You opened Little Owl when you were just 25. How did you get your start?
During college at the University of Wisconsin, I tended bar at a place called Montmartre, where a lot of local chefs and restaurant people were regulars. That was my real introduction to food, and when I started messing around with cooking. When I moved to New York after graduation, I interned at Food & Wine and tended bar at Hearth and Pace, Jimmy Bradley's Italian place in Tribeca. I also started a supper club, The Blueblood Cafe, out of my apartment on Rivington Street. I'd cook for ten people every other week and the chef at Pace, Joey Campanaro, would help me out by letting me order ingredients through the restaurant. When Pace closed, Joey and I opened Little Owl.
With all the success of Little Owl, why did you decide to sell your stake?
Little Owl really became its own beast. As it got more attention from reviews and stuff, it turned into the kind of place where you had to make dinner reservations a month in advance, which started bringing in a different crowd. Who plans where they're going to eat dinner a month in advance? Tourists and people who have assistants to book things for them. It wasn't a neighborhood place anymore with real regulars. It's hard to tell friends who stop by that they're going to have to wait two hours and you can't even offer them a barstool to wait on. I realized I wanted a change. I wanted something more like Montmartre.
Interior of Joseph Leonard
That might be a first, a New York restaurant that aspires to be more like someplace in Madison, Wisconsin. What was it about the place that inspired you?
Well, Montmartre was really a bar that functioned as a restaurant part of the day and that's kind of what I want this to be -- a bar with really good food. We're not taking reservations. And I just wanted to start taking myself a little less seriously. I'm turned off by how people are dining now in this blog-inundated world.
Everyone wants to dissect and overanalyze their food and take pictures of it. What about enjoying yourself and the people you're eating with? It's, like, have a shot of whiskey and relax. You're off-duty!
And where do you like to eat when you're off duty?
I have a love-hate relationship with Chinatown. I can't stand the filth but it's so f---ing alive. Shanghai Cafe, on Mott just north of Canal, is a favorite and I love Barrio Cino on Broome Street. The decor is Chinese, the food is Mexican. It's a strange but great combination.
You grew up keeping kosher and now own a place that sells oysters and crispy braised pork hock. How did that happen?
In college, I had my first cheeseburger and it was really like a gateway drug for me. Within a month I was freebasing bacon and pepperoni pizza. When the New York Times review of Little Owl came out, the headline was "A Little Love and a Big Pork Chop." My parents definitely got a few comments from the relatives for that one.
See our previous Q&As with chefs Andrew Carmellini; Eric Frechon; Graham Elliot Bowles, George Mendes and others