It’s about 10 a.m. when I arrive outside Root & Bone in New York City’s East Village. The metal gates are drawn and a street cleaner is vigorously spraying the sidewalk in hopes of eradicating remnants of last night’s debauchery. I walk through the side door leading into the restaurant, now empty aside from a lone dishwasher tackling the daunting task of cleaning and organizing a vast collection of mismatched antique plates and china.
I spot the chef, Jeff McInnis, around the corner, checking in a delivery of produce orders. Once everything is squared away, he leads me through the dish pit up a discreet set of stairs that emerge into a cramped hallway. He knocks twice on the door, calling to his partner and Chef de Cuisine, Janine Booth, “We’ve got company!”
When we enter, I’m taken aback by the stark contrast between the chaos of the soon-to-be bustling restaurant downstairs and the open, airy and tranquil apartment upstairs. McInnis and Booth purchased the space above their restaurant to serve as a test kitchen, and transformed it into a creative space that is warm and luxurious. Booth emerges from the kitchen holding an arrangement of hydrangeas and greets me with a warm smile and thick Aussie accent.
McInnis starts rummaging through the cabinets and pulls out two Today Show mugs; the pair just did a segment on the program yesterday morning. He asks Booth if she wants a cappuccino, which of course she does. I sit on a bar stool, setting up my laptop for our interview and I watch as the two float around the kitchen, wrapped up in various tasks yet always aware of one another’s presence. I can’t help but try to picture them, with their catalogue-worthy looks, set amongst a crowded kitchen of misfits and grease; it seems unnatural for two people to be both this gorgeous and incredibly talented as chefs.
McInnis asks if Booth has checked the site yet, and she says she’s been refreshing the page all morning. It turns out the power couple’s latest love child, The Sarsaparilla Club in Miami, Florida, was recently reviewed and they’re awaiting the results. Booth refreshes her computer once more, but nothing yet.
At this point we’ve all been chatting effortlessly, sipping coffee like old friends, and I suggest we begin the interview. McInnis laughs, “I thought that’s what we’ve been doing!”
The first time I visited last spring, I was taken aback by how comfortable and at home the space made me feel, despite the fact that the restaurant was packed and there was a line out the door. Is that something you have strived to create, or was it more of an organic development?
Janine Booth: Definitely intentional. With restaurants in New York, the spaces are often so small, and when we took over this space it was even smaller than it is now––it was closed off with no windows. So we wanted to open it up; we brought in vintage plates like my grandmother used to have and crystal and all of these Southern Living cookbooks, along with all of these other family heirlooms that Jeff had inherited. We wanted to fill the space with all of these things that were part of our homes to warm it up.
Jeff McInnis: Yeah, my grandmother has a collection of all these Southern Living cookbooks from the ‘70s and they’re all displayed on a bookshelf down in the restaurant.
When people say, “home cooking,” they are always referring to those flavors associated with what mom made for you when growing up. What are those comfort foods for you?
JB: I was essentially raised on every kind of potato preparation possible, so any combination of potato I was happy. I still like a good spud.
JM: Good poultry is always one of mine. I remember being at grandma’s and there was always a lot of fried chicken and roasted chicken. I would rip the crispy skin off the chicken and the fatty neck and just being completely obsessed with how good it was. We would shoot a lot of dove when we went hunting, and just absolutely loved the flavor of it. We would cook it outside over a campfire and it’s just one of those nostalgic flavors for me.
JB: I honestly loved all kinds of food growing up. I was food obsessed. But I loved ice cream, especially cookies and cream flavor. My parents owned a chain of ice cream stores. So the buckets of ice cream you see in ice cream shops, we stored those in our freezer at home. So I was really popular as a kid.
JM: Corn––I really liked corn. Being on my grandma’s farm, there was tons of corn. One of our jobs was going and picking the corn from the field, and there was this big aluminum wash tub in the front filled with water we’d dump the corn into. My grandma would light up this huge fire under this barrel and load it up with all the corn and shut the lid and let the corn just smoke and grill inside. And she’d just come and grab it with her bare hands when it was ready and peel back the husk and she’d dunk it into the Folgers canister filled with her fresh churned butter. She hand out all the buttered corn to us kids and the butter just burning the crap out of my hands––but all I remember is the pain, the salt, the licking, and just perfect.
