SAUCY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
Dinner at THE MEATBALL FACTORY with Top Chef’s DAVE MARTIN
By Tyler Malone
In the classic children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the town of Chewandswallow experiences weather functions that involve food products. It never rains rain or snows snow, but instead rains soup or snows mashed potatoes. If the weather had Dave Martin‘s recipes, I’d certainly be happy to live in the town of Chewandswallow. It could hail meatballs from The Meatball Factory all day and all night, and rain the sauces that come with, and I’d be in heaven. I’d never want a clear sunny day, I’d want Dave Martin’s culinary precipitation to fall constantly.
Dave Martin, whom you may recognize from the first season of Top Chef, has kept busy since his days as a reality show contestant. He’s continued to wow us with his undeniably tasty food, usually new spins on old comfort food classics like his signature Black Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese (which, lucky for us, is on the menu at his new endeavor, The Meatball Factory).
When I asked him about Top Chef, he said that he was so glad he did the first season because it was new and fresh and chaotic and unpredictable and fun. He explained: “That’s the beauty of the first season. It’s special for the viewer, for the cast, for everyone, because it’s new and unexpected. Like Real World. We all remember the first season of Real World and its cast of characters. Or I guess they’re characters-slash-people–same as me.”
Dave Martin truly is a character/person. He’s both simultaneously. He has a larger-than-life personality, but he also seemed completely genuine as I interviewed him over dinner. He’s real. He’s just an ordinary guy who is extremely passionate about what he does. He told me: “I’m not saving lives, but I do care about making people happy. That’s what it’s all about, the recipes and the food and the service. That’s what it’s all about. It is my passion. And it’s really hard to have your job be your passion. It’s a great thing because it keeps you going, but then it’s hard not to take criticism personally.”
I had heard nothing but good things about his new restaurant The Meatball Factory (located on 14th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City), but it was obvious that some of the negative press had gotten under his skin a bit. And I totally understood why. The only negative thing I could really find that people had been saying was that The Meatball Factory was encroaching on The Meatball Shop’s territory. As though because someone had already done meatballs they were off limits. Is there really only room for one meatball-oriented restaurant in a place as big as New York City? This isn’t the Wild West, and as Dave said, “there’s room in this town for both of us.”
“You can go to both, because they’re two different experiences,” Dave told me, and I agree. I’ve been to both, and just because they’re both meatball places doesn’t mean they’re the same, or even all that similar. He explained: “It’s like cupcakes: there’s Magnolia and Sprinkles. It’s not like anyone invented the cupcake. But I just want to make sure we’re different. That’s why we have the crackerbread pizzas and the poutine. It’s a different vibe, it’s a different feel.”
He got involved with The Meatball Factory when they came to him asking for help. He explained, “The partners contacted me. They had the concept. They wanted to do a meatball-related project. So I said ‘Okay, but you need to let me do it my way.’” He did do it his way, and so, as he put it, “I picked everything from the napkins to the plates to the flatware. I was involved in everything besides like putting the toilets in.” But more important than the napkins to me was the fact that he came up with the ideas for the individual items on the menu.
While I ate the items he had created, Dave Martin sat across from me, and gave me personal recommendations on flavor combinations, and answered my questions about Top Chef, about his experiences in the food industry, and about his association with this new restaurant, The Meatball Factory.
One of the first questions I asked was: “What is the greatest lesson you learned from Top Chef?” He responded: “The main thing was to embrace the kind of food I make, that upscale comfort food. Modern takes on comfort food. That’s just the kind of food I do, that’s what I love. I’m a white boy from California, that’s just me.”
The greatest positive and negative about having been on Top Chef? “The positive is that people know me and still remember me, and that’s been pretty helpful and huge for me. It’s made it much easier for me to do what I do, and get paid what I get paid. That’s the upside. The downside is the negative comments, the haters out there. And I take everything personally because I’m that kind of a guy. It’s just so easy for people to talk shit on the internet.”
Dave Martin is a saucy fellow–he was funny, he was passionate, he was real, and he had a few choice words for the haters out there that don’t even give places a chance. I’ll leave those words up to your imagination. I enjoyed his sauciness, but his sauciness was nothing in comparison to the sauces that I tasted over the course of my meal.
Of all of them, the Truffle Time sauce was definitely my favorite (it’s based on Dave’s signature Black Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that this is the big hit), but I also loved the Dragon’s Lair sauce (a thai peanut sauce), the Shroom Central sauce (which has a roasted medley of mushrooms) and the Pepper Monkey sauce (their killer BBQ sauce). It’s all about pairing the right sauces with the right meatballs, Dave told me, and then proceeded to help me with some pairings. “One of my favorite combos is the turducken meatball in the peanut sauce,” he suggested. “One of the first things I thought of when I came in to do this meatball idea was this turducken meatball, to do a cool spin on that concept, except doing the duck as a confit and whatnot.”
When I pushed him to reveal his favorite menu item though, he disclosed an interesting secret: “My secret favorite thing is actually the pizza.” Pizza at a meatball joint? After I had had my fill of meatballs, he proceeded to order me a Shroomin’ pizza. Whether I wanted it or not, he was certain I had to try it . I was already stuffed, but I ended up eating half a pizza because it was so damned good. And what was the secret to the pizza? Again, the sauce. It had that Truffle Time sauce. Yummm.
In between bites of pizza, this California native asked the California native sitting across from me what he thought was the difference between California and New York in terms of the food scenes. “The biggest thing is everyone eats here in New York. Even the models eat. Here everyone is interested in food, no matter what they do. It’s just more part of the culture. It’s embedded in the culture. It’s a way of life. People love food in New York City. Like I say, here even the models eat.”
When I asked him what the one thing was that people should know before coming to visit The Meatball Factory, he responded, “I think the most important thing is: Don’t judge it because there’s another meatball place in New York City. Come and check it out, and see if you like it. If you like it, come back. If you don’t, don’t.”
I can’t imagine you won’t like it though, so expect that when you come, you’ll end up coming back again and again. The sauces are truly to die for. “It’s about having fun flavors and not just your grandma’s pasta sauce,” Dave determined. That’s what really made my dining experience at The Meatball Factory standout and made it one I’m likely to repeat again soon. The Meatball Factory is all about the sauce, and the flavor combinations, and that’s what makes it different, and what makes it one of the best new restaurants in NYC.
Dave Martin was a Top Chef contestant who has become a world-renowned chef.
The Meatball Factory is located on 14th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City.
Dave Martin interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Nick Carcaterra / Susan Blond, Inc.
Design by Marie Havens
Dave Martin, Photography Courtesy of Nick Carcaterra / Susan Blond, Inc.