With a resume reading pro ping pong player in Nepal and Katmandu, ski bumming in Crested Butte, backpacking in Asia, sleeping in a tree house in Burma, it’s no shock that Will Horowitz also smokes – meat, that is. Executive Chef and Founder of Duck’s Eatery in the upper crust of the East Village, Will built a food and drink laboratory with Steve Laycock, the consummate cocktail crafter, Chef David Milburn, and his sister Julie. But this won’t be the lab of a mad molecular gastronomist a la the kitchen of WD~50. There will be no trends and no gimmicks, just the formula of great (really great) food and drink, with spicy and smoky flavor profiles extending from dish to dish, drink to drink.
Although bashful in size, there is no shortage of big flavor or love, exemplified by the friendship between Will and Steve. With sidewalk seating and an open façade (weather permitting, of course), Duck’s is your new neighborhood saloon, enhanced by Mezcal barrels, exposed brick walls and vaulted ceilings, and a bar complete with unexpected bulbous lights, smoke and mirrors. The casual canteen arena makes it easy for you to relax with an alcoholic concoction or rare brew and a heaping plate of their crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, jerk spiced chicken wings.
A locavore, Will guarantees that “80% of the menu is local, but that is mainly because those things are really, really good. We have a basic idea and a mentality that we are using, a formulaic structure of how we want to proceed in the kitchen. And the rest we are filling in seasonally.” Restrained only by what tastes best, the ingredients are always fresh, and the rest is organized by a mash up of Southern and Asian flavors.
Sample Dee’s Nuts, the name revealing the crew’s sense of humor, and enter a holy hash of Benton’s bacon from West Virginia, cherries, cashews, and Cocoa Crispies, and you will know why someone told Horowitz that “my nuts are going to create world peace.” Once impressed by the cornerstones of the menu, the brisket, jerky, and oysters, you’ll surrender to the funkier fan favorites; their crispy pig ear lettuce wraps are “a fried and delicious elementary course to pig ears,” says Laycock. The Yakamein Soup is a traditional New Orleans chicken noodle soup of sorts with a fiery, citrus and coconut cream broth, smoked brisket, tripe, and clams – a total one, two punch.
Driven solely by an agreeable palate probability, Steve’s drinks compliment what the cook’s are doing in the kitchen, offering a cooling and refreshing gin Watermelon Gimlet, apt to fruit substitutions with the change of season, or a smoky Mezcal Paloma, that I wish they would bottle. Already on to the next, Laycock is looking forward to fall and winter: “We will definitely do some hot drinks. We’re thinking apple ciders and hot chocolates.”
Entertaining food and hosts, Duck’s Eatery has a story to tell in their multicultural cuisine that is reasonably priced and will be sure to evolve seasonally, always with Will’s smoky, spicy signature.
Read the full interview to learn how Duck’s Eatery came to be named, Horowitz’s true feelings on vegetables, and why a fortune cookie might be the next menu addition.
IITK: What brought the move of Duck’s Eatery from a large venue, like SPiN, to this small East Village location?
Will: Spin was amazing, close friends – Ping pong, booze, food and girls are my favorite categories in the world, and it was really fun.
But what I really wanted and why I came back from traveling in Asia was to do something more passion driven, smaller, and with more freedom. Something I can really put my heart into and could be a bit more reflective of who I am. So thus, after finding this space, here I am, working with Steve, my sister, and my Chef, David.
IITK: What did you take from traveling and how did you put it into your food when you got back?
Will: Pretty much everything has a reflection from somewhere or something I’ve seen along the way.
I think everything I serve comes from the route from the silk road and back and then to here. Believe it or not, when people talk or ask me questions about my food, they all seem to look at it and say, oh wow that is some fucked up fusion. People say, oh Vietnamese and New Orleans, that’s ridiculous!
We have a funny thing to say for fusion – it is just a story of the world that we are trying to tell in our own eyes.
IITK: Were you ever formally trained or is most of what you learned from traveling and just experiencing?
Will: I like to think and say that most of what I have learned was from traveling. But truthfully, my grandma on one side was a French chef who spent her whole life living between Tuscany and the North Fork on Long Island, with a big seafood, fisherman lifestyle. My other grandparents had a Jewish delicatessen in Harlem.
Also, I went to a normal college and graduated with a philosophy and sustainability major in Colorado, and then went to a natural cooking school out there and then Johnson and Wales. After that I worked in some very good restaurants.
IITK: So where is the pastrami on rye?
Will: Soon – eventually. We have the smoker so we will definitely get started.
There is this crazy claim that my family’s corned beef is better than Katz’s, but I do love Katz’s. The problem is that my Grandma is 98, so every time I ask her for the recipe it changes. I have 8 versions and am scientifically trying to narrow this all down.
IITK: What’s in the name Duck’s Eatery?
Will: We really like duck. We are going to have a really great smoked duck soon.
IITK: How is the menu going to change?
Will: Do you have any suggestions?
IITK: Where are the vegetables?
Will: We will definitely do more vegetable dishes in the next couple of weeks. I get off on the compassionate reasoning for why people are vegetarians, but I don’t understand why we limit ourselves into thinking that vegetables don’t have feelings. There are also serious environmental concerns.
Right now we have a big clam special, we will have a bunch more large batch seafood dishes, and then we will also have a brisket. We are basically doing small things like the jerky, the soup, BBQ, and then everything is going to constantly change. I have great seafood connections out in the North Fork. We have our own clam rakes, lobster traps, it is really whatever we have. We are definitely trying to use what is local, but what isn’t necessarily used. Like mantis prawns, and robin fish, blow fish. So many great things are from right here that people just don’t use. So that will be really cool to try out.
IITK: Will you change the menu seasonally?
Will: Probably every couple weeks or so. And the drinks too.
Steve: The beer changes constantly. We are working on a brewery in upstate New York, and our brew master is right over there. He picks our beers out every week. Other bar owners come through and compliment our beer selection.
Will: I want to mess around with vegetable juices. The other day I took a bunch of Peruvian purple potatoes and we just started making potato juice and it was awesome. Imagine doing that with some roasted potato on top, rosemary, and really great potato vodka. There are so many different directions you can go.
IITK: This is like your little lab.
Will: Exactly. The idea of doing something that is small like this was specifically so that we could do whatever we wanted. If something doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell, and we will change it and adapt. We know that we have some tricks up our sleeves so that we can throw some weird stuff on the menu. Stuff that is just really, really good that we want to turn people onto. Things that we think people should be eating here that are totally normal and popular around the rest of the world.
Food is one of the few things that is art and dependency all at the same time. For all of us, we have all been artists at one point, which is what I originally got into school for. In many ways this is 100% our medium.
IITK: What’s in the future of Duck’s Eatery?
Will: Probably clothing, apparel, hit up the malls.
Steve: Temporary tattoos. Fortune cookies.
Will: Fortune cookies will just have Steve’s phone number.
Steve: Or “Try the pig ears!”
Will: We want to do a lot of different things in general, but I know there won’t be 8 different Duck’s running around . We feel so strong and passionate about Duck’s and we will just keep working hard and see how things organically grow. But my focus right now is to serve the flavor profiles of things that we are doing and be really organized, have them be as interesting as anywhere, but still do it in a casual context and environment – I think that would be a good initial goal.
We also have a really strong focus right now on local terroir, that connection of environment and food, taste and smell, all together, and I just don’t think you really see that in our type of price ranges in a relaxed atmosphere. I don’t want to open up a fancy restaurant. That is just not who we are.
Photos Credit:Chef Will Horowitz, Noah Feck and Erica Leone and Erin Kornfeld from Elk Studios (featured image)