Tutto Fa Brodo: Gerardo Gonzalez on "Into an Isle"

The chef and artist's experimental amaros highlight an abundance of flavors hidden in plain sight

The term terroir gets thrown around a lot these days, with farmers and consumers waxing poetic about the land that lies beneath everything, from grapes and tea leaves to cocoa beans and grass-fed wagyu. Many are quick to note how factors like soil type, precipitation, and wind patterns impart hyperlocal qualities to their final product, but to fixate on these traits alone would scarcely capture the richly nuanced sense of place felt when exploring the diverse landscape of New York City. Last summer, chef and artist Gerardo Gonzalez created three borough-specific batches of amaro, biking over 350 miles through the city to forage botanicals for the infusions he exhibited at the Ace Hotel New York. Curated in partnership with Performance Space New York, “Into an Isle” was the first show for Ace’s relaunched Artist in Residence program, where creators across disciplines are offered a month-long stay to create new works in their spaces. I recently caught up with Gonzalez in Los Angeles, where he’s currently completing a residency at the Hammer Museum. Read on for old school Italian wisdom, how to temper violently high proof grain alcohol, and the best iPhone feature you probably don’t know about.

Jake Stavis: What inspired this project? How did you choose the sites?

Gerardo Gonzalez: It was a combination of friends who lived in the areas (Broad Channel, Queens and Grand Concourse/Williamsburg Oval Park, the Bronx) and sites that were near and dear to me (East Ninth Street, Manhattan).The initial idea came from being at my friends’ home in Broad Channel, a really beautiful part of Queens that’s the land connecting Ozone, JFK, and the Rockaways. It’s situated in a bay that’s close to a wildlife preserve, and demographically speaking it’s just a different world from the rest of the city. My friends Fabiana and Helena have a beautiful home out there - it was just featured on Curbed. The place was built in the 1920s as a neighborhood swim lodge, and they have this beautiful garden. They had all of this wild arugula. It reminded me of an amaro di rucola that I had tasted a long time ago when I was living in San Francisco. A friend had brought it back from I think Cinque Terre in an unmarked bottle and it just stuck with me.

When I was living in LA I became really interested in capturing the street that I live on - Micheltorena - there are so many botanicals here, and so I started thinking about the botanical landscape of different neighborhoods and different cities.

JS: Have you made amaro in Los Angeles?

GG: I haven’t. I’ve done nonalcoholic cordials with the things I’ve found: white sage, lime leaf, rosemary, fig leaf. But It was a bit more of a challenge in New York because besides my friend’s backyard, which had amazing botanicals - they had arugula, mulberry, juniper, echinacea, and monarda - the other areas required a bit more discernment. So at Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for instance, or just like areas that were more heavily congested with cars, I would be a little more cautious about picking. Luckily there’s technology in everybody’s hand to identify plants.

JS: Did you use any apps?

GG: I have an app called Seek, through the California Academy of Science and National Geographic, but if you take any photo on an iPhone and look at the details, it documents your exact geolocation, the time and date. But also, on any plant photo, there’s an icon that pops up to help you identify that plant.

JS: That seems like a wildly unreported feature.

GG: It can be a bit tricky when there’s no service. Seek is definitely more detailed, but we were at least able to identify what’s theoretically not good for your health. And then we found lots of things just kind of by accident - epazote, blue spruce, lots of sunflowers. We had some rules about what to pick. We found this parking lot around 208th street that was just filled with sunflowers - I didn’t have an issue cutting down a few of those and using the full plant. So not just the head, but the full stalk. But I wouldn’t just chop down like a lone sunflower. I always try not to chop down stuff that’s clearly visually appealing for residents.

JS: Tell me more about your approach - recipe is a rough term with this stuff, but what were you looking to as guides or inspiration?

