Ben Pollinger was never supposed to be a chef. That’s what he would have told you, anyway, if you’d met him in college. But now a couple decades of ladder climbing and one Michelin star later, he’s ready to open his own restaurant in Closter. After spending nearly an entire career commuting from his New Jersey home to work in some of Manhattan’s highest-acclaimed restaurants, he’s determined to fill a need for good food in Bergen County. We talked to him about the trajectory of his career, from his unlikely beginnings to his experience working under world-renowned chefs, to what’s expected of his restaurant The Hill, opening this spring.
NJBIZ: Tell me about how your career started.
Pollinger: I went to Boston University to study economics. I figured I would be as stockbroker or lawyer. I took a part-time job cooking in the dining hall in my dorm just to have spending money, and I really just started to enjoy it. I started as a low level cook, cleaning, prepping…and then I got my ‘big break’ one day when one of the regular cooks called out sick for dinner service.
I was so into it that I eventually graduated to taking the egg station on Sunday morning. No one ever wanted to work that station—think of it, from the perspective of a college student who was probably out late on a Saturday night, having to be to work by 7 a.m. to run an egg griddle for 750 people over the course of a few hours. But I became so into cooking that I would volunteer for it.
NJBIZ: How funny that all these kids got their eggs cooked by a Michelin Star chef?
Pollinger: Ha! Well, back then I don’t think I was a very good cook.
By the time I was a senior, evaluating what to do with my life, I had already had a part time job with a stockbroker and an internship with some finance people, neither of which I really liked. I just kind of felt lost. A friend of mine told me that if I was going to do something for the rest of my life, I should do something I love – ‘and it seems like you like to cook!’ I kind of laughed it off. I just spent $100,000 on college and I’m gonna cook? ‘Well, why don’t you go to cooking school?’ Well, I’m broke. ‘Well, figure it out.’
At that point, I had to tell Mom and Dad what I was going to do, and leaving that conversation with, ‘By the way, I’m going to cook, and I have to move back home,’ kind of didn’t go over too well in the beginning. But then they were like, ‘We want you to be happy, but we helped you out for college. You’re on your own on this one.’ So I worked in a couple short order places in Fairlawn to see if it was really what I wanted to do, saved up my money and went to Culinary Institute of America.
NJBIZ: How did your experience at CIA influence your career?
Pollinger: Through cooking school connections, I got introduced to chefs Jean-Jacques Rachou and Christian Delouvrier and ended up doing externships in both of their restaurants. Normally you do one, but I got two great opportunities. The fact that I did two externships caught the attention of one of the chefs at the CIA and he got me an apprenticeship under Chef Alain Ducasse in Monaco at the restaurant Le Louis XV, which at the time was considered the best restaurant in the world. I was 26, and I worked over there for a year…for free. It kind of stung my parents that I would work for free—but if you were an art student, that would be like getting an apprenticeship in Picasso’s studio. You don’t pass that up.
NJBIZ: Would you say the year you spent working for free has paid itself off? Sounds like it would have made you very hirable.
Pollinger: Ah, multiple times over. And it did.
NJBIZ: As you worked through the years, you went from cook to sous chef, to executive sous chef, to chef de cuisine, to executive chef, to now owner. What did you learn in your earlier positions that resonates with you today?
Pollinger: I learned about the business of running an independent restaurant as the sous chef at Tabla, which Danny Meyer owned. The other restaurants I worked at were all in hotels, and the economics of a restaurant in a hotel are important, but they’re different. Besides just being a small businessman, Danny was really known for taking the concept of hospitality and differentiating it from service. His book ‘Setting the Table’ is definitely worth the read.
NJBIZ: Could you explain the difference between hospitality and service?
Pollinger: Service is the technical aspect of how you’re served in a restaurant. Is your order taken properly? Is the food for all your people at the table brought out at once? Hospitality is a sense of how you’re made to feel. It’s different for different customers. Okay, are you there on business and you want to be left to yourself with your table to conduct a meeting? If so, great. But are you there from out of town to celebrate a special occasion? It’s up to the restaurant to read and learn who you are and give you what your there for. That’s what hospitality is, and it’s done well when everyone is made to feel like they’re the most important person in the room.
