Jeremy Salamon’s resume is filled with stints in women-led restaurants, where he says the chefs and owners often fostered nurturing environments to cook in. Still, the 27-year-old chef recalls all-too-common incidents in other kitchens throughout his career that are no surprise given the toxic restaurant culture that has been reported in the wake of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.
“I’ve been talked down to, pushed to the point of tears on the line,” Salamon tells Eater. “There was one time when I had a huge thing of hot boiling water on the table. Someone I didn’t get along with knocked it over and said, ‘You shouldn’t put boiling pots of water up there.’ My heels were exposed. I burnt my ankles.”
Through the years, the chef, who is gay, says he has overheard homophobic language tossed around by fellow cooks, experienced angry bosses yelling at employees, and encountered a lack of diversity in kitchens. When Salamon opens his first restaurant, Agi’s, in Brooklyn — likely later this summer or in early fall — he wants more openness and acceptance.
He’ll be taking a page from MeMe’s Diner, the much-praised shuttered Prospect Heights restaurant that was queer-owned and gained a following for its largely LGBTQ and diverse staff. It was a community space where the restaurant championed inclusivity and equality — both goals for Salamon as he prepares to open Agi’s.
“I want to be proactive about my hiring,” Salamon says. “When the time comes to hire, I want to have a diverse group of people working with me. I don’t want to just say ‘everyone is welcome.’ It should also be that way behind the scenes.”
Agi’s, named after one of Salamon’s grandmothers, will be an all-day cafe that pays tribute to his Hungarian and Jewish background. He also describes it as feeling like “you’re coming into your grandma’s house but with a bit of a chef-y diner situation” where the decor, which will include floral patterns, is “more feminine and representative of the women in my life.”
Salamon’s path into the kitchen started early. He recalls dining out regularly with his parents, eating the “fabulous cooking” of his grandmothers, and watching the Food Network while finishing his homework after school.
But it was an opportunity to intern at a country club at age 11 when he first got paid — likely below minimum wage, he says — to work with chefs. There, he wore a freezer jacket, queued up his Britney Spears-filled iPod, and scooped gelato into martini glasses for a few hours on weekends. After a year or so, he worked at Todd English’s Wild Olives as a prep cook. By high school, he was a part-time line cook at Suzanne Perrotto’s Brulé Bistro, a chic-yet-casual spot in Delray Beach with a menu of what one might expect — jumbo lump crab cakes, arugula-gorgonzola salad, lobster Bolognese — in a well-to-do area of southern Florida.
His family was always supportive of his interest in becoming a chef. “My mom told me that if I wanted to be a garbage man, that was fine as long as I loved garbage,” Salamon says. “With cooking, I kind of felt like I had a super power.”
Enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, felt like a natural step for Salamon. While many of his classmates eyed internships at resorts, Disney World, or acclaimed fine dining restaurants, he says, the 19-year-old Salamon applied for a job at Prune after reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. He ended up interning at the iconic East Village restaurant and never looked back.
Salamon figured he should gain experience working in a larger kitchen, and after listening to Andrew Carmellini on a radio show saying that chefs didn’t have to go to culinary school to build a career, he reached out. “[Carmellini] responded, and we met at a big table at Locanda Verde,” Salamon says. “He said, ‘You don’t have to go to school. If you don’t go back, you always have a job here.’”
After two years cooking at Locanda Verde, Salamon went back to working in a smaller restaurant when he came across Jody Williams’s Buvette, a quaint French gastrotheque. The West Village spot offered him a chance to interact with customers, as many cooks also took turns working as bartenders.
While Salamon says he was probably making $11 or $12 per hour, he wasn’t discouraged, even though he thought about leaving New York. But one day, he saw a job posting for the Eddy, another small neighborhood restaurant in the East Village, and he soon started off as a line cook before quickly rising to become the sous chef. Salamon enjoyed working in a smaller kitchen where he could also meet diners and was given the chance to experiment with the menu. After two years, he left the Eddy and took a three-month trip to Europe.
When he came back to New York, he organized a series of pop-ups called Fond, including at Wallflower, a sister restaurant to the Eddy. Its theme was Eastern European cuisine with a modern take, featuring dishes such as a mushroom goulash, which Salamon notes is a favorite of his boyfriend’s. It reminded him of “grandmother food” but without the fuss of three-star Michelin restaurants. He then returned to the Eddy as head chef, where he put a spotlight on Hungarian cuisine with dishes like doughnuts topped with pecorino cheese and his spin on paprikash, which swapped in mussels for chicken.
“It was clear that Jeremy was hardworking, talented, and compassionate,” says Jason Soloway, who owned the Eddy and Wallflower. “That compassion that’s been sorely missed in restaurants and restaurant culture? Jeremy brings that, and I think that’s where his background informs how he serves as an executive chef, a boss, a mentor, a friend.”
As Salamon secures a space for Agi’s, he gives much credit to the LGTBQ community’s support. He says Lukas Volger, co-founder of the queer indie magazine Jarry, helped spread the word about a Kickstarter campaign for the new restaurant. The Queer Food Foundation posted on its social media accounts. Jake Cohen, a young gay chef with a large social media following, also supported the campaign.
Within months of launching in fall 2020, Salamon exceeded the $65,000 Kickstarter goal by a few thousand dollars. He’s organized a few pop-ups in the past year as a preview of Agi’s menu and tested countless recipes, from 12-layer chocolate cakes to his riff on a pupu platter but with a Hungarian twist — think chicken pate, sausages, pickles, breakfast radishes, and biscuits.
He also hopes to use the all-day cafe to support the LGBTQ community by hosting Queer Soup Night, queer Shabbat dinners, and possibly fundraising events for organizations like the Ali Forney Center, which helps provide shelter for homeless queer youth. The restaurant is meant to be a place where diners can just “come enjoy yourselves, eat, talk, and gather.”
When Agi’s opens, it will be full of nods to all the women who influenced his love of food. There’s the celery root schnitzel with confit potatoes and leek slaw that’s a play off a dish he ate growing up visiting his grandmother. The antique-looking platters and cups are reminiscent of the decor at Buvette, the Jody Williams restaurant Salamon cooked at for a year.
“The restaurant industry is not a perfect place, nothing is,” Salamon says. “But I want to take everything I’ve learned from the women in my life and people who have supported me to create a place where everyone is welcomed and feels like they belong.”