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One on One: Sandy Ingber

By James Wright
November 01, 2009

Few seafood restaurants can boast the foot traffic of Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant in the heart of New York - about half a million commuters, tourists and locals pass through the historic depot known as Grand Central Terminal daily. The venerable restaurant with the vaulted Guastavino tile ceilings, arched doorways and dimly lit chandeliers is a Big Apple institution, having served half shells and other seafood favorites to guests in its vast dining room for nearly a century.

At the hub of all the bustling activity is Executive Chef Sandy Ingber, who's manned the helm of the restaurant since 1996. Ingber came to the Oyster Bar in 1990 as its chief fish purchaser, but the chef was eventually lured back into kitchen duties despite having carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. He's more of a general than a soldier now, but still finds his way behind the line on a regular basis.

Ingber was born in Baltimore and raised in North Carolina, but he's all New York now. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1977 and has been working in the big city ever since. Inbger's days always begin early: At 4 a.m., he is already at Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, picking out "the freshest fish at the best value." He does this by cultivating relationships with the seafood vendors, a task he lists as his most important.

Ingber, 54, seems to thrive at a fever-pitched pace. During our phone interview in mid-September, he remained in control of the kitchen, which was preparing for a Tuesday lunch rush. "Get me a bouillabaisse bucket please! Why did you take this out of here? Get me two oval platters!" he could be heard in between questions. "This is a hard business," he says toward the end of the conversation. "It's not for everybody."

It's easy to see his point: Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant has 500 seats and serves 1,200 to 1,500 people on an average weeknight and up to 1,000 tables on a Saturday - and these are days with no special promotions, of which there are many throughout the year. Ingber says that the restaurant is truly a family gathering place, as generations upon generations keep coming back for more.

WRIGHT: What's the New York 
dining scene like these days?

INGBER: Only the strong survive and I can only speak for myself, but we have targeted lower-priced items. That seems to be one of the big changes. People are spending similar amounts of money, but they are not buying high-end items. Those types of sales have gone down, like expensive wines, but people are spending similar amounts of money. They are just spending it on lower-end items and more quantity so they feel like they're getting a deal.


Will dining out return 
to previous levels?

I think it will eventually, not right away. Since the beginning of our winter season, things have already dramatically picked up in volume and the higher-end stuff is selling. It's just not an overnight change.


Do people come to the 
restaurant for sightseeing 
as well as for the food?

Absolutely, this is a destination spot. It's wonderful.


It seems everyone has a strong opinion of the place. How do you handle the criticism, good and bad?

Any criticism we get, we do our best to rectify it. This is really a factory. It is what it is. We do our best to try to keep everything fresh and wholesome - that's what we're known for. We like to think of ourselves as the freshest. We take criticism in stride and make changes if they're necessary.


I've seen the restaurant described as a "cafeteria." How do you feel about that description?

We do have some Woolworth tablecloths here. But a buffet line we are not. We move a lot of people in and out. It's quick service. I take it as a compliment. We let the fish speak for itself.


How many oyster varieties do you have on hand at any given time?

Approximately 25 to 35 varieties on a daily basis and between 20 and 30 kinds of fish.


What types of oysters do you prefer?

The East Coasts are the better sellers. I prefer Kumamotos and Belon oysters. There's also a unique Totten Inlet Virginica - it's an East Coast oyster grown on the West Coast. It's got a 
mystique to it - I love the flavor. It's a huge mover here.


What is your 
seafood-sourcing philosophy?

Fresh, seasonal, local. We do quite a bit of international [product], as long as it's fresh. We don't focus much on farmed versus wild. It's whatever's in season.


You include the origins of seafood on the menu or in the title of the dish. Why is this important?

People like to know where their food is from. We've always done that. I don't think that through the '90s people were as aware as they are now. Seafood has become more popular and people are naturally origin-driven. They want to know that they're not getting something they don't want to support. When we get unique items, we want to advertise it that way. We're very much into truth-in-advertising. When people see an oyster comes from a special place, they know they're going to get just that.


Is it better if the seafood has its 
own story? Does that help to sell it?

It's not the only thing, but we try to, on our specials, focus on the seasonal items and rotate the variety of the fish and the specials themselves. There's not really a pattern to it, besides the seasonality.


How many vendors do you use and what do you look for in a vendor?

More than a dozen, I'd say. The most important thing is honesty and reliability. I will always stick by a vendor if they screw up, but too many times and I'll dump them. If someone can save me a dime, I'll give my guy a chance to match the price. I'm a loyal buyer. I believe in relationships and how important they are. I don't want to switch for short gains, because in the long run you're not saving anything.


Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com


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