“I just try to cook good flavors and interesting food, using proper technique and great ingredients.” —Ben Pollinger
Ben Pollinger was a sophomore working at his first kitchen job at Myles Standish Hall when he was tapped to step in for a cook who had called in sick. Pollinger, an economics major with no cooking experience, dutifully loaded up the hot griddle with frozen hamburger patties—and a culinary disaster ensued.
“You can’t put that many frozen hamburger patties on the griddle at once,” says Pollinger (CAS’95). “As the heat starts to come back up, it basically boils the hamburgers, and they kind of curl up.” He was swiftly reassigned to chef ’s helper, performing such general kitchen duties as chopping, dicing, and cleaning.
It was a rare setback for Pollinger, whose career since has taken him from dormitory dining hall to some of the finest restaurants in the world. Now the executive chef of Oceana restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Pollinger presides over a 4,000-square-foot kitchen and a staff of nearly 50. The restaurant has earned a coveted Michelin star for six straight years. And in 2008, it was awarded three stars by the New York Times, whose chief restaurant critic at the time, Frank Bruni, wrote, “The fish was excellent, and superbly cooked. More than that, it was a vessel for an exhilarating voyage around the world, through culinary traditions as disparate as Italian and Indian.”
“That was basically validation of everything that I had been working for in my career,” Pollinger says. “I was able to say to myself, ‘I made it.’”
It didn’t take long for Pollinger to redeem himself after that first mishap at Myles. He worked his way back up to the griddle station, where he happily made eggs to order on Sunday mornings and began shedding his ideas about a career in finance or the law.
“Think about it,” he says. “What student wants to get up on a Sunday morning and do anything? I was getting up early and going to work on the griddle station. In the course of six hours, you’d cook 500 to 600 orders of eggs. I was into it.” Cooking, he says, fit his personality. “I like being on my feet. I like the activity. I like to eat.”
What he lacked was experience in haute cuisine. While he has fond memories of the food he ate while growing up, there was nothing artful about it. His mother was a quintessential ’70s-era cook, he says, whose repertoire often involved a can of Campbell’s soup.
In 1995, Pollinger entered the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), a program he describes as a revelation. He learned regional American and international cooking, as well as banquet cooking, fish and meat butchery, and pastry and bread baking. He learned about wines and studied nutrition, sanitation, restaurant design, and kitchen math. He completed two externships, one at a classic French restaurant and the other at a contemporary American establishment.
After graduating from the CIA, Pollinger landed a yearlong apprenticeship at Le Louis XV in Monaco, under celebrated chef Alain Ducasse. Pollinger says, “At the time, it was considered the best restaurant in the world. It was life-changing on all levels. It was an extraordinarily expensive restaurant, and extraordinarily pressured. Nothing can come out of the kitchen that’s not perfect. . . I was a cook, but I learned so much about how things can be done—what’s the ultimate level.”
After the apprenticeship, Pollinger returned to New York to work as a cook for Chef Christian Delouvrier at Les Celebrités and later at Lespinasse. From there, he rose through the ranks: sous chef at Tabla, executive sous chef at Union Square Cafe, chef de cuisine back at Tabla.
Pollinger says one of his goals was to be executive chef in a restaurant “that had the opportunity to make an impact, that was highly regarded. I wanted to be in a significant restaurant that had the potential to have a Michelin star and three stars in the New York Times. I wanted to break out as an executive chef in that kind of restaurant.”
Watch Ben Pollinger prepare a seafood salad, his take on the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Download the recipe.
Video by BU Productions. Photos by Kristin Teig.
Oceana, which he joined in 2006, is the perfect fit, he says. As a cook, his favorite station was always fish. He likes the variety, the myriad ways fish can be prepared, and the need for precision in cooking it. While the menu at Oceana has a few meat dishes, here it’s really all about the seafood. The restaurant, which seats about 200, serves 400 to 500 oysters a day and 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of fish a week.
A recent menu offered a spin around the world: BBQ short ribs and chimichurri swordfish with crispy grits and Tuscan kale; steamed grouper “chraime” with North African–style tomato sauce, okra, eggplant, and chilis; General Tsao’s lobster with spicy sweet-and-sour sauce, scallions, and cashews. The tasting menu had Mexican-style pumpkin chowder, New Orleans shrimp and pumpkin risotto, sea scallops a la plancha, roast monkfish, and pumpkin tres leches.
“This menu’s got many different types of cuisines,” Pollinger says. “That’s a testament to what you can do with fish. French, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese—I have all of that on the menu.”
Pollinger has set his stamp on more than Oceana’s menu. When the restaurant moved from East 54th Street to a larger space on West 49th Street in 2009, he designed the kitchen. He now has a separate cooking line just for banquets (Oceana has a private dining room that seats 100). He wanted the restaurant to make its own bread, so an investment was made in a bread-baking oven, a special mixer, a dough divider, and other equipment. He even had the sinks built large enough to hold the 18-by-26-inch sheet pans flat.
On a midday Saturday last fall, the kitchen was already abuzz as cooks prepared for the dinner crowd amid the din of exhaust fans. Baskets of cut French fries bubbled away in oil; plastic bins of greens were ready for washing and then braising. Downstairs, in the fish coolers, whole fresh Arctic char, monkfish, blue marlin, sea bass, swordfish, tuna, red snapper, Scottish snapper, and black cod were tucked beneath layers of ice. Cooks sliced apples and cucumbers and split squash for roasting (for the pumpkin soup and pumpkin risotto), bakers were making the buns for the salmon burgers and pizza dough. The prep staff was poised to clean the three cases of spinach that would be sautéed that night and to peel 50 pounds of onions and 50 pounds of carrots. All the while, a dishwasher scrubbed a dozen cast steel sauté pans so they could be seasoned.
“Every part of this kitchen gets used,” says Pollinger. “It’s a big kitchen, but it’s a very efficient kitchen.”
Good thing. Pollinger’s days at Oceana run long, starting around 11:30 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. or midnight, when he heads home to Oradell, New Jersey (he and his wife have three children). He also makes time for charitable works, including City Harvest, a food rescue organization that feeds the city’s hungry, for writing a cookbook aimed at the home cook, to be published in about a year, and for appearances on TV programs like the Today show and the Martha Stewart Show.
But mostly, he’s cooking, overseeing the kitchen, creating recipes, and meeting with his management team. Pollinger, who cut his teeth in disciplined kitchens like Ducasse’s, says the histrionics of reality television cooking shows are not for him.
“What you see on TV is hyped up for TV,” he says. “Nobody wants to see a calm, collected, orderly kitchen on TV. I believe in inspiring by example, by good, solid leadership, and by avoiding most of the problems that cause chefs to go berserk by training the staff to not make those mistakes. There is a high expectation here.”
A version of this article appeared in BU Today.