NJBIZ: That’s an astute thing to differentiate.
Pollinger: The technical aspects of service is important. And the food is important. But neither are the most important. Hospitality is the most important.
After being at Tabla for a couple years, I was ready to be an executive chef. Part of what I had been given at Tabla was creative opportunities, creating dishes. When you work in a restaurant and you come up with food, you work in your chef’s style. My goal for you to come in, if you ate one of my dishes, would be for you to say ‘[Executive Chef] Floyd Cardoz is a really good chef.’ You want to create a dish to make your executive chef shine, that’s in tune with the mission of the restaurant.
NJBIZ: So you’re like a supporting actor?
Pollinger: Yeah. And while I had done that successfully, I felt I was ready to be on my own. What would my creative voices tell me to do? The executive chef opportunity at Oceana arose. Oceana was a chef driven restaurant, basically meaning the style of the food was decided by the desires of the chef.
Restaurants need to take into consideration needs and wants of their guests. What are they into? You’re taking into account varied tastes. Additionally, I couldn’t have gotten better training up until that point to manage the business side of things. I had been involved in the financial management of the restaurants I more recently worked in. Oceana presented the opportunity to do both. I was there for ten years.
NJBIZ: Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re so age-ambiguous to me. Lots of experience, but you seem so young. How old are you?
Pollinger: I’m 46. That’s a part of business and life, actually—staying young.
NJBIZ: So how’d you jump ship from Oceana—the restaurant at which you earned your Michelin star—to your own place, The Hill, in Closter?
Pollinger: Well, I had originally thought I wanted to set up in New York—it was the major leagues. If you wanted to make your career in food, you went to an epicenter of cooking. But business realities change, and with the internet, restaurants in other cities get attention, too.
I really started thinking about it. Why New York? Who am I trying to prove anything to? At this point, I’m only trying to prove anything to myself. I’ve been living in Bergen County almost my whole life. All my years of cooking in New York, I was commuting. So why not here? It doesn’t have to be fine dining [like Oceana and Tabla]. That’s not the be-all-end-all anymore. It should be approachable, accessible, and comfortable. From a business perspective—on one hand, I love the creativity of fine dining—it’s a fragile environment. Many fine dining restaurants thrive on holidays and weekends and struggle during the week. How do you operate on this level during the week and double it or triple it on the weekend? It’s a challenging business model. I wanted a place that could be an everyday, busy-during-the-week restaurant. There are lot of people here who don’t cook during the week or at all. People like to go out.
NJBIZ: What were you looking for, in terms of space?
Pollinger: I decided I wanted to be in the suburbs. From a diversification perspective, I wanted to place to do private parties, a place with a private dining room, and if possible outdoor seating. I wanted a place that could have a bar, because dining at the bar itself has become an important part of the restaurant business model. I found it—four miles from my house.
NJBIZ: That’s so close! What’s on the menu?
Pollinger: I want to cook global flavors and different types of cuisine. I started with French and was very affected by the Indian flavors at Tabla. Then the thing that defined Oceana was the seafood. Here I want to have a balanced restaurant, with seafood, meat, and vegetable oriented cooking.
I know what I need to be is attune to what my customers want. It’s going to be a few months, or even the first year or two, to figure out what that is. What are people receptive to? I’m not opening something with ties to a particular style of cuisine. I think people in Bergen are looking for a creative place to dine. Then again, there will be people looking for something straightforward and approachable—there will be opportunities for those people, too.
NJBIZ: You sound like you’re open to experimentation.
Pollinger: Yeah, very much. I need to be. This restaurant is going to evolve with its customer base. We’ll drive each other. People ae going be receptive to certain things and less to others. This comes back to what hospitality is and can be. It’s establishing and sense of trust with your customer base. A lot of people order based on what they feel is safe. That’s unfortunate—I want to establish trust to create an opportunity for people to try something new. I’m not here to challenge people, I’m just here to give people opportunities to explore. At the end of the day, you’re there to make people happy.