At the Table / The Crucible
Clockwise from top left: David Roque, Manuel Ocasio, and Frederick Polone
Name: David Roque
Job: Cook at Marble + Rye
Years in the business: 6 or 7?
Formal education: Attended Rutgers U
Name: Manuel Ocasio
Current job: Cook at The Black Sheep
Years in the business: 3
Name: Frederick Polone
Current job: Assistant distiller and brand ambassador for Tommyrotter Distillery
Years in the business: 4
Formal education: Court of Master Sommeliers Level I
An invitation to join The Crucible for its second pop-up dining event might have gone largely unread had I not been struck by the pleasantly verbose introduction penned by its sender, Fred Polone. I’d never met Fred, never even heard of him, which is saying something given the insularity of Buffalo’s food scene. Polone and two young cooks, David Roque of Marble + Rye and Manuel Ocasio of The Black Sheep, had assembled to deliver Buffalo a series of pop-ups exhibiting their collective culinary point of view.
The meal and wine pairings were just great, with only some small and nit-picky missteps. From concept to execution, the experience was easily on par with those offered at chef-run restaurants in the area. Given the team’s age and experience, that is no small feat. A third meal followed some months later, and with more scheduled in the upcoming year, fans of good food and drink are strongly advised to seek out The Crucible themselves.
Find The Crucible and updates from the team on Facebook under The Crucible Buffalo.
What was your first job in the industry?
David Roque: I worked in the kitchen in my dining hall at Rutgers. That stunk. I was eighteen.
Fred Polone: At nineteen, I worked one day as a dishwasher at a place in Union Square. I was promptly promoted to host after a slip and fall accident involving a stack of plates ended with thirteen stitches.
Manny Ocasio: I worked as a dishwasher at Aroma on Main in Williamsville. I was fifteen.
You guys all come from such different walks of life. Fred is a wine nerd from Brooklyn, David is an English major, Manny is a restaurant lifer—how do you know one another?
DR: Fred and I met through a mutual buddy, a real wine connoisseur. Manny and I met at his first job, Aroma on Main in Williamsville, where I was sous chef at the time.
What made you decide to come together and become The Crucible?
DR: I’d say it was to assert some agency on the area’s food scene without having our efforts be absorbed within the settings of our jobs.
MO: I think the first night I met Fred and learned how passionate he was about wine, we talked about collaborating. Dave and I saw it as a way to get out of our day-to-day cooking routine and do something that was our own.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with orchestrating these elaborate one-night-only multicourse meals?
FP: Maintaining a constant eye on the whole picture, beyond just the elements that get me excited. It’s easy to get caught up in the construction of a single dish and forget that social media accounts need to be updated, invitations need to formatted, and glassware needs to be rented, etc. My respect for all that executive chefs, managers, and sommeliers do has grown exponentially, because there is just so much that is unseen.
DR: Being at the behest of the seasons means needing to adapt and develop contingency plans for crops that don’t appear or aren’t available in the abundance we’ve anticipated. Organizing times to sit down and work is rough because we all have pretty gnarly schedules, but we meet as often as we can. In the weeks before an event, it is sometimes daily, and that becomes demanding.
What do you do to prepare for one of these events? Do you guys have a staff meal or play music that gets you in the mindset for the big push the day of?
FP: In the beginning we would work for forty-eight hours straight up until dinner, but now we make a point to have a solid night's sleep before.
Your favorite dish and/or pairing featured at a Crucible dinner so far?
MO: In our third dinner, we poured water tableside that mixed with a hidden duck bouillon to create instant soup.
DR: The Goat en Crepinette paired with Tannat from our third dinner was a real banger in my book. I was also a big fan of The Friendship Bracelet from the second dinner, a sort of take on gazpacho/panzanella. We used so much great local produce at a time when it couldn’t have been more relevant. I really loved that dish.
FP: The Goat en Crepinette with a Uruguayan Tannat was unreal. We knew the dish would be supple and the wine would support it, but it was a slam dunk. Sometimes the food just wants to be good and the wine just wants to be perfect, and we can’t take any credit.
Do you as individuals have a specific culinary point of view or philosophy?
DR: My views are not specific to me. I’d say that you should be informed by ingredients and allow yourself to explore the limitations of every single thing you cook with. Learn how to make a timid, weak ingredient feral, vital. Learn how to tame beastly ingredients. And know when to do neither. When people say, "Let the ingredients speak for themselves," that’s fine when they’re likely bedfellows, but when you’re mixing foreign, somewhat disparate flavors, you can’t have them all talking over one another.
MO: At the end of the day, food just needs to taste good, but I want to challenge myself and make something that is thoughtful and a little out there taste good.
FP: If you want it to count, make sure it’s good—good food, good wine, good friends.
For you, as individuals, what is the most rewarding aspect of this venture?
MO: Creating a dish that you’ve never seen done before and watching it make people happy.
DR: Seeing the food you’d envisioned coming together piece by piece is pretty thrilling. We have a lot of helping hands, so to witness these parts and, ultimately, the whole materialize through this synergistic effort will always be a huge takeaway for me.
FP: Seeing the moment when it all clicks for the people that come to a dinner—the moment a wife stops listening to her husband’s bad joke because she has to toss her head back and say “Oh, my god this is delicious.” That justifies that one hundred or more hours Manny, Dave, and I spend working on every plate and pairing.
Christa Glennie Seychew loves a good wine-pairing dinner, but will settle for good wine and no dinner if a choice must be made.