On a perpetual journey to discover all the weird and wonders the world has to offer, Will Goldfarb’s Room 4 Dessert evokes a kind of dreamlike nostalgia. We sat with him there —space dimly lit and quiet at prep time only to set the tone of the interview — on lush velvet chesterfields underneath huge disc-shaped windows and a frieze of smiling children peeking down from the ceiling towards us. Goldfarb sat with Jasmine Kusuma, Kanoko Takaya and Tammy Volpe to discuss the past and future of the industry he’s been such a fixture of for so many years.
Alright. You’re a New Yorker. You had plans to go to law school then decided to go to Paris instead for culinary school. What incited that leap?
Well, I wanted to take a break from law school. I wanted a break very naturally and decided to defer my admission for one year. At the time I was working in restaurants and cooking very little — mostly front of the house. I was reading cookbooks at home and was working at better and better restaurants throughout the years and learning more and more about food. I was buying more and more cookbooks and working in better and better places and ended up working in the kitchen so it felt very natural for me to cook. Since I didn’t have a lot of experience, Paris made sense. I took a pastry class initially to have an excuse for a break and for the fact that it was more challenging than savoury cooking. I started in a kitchen working as an apprentice for a pastry chef, but basically I went because I wanted to kill time for a year. The pastry class I signed up for was three weeks — it wasn’t a big contribution — but it was ironic of being young. In Paris, I started taking French classes during the day and pastry class during the night. I got to Paris in the summer and a few weeks later a friend of my family introduced me to a chef so I was able to start cooking in the kitchen pretty quickly. The work wasn’t like 24 hours a day, but it was close to it. I was young, I was running around and Paris was super cheap back then.
What’s your earliest memory of loving being in the kitchen?
In the kitchen or working?
Just liking being in the kitchen, essentially.
I’ve always liked being in the kitchen.
Even as a kid?
Yeah, but as a kid I didn’t start working in the kitchen. I started in service. That has always been my passion. Hospitality. Front of the house. That was the spark — not cooking at all.
That’s quite rare for a chef, no?
I don’t know. I’d like to think that everyone does every position. I like to work every position from dishwasher to… that’s what I did here, that’s what I did at our place in New York. I’ve worked pretty much every job; I used to valet for country clubs.
How did you come up with the idea for Room 4 Dessert? It’s left-field.
There’s a lot of ground between getting to Paris and making Room 4 Dessert. I think a lot of it came from working for great pastry chefs in Paris and sticking to pastries for that year. Those years were like heavy, heavy pastry. I also didn’t plan on getting into pastry but in 1999 I worked for a great pastry chef in Spain which encouraged me to focus on that. And it also presented pastry as the driving force for the restaurant. I came back [to New York] and started working in pastry and there didn’t seem to be any opportunity for pastry.
Just in New York or all over the States?
Anywhere. Once you finish pastry school, you don’t get a chance to open your own restaurant. It never happened. So the idea of having your own restaurant as a pastry chef, to me, was very important because there was no other way to be entrepreneurial and I have always been really interested in not just cooking but also on the business.
You got into pastry because you thought it was a challenge. Have you always been this driven?
I’ve always been motivated to do something that is challenging; that is going to hold my interest. I’m easily distracted, like a child. I think working in Spain for the chef that I worked for was really eye-opening in terms of technique and, like your question before, doing something really contemporary and cutting-edge was really formative and important to what I was doing. I think a combination of looking for a challenge, my experience all over Europe and working with adventurous chefs mixed with traditional chefs — particularly in France — then looking for my opportunity. There wasn’t going to be another way. That was what led me to open my own place.
What brought you to Bali? The first Room 4 Dessert was opened in New York and you transplanted the whole thing to Bali.
My wife wanted to move here. Simple as that.
How was the process of moving your entire restaurant here? Was it difficult?
