Interview with a Local: TJ Provenzano, Managing Partner, Mayanoki Sustainable Sushi & General Manager, Rooftop Reds
Hi TJ. Great to reconnect with you! It was such a bummer when Brooklyn Oenology closed the tasting room. But it sounds like you’ve got a lot going on so I am going to jump right in. The Village Voice recently referred to you as a “beverage maven” – can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Ha! Yeah, I liked that one. “Beverage maven” sounds much better than “functional alcoholic” so I’m good with that!
My background is mostly in restaurants, I actually grew up in the bagel business. My father owned a Bagel Store in Westchester NY, so as early as I can remember I’ve been around food. I actually got my first wine-buying gig while in college in Boston at an amazing Northern Italian Restaurant call La Morra. I’m not sure why they hired me to be honest with you, probably because my name sounds super Italian, but since then I’ve never looked back. I’ve worked at a number of restaurants throughout NYC for the last 10 years or so, and back in 2010 I linked up with Alie Shaper at Brooklyn Oenology. She really inspired me when it came to local wines, and taking pride in what we produce within our own state. We worked together for about 7 years before the tasting room closed. Which you’re right was a total bummer, but since we closed I’ve been able to focus on some other amazing projects that also highlight local wines.
TJ Provenzano at Rooftop Reds in Brooklyn
And can you give us a quick update on BOE? What’s been going on?
Alie is still making amazing wines and selling them both through her online store, and her brand new tasting room Peconic Cellar Door on the North Fork. She launched a private label as well last year called “As If” Wines. I helped her a bit with her wine club for a few months after the tasting room closed, but recently have been busy working on these 2 exciting new projects! We’ve since carried her wines both at Rooftop Reds and at my newest venture Mayanoki.
I was fortunate to attend a Mayanoki dinner at BOE and I heard there’s now a brick and mortar location!?
Yes that true! After 5 years of pop-ups we’ve finally got our own space. Its been a crazy few months getting the space renovated and open to the public, but its all highly rewarding. We are NYC’s first all sustainable sushi omakase, so you can imagine there are a lot of challenges that go along with that. We don’t bring in any seafood from Japan, so sourcing seafood is probably the biggest challenge. We require the absolute best, most immaculately handled, and traceable local seafood, so we are constantly working with our purveyors to find new, exciting, sustainable species that are not traditionally served with this kind of Japanese preparation. We have 2 seatings per night at 6:30pm and 8:30pm, and we serve a 15 course omakase that focuses on domestic seafood, and changes daily! Its been a lot of fun to serve species that no other restaurants are serving, we love surprising our customers and opening their eyes to some of these under utilized species. Our space is super small, it’s an intimate 8 seat sushi bar, so it’s really fun for private seatings, winemaker dinners, etc. Our wine, beer, and cider list is from local producers as well (as you can probably imagine), but we do bring in Sake from Japan.
Switching gears to Rooftop Reds — what a concept, what a place! So you’re literally growing grapes on a rooftop in Brooklyn Navy Yard? Has there been a harvest?
Yes! I know it sounds crazy when you first hear it….and its something that really has to be seen to be believed. We are actually the world’s first commercial rooftop vineyard, and we have about ¼ acre of grape vines growing in custom planters on an industrial rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Currently we grow all red varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) on the rooftop, and we just had our first harvest last week! The vines have been growing up here for 4 years now, so this was the first year we could harvest. We are in the process of making the first rooftop vintage as we speak, so you can expect to see that wine available around early 2019. In the meantime, we are seasonally open to the public, and our outdoor wine bar setting also focuses on only local wines. We represent the Finger Lakes wine region exclusively at Rooftop Reds, so on any given day you can taste and or sip wines from some world class local producers. We do tastings daily, serve wines by the glass or bottle, and host private and public events. You can catch a movie on our projector screen, or just enjoy the weather and the view in a hammock. The project is really exciting and momentum is building towards some big plans on the horizon to take the concept to the next level. So definitely look for big things in the near future from Rooftop Reds!
What do you think about this whole venture?
I think its amazing and beyond exciting! At Rooftop Reds, we are really right on the cusp of the next wave of urban agriculture. Rooftop farms are not only pretty and fun to hang out in, they are also completely necessary to help green our cities. Rooftop space is mostly unused in the city and can be used for anything from raising chickens and bees, to growing vegetables, to growing grapes for wine and hops for beer. The more that we green our rooftops in the city, the more everybody wins, so I’m excited to just be a part of it.
