2015 Inside Jersey Top Sous Chefs: Martyna Krowicka

Martyna Krowicka served as sous chef at The Ryland Inn, in Whitehouse Station, before recently accepting a position with Empellon Taqueria in New York's West Village. (Amanda Brown)
STAMINA AND GRIT are job requirements. Drama occurs daily, if not hourly. Such is the life of the sous chef, who is often the unsung hero of the kitchen. A sous chef, by title, is second in command. In reality, the position means daily responsibility for pretty much everything — from ordering food to hiring dishwashers, from creating the menu to cooking it. And, of course, assuring the gluten-free customer gets exactly what he or she wants. The inside story of the job — and the adrenaline required to execute it — were revealed in last year’s book “Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line” by Michael Gibney (a vibrant, wild ride, according to critics). We thought we’d continue the story with a few of our own. So, here is our conversation with Martyna Krowicka, the second of five sous chefs from Jersey you probably don’t know, but should.

Restaurant: Empellón Taqueria, New York
Formerly of The Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station

Martyna Krowicka knows, as does everyone in every kitchen, that it isn’t wise to rig the Robot Coupe. But she did so anyway, adjusting the industrial food processor so that it would continue to pulse even without its safety shield. Then she reached in with her hand.

Krowicka is in good company. Georges Perrier, the legendary chef from Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, cut four fingers to the bone reaching in to a Robot-Coupe in 1995. With those intricate knife skills gone, the incident forever hampered his ability to cook. Krowicka didn’t cry, she’ll tell you, eyes bright and defiant, with blood everywhere and not knowing the damage. Nor did she cry when they told her she’d cut a nerve, reached the bone.

But when they said it would be weeks — weeks! — before she’d return to the kitchen, she burst. In defiance, she returned to work the next day. She was sent home, but returned to stay a week later. “I couldn’t bear to be away from the kitchen.”

Krowicka fell in love with cooking during her childhood summers in Poland, in the kitchens of her grandmothers, waking early to fetch the breakfast eggs and crisp the potatoes from the night before. She fell in love with the soured milk, a Polish classic, the raw, unpasteurized milk left to ferment on the counter, which awakened the breakfast potatoes with a spark of delicious, creamy tang. She fell in love with the farm-fresh potatoes, fire-baked in the dirt.

That smell — earth and fire — reminds her of Poland. And she fell in love with apples. Her family planted a line of apple trees to mark her birth, another line for the birth of her sister, an orchard in Pilawa, Poland, in their names.

And Krowicka’s applesauce? It surprises even other culinary experts with its depth, and then surprises them again with its simplicity. (A colleague once phoned at 8 a.m. on her day off, demanding her secrets. She gave them. Three ingredients: sweet apples cooked down to mush, butter, maple syrup. “That puree is so fantastic, and you’re telling me it has only three ingredients?" We can learn much from Polish grandmothers about what it means to be authentic.)

That love of the kitchen, plus culinary school, plus stubbornness, equals sous chef.

Krowicka will remind you that the job isn’t easy. That when you start, you feel beat-up every day, a failure every day. That fresh out of school, as a cook at Uproot in Warren, she was seared by a comment from her boss. Chef Anthony Bucco, who is now working in New York City with Jonathan Waxman, was demonstrating a technique for another chef. Krowicka was waiting her turn. Bucco told the other chef not to mind Krowicka. “Push her out of the way. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“It wasn’t the breaking point, but the lightbulb,” says Krowicka, who decided then to prove her stuff. Today, Bucco gushes. Krowicka is definitely going places, he’ll tell you. Back then, as he tells Krowicka, he wasn’t so sure. “We liked you, but we didn’t think you would make it.”

Krowicka, of Roselle Park, followed Bucco to The Ryland Inn. And in December, she became sous chef at Empellón Taqueria in the West Village. The New York restaurant is part of the Alex Stupak empire.

She pictures herself someday at the helm of her own restaurant. She would reimagine the food of her childhood, take the flavors of Eastern Europe out for a dance. Deconstruct a borscht, for example, and turn it into a dish with crispy pork belly (in lieu of the traditional meat stock, or the added bacon), alongside tortellini (in lieu of the traditional dumpling), alongside a horseradish beet sauce. She’d deconstruct everything. Except pierogies. “Leave them as is,” she says. “Pierogies are not something I would reimagine.”

As for the incident with the Robot-Coupe, she’s lost all feeling in her right index finger, and her fingernail will always be mangled.

2015 Inside Jersey Top Sous chefs

JOE BENINATO, of Ursino in Union
MARTYNA KROWICKA, formerly of The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station
JON VITIELLO, of Thirty Acres in Jersey City
MARTIN KESTER, of Ninety Acres in Peapack-Gladstone
PATRICK TAVARES, of Eno Terra in Kingston

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Inside Jersey, a Star-Ledger Magazine.