A Seat At The Table With: Chef Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shop & Project Foodie

By Peyton Ladt Sterns April 24, 2018 

As a kid, Daniel Holzman wanted to be the best. Not just the best, but the best youngest person at something. That something turned out to be cooking, and that combination landed him in one of the most prestigious kitchens in NYC (Le Bernardin)... at the age of 14. With six The Meatball Shop restaurants in NYC, one on the way in Washington DC and his latest family-run venture, Project Foodie, it's clear this veteran chef is still a kid a heart.

When did you realize that you could cook? 

When I was very young my mom was always cooking at home and I spent a lot of time next to her in the kitchen. I was always obsessed with being the youngest or being the best youngest at something. I got to work in kitchens when I was very young and hearing from people in those kitchens that they thought I had a head start on cooking because I was so young reinforced that drive. I tried to do other things along the way but I’m very passionate about cooking and I can only follow my passions.

I’m very passionate about cooking and I can only follow my passions.

 

How did you go from cooking in the kitchen at home to working in someone else’s?

I worked at a couple of restaurants in the Upper East Side as a delivery boy and found my way into the kitchen. My friend’s father was a maitre d’ at Le Bernardin and he saw my excitement about the kitchen and got me an interview so I started working there when I was 14.

My brother was older than me and I watched him getting jobs and making his own money, and I knew I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone; I wanted my own money right away. I worked there for 4 years after school during the week, weekends, and summers. When I graduated high school, I applied to culinary school but went there for a year to work full time. The chef helped me get a scholarship for the Culinary Institute of America.

I went to work for Jean-Louis Palladin, a French chef that’s lesser known but he was a real rock star of his day, and a big reason a lot of French chefs like Daniel Boulud came to the US. I worked for him in NYC and Vegas and ended up in LA and SF for 10 years working in different restaurants before ultimately opening a Roman Trattoria restaurant in San Francisco.

Because everyone remembers their grandma making meatballs, and because they make people smile.


What was the inspiration behind opening The Meatball Shop?

Mike Chernow is my partner and best friend from childhood. We had been talking since high school about opening a restaurant and he was persistent about it. We put a business plan together, approached friends and family to raise some money, created our business plan and started hammering away. Today we have six restaurants in NYC and we’re opening our next in DC in a few months.

Why meatballs?

Meatballs because they lend themselves to the business' philosophy of great quality ingredients at an affordable price. They are a New York thing, but they are also universally loved. There were tons of great meatballs out there but no definitive best. Because everyone remembers their grandma making meatballs, and because they make people smile.

Check out The Meatball Shop on Bashed Here and Here.

Your latest endeavor, Project Foodie, is all about making cooking more feasible by providing a step-by-step video guide to recipes. 

Project Foodie is our attempt to create the cookbook of the future - combining the best elements of all the cooking shows, books, apps, how-to videos, classes and programs (eliminating the crappy features) and adding a bunch of our own that were sorely missing.

My big brother (Eli Holzman) is an Emmy Award-winning developer, writer, and producer for television shows, and we have talked a lot about how our businesses are at the intersection between art and craft. Ultimately the idea was born out of the face that today, there are more people who want to cook than ever before and fewer people than ever before actually know how to cook.

A chef’s job is to teach people how to cook: you’re teaching the people that work with you the principles of cooking and then you need to teach people how to cook the dishes you want to cook.

 

The catalyst was that he kept asking me for a recipe for this salmon dish that I made for him as a kid and all he wanted me to make was this salmon dish over and over again. He was frustrated with the results when he would make it, and he would ask me to troubleshoot.

One day he sent this documentary film maker James Carroll over to my house and James filmed me making this dish from start to finish. My brother followed the video step-by-step and was able to make it the way he remembered it tasting when I made it.

He shared it with friends and found out there were a lot of people intimidated by the kitchen and a lot of things are built into directions without people having the information on how to cook - the basics were missing. We saw this as a great opportunity for us to work together and build something that can be used and special and lasting and to learn about the Internet and be apart of this great evolution.

We saw this as a great opportunity for us to work together and build something that can be used and special and lasting and to learn about the Internet and be apart of this great evolution.

 

Download the Project Foodie App Here.

When you’re entertaining at home, what’s your go-to meal to make? 

I think people make the mistake of trying to cook something for the first time for other people. I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to do something special, but I never cook a technique that I’m not confident in.

I usually try to pick a meal that isn’t super time sensitive or doesn’t take a long time to finish.

 

There’s nothing worse than trying to have your guests talk to you while you’re trying to finish a dish. I’m a big fan of comfort foods that you can stick in the oven like chicken parm or lasagna. I also like to incorporate a couple of veggies: one can be room temp, one cold, and one hot. You don’t want to have to finish everything at the last minute.

Your meal is really made in the planning phase. People feel like they need to overcomplicate it but no one sees the time put in behind the scenes so as long as it tastes good than you’ve succeeded.

How do you maintain a balance of cooking and enjoying your guests at the same time? 

By planning ahead. Some guests really want to help when they arrive, but the reality is that it is way harder to tell people what to do than to do it yourself. I like to pre-designate a few menial completely harmless tasks that won’t ruin a dish if someone messes up.

Which serving style best describes you: Prix Fixe, Buffet, or Family Style?

Family style.

When you’re not eating at your own restaurants, what are your go-to spots in NYC and LA?

LA: Gjelina, Commissary, Manpuku

NYC: Upland, Kura Sushi, Kazunuri, Lilia, Pizzeria Martina 

If you could have dinner with 7 people dead or alive, who would that be? 

Jesus Christ, Einstein, Nelson Mandela, my brother Eli Holzman, my girlfriend, Stevie Wonder, Emily Dickinson.

Want to get in on the fun with Daniel? Download the Project Foodie app here.

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Peyton Ladt Sterns
Chocolate chip cookies are my spirit animal.

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