Chef Gabriel Kreuther Has Been Thrust into the Role of Traditional Fine Dining’s Savior. His Thoughts on What That Means and Where It’s Headed.
Photographs by Evan Sung
Gabriel Kreuther has been running some of the best kitchens in New York City for almost two decades: he served as chef de cuisine at Jean Georges, executive chef of Atelier at the Ritz-Carlton, and as executive chef of The Modern. In June, in partnership with Eben Dorros, he launched his own restaurant, Gabriel Kreuther, on West 42nd Street. In recent weeks, the reviews (almost unanimously glowing) have poured in, along with a Michelin star. Along with the appreciation, what struck me about the notices was the extreme focus on fine dining (of the traditional sort, not the neo version hailed in this week’s succession of reviews for the new incarnation of Momofuku Ko) present in every appraisal. With that in mind, I asked Gabriel if he’d sit down with me, and we met for an interview on Saturday, October 3, in the dining room of the restaurant. Though we covered a wider range of topics, the below is what seemed most pertinent at the moment. (As a side note, an interview I’m running tomorrow, with chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske of Contra and Wildair, provides an interesting look at both contrasts and similarities in two generations of chefs.)
[Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Friedman: Let me go right to the burning question I’d like to ask you: You’ve gotten great reviews. But every one I’ve read makes a point of talking about fine dining. The Bloomberg headline: “Fine Dining is Not Dead Yet, and Gabriel Kreuther has Proof.” Steve Cuozzo, The New York Post: “Sorry, kids. Fine dining is still my idea of the dining to beat.” Grub Street‘s Power Rankings: “Fine dining ain’t dead yet.” The New York Times, in a great review: “It is about as fashionable as acid‑washed jeans.” But then Pete Wells adds, “Before dismissing this grand Midtown dining room as a horse‑drawn carriage in the age of Uber, sit down and see how exciting some knifework can be.”
You see where I’m going with this?
Friedman: Were you surprised to find yourself cast in the role of the defender of fine dining? Is it surprising to you that so many people are pointing it out and framing their praise in these terms?
Kreuther: No. It’s not really surprising. Because the way I’m looking at this over the past eight or ten years, I would say, is that in the US, when challenges arose with the economic downturn, one of the easiest fix‑ups for operators was to just sweep everything down. Because everything that you have on the table has some sort of a cost. A tablecloth has a cost. Everything has a cost and gives you headaches to operate. It’s much easier to maintain a bare table than a tablecloth table.
Friedman: So you trace the beginnings of this evolution, or perception of an evolution, away from all that to the downturn, all the way back to 2008?
Kreuther: Yeah. Even slightly earlier. And I also believe that in nice places what makes things stuffy is really the attitude of people.
Friedman: The front of the house?
Kreuther: The people who work in it. I don’t really think it’s just the tablecloth that scares people; it’s really the attitude, the way they get treated by the waiter, by the sommeliers, that kind of stuff. That makes a difference. I think that fine dining, there is something to it when you sit down, there is a calmness to it. If I want to just eat on a bare table, I can eat at home on a bare table. I’m going out for a reason …
Friedman: This is personally the way you like to dine?
Kreuther: This is personally the way I like to dine … I don’t think fine dining is dead, just it’s evolving. And I think it’s going to evolve in a way where it can be fun.
Kreuther: I think it needs [to be] a little bit not too serious.
Friedman: What struck me right away the first time I was in this space was that there seemed to be some very intentional things about the design that brought it down a little bit. I wouldn’t say necessarily made it fun, but made it feel less stuffy. The wooden beams. That wallpaper. Even that picture over there. There are rustic touches. There are bursts of color.
Kreuther: Kind of a rustic elegance, that calms.
Friedman: Was that meant to bring the elevated experience a little bit down to earth, to keep it a little more comfortable so that you as a diner don’t walk in and feel like you have to be stiff or formal?
Kreuther: My intent was always to have a comfortable environment where people feel good in it and bring it really down to earth. I think one of the big changes over the years is also the way people dress. In the really early days anybody who wanted to go to a nice restaurant – and it still happens ‑‑ they force you either to have a tie or tie and a jacket. And I just think that those days are over. And I was never really a big fan of that.
