Crispy risotto balls with corn, saffron and fontina cheese is, for most recent Yale graduates, a dish they would struggle to afford, but for Will Griffin ’08 it is just one of the many dishes he cooks for himself. A food aficionado who aims to revolutionize the concept of the modern restaurant, Griffin has chosen New Haven as the starting point for achieving his culinary dreams.
While most other literature majors left Yale to pursue their careers, literary or otherwise, in different cities after graduation last May, Griffin stayed in New Haven and got a job at a downtown restaurant.
His passion for cooking developed in Paris, where Griffin lived with his brother when he took a year off as a sophomore. Budget constraints prevented them from dining out, and he found himself in a position where cooking was the only option. Unlike most undergraduates who would go for the universal basics — salad, eggs, pasta — Griffin bought the Larousse Cookbook and started to learn the French basics instead. As coq-au-vin, boeuf bourguignon and crêpes became household staples, Griffin realized he had found his calling.
So after he graduated from Yale, he started looking for a cooking job in New Haven. He chose to stay in New Haven because — besides the fact that his girlfriend is now a senior here — New Haven offered a wide selection of good restaurants where he could find a job without having a culinary-school education. Still, even here, Griffin had trouble finding a job as a cook and had to settle for a job as food runner and barback at the Ninth Square bar 116 Crown. He let his boss know that he was interested in working in the kitchen, and three weeks ago his wish was fulfilled.
Marissa Peluso, the executive chef at 116 Crown, said Griffin would make a great chef one day.
“Everything on the menu, from the main dishes to the salad dressings, he’s done perfectly,” Peluso said.
Griffin, who wrote food reviews for the News last year, is not uncritical of the menu at 116 Crown, though he said he would not work there if the food were not good.
“The menu could be a lot better if the food had more vibrant flavor — spicy, acid, salty, sweet — something more intense,” Griffin said.
His favorite dish on the menu? Mussels marinière with celery and chili flakes.
Although Griffin said he likes the work environment at 116 Crown, he has a passion project of his own: He hosts regular dinner parties, where he invites eight friends to his small apartment on Howe Street and cooks a four-course meal for a minimal fee per person. The menus he prepares for the soirées have a theme — recent themes have been “Vampires,” alluding to the red sauces on all dishes, and “Provence,” where he cooked regional Provençal food. Griffin typically works 15 to 20 hours to prepare the meal. These dinners bring people together who may have met before and create an environment for social interaction which becomes more congenial through the shared experience of food, Griffin said.
David Rudnick ’09, who attended two of Griffin’s soirées, emphasized the contrast between the uniformly delicious food and the unpretentious presentation.
“The [plates] had teddy bears on them and besides the nice wine, there was also wine in Mason jars,” Rudnick said. He added that he enjoyed the intimacy of having a private restaurant experience.
Griffin’s small pseudo-restaurant is the first product of his broader vision on how food must be enjoyed. There is something fundamentally flawed about the concept of restaurants today, he explained.
“I don’t think it is right for a restaurant to be a place where you feed people who pay you and then leave,” Griffin said. “The sensual experience of food should be combined with the idea of people gathering for other purposes. Public common space should be recreated through food.”
Griffin cited the cafés in pre-revolutionary France, which were gathering places for the authors of the Revolution and served all meals from breakfast to after-dinner drinks.
So far Griffin likes living in New Haven. Not being a student has enabled him to see a different side of the city and to meet interesting non-Yalies who live in New Haven. Still, Griffin also continues to hang out with his undergraduate friends and remains part of the undergraduate social scene.
His future, however, remains vague. For many recent graduates, New Haven is not a permanent abode, but rather a stepping stone. Perhaps, Griffin said, he will cook for another six months and then go to culinary school. Perhaps he will go to culinary school in France, or work in France. And he doesn’t rule out the prospect of graduate school, either. After all, he is not just interested in making food, but also in art, music and literature. Ultimately, he would like to open a restaurant that embodies his own gastronomic vision.