At Mayanoki, our mission is really to expose our customers to a different way of thinking about sushi, to challenge their preconception about what sushi is and could be. By serving local and seasonal seafood, paired with local wines, we are really trying to define what “New American” or “New York” sushi is, while still respecting the technique and mastery that comes with this traditional Japanese preparation.
How do you find the time for all this? Are there some synergies between your positions?
Well, as a lot of New Yorkers think….There just aren’t enough hours in the day! I’m lucky enough that Mayanoki and Rooftop Reds are pretty close to one another. I’m at the Rooftop all morning and afternoon, and hop on the bike and ride across the Manhattan Bridge everyday to get to Mayanoki for the evenings service. It may seem like a lot, and I hate to be cliché, but when you are doing what you love, it barely feels like work. Of course some days are more difficult to manage than others, but overall I wouldn’t trade anything. My wife Briana Emerson helps immensely, she runs the front of the house at Mayanoki when I’m at the rooftop, and she’s our secret weapon for sure. It is really a total team effort to run Mayanoki. My partners and the co-founders of Mayanoki, David Torchiano and Josh Arak, and of course our chef, really give this venture their all. It always makes working hard easier when you’re working with hardworking people!
There is totally synergy with Mayanoki and Rooftop Reds. We carry the Rooftops wines at the restaurant, and we’ve even done cool one-off events where our winemaker (Chris Papalia) will bring in tank samples from future vintages and we will pair them with that evening’s meal. The bottom line for sure is that both Rooftop Reds and Mayanoki are absolutely forward thinking, progressive companies. We both have an environmental focus, with our eyes on the future rather than in the past. Both are really striving to change their prospective industries by thinking outside the box, without sacrificing quality or experience just for the idea. Ill put our omakase up there with any of the others in NYC, and I’d do the same with Chris’ wine as well.
What are some upcoming events people should look out for or that you’re excited about?
At Mayanoki, I’m really excited about our next “Meet the Maker” dinner. On Saturday October 28th we are hosting a special all Cider pairing for Cider Week at the 8:30pm seating. Ezra Sherman will be joining us from Eve’s Cidery in the Finger Lakes that night. He has curated an all cider pairing made up of Eve’s Cider and a few other guest ciders. Beyond the seasonality of Cider, we’ve found that dry European style Ciders pair amazing with sushi! Our signature pairing that we start every meal off with is a beautiful oyster on the half shell all dressed up, with a taste of dry cider. It doesn’t get more NY than that!
At Rooftop Reds we’ve got some really fun Halloween – Fall events planned. On the same day, Saturday October 28th, we are hosting our annual Halloween Party. Drink specials, snacks, pumpkin carving, all kinds of fun stuff planned. Then on Halloween night we will be showing “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson on our big screen…It’s a great way to spend an Autumn evening…Curled up on the Astroturf watching a flick with the vineyard and city view behind you. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
As you know, we are all about local … can you share a few of your favorites places in NYC (or Brooklyn, Queens, etc)?
Me too! There are countless places that blow me away in NYC all the time. One spot that Ive recently discovered for Sake lovers is Sekaya in the East Villiage. It’s an all Sake shop, with probably the most extensive, well curated Sake selections in the city. The staff is so knowledgeable, it’s a great place to learn about Sake, which I am newly obsessed with.
My wife and I have lived in Bushwick for the last 10 years. So when we do get some time to ourselves, we usually like to spend it in the hood. There are so many amazing spots in Bushwick its almost impossible to keep up with. But my wife and I try to get to Momo Sushi Shack as often as possible (mostly for their pork belly…my goodness). We also really love Maite, and Amaranto or Los Hermanos for Mexican, but we are just as happy bringing home a pie from Joe’s these days!
Can you share a favorite NYC moment?
There have honestly been so many….One of my favorite moments happened a few years ago, and not surprisingly it mostly centered on food!…My wife and I along with some friends went and saw the Daptone Soul Review at the Apollo Theatre. Sharon Jones and the Dap kings, Charles Bradley, Naomi Shelton, and a few others put on an absolutely amazing performance. When we left the show super late, we jumped on the subway, headed back to Bushwick and grabbed some Italian combo sandwiches from our local bodega. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I had one of those moments where I was like “damn this really is the greatest city in the world. I just saw a mind blowing show at the world famous Apollo Theatre, and then got an amazing sandwich on the corner after 2am…” I decided then and there that I would never be able to leave NY.
Thanks so much for your time TJ! You can find TJ at: