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At Perry St., Cedric Vongerichten Assesses Sandy's Damage and Looks Toward a New Phase

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[Photos: Daniel Krieger]

The day after Hurricane Sandy's surge flooded Perry St., the restaurant's chef Cedric Vongerichten and a number of his cooks suited up and waded through water contaminated with dirty oil and shit. The business, whose real estate on the corner of Perry and Hudson River Drive might be considered unfortunate only in times like these, was ravaged by five and a half feet of water. Most of it spared the dining room, all of it hit the kitchen down below. By the time the surge reached its peak, it had done away with $100,000 worth of equipment, ruined all of the restaurant's wine and food, and burst open a septic tank and a container of dirty oil. Yesterday, on a rainy afternoon eerily similar to the one Vongerichten witnessed before last month's storm, the chef talked about his experiences since the hurricane. He also gave a tour of the damage and explained how he's been lucky enough to turn this into an opportunity to revamp the restaurant and come back in January (or maybe even December 31, 2012) with renewed enthusiasm.

Tell me the Sandy story.
So I came here the afternoon before the big surge. I came at 5 p.m. just to check things out to see how we were doing, since the restaurant was closed. The water was already on the sidewalk, which wasn't a good sign. We put things away in the kitchen. I tried to put my Vita Prep and circulator on racks in the kitchen, so they would be up high.

I took my wife and my son to The Mark, which is where my dad is staying. He told me to come over, and I'm glad I listened to him. It was like nothing happened up there. We had dinner at the Mark, had some wine, and then went to bed. In the morning, I decided I would come down to see the damage.

How bad?
We couldn't even go down into the kitchen at first. There was water and oil all through the kitchen below the restaurant, and it was so much that it reached up the stairs. The carpet in the restaurant was damp. We called a restoration company, and they suggested we remove the carpet right away to prevent molding and affecting the walls and furniture. Then, they started pumping out all of the water, which took about sixteen hours to do.

How high did the water get?
Maybe like five and a half feet. The water was filled with dirty oil, as well as the contents of the septic tank downstairs. That was very, very bad. We had a company come and spend three days just to clean the place. The walls, everything — oil and poop everywhere. All of my fridges were floating around, so when they pumped out the water, they just fell to the ground. Many of them broke. Things were getting rusty. We just had to throw a bunch of stuff away.

I had my crew from the kitchen come in, because they wanted to help. They helped me empty out all of the walk-ins and the fridges and make sure that things didn't get even nastier. We also took pictures of all the damage. We had Kitchen Commercial build a mini-crane to bring up all the equipment through our narrow stairs. It was insane. That took days.

Where did your cooks end up?
Most of them agreed that they wanted to work within the company, so they went to The Mark, Jean Georges, ABC, and The Mercer Kitchen.

We lost some of our wine, too.

How much wine?
We're lucky, because we don't have a huge cellar, but we lost all of it. It was all contaminated. And all that expensive stuff I put on the shelves didn't make it either. Right there, it's like six or seven grand.

Do you know how much this has cost the company?
If you take the whole kitchen, it could be $80,000 or $100,000 just for the equipment. Now we have to add the construction, the computers, so much. We don't know how much it will be. I hope the insurance will help.

You're basically rebuilding everything.
On the bright side, it's an opportunity to redesign the kitchen and come up with something that I really like. We've already ordered all of the stuff using Jade. We're going to have a plancha, which we didn't have before. We used to have a bunch of burners, and now we will have less. We'll have a gas salamander, which won't break down as much as the electric one used to. That'll take about two weeks to come in.

What else is on the agenda?
A company is coming in today to start demolition and construction, which should take like three weeks. The carpet is on its way as well, and we're changing the curtains, too.

Do you have an opening date in mind?
We'd love to be open for New Year's Eve, but for sure we will be open by the 15th of January.

Did it ever look like the restaurant might not be able to reopen?
We were scared, because the building was telling us that it might not be before March or April. That's because a lot of the stuff in the building here is high tech and custom-made, which takes a longer time to fix and replace. But we put a bit of pressure and it's looking good!

Did you have any time to be sad or shaken up about this, or did you just power ahead the whole time?
At the beginning, I wasn't sad at all. We had so many things to do, and the whole crew was here working and trying to fix everything. But after that part was done, I was depressed. What the fuck am I going to do? I was so tied to this restaurant. It was my baby. I lost something so precious.

This is your first big gig.
Yes, this is my first big job. Jean-Georges gave me this place and trusted me with it. It was my job to take care of it and make it good, so I was extremely sad when it went into danger. I was pretty sad for about a week or so, but then we saw the bright side. It was an opportunity to come back stronger. The people that will come back will come back fresh and motivated, as if it's a new place. We're going to play around with the menu, and it's exciting. I can't wait for it to open.

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Perry Street

Perry Street, Manhattan, NY 10014