When Manhattan West opens this fall, you might need some help keeping your wood-fired-restaurant chefs straight. Madeline Sperling (not to be confused with Ci Siamo’s Hillary Sterling) will be tending the hearth at Zou Zou’s, the eastern-Mediterranean spot slated to open at the complex’s new Pendry Hotel. Unlike her Italian-inspired neighbor, the 30-year-old North Carolina native will use the grill for dishes that span traditions and influences from Turkey to Egypt and beyond. Before Sperling moved to New York in 2015 to work at Gramercy Tavern and then the NoMad, where she would rise to chef de cuisine, she grew up eating and loving Middle Eastern food.
Besides the lure of wood-fired cooking, which seemingly no chef can resist, Zou Zou’s offered Sperling creative freedom to draw inspiration from not only the Levantine region but her own Eastern European Jewish heritage (hello, latkes) and to collaborate with former NoMad colleague Juliana Latif, a cook with Jordanian and Lebanese roots. As jointly conceived by them, Zou Zou’s is a modern New York restaurant where there are za’atar crumbs on the little gem salad, zhoug on the cured local fluke, hazelnut dukkah on the roasted sweet potato, and barberry mignonette on the Kumamoto oysters. “We found a lot of similarities in the dishes that we love, and we found a way to marry them really well,” says Sperling.
Zou Zou’s shares ownership with Don Angie and Quality Italian; like the latter’s chicken-parm pizza, Zou Zou’s duck bourek à l’orange will be sliced tableside. Sperling will make use of a favorite NoMad technique of puffing grains to add texture to dishes like jeweled rice with broken tadig and lobster tagine with puffed bulgur. (“I tried puffing couscous but it didn’t go very well,” she says.) But beyond the mezzaluna-wielding waiters and the experiments in alt-grain crisping, it was the wood-fired grill that made her sign on to the project. “I think that working over fire is one of the ultimate challenges of being a chef,” she says. “It’s something that’s always going to be a little bit out of your control, and I think we all enjoy mastering it and figuring out how to make it work for us.”
Zou Zou’s, 85 Manhattan West Plaza; 212-380-8585; September.