Discussing Food, Inspiration, and Innovation with Chef MINA NEWMAN of CHRISTOS STEAKHOUSE
by Jonathan Metzelaar
It’s interesting to note that almost all of Zagat’s top-rated New York steakhouses are located in and around Midtown, and that the rare exception–Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn–can be found a mere stone’s throw from the commuter-congested Williamsburg Bridge. There is, it would seem, a positive correlation between the quality of a steakhouse and its proximity to bustling, high-volume neighborhoods and thoroughfares. And, really, why wouldn’t there be such a correlation? The more people there are, the more business there is, and the more business there is, the quicker word gets out about the quality (or lack thereof) of the food. In other words, in crowded, busy areas, great food doesn’t stay a secret for long.
It is perhaps for this reason that Christos Steakhouse, one of the better steakhouses in New York City, has managed to fly, relatively speaking, under the radar. Though lauded by patrons and food critics alike, Christos is tucked away in a predominately residential area of Astoria, Queens, making it something of a hidden gem as far as steakhouses go. In fact, if not for the modest signage outside the restaurant, Christos could easily be mistaken for just another one of the two-story apartment buildings lining 23rd Avenue.
The location, however, works. Astoria as a community is friendly, passionate, and accommodating, all qualities that the restaurant’s staff possesses in spades, making them a perfect fit in the area. Upon arriving at Christos, I was greeted warmly by the host, walked through the menu by the knowledgeable waiter, and treated to one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory. The staff at Christos, through their knowledge and passion for food, turned my meal into an experience. As Executive Chef Mina Newman mentioned when she sat down with me for our interview, food is all about relationships, and nowhere is that philosophy better embodied than in the relationships Christos forges with its food, its community, and its patrons.
Mina Newman, of course, knows a thing or two about what kind of relationships go into making great food. She has been working with food practically all her life, and in addition to being the Executive Chef at Christos, she is also the head chef at Edison Ballroom in Midtown. What’s more, she was featured in—and won—an episode of The Food Network’s cooking competition show Chopped. I sat down with Mina to discuss her food and her inspiration.
Jonathan Metzelaar: How much of a change did you implement upon taking over as Executive Chef here at Christos?
Mina Newman: We took this space over almost 7 years ago, and because I was the chef at Dylan Prime in Tribeca, and also because I had lived in Greece and was involved with Opera, a Greek restaurant in Manhattan, I had a lot of experience with both steak and Greek cuisine. So when I came to Christos, I decided to make it an American steakhouse with a Greek influence. Nothing stayed the same from when I came in up until now. I managed to bring better technical skills to the kitchen, and I also brought in dry-aged steak through my connections. As far as meat goes, it’s all about relationships.
JM: How so?
MN: Well it’s much like when you source organic vegetables at the farmer’s market. Over the years you get to know these people, and you just use the same vendors constantly throughout each project that you do. Such a small percentage of the country’s meat is graded prime, so it can be difficult to get if you don’t know the right people. Just to score prime meat is a big deal.
JM: You referred to Christos as, “an American steakhouse with Greek influence.” What does that entail?
MN: The Greek influence mostly has to do with the accompanying dishes. There isn’t really such a thing as a Greek steakhouse, because beef isn’t a big animal that they raise there, just because of the climate and the grazing. They do sheep, lamb, goats, pigs—those are huge there. I saw them all over the place when I lived there.
JM: How long did you live there?
MN: I lived in Greece for 18 months. I also went to school in Astoria, and I have tons of Greek friends.
JM: So taking over here was kind of like coming home?
MN: Yeah, I have no reservations being around Greek people. The food feels so second-nature to me. To do the steaks, and to also have the grilled octopus and grilled calamari, it’s so nice because you don’t get so bogged down with the appetizers that you don’t have room for the steak.
JM: Where do you get your inspiration for some of these dishes, like for example the lamb cigars?
MN: I used to be a chef at Layla in Tribeca back in the day, and that’s where that came from. I used to dream about a lot of different foods while I was there. Like for specials, one of my signature dishes there was a shrimp wrapped in grape leaves, and we did it here for awhile. It comes on and off. We used to have a crab one, so I thought we should do one with lamb. It just comes to you sometimes. You know what it’s gonna taste like before you even put it on the plate.
JM: What’s your favorite menu item?
MN: I’m torn between the skirt steak, the wedge, and the ribeyes. I’m not a big porterhouse fan.
JM: You were on the show Chopped on The Food Network. How was that experience? Do people ever recognize you?
MN: It was a really intense experience, but I really enjoy that kind of pressure. People recognized me a lot, especially after it aired. My neighbor was like, “You were on Chopped!” and I was like, “Yes, yes I was.”
JM: How common is a female in this line of work?
MN: There aren’t any others that I know of.
JM: What inspired you to get involved in this line of work?
MN: We’re big meat-eaters at home, and here too. I just always loved meat. I love fish too. I’ll eat everything. But meat has always been my passion. I started cooking professionally at 15 years old. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. I worked at a law firm for three months, but I got fired. It was so boring that I fell asleep in my chair. I did it to see if there was something else out there, but that was enough. I had to go back to cooking. I just had to go back.
JM: What inspired you to get involved with food?
MN: My sister. She ran a restaurant that I worked in. It was a fast food restaurant, and I worked as a cashier, but I always loved to watch the cooks. One day my sister was like, “Oh, you wanna do that?” and I was like, “Sure, I’ll do it,” so I went in the back and that was that. The fast food place and the fine-dining area shared the same kitchen, and I eventually became very friendly with the cooks. We were always side-by-side, and I would always go in on my days off and hang out with them. It just made sense.
JM: Was it a challenge getting involved in the industry?
MN: It was a challenge getting involved with the meats. Buying the meats and getting to really know the lingo was difficult. I knew what I wanted, but sometimes I’d call someone to get a porterhouse, and they’d be like, “Yeah, this one’s getting something crappy.” But eventually you meet someone who will help you along. You have to find your way. It’s all about relationships. You have to hold on tight to those.
Mina Newman’s expansive culinary knowledge has earned her much critical acclaim, as well as top prize on The Food Network’s Chopped. Her resumé includes top restaurants like Dylan Prime, Layla, and Opera, and she currently serves as Executive Chef at both Edison Ballroom and Christos Steakhouse.
Mina Newman interviewed by Jonathan Metzelaar
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography Courtesy of Nick Carcaterra, Mina Newman & Christos Steakhouse
Design by Marie Havens
Photography Courtesy of Nick Carcaterra, Mina Newman & Christos Steakhouse