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From Myles Standish to Midtown Manhattan

Noted chef Ben Pollinger prepares dishes for the holiday

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 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.’”

Chef Ben Pollinger, Oceana Restaurant New York City Midtown Manhattan

Ben Pollinger (CAS’95), outside Oceana restaurant, which has earned a coveted Michelin star for six straight years. Photos by Kristin Teig

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. “At the time, it was considered the best restaurant in the world,” Pollinger says. “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.”

When the apprenticeship ended, 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 now-closed Tabla, executive sous chef at Union Square Cafe, chef de cuisine back at Tabla.

Floyd Cardoz, who was executive chef/partner at Tabla and is now executive chef at Manhattan’s North End Grill (and winner of season three of Top Chef Masters), was a major influence. From the start, Cardoz says, he was impressed by how smart, knowledgeable, and well-traveled Pollinger was. Cardoz says he has watched Pollinger mature as a chef in his own right. “He’s developed his own style,” he says. “He has more of a global thinking now.”

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.”

In the video above, watch Ben Pollinger prepare Pumpkin Risotto with New Orleans Shrimp, Sage, and Brown Butter. Dowload the recipe here.

A spin around the world

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—in October, there was black Angus strip loin, filet mignon, and roast natural Amish chicken—here it’s 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 à 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.

“I just try to cook good flavors and interesting food, using proper technique and great ingredients,” he says.

Pollinger has made 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 was able to design 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.

In the video above, watch Ben Pollinger prepare the seafood dish Cape Cod Turkey. Download the recipe here.

On a recent midday Saturday, 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, N.J. (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.”

Cynthia K. Buccini, Managing Editor, Bostonia alumni magazine, Boston University BU
Cindy Buccini

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.

9 Comments on From Myles Standish to Midtown Manhattan

  • Luke on 11.19.2012 at 9:38 am

    A talented chef indeed! I’ve never met Ben but I’ve been fortunate to enjoy his creative menus on a few occasions.

    A bit of a stretch but I lived in Myles Standish, worked for BU Dining at the GSU, now live a few blocks away from Oceana, and I love to cook. I missed my calling. ;)

  • Alex on 11.19.2012 at 5:21 pm

    A good article.
    But why is this front page news? Did the restaurant sponsor it?
    Sometimes I feel BU is more concerned about food than academia.

    Check ratemyprofessor and actually read the end-of-semester evaluations please,
    some people should be fired long time ago. And we talk about food.

    • Ashley on 11.20.2012 at 9:23 am

      Hmmmmm, now why would they be talking about food? What holiday is coming up that might inspire discussions about food? I really can’t seem to put my finger on it. :eye roll:

    • Orly? on 11.29.2012 at 11:02 am

      You would hire and fire based solely on student evals?

      Do you ignore every other measuring rubric and consult teenagers on all of your employment decisions?

      • Tom on 11.29.2012 at 1:26 pm

        BU Today provides a variety of interesting reads for the BU community. Their staff doesn’t read end-of-semester evals or look at hastily written comments on ratemyprofessors.com.

        And the school does read the evals. When I was in ENG, there was a professor who taught poorly. When the whole class wrote about it on the evals, they invited all of the students in the class to talk about it. If you scored one of your professors negatively on an eval and nothing came of it, maybe it’s your problem and the rest of the class was fine. I’m sure each school handles it differently, but it’s not a completely broken system. It’s certainly not BU Today’s problem. The food story made front page news because when you looked at it, it was a new article. It’s kind of weird to comment on one article about something completely unrelated. It won’t get your horrible prof fired. BU is proud of its alumni and sometimes writes about it. You should skip food articles if you don’t want to read about food.

    • Greg on 12.28.2012 at 3:40 pm

      Hey, you can’t study on empty stomach, ya know?

  • Francis G. on 11.21.2012 at 6:03 am

    The point is: Ben is a success, and he came out of BU.

    I love hearing tales of alumni outcomes. It reaffirms my decision to come here.

  • carlo on 12.27.2012 at 11:32 am

    I am Italian and some things are wrong. We Italians are very picky when it comes to cars, bikes, art, football and cooking. The chief made ​​a big mistake in the risotto, apart the Americanized pronunciation of products. You do heat the extra virgin olive oil in the pot, the pot should be non-stick. When you put the onion oil should not be too hot, just warm, the onion does not burn. After you put the risotto for 3 min. and do it brown, after you put the white wine, a few minutes later, when the wine evaporating completely, you put the broth. The steps must be divided by a period of time. Put the products up close or together is a great mistake!

    • Jay on 11.24.2015 at 8:05 am

      Interesting. Good tips, thanks Carlo.

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