Maison Premiere's New Chef Lisa Giffen on Williamsburg Fine Dining and Frog Legs

by Alia Akkam
Before venturing to New York, where she was "exposed to food that gave me the push to get a job in a kitchen," Lisa Giffen lived in LA, working for Sharpie. Post-permanent pen era, she spent her days in the kitchens of top restaurants like Daniel, Blue Hill, Ed Brown's short-lived Eighty-One and as sous chef at sadly shuttered Adour Alain Ducasse. Since April, the Crown Heights resident has been executive chef of Williamsburg oyster and absinthe den Maison Premiere, exalting its dinner menu with dishes like crayfish bread and pigeon with foie gras. Here she talks fine dining, farmers' market frustration and being a lady in the kitchen.
 
You've spent a lot of time in the kitchens of traditional fine dining restaurants, and now you're at the helm of one of Brooklyn's hippest joints. Is that a big change?
It's definitely different, but the standards are the same -- without the tablecloths. All of our dishware is custom monogrammed and we have porcelain cloches and silver trays. It's the same quality -- but less in your face -- even if it's in a hipster environment.
 
The definition of fine dining has certainly changed.
People don't want to do fine dining anymore because of the money and the time commitment, but they still want really good food in a nice setting, especially in Williamsburg, where there's a new condo being built every single day. All those people were going into Manhattan for dinner, and now they are happy eating here, where they can wear jeans and listen to good music.
 
Where do you eat in Williamsburg?
The Wythe Hotel -- it has a nice lobby to hang out in -- and Café Colette for breakfast. I tend to like going to all the old staples like Diner and Marlow & Sons.

Under your leadership, Maison Premiere is fast becoming a go-to for a full dinner, not just a cocktail hangout with a few small plates.
It's a world-class oyster bar with a world-class cocktail menu, and I want the food to match those experiences. Our tasting menus are taking off and people are seeing it as a destination to eat a real meal, too. We have over thirty different types of oysters, and we're bringing in abalone, sepia and turbot. I love it because I can put frog legs and sea urchin on the menu and people will want to eat it.

What does spring hold for Maison Premiere?
I tend to not do a lot of local seafood, but in terms of seasonality everyone wants springtime produce. At the Union Square Farmers' market, there are ramps, but still a lot of potatoes and rutabagas -- and not one single baby carrot. If I'm going all over the world for the seafood I might as well go local for the produce and typical but exciting things for the season, like fava beans, peas and spring onions.

Was one of the takeaways of working at Blue Hill a reverence for local ingredients?
They taught me seasonality. I learned that it was not only important from an ethical sense, but that it tastes so much better. It's frustrating now that I'm getting all this great seafood like whelks that I would like to pair with spring vegetables, but they haven't hit this part of the world yet. I also learned about making the best of space. Blue Hill had a very small kitchen, but they brought in whole pigs and lambs. In that tiny kitchen they did so much.
 
Your kitchen pedigree is impressive. As a woman, have you come across a particular set of challenges or any blatant sexism in your journey?
What's great about this industry is that it's based on word of mouth and people who like you and think you're good. I've never found a job on Craigslist, but through a network of like-minded cooks. It's not a harder lifestyle for a woman, but the standards can be tough if you want to have kids; it's more of a juggle with the long hours and time away from home. You do push yourself harder to prove yourself, but in the end I've never had a problem. At Adour, the kitchen was fifty percent women.
 
What's your favorite tipple?
A white negroni.
 
Your parents were U.S. Army contractors, so you spent much time living in Germany. Are there any culinary memories from that era influencing your cooking today?
One of our large plates is spaetzle with rabbit and yellowfoot mushrooms. It is a recipe I learned from a neighbor growing up.
 
Right now, if you could travel anywhere just to eat, where would you go?
I would like to take a trip to New Orleans to understand the essence of Creole cooking. Any trip for me is food-worthy -- even if it's just going upstate.
 
Maison Premiere
298 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, (347) 335-0446
maisonpremiere.com

Subscribe to Get More