If you live in New York City, you know the life and times and your local bodega all too well. It definitely ain't a grocery store, but it's definitely more than a "convenience store." Each individual bodega has as many funky and distinct products as there are funky and distinct characters—yourself included. It becomes a crucial mooring point for your life: The place you'll score that early-morning bacon-egg-and-cheese; a sandwich and chips for lunch; a late-night snack; or all three, at the same time, at any point in your day (or night).
These places usually come to define not just the character of your neighborhood in some way, but also, your experience in it. Part of their charm is that they do not try to be all things to all people. For example, they definitely lack for the kinds of ingredients you'd find refined chefs shopping for on a regular basis—until now.
Recently, while roaming the aisles of our local bodega, we started wondering: Is it possible for some of New York City's great chefs to whip up meals for the tired, the maybe-broke, and the definitely-hungry masses, using only ingredients culled from a bodega?
For the answer, we looked to Sandy Dee Hall, chef and co-owner of New York City's farm-to-table bar and restaurant duo Black Tree NYC, with locations on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg. Black Tree's the kind of place that churns out ingenious meals on the regular, a spot where you can drop-in and grab a quick, stellar sandwich as easily as you can sit at a chef's counter for a sharp, brilliant prix-fixe. And Sandy, the man behind it, is definitely the kind of chef who could take on this challenge.
For one thing, he didn't start cooking professionally until two months before he opened up Black Tree. He learned, like most of us, on the fly. The other reason: At Black Tree, everything's seasonal, and usually the menu's dictated by whatever ingredients Sandy's found to be the best that particular week—often, his menus are limited to dishes from one animal, from one farm, and you get to see what magic gets cooked up. While these self-imposed limitations make for an amazing dining experience, they also fitting for our first-ever Five-Star Bodega Challenge: Could Sandy shop a single bodega, with a $25 budget, and rock an entirely edible three-course meal for two people, cookable by even the brokest college student in the grimiest of dorms?
He was going give it a shot, knowing well what he was up against. "When I was in college—at Villa-no-fun—I mostly ordered takeout," he laughed. "When I didn't, it was lots of eggs and bacon. One pan, you throw it all in there, and it gets done." As for amateur bodega-shopping cooks, he had some sage wisdom before he got started:
"You need good ideas, and execution is something you can always work on," Hall explained. "As long as you know the end result you're trying to get to is going to be good, it all becomes about practice after that. It's like that Disney movie Ratatouille," he laughed. "Anyone actually can cook." To see how he did it, as well as how his dishes came out, check the footage above.
And finally, two tips on cooking up these recipes:
1. On shopping: "If you're going to splurge on anything, go big on whatever meat you want to add, or whatever dairy. That's the key to all of this, and if your bodega has bottom-shelf or top-shelf stuff, and you can afford top-shelf, here's where you do it.”
2. On where to shop: "A great bodega is just a mixture of grit, charm, and random cats. Everything else you need, they'll have."