Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Gray Kunz

Chef Gray Kunz shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.January 2007

Swiss Chef Gray Kunz instantly seduced Americans when he moved to New York in 1989, with his decidedly modern flavors, inspired by his youth in Singapore and Switzerland, five years with famed Michelin-starred chef Freddy Girardet, and time as an executive chef in Hong Kong. In his nine years at Lespinasse he earned a four-star rating from the New York Times and much critical and popular acclaim, but left in 1998 to pursue other projects. He opened Café Gray in the Time Warner Center in 2004, to the greatest satisfaction of the many who had long awaited his return to the forefront of the culinary scene. The Main Course met him there recently.

What is your concept for Café Gray?
Café Gray is a concept that I initially have seen in Eastern Europe. I fell in love with this whole idea of being able to come somewhere where you could feel comfortable anytime of the day. I could have never done the cuisine that they're doing over there, it would have just never worked. The best thing to do was to just to continue with the cuisine I'd been doing in the past, simplifying it to a certain extent, without losing the main flavors and the main ingredients. There's an idea also after that, hopefully in the next year or two, to build a Café Gray Bakery, which is a very important part of this concept. The way we serve coffee here is very different — just the whole display and the coffee that we've chosen. One of the ideas was to have a link between New York and Eastern Europe. That's why we have this kitchen that's so modern in many ways, by the windows, where customers are actually seeing into the kitchen, seeing everything that happens, basically. That's the New York element of the whole idea.

Some people are critical of that design though, right?
I knew that was going to happen. I did it deliberately. I knew that there were also physical constraints that I had with the space. If I had done it in the normal way, I would have had one third of the dining room less in size.

What is your relationship with the press? They're not always kind to you.
I don't know why. I don't have a problem with the press at all. My policy with the press is to just stay away from it as much as I can because I think there are a lot of the issues that, as an owner, I have to work out. But it's actually nobody else's business but mine.

And I feel very strongly about that because I have to run this. I have the financial obligation to make it work. And the press, you know, can help or not help but I still have to push the organization forward. And I have to return to my investors. And pay the rent every day and pay my staff. My policy on that is just everybody that comes in here, into this restaurant, is my guest. I provide them with the highest quality and the highest level of food service and ambience that they can have, and that will be ultimately be my test. That's the best press you can get.

How did your time in Singapore, Switzerland, and Hong Kong influence who you are now?
It was very important. Particularly with the multifaceted aspect of what I'm doing today. I'm a New Yorker by now, but if I had the option I would probably call Switzerland my home. I think the Swiss part brought the solidness, the trustworthiness, the aspect of when I say something, I do it. The way I think, influenced by my schooling, my upbringing, and my dad, is say less and deliver more. Then I have the artistic aspect from my mother's side. The upbringing in the Far East, working in Hong Kong, my internship in Switzerland, having all that solid basic training — New York was kind of the culmination of all those things put together. Actually it's the perfect time for me, and my career, and my life to be here in New York. It's been 18 years and it's still going on. I was very lucky to find the right mix, the right crowd that would understand what I'm doing. Where things were happening, from a culinary point of view, but also from a business point of view.

How has New York changed from when you came here 18 years ago?
It's changed a lot. It's first and foremost a much safer city. It's a cleaner city. It's a city that'll always be vibrant in the financial realm, in the political realm, the cultural realm. I think New York has still a lot to give. In my profession, restaurants are highly regarded as entertainment, as a place to go to. Therefore I think this is the ideal city for me to be doing what I'm doing. But the distinction between business and private life has to be very carefully felt through, especially if you are a chef or an owner. That's why I own a house upstate. I need to get out of the city, in order to be able to cope with all the things that I have to cope with. Family is really something that's very difficult for a chef to be able to maintain. I think the relationships, and the family, and having your wife support what you're doing, are an invaluable contribution. It helps also that my wife is Swiss; she understands what I'm doing. She, I think, understands that I probably will go the extra mile, even if I didn't need to do that. That's who I am. That's what I do. I cannot have anything done halfway. I just can't.

Is that a national trait?
That's probably a national trait, yes [laughs]. I think also an important fact in today's world of chefs, and their global organization and things like that. One important factor that is really a key element of what Café Gray is going to become in the organization — because it's going to grow — is that I'm still here every day. I'm in the kitchen, I work with my team. I have all the other assets that need to be taken care of, of course. But I'm here every day, in this restaurant.

