“You got an extra cigarette?” asked Catherine Neckes. This was 2011, before she had permanently strained her back hauling 50 pound sacks of sugar at Milk Bar, Christina Tosi’s famed New York-based factory for all things sweet. She was talking to Michael Mehiel, the man who, only a few short years later, would become her husband.
The pair was hanging out in front of The Abbey, a proper Williamsburg dive where Mehiel and his now business partner, Chef Brian Pierce, liked to shoot pool. Pierce, a Thornton, Colorado, native and restaurant lifer, had recently moved to New York to pursue a cooking career and was already beginning to move his way through some of the city’s more forward-thinking kitchens.
After hitting it off with Mehiel, Catherine decided to introduce Pierce to her twin sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth did a little Facebook stalking, and, liking what she saw, agreed to meet Pierce at The Abbey. “We talked for four hours about Dostoevsky and how much she hated work,” Pierce says with a smile. The two are also now married.
Last November, the four of them opened a tapas-adjacent, wine bar-adjacent spot on Pearl Street that once held the BookEnd Cafe and most recently played home to Riffs Urban Fare. At Gemini, Pierce handles the menu while Mehiel tackles the logistics. Catherine is the pastry chef while Elizabeth, between shifts in the kitchen, takes care of graphic design and outreach for private events. Both sisters curate the wine list, which features biodynamic, organic and vegan wines almost exclusively from Spain and the United States’ West Coast.
“I like to call it a Spain-ish restaurant,” says Pierce, whose menu is full of seasonally-inspired small plates that reference Spanish cooking while acting as a vehicle for him to display his fine-dining chops. There are croquetas and patatas bravas alongside duck confit and milanese. This is highbrow comfort food, built around technique but free of stuffiness.
Pierce has been cooking since he was 16, working his way through the line while still in high school and during his time attending Colorado State University, where he graduated with degrees in political science and philosophy in 2010. His career really started to take off soon after he moved to New York, beginning with a two-year stint at Estela, Ignacio Mattos’ Michelin-starred New American kitchen in Manhattan.
“It was really a Spanish restaurant in disguise,” Pierce says, reminiscing about making salads side by side with Mattos in an era when the prominent chef was still decidedly boots on the ground. Between 2012 and 2014, Pierce moved from garde manger to the hot appetizer station, and spent some time on the plancha before finishing up at saute.
From there, Pierce moved to south-central New Jersey to work on a biodynamic farm.
“I needed a break from the intensity of the city. Instead I got the intensity of working on a farm,” he says, noting that his time there only lasted roughly six months. In 2015, he returned to the city to work across a series of restaurants by Andrew Tarlow, who was then helping to shape a new culinary movement that has become synonymous with Brooklyn’s, and particularly Williamsburg’s, farm-to-table aesthetic. Pierce started at Roman’s, spent some time at Marlow and Sons and the adjoining Diner before closing his time with the group as the executive sous at Reynard.
Pierce credits Tarlow — whose catchphrase “Eat Sunshine” earned him early comparisons to California-cuisine pioneer Alice Waters — for introducing him to a kitchen where the cultural aspects were as important as the food being served. Local sourcing, seasonal ingredients, flexibility, creative problem solving and eschewing the rigidness of a menu were all lodestars.
Menus at Tarlow’s restaurants were whimsical: “You’d come in and there’d be a sketch. You were tasked with putting it together,” says Pierce.
While Gemini’s menu is not quite so mercurial — favoring a seasonal assembly with loose boundaries — it’s clear that Pierce’s setup is highly informed by his time honing his craft in Tarlow’s kitchens. In 2018, he and Elizabeth got married and embarked on a journey across Southeast Asia before returning to Colorado where Pierce spent six months working in Safta’s production kitchen. Throughout COVID, Pierce worked as a private chef in Aspen and across the Roaring Fork Valley. In January 2021, he received a call from Mehiel, who suggested that they finally take the half-baked idea they’d been floating since around 2015 to open a restaurant and make it a reality.
At the time, Mehiel was in New Orleans running a recording studio and gigging with a number of groups. He and Catherine were expecting their second child and the pair was ready for a change.
“I wanted my kids to be close to Lizzie (Elizabeth) and Brian,” Catherine says.
While Mehiel had been spending late nights as a sound engineer, Catherine had been working across the city’s most acclaimed kitchens and bakeries. First there was Willa Jean, then Cafe Henri and finally the Bywater Bakery.
“Catherine introduced bagels to Bywater. They have a line around the block to this day,” beams Mehiel.
“The name Gemini is of course the sign of the twins,” says Mehiel, noting the inspiration for the title would be obvious to anyone who saw the Neckes sisters roaming the floor. The whole place is truly a family affair, with the outstanding bar program being handled by Mehiel’s nephew, Zack Bitzonis. As bar manager, he concocts creative drinks reminiscent of the kind found at The Bonnie, a well-lauded watering hole in Queens. The Desert Flower — with Agavales tequila, yuzu, Chartreuse, Framboise, Salers and rose water — is a nice representation of Bitzonis’ calculated approach.
It’s clear that everything about Gemini’s lunch, dinner and drink menus is deliberate.
“When we started, we wanted to put some parameters on it,” Mehiel says, noting that with all the skill at play, much of the inspiration comes from self-imposed constraints. The champinones — seared mushrooms with garlic, charred scallions and egg yolk — are a good example of Pierce’s knack for subtlety. Even the more elaborate dishes like the duck confit rely on a few well-prepared components rather than over-the-top garnishes.
“It’s humble but tasty,” says the chef.
Like many New Yorkers of the time, Pierce, Mehiel and the Neckes twins were part of a tight-knit crew that splintered as the rents skyrocketed. Gemini seems to run on the rare energy of a coalescence, driven by a group of people who care a great deal for each other. There’s certainly a lot of talent in the place, though the food has an additional x-factor that only really hits when love is in the mix.