Art Imitates Life in the Loeb Boathouse Kitchen

How Central Park ignites the imagination of the artist-turned-chef of the iconic Loeb Boathouse.
loeb boathouse

When you work at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, an average day at the office is anything but ordinary.

The commute includes a walk on the Frederick Law Olmsted-crafted footpaths and casual birding on the outskirts of the Ramble woods. Your view, the change of seasons from the only lakeside restaurant in Manhattan. For Executive Chef John Greeley, it’s all inspiration.

A painter at heart, Greeley studied fine art at the Savannah School of Art and Design before bringing his talents to the kitchen. “I’m the only not starving artist,” he joked.

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Greeley, who still paints in his spare time, describes his approach to cooking like staring at a blank canvas. “For me everything is visual,” he said, “you already see it in your head before it’s even hit the plate.” What ends up on the menu often starts with a doodle, a photo or an idea sparked by the sights and spirit of the park.

Central Park has become an integral part of Greeley’s life over the past six years heading the kitchen at the Boathouse, an operation that includes the main restaurant, outdoor café and private dining room. From shapes to color to season, the park influences his food down to the smallest details.

loeb boathouse
Winter (Photo: John Greeley)

In winter, a shaved Brussels sprouts salad with pomegranate and pecorino cheese mimics the shape of a Christmas tree placed atop a boat on the frozen lake. Scallops with roasted corn and vibrant watermelon radish reflect the surrounding foliage and gold and purple mums of fall. And cascading green garnishes take their cue from the Bethesda Fountain in the spring and summer.

loeb boathouse
Fall (Photo: John Greeley)

While Greeley had worked in the city before, earning his stripes at the 21 Club under Michael Lomonaco, the New Jersey native never knew this side of Manhattan. Far from the closed confines and artificial lights of a typical restaurant kitchen, the Boathouse is a rare blend of urban and rural, commotion and calm.

loeb boathouse
Summer (Photo: John Greeley)

Gathering inspiration for the seafood-driven, fully from-scratch menus is never too difficult. It’s the local fish purveyor’s fresh catch of the day and the colorful selection at the greenmarket outside the American Museum of Natural History, but it’s also the view right outside the restaurant’s windows.

“I’m more in tune with nature’s clock and contributing that to the menu more so than when I worked away from all this,” Greeley said.

It’s also the people. “New Yorkers treat the Boathouse like it’s theirs,” describes Greeley. On snow days, they’ll stroll in and warm their socks by the fire. Amid the busy hum of the city, it provides a sense of home.

loeb boathouse
A painting by Loeb Boathouse Executive Chef John Greeley. The Central Park landscape is so familiar to him that he painted it from memory.

“The park is amazing,” said the chef, especially during the height of summer when the air is alive with music and the lake is filled with boats. “There’s so much going on here … you can spend the whole day just people-watching and have a great time. You really do see it all here.” And from empty early mornings to a red-tailed hawk in the dining room, he truly has.

With Central Park as his muse, Greeley’s thoughtful approach to cooking and presentation manifests as delicious, immersive art. The plate is the canvas, nature provides the color palette, and the reverberating heartbeat of New York and its beloved, long-standing boathouse are the brushstrokes.

Get chef Greeley’s recipe for Hazelnut-Crusted Salmon With Honey-Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Butternut Squash Puree. And try the Date-Nut Bread recipe from the Boathouse’s sister restaurant, AAA Three Diamond Designated Gallaghers Steakhouse.

Check out more Diamond Dish recipes or download our recipe guide.

Have you ever been to the Loeb Boathouse? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.

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