Do you come from families that cooked and entertained?
JM: Honestly, my mom was a really bad cook. But my grandmothers were amazing––they were like renaissance people. My grandma Bryce had a farm and when my grandfather passed away, she was like, “I’m not closing this thing down,” and she kept running it. She had pride, that woman. She had 150 chickens, geese, guinea hens––everything. The Thanksgiving meals at her place were the most amazing memories of my lifetime. Nine years old, I would be watching my great grandmother run outside and catch a turkey or chicken and pop it.
JB: I had a very similar upbringing. My mom, she had some staple items, but my grandma was an amazing cook. She would churn her own butter, make all of her own breads––she was unbelievable. She also lived on a farm and raised her own lambs and ducks.
With the opening of Sarsaparilla, you’re flying back and forth between New York and Miami. Do you have time to cook at home together, or are you just grabbing and going?
JM: No, we’re definitely still cooking. Having this space right above the restaurant is extremely convenient.
JB: We’re currently working on a seafood concept in Miami, so a lot of what we’re eating is recipes we’re testing. Jeff cooked me dinner the other night, which was really nice. He made a lemon snapper with white lentils, spring peas and roasted cherry tomatoes, which was really beautiful, light and fresh. We love experimenting with vegetables and really utilizing the seasons produce.
Janine, hailing from Australia, how would you describe Australian cuisine?
JB: It sort of pulls from all of the different cultures and flavors from the people who have immigrated to Australia. There are a lot of Asian and Mediterranean flavors like Lebanese and Greek, so there’s all these different micro cultures we’ve pulled from and made our own. One of our national dishes we’ve adopted is laksa, a Malaysian dish that has somehow, over the years, ended up being a truly Australian staple. Every household in Australia makes their own version of it.
When you’re craving those flavors, where are you going in New York to get your fix?
JB: Flinders Lane is definitely one of them; they of course have a laksa on the menu.
You’ve said that the menu at The Sarsaparilla Club will consist of worldly flavors, reflecting the melting pot that exists within Australia; do you think you’re allowing your heritage to shine a bit more there?
JB: Absolutely, the entire concept behind Sarsaparilla is taking all these different flavors and types of cuisines and creating new and exciting dishes out of them.
I’ve seen the two of you cooking in the kitchen here; you seem to have this effortless flow, and a symbiotic relationship in the kitchen. Is that something that existed between you from the beginning?
JM: We’ve always worked really well together. Even when Janine signed on to intern at Gigi’s and then Yardbird, she was incredibly talented and super sweet, and it just worked.
JB: Cooking in culinary school and working in a kitchen are two completely different things and Jeff took me in, me [being] completely green to the restaurant industry.
Has your partnership influenced one another’s palates or cooking styles?
JB: Yeah, absolutely. I had never really been in close contact with Southern cooking because it is so far removed from Australia, and Southern food is not what Australians would think of as American food. So when I moved here seven years ago, I had never even tried Southern food. Then I met Jeff at Gigi’s and Yardbird, and after that I was really thrown into Southern culture––from flavors and cooking techniques to Southern hospitality––and I really fell in love. Jeff really does inspire me; he was my mentor and still is my mentor, shaping and changing the way I cook.
How do you balance the stresses of being in a romantic as well as a business partnership?
JB: The key for us is letting things go very quickly. Because from day to day, there are many sweet moments––as well as many meltdowns––so you just need to take the good with the bad. I think we’re working better together now than we ever have. I think we’re constantly learning how to work with each other, it doesn’t happen overnight.
JM: There have been a lot of different stages for us as well. There was the stage when Janine came to work for me as an intern. Then there was the stage when we became good friends and working alongside each other, the stage where we fell in love, then moving to New York City and opening our first business together, then opening our second business together. So there has been a lot of change and room for growth.
Root & Bone
200 E 3rd St, New York, NY 10009