In The Kitchen With Liza

The spirit of 10,000 grandmothers must live in Liza Queen’s heart.

You can spot their movements—the abuelita pressing tortillas, the grammy rolling out real biscuits, the nonna mincing basil—as Queen moves around her teeny but tidy Greenpoint kitchen, hair pinned up behind her head. They’re there when she spreads butter onto slices of honey corn bread; when she flips thick, bubbling bacon in a seasoned skillet on the cranky gas stove; and when she wipes her brow and washes down her waist-length workspace before laying out fresh, fragile greens.

Queen’s no octogenarian. She’s spunky and tattooed, barely 30, and this aptly named eatery is indeed her hideaway, a narrow little four-year-old restaurant hidden on a quiet, decidedly unfabulous block of Franklin Street, just before it reaches out for the northern Brooklyn waterfront.

Her path to restaurateurship is hardly common. Sure, she’s got the technical skills with a 12-inch knife, the broad-legged stance at the stove and a skinny cheflike toughness, complete with tattered jeans, tight tees and an undergrad degree from Oberlin. But she’s also got the ingrained motions of a self-taught cook propelled by love and schooled not by formal culinary training but by decades (well, two anyway) of just cooking—at home and in professional kitchens. Her two big influences are her folks: her Syracuse-based mom (“a very sophisticated cook,” says Queen), and her Pop, now 81 years old and up in Vermont. He made, she grins, “pancakes, steaks, good Pop food.”

The result of that mish-mosh education is a style uniquely Queen. “I’m glad that nobody ever told me there was a formula for mirepoix, that nobody ever told me how to make a stock,” she says. “I like my stock.” So do we.

Queen’s Hideaway is her first kitchen, launched with money saved from a long-ago car accident. Her first cooking job? Curly fries and salt potatoes at age 13. “My best friend’s parents had a stand at the state fair,” she laughs. “I would fill up a fucking five-gallon barrel.” But she gained most of her culinary chops in Portland, Oregon, where she spent nearly a decade, on and off. There, between good bands and good beer, there’s great food, even at little southern-style diners like the Delta, whose honey-spiked corn bread recipe Queen still uses. Alongside others she wants to keep, it’s tucked into a weathered leather notebook in a bookshelf built over a tiny sink in the Hideaway, near the turntable and the bottles of beer and wine stored almost like an afterthought. Those keepsake recipes are now wrinkled and worn from a dip in hot pork fat. “Nobody can read them but me,” she shrugs, fingering the waxy pages, nearly translucent in the restaurant’s pale light.

Even so, the book speaks volumes about the Hideaway’s unpretentious cooking: down-home Sunday dinners, five nights a week. Queen calls it peasant food, or early American cooking, by which she means the rustic, homemade dishes our grandmothers brought with them from around the world: Dutch pancakes, pierogies and dumplings, slow-cooked meats and plenty of fresh, fresh veggies, sauerkrauts and pickles, hush puppies, red sauces that simmer slowly, fishes and game and meats fried, poached, grilled and roasted. Desserts are homey-simple, like perfect pie or strawberries with shortbread and buttermilk.

“Does it call for a teacup full of bourbon and a knob of butter?” asks Queen, layering buttered corn bread and mustard greens for a custardy panade in front of the old fireplace mantel that lines her kitchen. “I’ll probably love it.”

That doesn’t mean Queen’s Hideaway is a simple kitchen, even though it’s just a sliver as long as it is tall. Those dishes are its starting points. If you ask Queen to describe her menu, the real answer has always been, “hmmm, what do I want to eat?”

For a while, that meant smoked meats: Early on, Queen’s specialties were tender, pink-ringed pork ribs, but neighbors—a Cuban and a Pole, no less—complained, and the backyard smoker retired years ago. Still the menu at Queen’s Hideaway’s—sweetly hand-jotted, and photocopied daily—is market driven, culled from what’s bursting at the Greenmarket. Queen builds layers on a plate—salads have tangles of herbs, radishes and bacon; a slow-cooked pile of ribs comes with cooked-down fruit compote, a cold zucchini-rice salad, turnips braised sweet and black, a bit of something crunchy hidden under the last few forkfuls; beer-battered soft-shell crab nuzzles up to raw radishes and those buttery signature Syracuse-style salt potatoes.

She doesn’t pay more than $6.50 a pound for protein, so long-cooking cuts, eggs, innards, fish like pollock and plenty of bacon have to carry the carnivore’s load.

It’s all served on mismatched plates, with mismatched cutlery in a long mismatched dining room with speckled walls, a crudely cool paint job, a clutter of tables (three short, one long) and the best bathroom on earth, wallpapered with heartbreakingly sad-funny art comics. Queen defines the overall style as “nothing much really—scruffy.” That’s because with the help of friends and family, she did the floors, the kitchen window and the walls. It’s like you’re eating not in Queen’s restaurant, but in her home.

Really. Queen lives right next door, that’s how she came to rent the space. The garden—all pink cement blocks and yellow metal walls, plastic chairs and real flowers, thanks to Queen and her sister—is her garden too. Not that she’s out there much to use it. Wednesdays through Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., when she doesn’t hit the Greenmarket first, she’s in front of her six-burner stove prepping with right hand Kevin Avery, her seasoned cast-iron skillets and a mix of sauté pans on the homey peg board behind her. “You know what I do on Monday, I sleep,” laughs Queen, whose frenetic nature and absolute love of what she does belies her exhaustion. “Tuesday is business day. Accounting, go to the bank. There’s always so much stuff to deal with.”

“I find myself giving these speeches,” says Queen, referring to why new culinary school grads don’t last in her kitchen when they realize they don’t get to lead. “Cooking is peeling and chopping onions and scrubbing a bunch of potatoes,” she explains, while happily peeling and chopping onions and scrubbing a bunch of potatoes. “You can’t learn to chop by taking a class. You can learn the sound of the way something’s done when you’ve done it 10,000 times.”

Rest assured, grandmas everywhere would approve.

Liza’s Salt Potatoes:
“My first job was making salt potatoes at the state fair. They’re the easiest things in the universe. Take a bunch of whole potatoes, ideally German Butterballs, and throw ‘em in a pot with enough cold water to cover by a few inches. Then pour in kosher salt until the potatoes float. In the restaurant we do a big batch so we pour a whole box of kosher salt in. At home you might use half a box. It’s more salt than you think you should use, but trust me, just keep pouring and stirring. When the potatoes float, you’ve added enough salt. The water will be saltier than the sea. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. When they’re fork tender, about 12-15 minutes, drain them and throw on a pat of butter. They’re the full-on Syracuse State Fair staple. Now all you need is an ear of corn and a steak and you have my favorite summer meal of all time.”

Editor’s note: As of December 2008, Queen’s Hideaway is closed.