Would you open another four-star restaurant?
[laughs] That's a good question. You know, I think there's maybe a place in town for me to do that. But I just know what it takes to do it from many, many years at that level. I want to have some fun with Café Gray. This releases me from all the pressures, having to pick up a glass that costs 50 dollars and it breaks, it's a big deal. I want to make sure that I can have a little bit more fun in the business that I have been doing for so long. Will there be a fine dining restaurant along the way? There probably will be. But it will at my time and my call, when I feel it's the right time. I need to also be careful about the fact that a fine dining restaurant is not the best source of revenue. It is an emblem for the group. I have that emblem with Café Gray. So I'm not quite sure that I'm going to be doing that right away. I don't think so. It's going to be a couple years down the road.

You talked about 50 dollar glasses in a fine dining restaurant. But you've never been known to cut corners before. Have you had to here?
No, not here. I never have. We still deliver all the things that we need to do. I just have to be smart about it. A lot of things that you see here are specifically created for this restaurant. I'll never cut corners, at any level. Whether it's a four star restaurant or a hotdog stand, I'll always have the highest level in that category of restaurant.

How did you train your staff to be at that level?
Every day. All the time. I have some very good people with me. Who support the idea. Who are in here in the long run with me. But it is a constant training all the time. They are extremely dedicated, I think because initially when we put this together, I said ‘There will be more things to come, and you'll be part of that expansion.' Everybody's looking to grow in their careers, the same way I am. My goal is to have these key people as partners later on down the road.

What do you look for in a young chef or cook whom you're going to hire and train?
I don't necessarily need to see the resume. For me, it's the character the person has. Maybe that person doesn't have all the technical skills, but I can teach technical skills. The skills I can't teach are character, determination, goodwill, persistence. Someone who wants to learn has a very good, positive attitude in the profession. These are things that will come as a package to a person. The other part is taste. You'll be surprised how much I struggle with that every day.

With your staff?
With everybody. It's very hard for me to teach them how I taste. It's one of the most difficult things for me to do, because they'll never have [quote unquote] the palate that I have, because I've been specifically trained. I hope they have a good palate. But it's hard for me to train them, to tell them how to season if they don't know, to a certain extent, how to season themselves. And all the preparation in the world doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to season.

Do you ever take your staff on trips, to help them learn these flavors you grew up with?
We haven't done that yet. We're only two years old. I think this will happen probably in the third year. What we'd like to do is to have a system built in where staff can actually go out to the restaurants, and try things. It's also goodwill for the staff, that they can go and do that. I challenge them, here, so much, with flavors and tastes, every day. But after a while, those who really understand that, they really get it. And then, they start challenging me. They come to me with the dish and say, okay, so, what's missing in here? Can you tell me what kind of spices are in there? Then I know that person is there.

Are there things you don't put on the menu?
There are some exotic things that I would never put on the menu.

Such as?
I don't know, kangaroo [laughs]. One thing I would never put on the menu are endangered species. I follow very carefully the species that are not only protected, which you can't use anyhow, but species, mainly seafood, that are really over-caught, over-fished. I stay away from those, because I just don't believe in that. There are other things that I don't use that are really too ethnic, that are very hard for people to understand, although I could implement them. Mainly, if I do stay away from something, it's probably more related to seafood. I've been asked, by people calling me, to take foie gras off the menu, and I said, I'm absolutely not going to do that. I believe in the product, and it's been around for a long time. I think it's fine.

Does a chef have a responsibility to be aware of what's sustainable and what's not?
They have to be far more responsible, in a sense. I think chefs and restaurateurs could actually change the flow of that in a very big way. I'll give you an example. Swordfish, a couple of years ago, was basically arriving as smaller, and smaller, and smaller fishes. A lot of chefs just stopped using it because we knew there was a problem, and the species is coming back now. Not that we're only ones doing that, but there's a demand for certain things. And we can counterbalance that by having a better knowledge about what kind of products are really being over-fished and not use them.

Do you talk about that with your staff?
I'm always talking about that. We're trying as much as we can to use organic products as well, which I think is an obligation for us to do. I don't mention it on the menu, but it's just part of the exercise I'm doing in order for customers to take advantage of things. This should be my research. If you go to a financial person and say, can you manage my portfolio, you expect he can manage the portfolio. I see it the same way. As the public comes and eats here, I need to manage the food products.