Friedman: Is there a dress code here at all?
Kreuther: Not really, no. But I think people when they go out, it depends on your intention. It depends for what you’re going out. If you go out with your wife and you want to have a great time, dress nice, dress a little bit up… But there is no dress code because I never was really fond of it. When I grew up, I never understood, why do I need to wear a tie to enjoy a good meal? It doesn’t make my meal better. Why don’t they let me go in in one of those places and just walk in with jeans and enjoy my dinner? It doesn’t mean that when you have a tie on that the wine is going to be better…
Friedman: Can you just speak to me for a minute about what it takes just from a sheer people-power standpoint to produce food as elaborate as yours? Not only are the individual dishes labor intensive, but there are a lot of choices on your menu. How many people on a typical day or a typical service are in your kitchen?
Kreuther: We have two teams: One team for the lunch, one team for the dinner, so it’s about 15 cooks per shift, and then pastry has about four per shift also. So you can say 18 to 20 people per shift. And then the sous chefs and me included, 20, 22.
Friedman: A lot of people.
Kreuther: A lot of people. We have 85 seats, so to deliver, it takes some people.
Friedman: You’ve been associated with a lot of restaurants where there’s either a very well‑known name already there or a corporate entity. You were with Jean-Georges for a while. You were at the Ritz Carlton. You were at the Modern, so it’s both the museum and also Danny Meyer. Obviously, people knew you were the chef in these places but you were often in a situation where you were with people who take up a certain amount of oxygen themselves, right?
Kreuther: Yeah, sure.
Friedman: For people reading this who maybe don’t know much about you, who is Gabriel Kreuther?
Kreuther: I grew up in Alsace and I came here to the US in ’97. I always wanted to do what I do. I always wanted to be a chef.
Friedman: This goes all the way back to childhood?
Kreuther: It goes all the way back to childhood. My whole family was involved basically in the restaurant business or some sort of food business. One uncle had a restaurant, one had the pastry shop, one was a butcher. My grandfather and all those [relatives] ‑‑ one of them had the goose farm. So always connected to food. And then I did my apprenticeship and I traveled around a little bit: Germany, Switzerland, the US, here and there. It’s kind of a profession where you can work wherever you really want in the world and travel at the same time. It’s a nice combination.
Friedman: Once you have the skillset you are portable.
Kreuther: Yeah, I think so.
Friedman: What drew you to the United States in general and what made you want to be in New York City?
Kreuther: In France when I finished my whole apprenticeship and stuff I won a contest of best apprentice in France and that’s how I got connected, and somebody asked me, “Are you interested to go to the US?” I was, like, 19-years old at that time. I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure.” And that’s how I came to the US the first time in ’88, ’89 for an 18-month time period, and then I went back.
And in ’97 I was in Switzerland at the time in a two‑star Michelin restaurant. Just like the chef de cuisine, you know? And I said, okay, I want to do one more big travel. I thought about Japan, I thought about maybe Australia, and the US. And somehow I found a spot, I got a connection and I had a spot in the kitchen at La Caravelle at the time. That’s how I came really to the US at La Caravelle with the Jammets. And from there I evolved. I met my wife here and then that made me also stay.
Friedman: There are a lot of classic reference points in your food, and there are also a lot of ingredients and preparations that obviously you didn’t grow up on. There’s a jalapeño coulis. There’s a jamon emulsion. There’s a clam vinaigrette. What’s your creative process like at this point in your career? Where do you get your ideas, your inspirations from? How do you develop new things at this point?
Kreuther: Talking about products.
Friedman: With your team or with purveyors?
Kreuther: Yeah, sometimes with purveyors, mostly with my team. Trying things out. Looking for a certain taste. But what’s the nice thing about New York City that I like a lot is all the different cuisine that you have here. In Europe it’s more like one thing. And now they get a little bit more diverse there, but in my days it was really one or two things and that’s it.
