17 years old I graduated high school and my uncle sent me to Switzerland to the Montreux Palace to work in the kitchen. I spent 2 years doing my training there and then I left and went to Lyon, France and had an experience in Lyon. And then I went to Italy as well and got some Italian experience and then I came back to the States to become a fine dining chef.
Out of all of the cities that you’ve worked in so far, which was your favorite in terms of the dining scene and how you fit into it?
Well, each one had a different, unique atmosphere as a city and the cuisine is always different. But I’ve worked in so many different cities – I started work in New Orleans, I’ve been in Chicago, I’ve been in Dallas, I went to Hawaii, I’ve worked in Miami in Florida, and then my dream was always to go to Europe and I went to Europe, to Switzerland, Italy and France. And then I came back and the dream was the Orient to come, so I’ve worked in Beijing, China and Thailand and Hong Kong. And I think my favorite city of all of them has been Hong Kong, because it is a great hub to get beautiful products and very easy to get different things and you have the customers who can really appreciate great food, so it’s been a great experience here. I’ve been here for about 18 years now.
And how is Gold different than any of the other restaurants that you’ve worked in or owned in the past?
Well, I had 6 restaurant before in 2004, I opened my original Harlan’s Restaurant in the IFC and then I grew it into 6 different restaurants. And then, unfortunately, I had a partnership breakup and I was bought out of the whole company. I stayed low for about a year and a half and I developed Gold, because my name was stolen from me by my ex-partner. He took my name without me knowing and trademarked it, so I’m not allowed to use my name “Harlan’s” anymore. That was very disappointing. However, I was clever enough to come up with “Gold by Harlan Goldstein.” Most of the people here they know me in the city because I’ve been here a long time, and they know my style of food so they know I’m the real Harlan and the other is, you know, just a copy, and people want the real deal today. So I designed this restaurant with Kenny Yuen and we made a really big impact in the city. My food style is European food, modern European, but I allow myself to go out and try different things because of my ethnic background from being a New Yorker. And sometimes I will put like a Moroccan dish for lunch, Italian, maybe Spanish…or it could be Asian as well. But my style is really modern European.
And I’ve heard that you’re very much into Muay Thai and kickboxing? How does that hobby complement the time you spend in the kitchen or help you as a chef?
Well I think it’s very important, because a chef, being someone who loves to eat and also surrounded by food and wine all the time, that you need to have exercise. So, I workout about 3 or 4 times a week and I got into it about 6 years ago, working with Thai kickboxing. In the beginning I didn’t really enjoy it because I got hit too much, but I learned to defend myself and I learned different techniques. And also, it’s one hour of stress relief. It’s when I can turn off and really concentrate on the soul and the body of the whole entire practice of the Muay Thai regime and it really helps me to clear my senses and I enjoy it very much. So after a workout and a competition of fighting different people, it sounds pretty brutal, but it’s very enjoyable.
And a bit more about the menu here at Gold, what is the concept behind it or what was your inspiration in creating it?
Well of course with my first restaurant, I had a lot of favorite dishes that I didn’t want to take off the menu. So I left them on it and I added about 40% new dishes. I did a lot of techniques like slow cooking, braising, smoking and, you know, I came up with a lot of dishes that were very welcome by the guests. And I do a lot of specials every night, about 8-10 specials which are seasonal food. So, so far it’s working very good. We’ve been open 19 months and we’re constantly full, so it’s a good sign.
And would you call the cuisine you offer on the menu a fusion of European classics or is it more Italian-American?
I use a lot of Italian ingredients, or Spanish, or perhaps French ingredients, but then I come up with my own style, my own ideas, because I’m classically trained in French cuisine and also Italian, that I use my techniques. But my food is not traditional. It’s my own style.
And a bit about the wine list, how is it organized?
The wine is a very important factor to the dining experience. So I make the wine list myself, I don’t have a sommelier. And I’ve learned a lot about wine in the last 8 years by tasting it and I try to, every wine I put on the list, I try to taste it so I know which one to recommend to the customer and to also teach the staff about the wine. And there’s a lot of thought and time that goes into this.
And how does the wine list complement the food?
Well I sort of give a guideline to the customer. I put a lot of dishes that are medium bodied or full bodied or light and I also put a lot of things in red highlights so it brings the customer’s attention to it and they know that’s my favorite. And it helps them by guiding them through the selection.
I saw in the red section, there is one section called “Recession Proof,” which is an interesting title for a section.
Yeah, well I want the list to be fun and I want people to like it. You know today in the economic times right now, a lot of the banking and brokerage business, there are very tight budgets. And they still want to go out and they want to swing the big pole.
Especially in Hong Kong?
Yes, so I allow them to have some good wines at a very good value.
And it also says on the list that some of your favorites are in the red section?
Yes, I marked everything in red that are my favorites to guide the customer through their choice.
Oh so it’s not the red wines, it’s the red-marked wines?
And which region is the most popular among the reds?
Italian. I focus a lot on Italian here, because my food… Italian wine goes very well, because it is bold, robust and full bodied and that’s what the flavor of my food is.
And how about the vintage wines? Are these popular?
Well, the old vintage wines are very, I have a very unique collection of wine and it’s a private collection and very rare. And also priced very good. So anyone that knows about wine, when they look at the price, and they see the wine, they’re very interested.
And there’s a section in the vintage wine lists called the “Crazy Stuff” section. Why so crazy?
I put the title as “Crazy Stuff” because it’s Henry Jayer, its Lafite, which are very old vintages and very hard to find so I think if you’re crazy enough to spend $220,000 which is 26,000 USD, you’ve got to be a little crazy.
And my last question: If you could pick one pairing with a dish with a wine which best represents gold, which would it be?
I think my favorite dish and my favorite wine to pair together would be my slow-cooked beef cheek ravioli. It’s finished with a sauce of goose liver and black truffle and it goes very well with Antinori Prunotto Barolo, perfect match.
Great. Hopefully I’ll try it soon. Thank you so much for your time.