Culinary Craftmanship

Meet the Women Behind The Musket Room and their latest outpost, Raf’s

On a quiet stretch of New York City’s otherwise lively Nolita neighborhood is The Musket Room, a rustic, yet elegant local haunt that has become revered for its exciting and creative approach. First opened in 2013 with a sophisticated, albeit slightly niche, menu devoted to New Zealand cuisine, The Musket Room experienced a distinct rebirth under the leadership of chef Mary Attea, who took the helm in early 2020, just mere weeks before the onset of the global pandemic. Together with pastry chef Camari Mick, Attea has reimagined The Musket Room as a culinary melting pot that effortlessly draws from a myriad of global influences in an indiscernible and uncontrived manner.

Armed with an all-female ownership and leadership team, the restaurant’s tectonic shift has resulted in its 10th Michelin star in nine years, a James Beard nomination for Best Chef for Attea, and one for Outstanding Pastry Chef for Mick, a place on the New York Times’ 2022 list of best restaurants in America as well as an array of rave reviews. A newly opened sister outpost, Raf’s, exudes the same sense of culinary craftsmanship and creativity. Situated within a historic bakery just one street away, Raf’s serves coffee, pastries and viennoiserie by day and a full dinner menu by night. From wood-fired must-haves like roasted chicken with pan bread, salsa verde and fennel to spaghetti with tuna bottarga and chilies, as well as and refined takes on Caramelized White Chocolate Budino and Italian Chocolate Torte, Raf’s is the perfect complement to The Musket Room’s almost too beautiful to eat, fine-dining leaning fare.

Here, we sit down with The Musket Room’s owner, Jennifer Vitagliano, and chefs Attea and Mick to distill the secrets of their success, and why encouraging change and innovation is always a good thing.

Q: What was the founding concept behind The Musket Room, and how has that evolved over the last decade?

Jennifer: The Musket Room was originally focused on the cuisine of New Zealand when we opened in 2013, but Chef Mary Attea and Pastry Chef Camari Mick came on board in 2020 and completely reimagined the menus and overall theme. We’re now globally influenced, with inspiration drawn from the chefs’ backgrounds and what’s seasonal. The team we’ve assembled at this point inspires me every day and I’m just proud to work with them.

Q: How have you witnessed dining in New York changing throughout the restaurant's lifetime?

Jennifer: For us, fine dining has become something more casual and more inclusive. Whereas it used to be reserved for special occasions, we’ve been able to foster more and more regulars who dine with us several times per month, whether at the bar, a la carte dining or tasting menu.

Q: What guides the menu development at The Musket Room?

Mary: Mainly whatever is inspiring me at the moment and what’s seasonal. When I get an idea I try to run with it until it works, but I’m not afraid to discard something that just isn’t panning out. It’s a lot of trial and error and leading with my gut.

Camari: I truly try to keep it seasonal, starting with an ingredient I build from there, asking myself what pairs well with it, and why. Working with Mary to make sure the flow of the menu makes sense. When creating a dish in itself, I want to know how it makes me feel, and how will it make the guest feel. I think desserts can be pretty nostalgic for people, and I like to take advantage of that by using techniques that can bring back a childhood memory, like the Dippin’ Dots on my Spring Pea dessert last year.

Q: Tell us about the thinking behind Raf's.

Jennifer: Raf’s came about at a time when we were winding down our “MR All Day” pandemic concept that was created to reintroduce The Musket Room as a neighborhood restaurant in 2020. While we were focused on re-introducing indoor dining, the opportunity to expand our operations in a historic space on the block was something that made sense to pursue, especially at a time when it was critical to create new revenue streams and new opportunities for our employees. The concept is derived from the history of the famed 100 year old bakery that we inherited - an Italian & French bakery.

Q: How do you see this new opening complementing The Musket Room?

Camari: Having an all-day cafe down the road from The Musket Room allows guests to explore multiple cuisines on Elizabeth Street. Raf’s will have such a rich history not only within its walls but within the menu as well. We hope that with less restrictions on menu format, the guests will romanticize their dining experience in the perfectly sculpted dining room while gazing upon chefs tinkering with the wood-fired oven.

Q: What do you think continues to set The Musket Room apart?

Mary: My first experience with a humanely run kitchen was working at Annisa, and I try to emulate that as much as I can at The Musket Room. We operate in a really unique space between the rigorous demands of running a fine dining restaurant, and the desire to affect change in the industry by avoiding a toxic workplace.

Camari: I think what continues to set us apart is that we move with empathy and lead with integrity. Our team continues to grow in a healthy and welcoming environment. We continue pushing ourselves and the team to everyone’s potential and personal career goals.

Q: How would you describe working with an all-female team? How is that different from your past work environments?

Mary: We never want to make it all about the fact that we’re a female-led team; we’re hard-working chefs aiming for an outstanding guest experience before anything. But it does so happen that women run the place, and we have this incredible chemistry and respect for each other that translates into a unique work environment and a safe space for creativity and excellence together.

Camari: It’s truly a new and incredible experience; this is my first restaurant experience working in such an environment. The women on this team are masters at fluidity, seeing how we were able to adapt to every new regulation of the COVID protocol quickly without losing a sense of thoughtfulness.

Q: What is the one thing you will always recommend guests to order at The Musket Room and why?

Mary: Because we mainly offer our tasting menus (one vegan and one omnivore) I recommend that guests get one of each so they can try the full spectrum of what we offer.

Writer: Pei-Ru Keh