Whether we're talking about slurping cold ramen in a Christmas-light-covered dorm room or drowning under a 20-course tasting menu in a centuries-old monastery, anybody who has ever put together a meal for others knows just how crucial ambiance is to elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary. The term mise en scène may have originated in the theater and film world, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a field outside of the restaurant industry in which it holds more gravity.
For 22-year-old chef Theo Friedman, that quest to find the ideal dining atmosphere has led him to look inward and draw upon his childhood in an unexpectedly tangible way. For close to a year now, Friedman has been throwing his Theory Kitchen tasting series in his dad's old photography studio in New York City.
The Flatiron District studio, which has "been an artist hangout for the last 40 to 50 years," is an eerily fitting setting for a young chef whose food is as much a work of art as it is delicious.
I first ran into Friedman at a pop-up event that put great emphasis on playing with one's food. That event hybridized an arcade with a tasting menu, and did so surprisingly well. Each course was a game—and the food was good. Damn good. But it wasn't until I went to a Theory Kitchen tasting that I truly grasped the magnitude of Friedman's ability. The food that Theo cooks isn't what a 22-year-old should be able to produce. At one of his tastings, a diner seated across from me took a bite of a salmon dish blanketed in a velvety shroud of oyster emulsion and ramp purée and proclaimed that it was as good as anything he's eaten at Le Bernardin.
Friedman began cooking in his Tufts University dorm room as a freshman, guided largely by YouTube videos and countless cookbooks. In between semesters, he continued to develop his skills and learned what was actually required to excel in the industry by staging for heavy hitters like wd~50, Gotham Bar and Grill, and The Musket Room. His senior thesis was a 20-course menu meant to show how the "industrial food system disconnects diners from the people who make their food." The Boston Globe covered the event.
After college, Theo moved to New York City, and, along with sous chef Nick Dynan, has been cutting his teeth by feeding an avid group of followers in intimate pop-up tastings they call Theory Kitchen, held in the photography studio. Word of mouth largely draws people to the tastings, and you are bound to run into at least one familiar face if you go more than once. Friedman told me he started Theory Kitchen there because, among other reasons, "Given the fact that I had access to the studio space, it didn't make sense for me to not use it."
But to fully understand the new artistic life being given to the loft space, you have to look back to its past as the photography studio and workspace of Theo's dad, Benno Friedman. When I called Benno to talk to him about his background and how he feels about Theo's use of his old studio, he nonchalantly told me that he "worked on mostly editorial work and album covers. When records were still in vogue, I worked for about 12 years producing over 125 to 140 albums, something like that." Benno was once a staggeringly prolific commercial photographer, who collaborated with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Talking Heads, Billy Joel, and Cheap Trick, just to name a few. Benno even shot the cover art for Eddie Murphy's first album.
Benno told me that he bought the building with a bunch of friends—"we each had a floor"—back in 1978 or 1979. It was raw space back then and had been used for other artistic ventures; an off-off-Broadway group had used it as a practice space. Located in Manhattan's "photo district"—which is today just about a block long but was once a much larger area—the loft turned out, Benno says, "of course to be the best investment that any of us made. We bought the building for a song."
The family lived in the space until moving to the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts when Theo and his brother were still young boys. Benno continued to use the place as his main workplace until about six years ago. He explains, "I broke my neck six years ago in a skiing accident and became for a very short period of time a tetraplegic and couldn't move anything below my neck. I'm still suffering some limitations of movement from that accident and at that time any remnants of my career that still existed disappeared after that, out of necessity." He continues to work on his non-commercial photography today.
Theo says that being in the loft is meaningful to him, even though the line between his professional and private life is pretty nebulous: "It's definitely a little weird to have so many strangers in such a personal space. It has a lot of history and meaning to me. It's been an artist hangout for the last 40 to 50 years, so a lot went down there and some really interesting people have passed through the space."
Theo explained that being raised by his father and spending time in the loft as a child shaped who he is today. "There was a lot of creativity around me growing up. It sounds hyperbolic, but I feel like I grew up in art galleries around the world. That was my childhood," he said.
Theo's use of the loft may be limited in the future, though. Just before Theo left the city to take Theory Kitchen on the road for the summer, the family found out that zoning restrictions likely prohibit use of the place for commercial dinners. The other residents were also starting to complain about the sudden surges in foot traffic. In any event, Theo is looking to branch out. "Doing a pop-up once a week or twice a month, it's just not enough for me anymore," he told me. "Those other five days where I'm not cooking for people… I want more."
This burgeoning chef is trying to figure out where to go from here: "I am in conflict every day with what is the right approach for my career." He is beginning to realize more and more that a traditional path of cooking—like, in a restaurant—has plenty of benefits too. "You know what, at the end of the day, I just want to cook for people. That's what makes me happy. With a fixed restaurant I would get to do a lot more cooking for people." Theo is in the process of working it all out.
In the meantime, he told me, "It feels great to continue the tradition of doing something creative in the space and give it new life. Using the space to bring people together and create collective memories is a good feeling."
Looking out onto the studio from the small dining table, it's hard to tell just where Theo begins and his father ends. It's clear that two generations of the family have left indelible marks on the space in their respective journeys for creative expression. One just chose to do so using food instead of a camera.