THE BROOKLYN WAREHOUSE - The constant progression of a neighbourhood eatery
I’m not sure why I’ve never asked where The Brooklyn Warehouse got its name. I always figured it came out of a great love of all things New York, but as George Christakos explains, Brooklyn to him is the epicentre of New York food culture — forever young, always evolving, affordable and never chained to one particular cuisine. I know this to be true, as last summer I spent five days in New York with friends on a mad eating dash; we only left Brooklyn once.
It was eight years ago when George, at the age of 23, sat in the parking lot across from where The Brooklyn Warehouse is today (2795 Windsor Street) and seriously contemplated the location. They needed to go where it was affordable, and Halifax had not grown in a way that had self-sustaining neighbourhoods with all the amenities.
In hindsight, they couldn’t have made a better choice. This is Halifax’s first real neighborhood, and a community like this is all about walkability. You can buy fresh produce, meat, fish, bread, cheese, wine, records and art without getting in your car.
And so, George and his father opened The Brooklyn Warehouse. Inspired by Joe Beef in Montréal and The Spotted Pig in New York, it was intended to be a hip little café with a cool lunch menu and a few wines by the glass, not dissimilar from what Lion & Bright looks like now in the daytime. After a few short months, however, they realized the neighbourhood was missing an eatery, and there was a community ready to accept it. So, Leo and George got into the kitchen, built up a robust food service and, shortly thereafter, a dinner menu that included their now famous burger. Recognizing that they needed the right team in place to flourish, their first professional chef, Joshua Coyle, came along from the UK, and his cuisine pushed their boundaries with its precise, punchy flavours. Next up, Graeme Ruppel (who you can find at Stillwell) took the food in a different direction — more masculine, rustic and slightly meat-centric.
It’s hard to believe that the tall, thin figure you can now often spot hunkered over the line also took over the Brooklyn kitchen at the tender age of 23. “I don’t want to get comfortable,” Chef Mark Gray says, sitting across from me with his daily chalkboard menu scratched out on the wall behind him.
How did this daily dinner menu — aka the steepest learning curve for staff and customers at any restaurant in town — come to be? After about a year of monthly menus, Mark started to discover that many of the locally-sourced items he wanted were often not available within his timeframes, so, he embarked on a star rating system, asking the front- and back-of-house staff to come up with a roster of about one hundred fifty all-star dishes. And now, about a year in, Mark has compiled a list of daily specials that is three thousand dishes long.
It’s an epic list, but it’s also what makes it difficult to describe the menu. I can rattle off a few examples, but they won’t really be there tomorrow: clams au gratin, parmesan cream, sun choke crust; seared halibut, bacon risotto, fennel marmalade; cereal milk crème brulée. Hungry yet? And yet a couple of things do remain constant on their all-day menu, such as the Dragon’s Breath salad, one of the best takes on a Caesar in this city.
In the restaurant, George and Leo have cultivated an environment of education and growth for their team, and thus Mark was able to work in the kitchen and go through the NSCC culinary program at the same time. He was also the only student at NSCC to walk across the stage at graduation with his Red Seal Certification, a program he is now helping to shape and redesign with a national committee. “It’s a family-oriented atmosphere here, where everyone is pulling their own weight, so trust is built over time, and there’s a lot of freedom that comes with that,” says Mark.
Mark got his start in the dish pit as a teenager and soon found himself working for chefs like Martin Ruíz Salvador (Fleur de Sel) and Maurizio Bertossi (The Bertossi Group). He’s inspired by the new wave of Nordic cuisine from restaurants like Noma and Favïken, where foraging is key. You can often find him Instagramming the goods that find their way into his kitchen via pals Jonathan Newell and Fred Dardenne. Yet another benefit of the daily menu: it allows him to use smaller quantities of food and access up-and-coming farms that he wouldn’t be able to if he was locked into high-volume ordering.
Mark’s star is on the rise. George and Leo both drive home the importance of giving him the room to develop his own brand, which he’s been able to do at competitions like Gold Medal Plates (silver) and the Canadian Culinary Federation’s National Culinary Challenge (third place), as well as through his participation in the East Coast Chefs Collaborative initiative, Devour! The Food Film Fest, and Roots, Rants and Roars. Mark’s itching to show the rest of the world what we have to offer at home in Nova Scotia.
And what is it he and his staff are showing at The Brooklyn Warehouse in general? Mark laughs as he explains he’s a little bit generous when it comes to butters and duck fats. He sums it up as 70 per cent rich, comforting and approachable bistro fare and 30 per cent adventurous eating — kind of wild and nouveau — where something you may not have ever seen before arrives on your plate.
