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….