Cheeky Sandwiches

When I moved into my first apartment in New York – not the university dorms, but a real apartment my sophomore year – it was on East Broadway in Chinatown, and it was tiny, had broken windows, under the Manhattan Bridge with cockroaches crawling over the gas burners at night, and I loved it. Not long after I first moved there my roommate told me about Cheeky Sandwiches, he told me to go down Orchard Street and look for the small white door. I remember the first time I went, it was close to closing time – the end of fall – dressed a bit too light for how cold it was turning. I opened the door and entered, I’ve never looked back.

I’m gonna just stare around for a while. I don’t get outside. I’m always in the shop. So I don’t see outside that much.

Today is the first day it hasn’t been insanely hot.

I don’t mind the heat at all. I don’t like being stuck in the house in the heat with no fresh air coming in, but other than that, I feel more invigorated. But for running now, this is good weather.

Do you run in the city?

I used to, but had to stop, my knees were starting to hurt. The right one always hurt, it didn’t matter, since I was young. Then it just wouldn’t stop. I would start running harder, and get bet- ter, and it got to a point where it wouldn’t hurt while I was running. It would hurt when I did dumb stuff like sit at a restaurant or a movie theater. I’d be in agony. Then I thought, “Alright, let’s just try not to run.” But before I was running everyday, at least a mile a day. I used to run three days a week. One day would be a long day, 20 something miles. Then it just turned into every day, no matter what. I went to Ben and Jerry’s. You know what the Vermonster is?

The big tub?

I ate the whole thing. I had to take some of it with me. I ate a lot of it there. But it was getting late so I had to drive back, I was eating in the damn truck, eating ice cream. When I finally got back, I still had to run, running on a tub of ice cream. [laughs] Oh my God ...

Well I was thinking about this, because I was biking yesterday, we haven’t had a chef ever in our past issues. My dad was a chef, and I think that’s where the artist or creative energy comes from for me. I was curious, where was it in your life when you figured out cooking was the thing that you love and was the thing that made you wake up every morning wanting to go to work?

It’s weird you say it that way ... I liked it when I was young. Did you grow up with Saturday morning cartoons? There’s different age brack- ets. My son never got it. I’m like, “Dude Satur- day was the day.”

My mom said don’t wake me up on Saturday or Sunday, so that meant cartoons in the morning.

My brother and I were the same thing.

You get a big bowl of cereal, and you watch it and mom will wake up when she wakes up.

Exactly, so Saturday morning cartoons. We didn’t have cable growing up. I mean, basic TV, five to eight channels? So you had car- toons, and then after that nothing would come on. But then cooking shows would come on. I forgot his name, he’s this Cajun dude. He had his weird walk, strong accent and he was entertaining. I would just laugh at him while he was cooking. I would watch that and then they had this other show that I liked a lot. It was a proper kitchen. But you didn’t see people. You heard a voice. You heard music, mostly jazz. This voice was soothing, you saw their hands ... they would tell you what they’re gonna make in the beginning. Then they would literally show the whole process, say they’re browning butter and glazing it over quail or something. You saw that whole thing, they didn’t speed through it or anything. So I just sat there and watched it over and over. I would look forward to watching it, and watch more and more. Then came high school, I started doing applications for college. I applied to Johnson and Wales, got a little scholarship and was going to go there. I guess I should have had more mentors or something, but I didn’t realize that was a job, to be a cook. Even though I ate out, not much but you know, McDonald’s and Sizzlers. That was a treat! Give me the steak and shrimp man, I’m surf and turf for tonight! I would just sit there, eat the potato and cut it with a fork and knife. I didn’t realize that cooking was a job ... I guess I was narrow minded in the sense of thinking the only jobs were being a doctor or lawyer or some kind of pharmacist. But funny enough, once I came to New York, then I saw cooks. I was talking to a guy that was actually a chef, but he stopped being a chef to model, and we were talking and I was like, “I always have wanted to work in a kitchen just for fun.” Lo and behold, this boy had this place. I did a trial, and did pretty well.

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What was that place called?

Cafe Lebowitz, and there, I realized that this is fun ... I realized I liked being in the kitchen and in front of the house too. But there, the front of house and back of house were just different worlds. It depended on who the server was in the front, or the bartender. You know, they’ll bring drinks back in the nighttime. I generally would only work on the nights and on Sunday prepping. Depending on who was in the front they’d bring us drinks, and dudes would be drunk, saying turn the music up. But I realized I liked the front house. You could just chat people up, I especially liked the hybrid of the two.

What brought you to New York initially?

Modeling, at first, but then really it was the 2008 crash that changed everything. The funny thing is the modeling stopped for a few months. My brain saw it as life or death.

I mean, most people live month to month.

People tell me that but I don’t know, back in the day I guess someone talked to me in the right way or whatever. I always saved for two years, always wanted to be able to just leave a place. So I never had that month to month thing. After the crash though, I had savings but it start- ed disappearing. So that’s how the shop came about, I was like, “Man, if it keeps going this way, you’re going to have zero dollars and no fun.” Modeling is fun, you know, traveling and seeing things.

Modeling brought you here?

That’s the only thing that brought me here, I came here on vacation and got scouted, and by that I said, “Alright, eff it. Let’s just do a year.”

How was that first year?

First year modeling and the first year of New York are two different things.

How about the first year of modeling?

Modeling was cool, because New York was new to me. I didn’t know anybody. Modeling was this little niche, all the models kind of knew each other, it was a little club. But that was the first time in my life where I could wake up whenever I wanted. Truthfully, New York was like a drug, I mean it still is sort of. I would just walk around, New Orleans likes to think they’re open late, and they are food wise, but New York is a whole ‘nother thing.

Here there will just always be someone wherever you are who will keep going out later than you.

Only difference now is that back then Soho looked like it shut down at night, but if you knew what building to go into it was not shut down. I had friends that had real jobs. But I could never talk about my job, because it sounded like I was boasting. I used to travel for work a lot and I’d get “Oh, you’re going to Jamaica?”

“Must be nice!” It’s funny to hear you say you wouldn’t talk about your job to friends, that you kept those worlds separate because at Cheeky’s it’s not that way at all.

At the beginning, I would never talk about the shop when I wasn’t in the shop. My friends knew, but I saw it as work life and separate life. That’s how modeling was, but now it’s so intertwined.