At the time, I was quite sick so it was a bit challenging in that way. But the move to Bali was okay, but it took a long time to get the time and space to do the restaurant. The back of the restaurant now, it used to be where my wife and I lived. In terms of staff, our team is trained really well. We always say here that there’s no talent gap, only access gap. Our staff are all young Indonesians — mostly Balinese. I mean only one of them is older than 25, I think. In our entire management team, they’re all 24 and under. They’ve been here from opening so they started when they were teenagers — 6 or 7 years ago. They’re 3/4 women and all locals.
Cool. So your way was to train them along the way?
Yes, most of their first job is here. I think there’s plenty of talent here. We are committed to training people here because we want things to be done a certain way and sometimes that’s easier and sometimes that’s harder, but it’s pretty constant. It’s hard. It’s hard because we’re not a staff of 5 — we have 40 people running around. Our girls are super chill. If you go for a tasting menu, it’s like they’re on holiday. That doesn’t mean not caring but they do go with the flow. They put out a ton of really good looking food every night. We work really hard during the day so when we lift the curtain, it’s like a show, right? We do the work during the day so we can enjoy the show during the night. All the organisations and the system — you don’t run around giving people a hard time in the restaurant — it’s very boring, but at the same time you want everyone to have that kind of focus when they walk in the door. I think our staff manage themselves quite well, but from time to time my blood goes up but that means I’m still alive.
When you first started working in the industry, was it hard for you to find your footing?
Honestly, I have always been kind of pushing or persistent — whatever is the nicer way of saying it.
I don’t know. Let’s just say that I didn’t take no for an answer very easily. Still no, actually. I’m just older and more tired so it becomes cranky [laughs]. When I first started working in restaurants and hotels, I was 14 and parking cars in the summer — like golf caddy — I was bartending since I was 15 or 16; I was hosting from maybe 18 and then cooking at 21. I used to have a CV and no one
had that to be a busboy — especially not 25 years ago, but I liked to have a CV to go. By the time I finished college, I was just working at restaurants. I wasn’t really going to class at all, I had 3 jobs my senior year of school and I was taking 10 hours a week of class. My routine was that I would write 40 pages on Sunday night — I had all independent studies so I would do my research on that one night — and submit it on Monday. I lived with a bunch of guys and it was all kind of… I don’t want to say crazy fraternity life, but mostly I was just working. I was working in restaurants all day long. I worked at a steakhouse, tending bars and making martinis, driving drunk people home in a really ugly green Cadillac with a vest and really ugly uniform. I had almost all of the shitty jobs out there. I jumped in the kitchen and almost sliced my hand off trying to make soup for someone. My first job I worked for a restaurant down the street from my house. I worked as a busboy and I went in there dressed in baggy jeans and Doc Martens and the guy threw me out and said, “Come back when you’re dressed like a normal person that wants to work here.” That was just down the street from my house, but that was a great learning curve for me. It became a kind of chain: he introduced me to another person who would introduce me to another person and so on. That guy got me a job for the next summer working at a fancier place. I was always hungry for something. Very passionate and persistent. I still hope those are what come through when I can be — I don’t think I’m challenging very often, maybe once a week, but like I hope when that energy comes through… I think for our team, especially those who have been here a long time, they know that I can be difficult when it comes to work. As a person, I’m very generous and we have a nice balance here. We’re big on helping people to perform.
Would you say that work is your personal passion then?
In terms of personal passion, I mean, yeah, I went to school as far away from home as possible. And immediately I began working even before school started. As soon as school was over, I went as far away as I could to Paris and got a place and had a job in a week. I had my rent paid already from the first week. I didn’t pay for my own tuition in college, but even then I paid for my own rent.
So you’ve always been very structured?
In my own way I have always been oddly consistent. I like to work. I really do. I really enjoy to be here. I get a lot of satisfaction from being here. Right now, I’m not a player — I’m the coach. That’s the best way I can say it. We have an amazing team here and I get a lot of satisfaction from their performance here, but also sending them all over the world.
Let’s talk about the menu. How do you pick a theme for each tasting menu?