The Greek community is a tight-knit one, and everyone knows your family lineage. George’s grandfather, “Mr. George,” was a legend back in the day, rolling around the province in his big red van talking directly to farmers and fishermen; he was one of the original produce channels. George pulls a lot of his inspiration from him, and he knew he had to go down the same road.
George worked his way through the industry from the ground up as a busboy, bartender and waiter before moving on to management and consulting positions. Before long, he knew it was time to apply what he had learned to his own business. During university, he opened the café above the Blowers Street Paperchase that was run by his father and uncle at the time. Now, on top of overseeing Brooklyn, George is a wine instructor at the culinary and tourism programs at NSCC. The opportunity to influence more Mark Grays, and further elevate the culinary scene, was awfully enticing to him.
Leo insists that in their relationship George is actually the father and he is the son, and George couldn’t agree more. Leo is usually the one with the big ideas, and George sifts through them while charting a financially-sustainable, dynamic course, never allowing stagnation for a second. A few years ago, George and Leo went on a Parisian bistro recon trip, hitting up thirteen in seven days. They wanted to find out what made this incredibly mature restaurant genre relevant, see how these bistros adapted to staying ahead of the new breed of competition and apply what they learned back home.
You can’t really talk about The Brooklyn Warehouse without delving into the family’s other businesses: Ace Burger, food truck and restaurant takeovers, and their new partnership with North Brewing Company, which will see them assuming the Nectar Restaurant space in Dartmouth. For the record, Ace Burger has not been in business since 1956. The date stamped on every sweaty and delicious, burger-filled paper bag is an homage to the year Leo’s parents immigrated to Canada from Greece.
Leo claims he was in the restaurant business four years before he was born. As soon as his parents arrived, they went to work in a number of old world restaurants before opening their own in Halifax and Dartmouth over time. One of his earliest memories is peeling potatoes on the kitchen stoop while his father cooked and his mother served. For Leo, there’s no romanticizing it: a family-owned restaurant meant his parents were gone all the time, and he was essentially a latch key kid. If he wanted to see them (and get a weekly allowance), he had to work in the restaurant doing gnarly jobs like cleaning the range hoods. He laughs and shakes his head, as it’s still a job he does to this day. This is what’s shaped him as a serial entrepreneur.
The financial climate has always been a little negatively-charged for restaurants. There is a positive, however, as that tough climate forces people to be creative and nimble out of necessity. As Brooklyn sidled on, and most of the fine dining offerings in town disappeared, they watched a steady influx of new, agile businesses move into the neighborhood. Wondering how they could get in on this cool food trend, they took over the underutilized kitchen at Gus’ Pub and started slinging handcrafted burgers from scratch. “I understand burger joints and had no fear going into it,” Leo says. “There was no promise we couldn’t keep.”
Ace brought them back to simplicity; this is the kind of food that Leo grew up with. That’s pretty much why you’re smacked with nostalgia every time you walk into the place. Ace is basic, Brooklyn is premium. Ace allowed them to get down and dirty with the classics, while Brooklyn challenges you with each new dish every single day.
The slow food ethos courses through the veins of this place — from Mark’s memories of cooking the hearty, rustic cuisine of Prague with his mother and grandmother, to George and Leo’s authentic Greek roots. This is how they cooked in the old country. Slow food is the original local food movement that started in Italy that now has over one hundred thousand members globally who want to be connected to their food, the people who produce it and ensure that it’s sustainable for the long-term.
“Slow food really woke me up,” says Leo. “There has been a forty- to fifty-year derailment of the food system in North America and a group of regulators protecting the interests of big business, hindering small-scale, artisanal food production.” People have been losing track and need to preserve and protect our food culture.
Leo has hope, however. “Ultimately, we’re going in the right direction; I see the signs,” he says. “More people get it now.” And thus, we’re back to the foraged, farmed and indigenous Nova Scotia foods found in the many dishes here. Funnily enough, they all reference rabbit livers when they talk about their current menu. It appears this tiny piece of offal has marked a turning point in the bellies of Halifax diners. Apparently, we’re getting more adventurous by the plate.
If there is one point that George wants to drive home it’s that Brooklyn will always evolve. Change is the only constant. It’s not the same as when it started, and it certainly won’t be the same two years from now. They will continue to strive to bring the best and most relevant Nova Scotia experience to the table, one that customers will be proud of and certainly never bored by. They’ve always wanted to create a wide base of people who like what they’re doing and take them for a ride. So, buckle up, diners!