What I always liked in Switzerland is that it’s a little bit like that, the different cultures, the different products and the openness, the openness from the clientele. They’re willing to try things. They’re open to having different products from different parts of the world. This is a huge country so you have access to a lot of different things. But that’s what I really like about the city: Different techniques, different cultures.
Friedman: So it happens by just being here?
Kreuther: Just by being here. All the products. They’re right on the tip of your hand.
Friedman: Something I’ve heard from a lot of chefs in New York is that there are so many restaurants right now that finding cooks has been something that everybody struggles with a little bit. You had a bit of a gap between leaving your last position and opening this, so I assume you weren’t able to keep everybody with you.
Kreuther: No, no, no, no.
Friedman: What was the process like and how difficult it was putting a team together in the current climate in New York City that could execute what you needed?
Kreuther: Putting a team together is always difficult. But obviously I’ve worked in many different places and I guess you kind of create a reputation within the restaurant business or the cook world, and you have a couple people that follow you that give you the anchor to start hiring people, but finding the right people is very hard. And it takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of training to get to the right people.
Now, a lot of times we hire people and we train them. We invest in people. I’d rather hire someone where I have to invest in them and we teach what we want from them than people who at first you think they will be a great fit but it doesn’t work out. Some people think that they’re just better than they are, and they don’t fit in.
Friedman: I’m assuming you mean younger cooks who think they’re further along in their evolution?
Friedman: Is that more of an issue now for you than it was, say, 15 years ago?
Friedman: You hear this a lot recently. People seem to be more in a hurry to get to the chef position themselves.
Kreuther: Yes. There is a big misunderstanding from when they came out from culinary school that it is really the beginning for their career instead of coming out from the culinary school and being straight‑away sous chef… I think what I’m looking for in a young person, it’s more the attitude; the attitude and the willingness to learn than knowing everything. And if we find people with the right attitude, we give them the time and we put the effort in to teach them, and that made a difference for me over the past 15 years, spending time with them, teaching them, and it creates a bond and also usually they stay longer because they want to move station to station and they want to learn.
Friedman: Do you feel it creates loyalty?
Kreuther: It creates loyalty, yeah, because I mean, people want to learn something and if they have the right attitude they’re willing to put the time in to learn. It’s about time to learn, you know? And I always look back on what I did and I try to convey that to them. There is a time when you’re very young what should matter the most is really gain the most knowledge you can in that business and then later on expand. Obviously people want to make money in your life, too, but I believe also that you’re only going to get paid the proper way if you have something to show for yourself.
So there is that exchange. There is that understanding. But I also understand that when young cooks come out of school, this is a hard city, right? You have to have a place to live. You have to pay your student loans. It’s not an easy task. But I believe that if they put their mind to it they find the trusting exchange with the right people, I think it can get them to where they want to go.
Friedman: I’d love to just come full circle. You mentioned the word “fun” early on and it stuck in my head because I had dinner at Eleven Madison Park a year ago and I remember saying to my dining companion that it was “fun.” It’s a concept that very often gets lost at a certain level of dining. Where does that come from for you, wanting it to be fun? Did you always feel this way about dining or did you come to this once you got to a certain level?
Kreuther: I think it evolved with the years but I think I know what I don’t really want. When you’re sitting in a restaurant, the last thing you want to feel like is like sitting in a temple or in a church or something. At the end it’s just I’m here to eat, I want to have a conversation … it comes down to the people who run it, to the people who own it. There is something genuine behind it. Attitude is a big thing, you know? When you walk in somewhere and you feel welcome, everything is different. That moment, those 15 seconds can change the next three hours, you know? A handshake, a look, a smile, showing the way.
Friedman: Is this something you talk about with your front of house? The tone you want to have set?
Kreuther: Yeah. And what always bothered me in restaurants in all my years is when somebody buys a bottle of wine for $600 or $1,000, right, it’s like everybody is like flies around them. They have so much good service, right? And the other guy that has wine by the glass, nobody sees him. That’s always bothered me.
Friedman: As a chef?
