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The phrase "eating locally" has come to imply a certain level of food fussiness and indulgence reserved for a narrow segment of the population with money to burn. But sometimes, a locavore is born not of luxury but of hardship.
Miroslav Uskokovic was seven years old and living in northwest Serbia near the Bosnian border when war arrived near his doorstep. It was 1992, a year after the breakup of Yugoslavia had unleashed a series of bloody nationalist wars more devastating than any European conflict since World War II. When the Serbian-Bosnian border closed, Serbs experienced crippling inflation and a severely limited food supply. Uskokovic's parents, who owned a large tract of land, decided to put it to work, planting fruits and vegetables and filling it with cows, sheep, pigs and chickens in order to ensure a steady food supply for the family.
"My parents decided to grow all of their own food," Uskokovic told me recently. The 29-year-old pastry chef—formerly of Jean-Georges and Aldea—took over Gramercy Tavern's dessert program last month. "I never bought an egg until I moved to the United States."
Uskokovic's parents started a farm out of necessity, but they soon become heavily invested in its operations, impressing a love of local, organic ingredients on their young son. Uskokovic's mother even started a small business, baking and selling cakes as well as homemade cheeses.
The celebration of food became central to Uskokovic's life. At 17, he traveled to the small town of Greenwood, Indiana for a yearlong exchange program, then returned to Serbia to complete a college degree in hospitality and tourism. Uskokovic knew he wanted to cook for a living. But prevailing local attitudes towards cooking—viewed by his peers (and parents) as a lowly, dead-end career choice—forced Uskokovic to realize that his future awaited him far from home.
"The U.S. is the best place to reach your dreams," he said. "It's a cliché, but it's true."
Uskokovic landed at his dream school, the C.I.A. in Hyde Park, in 2008. But he enrolled in the culinary arts, and not the pastry, program. Like so many pastry chefs before him, Uskokovic cooked his way through savory before eventually turning to sweet.
"I had no aspirations for pastry," he said. "No, I wanted to be a cook."
That all changed when, post-graduation and working at the West Village's Wallsé, Uskokovic chanced to meet rock-star pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, whom Uskokovic calls his "greatest mentor of all."
"Before I met Johnny, I saw being a pastry chef as not being very masculine and glamorous," he explained.
But Uskokovic caught the bug, and quick. He went to work in pastry at Jean-Georges, then moved on to Aldea. The position at Gramercy Tavern opened over the summer following the departure of the restaurant's former, hugely influential pastry chef Nancy Olson. Uskokovic—at the time contemplating a move to California—happened to read the news on Eater the very night he gave his notice at Aldea. He quickly dashed off an email to executive chef Michael Anthony, and, despite having "no hopes" of receiving a reply, got a message back the next day.
And so began a more than three-month-long process of interviewing, tasting, and baking. Uskokovic said he could barely contain his excitement at the prospect of working at Gramercy Tavern, a place that, he said, has a special aura. "It's so calm here, there is such a level of respect between all the workers and it's generally just a wonderful place to be."
The restaurant owes much of its atmosphere to chef Anthony, whom Uskokovic called "an exceptional person."
"I fell in love with his pickles," Uskokovic explained. "The man pickles everything! Being an eastern European, that's very near to my heart. When I saw him making homemade kimchi, I thought, 'This is the place for me.'"
Since officially beginning work six weeks ago, Uskokovic has found that his interest in seasonal food fits right in with Gramercy Tavern's ethos.
"This restaurant is famous for being seasonal and local. Anything we can find local we do. And we're going beyond farm to table, we're doing tree to table!" he said, referring to an ice cream that's flavored with foraged hickory bark and nuts.
Uskokovic said that maintaining the restaurant's well-respected pastry program is a huge priority for him, but that the new desserts he has introduced also represent him as a chef.
"I bring my background first and foremost," he said. In addition to calling upon all the various cooking influences he's had in life, Uskokovic is also interested in playing up savory, sour, and bitter notes in desserts."That's just part of my heritage," he explained. "European desserts are less sweet and heavy than typical American desserts, and that style has always remained with me."
To that end, Uskokovic has incorporated some less traditional dessert flavors into his dishes, adding, variously, lard-fried pears; wild fennel; black cardamon; and a host of other surprising ingredients. Uskokovic lost his mother to cancer at a young age, and he said he often thinks of her when he's creating new desserts. Take, for example, the chocolate layer cake currently on the menu: it was inspired by his mother, who loved chocolate and often baked it into cakes. "That cake is an ode to her."
Click through the slideshow above to see Chef Uskokovic's seasonal fall desserts.
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