We change our menu twice a year. We always work together with the team. Our menu has 21 dishes that’s built around 21 plants which we grow ourselves, of course. We grow them a year before when we have the idea then we start cooking about 6 months before the unveiling. We get our ideas all over. We are pretty structured. I’ve always said: You can teach the creative process, but you can’t teach a moment of magic or inspiration. You can teach people how to make new things, but you can’t teach them that one moment of discovery — that’s still the magic, right? I try to carve out space and time to encourage the staff to explore as many dishes as they can. For instance, the current menu being served right now is centred around Balinese spells. One of our staff’s family is religious and they translated a book of Ancient Balinese spells. We reviewed the treatments — mostly for children who are sick and how to get them healthy — we reviewed all the recipes, they’re spells but we call them recipes because we’re not able to do the magic because we’re not mangkus. So all of those in essence are basically flavours: they’re ingredients. Cardamom or whatever medicinal plants. We built 21 flavour combinations from the ingredient of each spell and we built the dish from that. That takes time, each dish was built by different departments. The snack station does the snack; the dessert station does the dessert; the petit- four station does the petit-four. We don’t have a centralised R&D — it’s diffused through all the staff — it’s very difficult and inefficient but better since everyone learns more. It’s not like someone comes in and says: here’s the menu. We don’t like that at all.
What’s the next menu about?
For the new menu that comes out in January, it’s called Poubelle Cuisine which is based on the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 50s-60s-70s in France to make the the food lighter which is a big inspiration for the last half a decade of cooking. The past 50 years of cooking has been heavily introduced by that. It’s like pre Instagram so none of our staff is familiar with it [laughs]. You know, everyone has a short memory now. Most of these chefs are pre internet and not just pre social media. I mean, I’m pre both. We didn’t even have email when I was going through college.
So you had to go through all the physical cookbooks?
Or go to the place. If you wanted to know what was going on in Spain, you had to actually go to Spain. You couldn’t look or click. I’m not saying one is better than the other — that’s a very old man thing to say, but they’re definitely different. It’s not the same thing to experience it on your phone. Again, I’m not saying better or worse; I read a great article by Walter Benjamin, it’s about moving image and what he said basically was: now there is photograph it’s going to destroy all art. Right? Because you can’t experience the sculpture in 3D in photo. That’s 100 years ago and he said exactly the same thing that we are saying about Instagram now.
The experience of seeing something in real life and seeing it through a minute screen is completely different still though.
But imagine, 100 years ago they said that about a still photo which they still had to hold and 100 years before I’m sure they said well if you didn’t carve it out of a rock… You know imagine the first painting, they would say, Well it’s not like the real thing. It’s all about representation. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I find the value in social media even though it’s not in my generation. For me, personally, it was valuable to actually go.
To experience it yourself.
And to be honest, I think that’s missing in the youth that I see now are learning to do what we do. I find it difficult to understand how they can do it without going. How can they really experience it without… for a painting at least the picture is representative, right?
Yeah — when it comes to food you have to taste it, I think.
I think so.
[Laughs] I reckon that’s the most important gift of food. The flavours.
To see it, smell it, feel it. Like all of those things. For me, that’s a challenge. My daughter just turned 17. I don’t know her generation, for example when I see [Jasmine’s iPhone], it really throws me off. Like you saw. When I see this, this is the attention as opposed to the conversation. Like we almost have no video in the restaurant at all — even for the guests. We make sure no one is on. Everyone likes to photograph, and that’s fine. We won’t stand in the way of that. But once you pick that up, it’s like a drug. You can’t put it down. Regardless of whether it’s in your pocket or on the table.
You know it’s there.
You know it’s there. Yeah. It’s so distracting. We actually have to eliminate all phones from pre service a few weeks ago because when it’s there — the funny thing is, it was exactly like what you were doing: taking notes. That’s what it’s for, right? Young people use their computer to take notes. It’s not like I’m such a dinosaur that I didn’t know that, but then all you see when you look around the room is the parting of their hair. No eye contact.
