I had the great pleasure of sitting down with the team behind Color’s Restaurant, a 100% gluten free restaurant in NYC. Rosanne Martino (general manager) and Aaron Michael Stein (executive chef) discuss the many things that make their restaurant so special.
Colors has been around for a few years but re-launched as a 100% gluten free restaurant in 2014. How did the idea for this transition come about and why was it important to you?
RM: My daughter has Celiac Disease. I was working with One if by Land’s Chef Colt Taylor who was teaching CHOW classes for ROC United (Restaurant Opportunity Center – the non-profit organization that owns Colors and runs a front and back of house training program called CHOW), and I soon learned that he was also sensitive to gluten. At the time, Colors was closed and only being used for CHOW. The two of us volunteered to reopen it, and we thought that it would be wonderful to make an entirely gluten free restaurant where no one would have to worry about cross contamination. We interviewed a lot of chefs and had them cook for us, and we absolutely loved Aaron’s food.
I think you found a good one. Could you explain how ROC United is significant?
RM: Restaurant Opportunity Center started right after the World Trade Center attack to help displaced restaurant workers find jobs again. From there, they decided to open a restaurant, and the organization grew. While ROC originated here in New York, it has expanded to different cities all over the country. We’re planning on opening new gluten free restaurants in New Orleans and Oakland.
How wonderful! We live in a very gluten-free-friendly city, so it’s an amazing thing to bring restaurants like this to other cities across the country.
RM: It is! During the day we are training front of house, service workers, bartenders, managers, and servers who are both newcomers and veterans in the restaurant industry – these are the CHOW classes – and they are all being trained on how to properly conduct gluten free service.
That’s absolutely incredible! You’re helping to build a stronger gluten free community. Thank you so much for that. How knowledgeable is your staff concerning Celiac Disease and other food intolerances?
RM: Our entire staff is extremely knowledgeable, and many of our customers are not just gluten free. They’re nut free, vegan, following a specific diet for heart health – we get it all.
I’ve eaten here a few times and I must say that your entire front of house staff are some of the loveliest restaurant professionals I’ve come across. I understand that Colors has a strong commitment to treating all restaurant employees well. Could you tell us about that?
RM: We really believe in abolishing the subminimum wage for tipped workers. Nationally the rate is $2.13 an hour, New York is $5.50. The idea is that the patrons will pay the worker. The law says that if you don’t make at least minimum wage your employer is supposed to bump up your pay to match that, but in practice it doesn’t happen. It’s a really archaic law that we feel should be abolished.
Onto the food – I love that your menu changes, frequently in order to feature seasonal items. What do you focus on when creating a new dish?
AMS: As you said – whatever is in season. It’s all about two things: 1. Get the freshest ingredients possible. 2. Season them perfectly and simply – treat the food with respect. Another big focus of mine is working with great proteins and vegetables. I’m not trying to replicate gluten-rich dishes. Instead I focus on naturally gluten free foods.
What is your favorite dish on the menu right now?
AMS: Brussels Sprout Salad – we pan roast fresh Brussels sprouts to order. They get tossed with honey vinegar and then are plated with olive oil yogurt and a house made trail mix that has all kinds of beautiful nuts, dried cherries and apricots.
RM: My favorite is the Prince Edward Island Mussels and House Made Fries – that stays on the menu. (all laugh)
It’s good to be in charge! The last time I was here I had the Organic Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Potato Puree and Spicy Honey. That was incredible.
RM: That’s our customers’ favorite. Oh, and the biscuits! Aaron’s biscuits are the best in the entire world. I cannot leave here on Sundays without one.
AMS: We find her walking out with biscuits in her pockets. (all laugh)
What has been your greatest joy in creating this restaurant so far?
AMS: The faces of people who suffer from Celiac Disease. The appreciation they have for being able to come here and get some of the best quality food in New York while knowing they’ll be safe. It’s that personal interaction – that’s the best part.
RM: The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia often recommends our restaurant, and a family came in from Georgia. The mother said that her little boy didn’t speak until five or six, and then they took gluten out of his diet and saw a big improvement. That night he said, “Thank you for making a gluten free restaurant.” I almost cried. It’s things like that – you’re in a restaurant, but you are really interacting in people’s lives.
AMS: Clean, safe, and sexy. (all laugh) I always try to make my food sexy.
RM: Safe, just – for justice and workers rights – and comfortable. And fun. Let’s put fun in there, too.
What else would you like people to know about your restaurant?
AMS: Anyone who has Celiac Disease would be hard pressed to find a better restaurant that can cater to their needs.
RM: I think it’s a great restaurant and – oh by the way – it’s 100% gluten free.
Learn more about Colors at www.colorsrestaurantnyc.com. Visit the restaurant at 417 Lafayette Street near Astor Place in New York City.