Kreuther: As a chef. Why should a guy who just wants to eat and have [just a glass of wine], and sometimes have no wine, be treated differently? He still pays a bill at the end. I grew up on a farm. I always wanted to do this, this restaurant business. And I used to save money. When I was 16, 17 I used to save money. When I had enough money, I went out to eat. Then I got older a little bit. After 18, 19 I still save money because eating in those big places was a lot of money for a young guy, so I saved my money up and I did one or two trips a year, to eat in great places.
Friedman: A lot of people don’t realize this: It’s a very big deal for young cooks to be able to spend the money to eat at great restaurants, which is something you need to do.
Kreuther: Yeah. So you have, as a restaurant, I think, when somebody comes to eat that’s saved up, you have much more of an impact on those people than people who go out every day and have a $600 bottle of wine. You’re changing, you’re touching those people because they love to eat but some of them struggle to pay for it. So if you give them the right service and all that stuff, they have a great moment. And those are the people where you see that – you know, a young cook or a young couple, those are the people [where you say], “Oh, they love it. Give them one more thing.”
Friedman: You’ll do that?
Kreuther: Yeah. You know, make them feel good. At the end, we’re in a business to make people happy.
Friedman: But it’s so funny because we started this interview talking about this whole element of fine dining. It’s generally younger people who tend to feel alienated from it for the reasons you’re talking about. They feel like if they don’t have a certain amount of money, a certain bearing, if they can’t buy the big bottle of wine, that they’re not going to fit in or they’re going to be second-class diners.
Friedman: This is a gap you would like to bridge?
Kreuther: They’re putting that on themselves also sometimes because that’s maybe the gap they create.
Friedman: Because that’s the stereotype.
Kreuther: Yeah, I think that’s the stereotype. I think there is a way of just being yourself.
Friedman: Sure, but there are places where that will happen
Kreuther: Yes, but then you can walk out. You don’t have to sit down.
Friedman: You mean if you get that vibe at the door?
Kreuther: Yeah. You go in the shoe store, if you don’t like it, you walk out. You can do the same [in a restaurant], right? But I think young people love to eat. They’re getting more conscious. There is a consciousness going on about food, about quality.
Friedman: There’s a sophistication.
Kreuther: Yes. And I think they just have to behave the way ‑‑ just be yourself. You’re a client. Be yourself, you know? And the stuffiness comes from the people that are around you, not from yourself. And I think the idea of fine dining, it’s a cliche, but there is something nice about it, I think. And I think young people — we’re talking about people who are 25, 30 years old. If you take out all the crap we went through in the economy over the past eight or 10 years, they were 10 years old. So it’s the beginning of their really going out [this way] …
Friedman: What about the question of expense?
Kreuther: I think when you leave home and you go out in any restaurant you have in mind a little bit of a budget unless you [have unlimited money]. What can make it very, very expensive is when you go crazy on wine. But that’s a choice. You’re not forced on that, you know? In many great places you can have a good glass of wine for $12, $14. And hopefully the people who drive the beverage program make the right choices, because not every wine at $12 or $14 a glass is a good wine. That’s true, too. It comes down to the integrity of those people, too. It’s a lot about the integrity of what people do …
… I remember the beginning in New York when I dated my wife, we always went to good places. It’s like no, I’m not going there because all you’re going to save is twenty bucks and you’re going to go out and say it was no good. So instead of going three times a week, let’s go once or twice a week at a great place… it’s also a little bit what you’re looking for, you know? And I’d rather go all or nothing.
Friedman: Well, you’re not comparing it to zero, right? Your baseline menu is $98 for four courses, but that includes amuses, and three bread courses. You can spend somewhat less than that elsewhere, but you’re having fewer courses, and might be paying for things like bread.
Kreuther: Yeah, yeah. You’re not comparing it to zero. If you’re going out in this city you’re going to spend whatever you’re going to spend to begin with…
Friedman: I noticed when I was here a few days after the Times review that there was a very mixed-age crowd in the bar-lounge.
Kreuther: It’s a mix but it’s a lot of young people, and I like that. Young people like to eat… they’re interested. So it’s good. I think it’s going to work itself out.