Dining

Seeing Stars

The real story behind one restaurant's fight for the ultimate prize
Go inside a Michelin Starred restaurant
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

It's Friday night, and a chill wind blows down Jefferson Street in Brooklyn, whistling up whispers of snow. Inside Faro, chef and co-owner Kevin Adey's ambitious American restaurant, there is nothing but warmth. Adey is standing behind the counter, where he attends to the few stools at the bar that make up the chef's counter and expedites for the other 50 seats. There are three or four cooks behind him, arranged in relation to the wood-burning oven, into which go things like slow-rendered duck and monkfish for a quick finish during service, rutabagas to soften in the embers over night, as well as grains to burn and then be turned into a powder he'll use as flour. To contemplate the restaurant's menu is to realize the endless possibilities of rye and farro and semolina and freekeh when a mind like Adey's becomes fixated with them.

Faro, which opened in May 2015, received its first Michelin star in November, making it one of just twelve restaurants in Brooklyn to achieve the status, and this distinction had fulfilled the restaurant’s raison d'etre. "Our thing at this place," Adey tells me, "was that we were going to open a Michelin-star restaurant. That's been our mission from day one."

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There is a growing consensus that ratings guides like Michelin and The World's 50 Best Restaurants are inherently flawed metrics. So mixed is the blessing of Michelin, in fact, that some chefs have willingly surrendered their stars. And as the recent closure announcements of Luksus and Anissa show, though there is a financial benefit to gaining a star, it does not guarantee immortality.

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The ratings are, of course, subjective, as any best-of list necessarily must be. They're subjective not only in the indicated criteria but contain within them disqualifying biases relating to gender, race, type of cuisine and—it goes without saying—socioeconomics.

Moreover, in the case of San Pellegrino's The World’s 50 Best, selection is clearly heavily influenced by paid sponsorship. In the case of Michelin, stars have been bestowed so unequally and weirdly, the underlying logic and faith in that logic has been lost. Though what makes a Michelin restaurant is unknowable, except perhaps to the inspectors themselves, I am here to understand what makes a Michelin chef.

Kevin Adey's bucatini with chicken confit

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Adey doesn't really play the chef's game. He doesn't appear on panels, isn't constantly flying around the country on behalf or at the behest of brands. He's not on the endless festival circuit, and he's never been to MAD. He doesn't have a fast-casual concept in the works. Most nights, he's here at Faro or else a few blocks away, where he lives with his wife and partner, Deborah. The roots of Adey's obsession with a Michelin star begin not at Faro, or even at Northeast Kingdom, the pioneering Bushwick restaurant for which he was the chef for five years, but rather two hundred miles away in Rome, New York.

Adey grew up in an extremely competitive and highly contested home. His father, Paul, is a Hall of Fame football coach at Hamilton College. His uncle, Mike, who retired in 2012 after 35 years as coach, was the winningest boys basketball coach of New York. Mike's son, Bobby, was a basketball coach, too. Another of Adey's uncles, Gerry, is a coach, and Gerry's kids, Rocky and Shannon, are coaches, too. Shannon is the winningest field hockey coach in the state. "My family likes to win," Adey deadpans.  

Adey, who was a star lacrosse player at Rome Free Academy, says he grew up amid slogans like college basketball coach John Wooden's "If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?" and a favorite of Adey's father's, "If you’re not going to do 100 percent, you shouldn’t be doing it at all."  

Competition wasn't just limited to athletics. One foundational memory concerns dicing celery. Adey was just a seven- or eight-year-old boy. It was Thanksgiving. He was in the kitchen helping his grandmother, a butcher named Jean, prepare stuffing the way Paul and Mike liked it. Celery for flavor, not texture. "Here I am," he remembers, "using a paring knife to dice celery at a table that's up at my shoulders. When I'm done," he says, "I show her my work." One might pause here to imagine the inflated hopes of a boy in the kitchen with his grandmother, proffering forth the fruits of his juvenile yet enthusiastic labor.

"She took one look at it," he remembers now, "and said, 'This isn’t small enough,' and so she scraped the celery into the trash, and that was that." It was then that the idea that there is a correct way to do everything—including making food—attached itself to Adey. It hasn’t been dislodged since.

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It took Adey a long time to make it to Faro. He toiled in kitchens mostly in Florida with chefs whose names will never be known, like Rusty Camoli at the Inn of Naples and David Shiplett at Poseidon in Longboat Key, but who nonetheless instilled in him the basics of fine dining. He worked at Tommy Bahama, though he hastens to add, "It was the original location. Before it became a chain." He moved to New York and worked for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, which, he says, "showed me what it meant to work in a Michelin-star restaurant." Then he opened Northeast Kingdom and, though he enjoyed the experience, labored to achieve someone else's vision. That vision didn't include a star.

When he opened Faro with his wife, Adey was determined to pursue his Michelin dream. It started, he said, with the forks. "You can’t get a star," he explains, "with 25 cent forks." So he invested thousands of dollars in rather beautiful—but not custom made—heavy silverware with twiglike stems. His friend, Sarah Ritz, hand-made the stunning irregular plates, which, at this point, have become a prerequisite for Michelin stardom. He had another friend, Ashley Stevenson, do the metalwork including the wood storage that holds cords of oak and fruitwood. "What I noticed," he says, "is that in Michelin restaurants, there is an emphasis on the surfaces. Everything needs to be mindful."

Chef Kevin Adey

Being in Bushwick, where the rent if not low is at least sane, allows Adey to not have to make too many concessions to the bottom line with the menu. "I promised myself," he says, "I would never put a burger on." The menu at Faro is, in some ways, straightforward. Like the motto of the restaurant, the focus of the menu is "Earth. Wheat. Fire." On offer now are pastas unknown outside a small cadre of noodle scholars, like strascinati, sedani and scarpinocc. Pasta forms we might recognize, like bucatini (see the recipe) and agnoletti, are composed differently and served with a chorus—alpine cheese and pastured chicken confit in the former, and whey, peekytoe crab and ricotta in the latter—that lend the melody new and thrilling notes.  These are bracketed on either side by smaller dishes with minimal cooking—beef tartare accompanied with freekeh and sea urchin, for instance—and heartier proteins like guinea fowl, which emerges from that oven fragrant, to be joined with an earthy entourage of baby leeks, rutabaga and cabbage.

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In the end, Faro has become a very good restaurant and also a restaurant with a Michelin star. Those two facts can be concurrently true but also completely independent. Speaking to Adey, it becomes clear that he would have likely clutched at whatever prize there was to win; such is his nature. That it was Michelin that he landed on seems almost immaterial. A star, like a touchdown or goal, is simply the endgame and the most easily measured achievement of dedication. Now that he has it, Adey's desire to get a star has changed into a desire not to lose one. But what it hasn't changed is the relentless drive toward winning. In that way, his approach to life and to Faro is no different than his approach to his oven: "Every day, we light a fire," he says, "and keep it burning."

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