GG: I’d look up recipes on Italian google and just see what I could find. There was this pre-pandemic surge of chefs going back to artisanal practices, but the whole purpose of this project… it wasn’t about the end product, necessarily. Yes, I wanted to create something that was delicious. I’ve been told that I have a very bitter palate and apparently I really enjoy bitterness, so amaros were a great fit, but more than that I think I wanted to go explore different parts of the city. I was in the middle of doing (my pop-up) Tacos Dubai, so I’d prep for like ten hours, then bike from Canal Street up the east side all the way up to 187th Street in the Bronx, which would take me about an hour. I’d spend time with my friend up there - we’d get chai at the market and he’d show me around parts of the city I’d never been to. Then I’d back back through Harlem and down the park.

Biking was a big part of this project. It was really about connecting with the city, understanding an environment not through trains or cars, but seeing life in the urban environment in a new way. Obviously there are a ton of people here, but when you think about life in broader natural sense, you likely don’t realize how much is already around you. Especially in the summertime, the city is just like exploding with botanical life. But it was also just like biking through different parts of the city where people live - biking through like birthday block parties, stuff like that - it was a big element of the project as well.

But for the final amaros, there were a couple of approaches I tried. One was steeping singular ingredients. For each location I did one full batch of just a single ingredient: arugula for Broad Channel, sunflowers for the Bronx, and anise hyssop for the East Village.

JS: The full plant? I can picture steeped arugula but what does steeping a full sunflower do?

GG: Yeah all of it. You’re getting the essence; there’s something very caramely, sweet and earthy. But then I also did blended batches. For Broad Channel I mixed the juniper and the mulberry together. For the Bronx I did mugwort, epazote and lavender. The thing is, once you pour the liquid over the botanicals, within 30 minutes you’ve sapped so much of the flavor. It’s really quick - I let mine infuse for two weeks. I’ve read that after three weeks there’s really nothing happening.

JS: What was the base spirit?

GG: Man, you can’t even get it in California, it’s like 95% alcohol. It touches your skin and dries it out. It’s like sanitizer essentially. I bought four cases of it. Besides the botanicals, you need to fortify it with sugar, which does a few things. One, it balances out the bitterness. Two, the sugar also majorly dilutes the final product so it’s drinkable and doesn’t kill people (though we did manage to get a lot of people fucked up on the opening night). It doesn’t quite correct the flavor, but it introduces something that softens the bitterness.

JS: You’re seasoning it, in a sense. Could you use other sweeteners like honey or agave or something?

GG: I’m sure you could, but I wanted it to be a bit more controlled.

JS: Which do you like the most?

GG: I like them all but the crowd favorite for the opening night was definitely the Bronx. The one I made for Queens was just really strong, like overpowering so I had to tweak it a bit more, but the Bronx was just perfect.

JS: A Cinderella story.

GG: Yeah. Just the perfect balance. I’m very happy with it and hope I can get to Brooklyn and Staten island one day.

JS: I’ve never been to Staten Island.

GG: I’ve never been to Staten Island either. And you’ve lived there a lot longer than I have. This project also connected me to a friend who was a patron of El Rey and now works with Green Thumbs, the community garden division of the parks department - so there’s definitely places I want to connect to. I want to do more of these. In LA you can’t buy the same super high proof alcohol but I’m sure we can find something else.

JS: Are they digestivi?

GG: Definitely. They have some medicinal properties that you could taste. I really believe in amaros. I think everyone should find their stomach settler. Averna works for me all the time. I could have the craziest heavy meal and then just have some averna, and it just lifts it away.

JS: I wonder if there’s a world in which you do this here and in lieu of grain alcohol you use something local or at least related to the communities living there. So say you go to SGV and you use baijiu as a base spirit. There’s something very homey about all of it, even the amaro di rucola you tasted originally… it’s not exactly bathtub gin, but that’s kind of the vibe. It doesn’t need to be noma.

GG: It’s about using whatever is around you - it’s a free resource. My friend Elisa told me the other day there’s an Italian phrase: Tutto fa brodo. Literally it means “everything makes broth,” but it’s this ethos of like… not even anti-waste, more that everything has value. There’s so much flavor and abundance around you, it’s kind of dumb we’re not tapping into that. The final product wasn’t something to sell, but acknowledging all that’s around us we can taste and appreciate.

Photos by Mimi Hong and Jamila McIntosh