No connection, basically.
That’s right. Well what if you have a note, and then you think of something then you press a button and well, it’s there. Its like drugs. It has the same reaction to you as a drug.
I agree. Escapism.
Without getting into the boring science of it, social media has a very stimulating effect and it’s very distracting. And you know you have this thing there and maybe we were going to talk about this leaf yet I can already look at something else and it takes you out of the moment. I don’t know how to get that back. I talked to my daughter, she had to choose to kind of just go offline because it’s so dominant. I didn’t grow up with that. I know this isn’t the main subject of what we were talking about but in the context of when I got into food, we didn’t have this major distraction. Even me, I’m like a drug addict when I’m scrolling through the phone. I can just sit there and scroll even when nothing happens. I didn’t have email until after college; there was no such thing as social media when I worked at my first restaurant. There was just print media and the newest thing was blogging. No Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. It has changed a lot, but at least there’s this new thing like online journalism. But you had to be there and experience it — this new technology makes knowledge more hard to achieve.
It’s funny because everything is online now so information is more accessible to many people, but at the same time you get distracted by all the excess crap.
I think it’s a big distraction. I think it’s hard to maintain attention span.
It is. Now you don’t see a lot of people reading physical books anymore because they can’t sit still and read without glancing at their phone every other minute.
Or sit still without jumping around and fixing something. I have the same problem. I am a late addict for this but it effects the way I behave before I get to work. It takes a minute for me to settle down, have a tea and just be. That didn’t use to be a challenge. To sit down and talk to someone used to be normal. Now it’s a very different experience and I think that really effected the way young people can learn about food.
Where do you think is the restaurant industry is heading towards in a few years time? A lot of restaurants are already going plant-based or slowly transitioning. For example, Eleven Madison Park’s fully going plant-based.
Yeah, they are. I talked to Daniel [Humm] a few weeks ago. Look, he’s a great chef. That was our neighbourhood place actually when he took over. We lived right down the street at Irving Place so we used to walk and sit at the bar every night when he first took over. Originally it was a big brasserie. He slowly converted into this fine dining temple and I’ve had some amazing meals there. And then he went plant-based. He has a lot integrity, and it’s really important for him. If he says something, he will do it and I think he’s an iconic guy so it’s impactful to be plant-based. The two things I will say — I mean there are many things going on in the world of food — but let’s say for plant-based food: you will see more and more and more. I’ve said it for years that I think all pastries will be plant-based in a few years because I mean there’s not going to be enough cows for the amount of people. If you didn’t choose it, it will choose itself. You won’t have a choice to be plant-based in 30 years. Personally, I don’t have a problem with eating animals if I know how they are grown. In terms of plant-based: there’s no option. You don’t have to wonder where that will go. There is no question about that. That is not up for debate. That’s a sure thing. I think what you’re seeing now, which I’m not a big fan of what’s going to dominate in the future, is this alternative meat. There is this huge production of plant-based meat, which I think is just as bad for the environment frankly because it’s the same products being grown there’s a lot of evidence that says it’s just as bad for the environment.
Yes because of monoculture.
That’s right. But it’s getting people of meat so at least they’re used to an alternative already. So if you can eat a plant-based steak, you can drink a non-dairy milk and all of the sudden you can cut this huge consumption. I think dairy is going to go; I don’t think there’s any choice, really. I don’t think it’s an opinion. I think there’s just going to be too many people.
Any last words about your place in this industry?
I think my generation of chefs is already dead. We are dinosaurs. The idea of going to a fancy place and to have a conversation with a chef, it’s kind of dead. Maybe it’s not dead, yet. It’s a slow march towards the cemetery; it’s still kicking a little bit. Right now it’s all about the youth. Without getting into the politics side of things, we’re going to see a lot of young women, whom previously didn’t get a lot of opportunities, that are going to dominate the food scene for the next decades to come. Not only because of the talent, but because there was just less opportunity before.
The restaurant industry was and still is male dominated. The door was kind of closed before.
