These days, you’re always hearing about Brooklyn’s hottest new chefs and their trendy restaurants, but the borough had its share of culinary geniuses long before it became the cool place to be. Take, for example, Michael Ayoub. The Brooklyn native has been cooking in the County of Kings since 1977, when, as an ambitious 20-year-old, he purchased a French eatery in Bay Ridge called Skaffles. Since then, Ayoub has built a widely respected restaurant empire without ever crossing the East River. After Skaffles closed, he opened Cucina, an Italian trattoria in Park Slope that was the first Brooklyn restaurant to be reviewed by The New York Times, which gave it two stars and earned him the nickname “The First Chef of Brooklyn.” In October 2004, Ayoub opened Fornino in Williamsburg, where his artisanal-style pizzas cooked in wood-fired ovens became such a hit that the restaurant now has two more Brooklyn locations. Here, Ayoub discusses his culinary background, his connection to Brooklyn, and his suprising artistic talent.
What are some of your earliest memories of food?
I have a distinct memory of my aunt propping me up on a chair to roll cookies with her. Even as a kid, I was always curious about food. When I was nine years old, my neighbor was in the deli business, and I would help him peel potatoes. The kitchen has always been something I’ve been fascinated with.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Originally, I was going to school to become a veterinarian, which was very difficult in 1975. When I realized it was too hard, I took a gig as the president of Long Island College Hospital School of Radiologic Technology, which is what I was doing by day. By night, I was the chef of Skaffles. During my lunch break, I would have to buzz from Long Island Hospital to Skaffles, put the ducks in the oven at a low temperature, and go back to school for a couple hours. Cooking was always a way to make a living for me.
Aside from the fact that you grew up in Brooklyn, what made you want to cook there?
Brooklyn was always my mainstay. I have a great customer base here. I put food services in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was a Brooklyn guy. What attracted me to Williamsburg was I had gone to dinner at a huge restaurant there on a Monday night at 9pm – chefs only get Mondays off – and had to wait an hour for a table. I thought, “Something’s going on in this neighborhood.”
What made you want to focus on Brooklyn pizza with Fornino?
Fornino is my mother’s maiden name and means “little oven” in Italian. A pizza scenario was the perfect place to use it, as the only cooking equipment I have in these restaurants is the oven. Everything we make at Fornino comes out of the oven.
If you had a free day in Brooklyn, where would you spend it?
I would sit on the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park, on the East River waterfront, and look at the view. The Brooklyn Bridge is to the north, Statue of Liberty slightly south, New York City front and center. The park faces due west, which makes the sunsets like no place else in the world. There’s also the New York Aquarium. There are not too many urban areas where you can hang out with beluga whales and watch penguins playing.
Actually, I’d be in UrbanGlass, the world’s largest public-access glass studio, blowing glass for the day. I’ve been blowing glass for the last 12 years. As a chef, everything that I have ever created is consumed within hours. The permanence of glass is very rewarding to me. I have been commissioned to create sculptures for the Venetian Hotel in Vegas, Foxwoods Casino, and multiple restaurants in NYC. All the lighting in all my restaurants is made personally.
Aside for Fornino, what are some of your favorite Brooklyn restaurants?
Peter Lugers Steakhouse is an old-school restaurant that has been around forever, and is constantly rated best steakhouse in NYC. It’s the high temple of carnivores. Whenever I get a craving for a great steak, this is my go-to spot. I feel lucky having it so close. People travel from around the world to get a taste. There’s also Coney Island‘s Nathan’s Famous. Every once in a while I like to dine al fresco – and standing up – and have a Nathan’s Famous hot dog. Growing up in Brooklyn, we would often go to Coney Island’s beach amusement rides. No visit would be complete without standing and eating a freshly grilled Nathan’s hot dog, with fries, of course. Pegasus Restaurant in Bay Ridge serves the best brunch in the borough, hands down. I have been going to Pegasus since I was a young boy. It is my standard of what a great omelette and home fries are. All others are judged by that quality definition.