On a recent Tuesday morning, at an hour when most workers of the kitchen underworld are still fast asleep, Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley was on a Staten Island-bound ferry en route to catch an 11am minor league baseball game. He adjusted his black hoodie, hiked up his black jeans, and shoved a few errant wisps of gray-black hair under his black wool cap. Big groups of campers, delineated by t-shirt color, shrieked around him, rendering the chef a black dot in a sea of fluorescence.
“I figure the stadium is right on the water,” Headley said, squinting in the bright sunlight. “So these guys on the Staten Island Yankees can see the city when they’re batting, and it’s just there, looming—this inspiration in the distance.” Headley didn’t specify why, exactly, he’d wanted to spend a morning at Richmond County Bank Ballpark, but this metaphor seemed to be something he enjoyed.
He continued, “Like, you’re so close, but you’re not there yet.”
I liked players with really weird names and fucked up haircuts.
By all accounts, Headley, 42, has made it to “there.” He won a James Beard award last year for his work at the only 4-star Italian restaurant in the city, where he wows customers with unusual desserts like pecorino-romano cake and sweet polenta with blueberries, corn, and tarragon. His new veggie burger—a personal obsession—has recently been released to the public at a series of pop-ups, to raucous approval. This October, his first book, Fancy Desserts, will hit the stands. And, perhaps to remind himself of the path not taken and keep his veggie burger-softened edge sharp, he still practices drums, playing occasionally with his hardcore punk bank C.R.A.S.H., whose other members live in L.A. (He’s been in bands, on and off, since 1988 and misses drumming so much, he says, that he taps on things “constantly” when in the kitchen.)
Richmond County Bank Ballpark
But here he was, shooting across the water, away from there, away from the majors, and towards the minors. It’d be the first baseball game he’d attend since the ‘80s.
Headley isn’t much of an athlete—“I played outfield in Little League, and my batting average was zero, zero, zero”—but he fondly remembers attending Orioles games and avidly collecting cards during his childhood in Baltimore.
“I liked players with really weird names and fucked up haircuts,” he said, as a group of children in hot pink shirts barreled by to get a better view of the docking. “There were these brothers, Garth and Dane Iorg, with these mustaches and crazy hair, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, I want those.’ They were somewhat Muppet-like.” He paused. “When I was really broke, in the mid-90s, I tried to sell the cards, but I was pretty sure the guy was ripping me off.”
Back on land again, Headley turned to take in the sweeping views of Lower Manhattan. Grinning, he said, “See! So close. But so far.”
Headley had made plans to meet up with two industry friends, Allison and Matt Robicelli, of Robicelli’s Bakery in Bay Ridge, and moments later, they arrived with their two mop-headed kids in tow: Atticus, 7, and Toby, 6. Allison, who was sporting the rare double-glasses look—eyeglasses under sunglasses—jumped at the chance to chill with Headley in Staten Island. She’s a huge fan of the borough, for three simple reasons: “Everyone will call you on your shit, no one is important unless you’re in the mob, and no one reads Eater.”
As the Staten Island Yankees faced off against the Auburn Doubledays, the Robicellis sprawled out over the seats and Headley hunkered down, compact, in his.
“I’m overcompensating,” said Allison, gesturing to the kids, who were each gnawing on a braided pretzel. Atticus not-so-surreptitiously blew his nose into a giant foam finger. “We’ve been working so hard and this summer, it’s just us and the kids, exploring, having adventures.”
She’s taken them to the beach on Staten Island (“it’s so fucking great when there are no assholes on it, you know?”), up in a helicopter, to the Queens Museum of Art (“great works, so cheap”), and to hear the Philharmonic in Prospect park (“all the hoity-toity people came with their picnics and my kids are slapping each other in the nuts”), among other places.
“You’ve done more this summer than I’ve ever done in my life,” said Headley, truly in awe.
Atticus whipped around in his seat and pointed an accusing foam finger at the chef. “So? Give up your work!” he said. He and his mother are cut from the same cloth. “You could come with us!”
“Yeah!” Toby chimed in. “You should come build a sand castle on the beach with me!”
“Dude, I’m really awkward on the beach,” Headley said. Toby nodded understandingly, then went back to his pretzel.
After the Yankees scored a couple runs, Headley made his way to the concession stand, where he ordered a beer and a veggie burger.
Photo: Sophie Brickman
“I like to think of myself as a humble, respectful person,” he said, “except when it comes to veggie burgers. I think there’s mine, and then, well, everyone else’s.” As an impulse buy, he also opted for a large chicken nachos packed into a souvenir plastic hat.
Back in the seats, the kids tackled the nachos as Headley unwrapped the burger and inspected it. He took a contemplative bite.
“You know, it’s not bad,” he said. “Even with no sauce.” He brought the burger to his face, and squinted.
“I see a mushroom, some rice, a nice sear. This honestly may be the best veggie burger I’ve had, after mine. Whoever made it made it with love.” Allison took a bite and countered, “Or whoever made it half-assed it and it worked. It is Staten Island.”
The kids, quickly seeing how long it would take to eat their way to the bottom of the nacho hat, turned their attention back to a popcorn hat, which they were halfway through. Headley dutifully held it between the two of them—Atticus occasionally eating face-first and Toby double-fisting—when Chris Riopedre, the Doubledays’ second baseman, got up to bat. The Beatles “I’m a Loser” played over the speakers. Headley raised an eyebrow.
I like to think of myself as a humble, respectful person—except when it comes to veggie burgers. I think there’s mine, and then, well, everyone else’s.
“That’s his song?” he asked. “Man, that’s dark.” He paused and added, “He’s my favorite now.” When Headley won the James Beard Award last year, he walked on stage to the Pink Panther theme song.
“If I could pick, I’d do the Benny Hill theme song—you know, ‘Yakety Sax.’” He giggled, singing the opening few measures.
The popcorn was done, and Toby flipped the hat onto his head. Some errant kernels tumbled down his ears. A few seats over, Matt was glumly making his way through the nacho hat. The game was tied 6-6 at the top of the 9th. The concession stands had stopped serving beer, and the sun beat down, oppressively. A thin trickle of sweat seeped out from under Headley’s hat and ran down his face.
Finally, Atticus articulated the collective feeling of the group: “Mom, I’m BORED.”
“But baseball is supposed to be boring!” said Allison. “You get to talk to your mother, hang out with friends, eat junk.” Atticus seemed skeptical.
And so, a few moments later, everyone agreed it was time to leave. The Robicellis made their way to their car, en route to the next summertime adventure, and Headley stepped onto the Staten Island Ferry. He docked in Manhattan right around the time the Doubledays scored a run and beat the Staten Island Yankees, 7-6, the inspirational view apparently not working its magic that day.
Photo: Sophie Brickman