The week, the world learned about Jonah Reider, a 21-year-old Columbia University senior who’s operating a "restaurant" (of sorts) named Pith, which he runs out of his dorm room. The idea is that it costs just $10 to $20 for five- to eight-course dinners (capped at four people) that Reider prepares in his dorm’s common kitchen.
It quickly became popular among students, and because of the influx of press, Reider says non-collegiate New Yorkers have actually made Pith overbooked. But unlike, say, Flynn McGarry, Reider says he started doing this to get away from high-end restaurant culture, and he’s not even sure he wants to make cooking his career. He realizes that, if he does, he’ll have to put in a lot more work: "I recognize how presumptuous it is to casually cook and get so much attention," he says. Here, he explains:
So, what are you studying at Columbia? How did you become interested in cooking?
I’m in my last year at Columbia, and I study sociology and economics. I’ve always liked to cook. In high school, I’d cook a little with my friends, but it wasn’t really until about two years ago that I started consistently cooking. It happened when I was living on my own, and not on a meal plan in college. I was cooking more and more, and having a good time doing so. It’s easier to cook for other people than to cook for yourself. People would come over and we’d share the cost of a fun meal.
How did this evolve into Pith?
Like two weeks ago, I created an online sign-up for people to come by and hang out and eat. It was somewhat popular, mostly among my friends, and friends of friends. And then this article was written in the Columbia Spectator, and it totally exploded. That caused the New York Post to write this absurd story about it, and then Gothamist.
I was intrigued by the possibility of having anyone come over for a meal like this. Pith is very much intended to not be a restaurant. It’s more of an opportunity for people to get together, hang out, and have this elongated meal where you can try new foods and listen to music.
Have you seen a big spike in demand? Are you limiting it to students?
Now I have hundreds and hundreds of people on the wait list. It’s definitely been annoying for my roommates to have people here all the time, which I totally get, because this is a shared space. It’s mostly students, but now anyone from New York — bankers, lawyers, people who own restaurants, editors from magazines — it’s quite funny how many people have emailed me. You can’t even make a reservation anymore. I am booked mostly through January, and I cook for just four people a night.
I don’t see it as a restaurant in any way, so hopefully I can escape some of the restrictions on restaurants. I think, until I sort out various things with Columbia, it’ll be a once-a-week thing, and I’ll limit it to Columbia students. All of the interest has been very encouraging, though! It’s making me figure out how to do this in a more sustainable way. Can I create a venue for food and interaction that’s different from a restaurant? It’s making me think about what it means to have a dining experience.
Maybe I’d like to open up some sort of small music venue, or a snack bar and music venue, where you can see low-key shows and eat. Something like that could transfer the atmosphere of Pith into a more sustainable, permanent place without scarifying all of the things that make it quirky or fun. But I did not anticipate all of this interest!
You keep saying you don’t want it to be a restaurant, in the traditional sense. What about restaurants turns you off?
Superficially, people think it’s funny that Pith is in a dorm room. But the reason it’s so intriguing is that there’s not a serious distinction between me and the guests. Maybe one of these nights, I eat with the guests. I welcome people. We sit down and chat. The meal moves at an extremely slow place, just because people are talking. It’s not like I’m in an apron and I come out serving dishes to people. Food is the medium for interaction, rather than the sole reason that someone is coming.
You’re just charging for ingredients, and not turning a profit. Will that change?
That is great, but it’s also unsustainable. I don’t think I could continue, for a very long time, to spend two or three hours a day doing this, and just getting paid back for ingredients. As a student, it’s great, and I’m happy to do it. It’s such a good excuse to practice cooking. But I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to make this ever so slightly profitable. It’s so frustrating that eating in New York is so prohibitively expensive. Only a specific slice of the city gets to go out to eat. I don’t think that experience is what many people are looking for. It also doesn’t need to be a formal thing.
How would you describe your food?
I don’t really know how to describe what kind of food it is. I hate shopping in general, but I love grocery shopping. I’ve been going to tons of different markets. I go to the farmers’ market near me, I go to Zabar’s, or I’ll look at the Citarella fish section and not buy anything because it’s too expensive. There recently were tons of amazing tomatoes at the farmers’ market, and they’d sell me the bruised ones at a huge discount. I’d serve those thinly sliced with lemon juice and fennel seeds and salt. I’ve been into experimenting with a celery-root soup that my dad used to make, and I add toasted hazelnuts and pumpernickel crisps. I’ve been getting skinny, beautiful eggplants and putting them in a hot cast-iron skillet with smoked salt. I’ve been doing a lot of lamb-shoulder-blade chops because they’re cheap and tasty. And fish is so embarrassingly bad at a dining hall. Everyone knows that. So when people come over, they’re excited to eat fish and seafood.
You must be aware of Flynn McGarry, and all of the attention he’s received. Do you like what he’s doing? How do you want to differentiate yourself?
I can’t really comment on his food because I haven’t eaten it. I don’t know how to say this … that is not the kind of food I want to do. I’m very much inspired by it, and this doesn’t have anything to do directly with him, but I think that super-high-end cuisine sometimes prioritizes going for a specific aesthetic over anything else. You don’t need to have an exquisite experience to eat, taste, and connect with people over food.
I read the Per Se menu every day to see what they made. They post it. Honestly, it doesn’t change very much! I’m interested in that type of food, but I think making excessively fancy food has its limits. I think you can please people just as much, in a much warmer way.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about what it means to "challenge" people with food.
I’m cool with challenging people, but I think it’s challenging to spend time thinking out cheeses that I think are cool, and give everyone a taste of those. Or to make little pickles by myself. I understand that some weird pickle that you’ve never had might be one of the 40 ingredients in one of these fancy plates, but I’d like to be able to explain everything I make in less than ten seconds.
Do you want to go to culinary school?
I really should, because I recognize how presumptuous it is to casually cook and get so much attention, when I have many friends who work insane hours in kitchens honing their skills, and aren’t getting the same recognition. That’s a real shame. But I don’t think I want to go to culinary school. I also don’t know if I’ll want to do this for a career. If I do, I’ll probably just try to get a job in a restaurant I admire, rather than go to culinary school.
It’s interesting that a teen can be nominated for an Oscar, and be a musical prodigy, and everyone’s psyched. But Flynn’s taken so much heat for not "paying his dues" before becoming a chef.
It’s an interesting claim to make. To go back to the distinction between Pith and a restaurant: A restaurant is seen as such a formal interaction between the people making the food and those consuming it. If I were to just start a restaurant, then I would probably need to have a ton of training, and blah, blah, blah. But if it is clearly more of a multi-medium experience, tied to music or art, I think you can escape some of these requirement imposed on the industry — to train for years and years in a kitchen.
I think it does make sense, though. There’s a long history of cooking skills that you need to learn. People’s palates develop as they get older. It’s important to eat tons and tons of different dishes. Cooking just requires a lot of physical practice. Even if you’re inherently skilled, that will only showed up if you’ve done it a bunch of times.
This interview has been edited and condensed.