I think it was and now it’s opening, in some parts of the world. But I think for sure you’ll see like [Room 4 Dessert] you have to traverse the whole world to come here, right? People now don’t want to come to the world; they want the world to come to them. We’re not an Amazon-able experience to be delivered to your door. As much as I am neutral to it, I’m a dinosaur — my species is going extinct. That’s okay. The future will be run by young people with different ideas than me, who grew up in a different way, they look different than me, from a different background, getting the same opportunities as I did that they didn’t have when I was their age. You will start seeing from all over the world this massive decentralisation which you are seeing already. Now everyone knows who the best chef in Lima, Peru is. Who the best chef in Bangkok is. Who the best chef in St. Petersburg is. I’m going to Dubai with 50 Best to launch their regional Middle East and Africa which will be for the first time. Now, all of the sudden, everyone will know who the best female chef in Algeria is — you know, all these great chefs from Morocco and Ghana that didn’t get their much deserved attention before. I think that’s a very good thing.
Yeah, the industry’s expanding.
I mean, for me, to be obsolete means I did my job, right? That’s the way we look at it here. With the team, if they’re operating at a higher level without me — which I think they are — then I’m a success. I left it better for them than when they had first found it. How we work with our team and our community is we are trying to give way for a 20 year old to start their own business, feed the hungry, runs sustainable projects and also serve people in a great way. Again: it’s a dying art to have this kind of service where people really care about you. I won’t worry about the world but just these walls for the 40 people that are here, if they have more opportunity when I leave than when I arrived then that’s a good contribution. I would feel happy with that.
How do you keep your curiosity alive after all these years?
I don’t know. I’ve always been a nerdy student. There are two ways to look at it. I talk to my wife when we’re about to do a big change here. I mean, a big change is risky but sitting still is just as risky. I’m more in the moving forward rather than sitting still. I like to work. I like the energy. It makes me feel… well, less young than I used to, but it still makes me feel young. I want to know more as much as I can. I’m fascinated by every possible subject and I really enjoy learning about things and trying to be humble about it and being respectful about where ideas come from which is another challenge in this kind of age where if you screenshot something, it becomes yours. We talk a lot about the providence of ideas and where things originate from and being honest. Being creative is not copying. When you’re not copying that means you have to be original, right? But being original doesn’t mean leaving history behind; it just means acknowledging your sources and presenting it your way. Our new menu is very clear: here’s the original dish, here’s our sketch and here’s the final dish. Everything about that I love. The best thing I can say is the fact that I’ve paid to be here, especially the last two years, in the best way. When people ask, “What would you do for free?” This is what I love to do — it is what I have loved to do for more than 30 years. I like listening to music; I like watching movies; I like reading books and if you do those 3 things, it’s hard not to be inspired. We talk a lot about it with our staff: if it’s as hard as you can imagine then if you’re lucky still in 30 years, it will be harder.
I’m just as fresh and enthusiastic as I was when I was 14, but that requires reinvention the minute you wake up. Yet at this point, we are referencing ideas that we had 20 years ago — even in our book, the dishes are from 1999 to 2018 and they’re all dated. I didn’t expect to have a second chance and we’ve had a few good years — I’ve been in this business for 30 years — our good years were 2006 and 2018. I’m really happy and humbled to be here. I just try to show up everyday and put in the same amount of intensity to keep the opportunity alive. That’s the spirit I try to transmit to everybody here. It’s like there’s intense passion curiosity for what we do, but what comes with the downside of intensity is that from time to time we don’t know how to interact. I don’t know how to interact with people without that intensity. Otherwise I would prefer to stay home and watch some Spanish series on Netflix.
Alright. Last question then you’re free to go. What is your favourite place in Ubud?
Pica. For Sure. I love Chris [Encina]’s place. The food is super simple. It’s a neighbourhood place and it’s really easy to enjoy. Menu’s always stable — the cooking is fantastic — whether he’s there or not doesn’t matter. It’s like being at his house.