What are your feelings on such issues as organic shipped from Argentina, organic grown locally, and non-labeled organic?
I'm always very strongly in favor of local. My dream is to build my own farm one day. It could happen. I just have a lot on my plate right now, but that's one of my big dreams, to be able to produce something on my own farm and have it used in the restaurant. So, local is, for me, very important. And I think local cuisine in America is something that is going to be emerging in a very big way. Whatever you can find regionally, you know it's the best food that you can find right there. I would love to learn more about what grows in Kentucky, or what I can find in New Mexico. These are things that will be very important to, to create more synergy and more of what is American cuisine.

What do you think of inspectors showing up in your kitchens to see if you have trans-fats?
I think it's great. I'm a fervent believer that we shouldn't be using any of those fats, because we don't break them down in our bodies. I was just talking to somebody today about it. I think that the very big corporations that are using a lot of oil will feel the pinch. I absolutely believe that trans-fats should not be anywhere, period.

Will that affect you in any way, if there's no trans-fats to be had here?
I would never use that. We even use grape seed oil to deep fry. I don't fool around with that. For me, that's a health issue. The customer's health on the line. And that's top priority.

Who are the people who've had an influence on you?
Freddy Girardet, there's no question about that. From a culinary standpoint, he certainly has had the biggest influence, and still has. There's a small handful of friends who have influenced me a lot, in helping me get through the difficult business decisions that I had to make, versus the culinary aspect. I must say, my wife should come first, she's the supporting factor. And family. I also can be very inspired by a young chef if I see the drive, the enthusiasm. I have to help this person, guide his enthusiasm in the right director, so he doesn't lose the spark that he has. In any profession, the people that have succeeded have had mentors with them that were able to create and maintain the dialogue that helped that person through difficult times. It's not when everything goes well that you really see the character of the individual. It's when the hard times come. I've always had a lot of support in that sense. But I've also gone through very difficult times, in order to have a business open in New York. A non-American doing that is even more difficult.

Although, for me, America has given me everything that I ever had or dreamed of. This is a country where the dream can still happen, as long as you work really hard at it. And I think I'm working hard. I've worked harder in my life in New York than even in Europe, because there are other issues involved with it. But I never gave up on the idea of becoming an owner one day. It took me a long time to figure out how.

Did the six-year break between Lespinasse and Café Gray help you?
Well, that reinforced the fact that I said I could never go back and be an employee again. I just couldn't. It was very difficult because I don't think I had, unfortunately, the business skills that I needed to have when I went out. I didn't think it'd be a problem to find the money. But it was a problem. And it was a very demoralizing factor. I thought, I've worked so hard for my whole entire life, do I need to give up all of this in order to just open my business? I was not going to do it if it was not right. If it's not with the right people, if it's not the right money, if it's not the right combination of team, and all that. I took a tremendous amount of time, more than I ever anticipated. I wrote a cookbook [The Elements of Taste with Peter Kaminsky]. I did a lot of things in between, I helped Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] open Spice Market.

How were you trained?
I did my apprenticeship, and I always wanted to go into the hotel school. I actually had signed up at the Lausanne hotel school. Then, I got a call from Girardet to come and work for him, and that got, got canned. I worked with him for almost five years. When I went to Hong Kong, that was my first chef position, really running a complete team. A lot of them didn't speak English.

You went straight from Girardet to running a team in Hong Kong?
Yes. That was very difficult, but once again, I stumbled upon the fact and said, you know what, I'm here, trying to teach these people how to do something. They barely speak my language. I have to learn maybe their language, but most importantly of all, if I don't adapt to what they think or what they are trying to convey to me, I might as well go home. There was a very short period of time where I actually was contemplating to go back, because it was very difficult for me. But at the same time, I, all of a sudden, found ways to do something. That team, still today, I remember it as being a team that was so cohesive, that would have gone through fire for me. When I left, I went back to Switzerland for about eight months. I did the restaurant hotel ownership school in Lausanne, always with the intention of opening my own business. But then, my wife was pregnant with the second baby. I had my daughter. I needed to go and find some work and earn some money. I came to New York through a connection from Hong Kong. I was chef at the Peninsula for three years, and then, I moved over to Lespinasse. I was there almost nine years, and now, here.

Have you ever thought of brand extension beyond restaurants?
I have. There are other things that I would like to do. I just don't feel comfortable with putting another olive oil on the shelf with my name on it. There are too many of them already there, so I just feel that there needs to be something more, something different that is going to make it worthwhile for me to do that. I have a whole bunch of ideas about food products, but there are a lot of food products out there already. I'm interested in maybe creating food flavors, perfumes. Not perfumes that you put on your body — perfumes that you can actually taste.

Would they go in dishes?
It could be that. I mean extract the natural perfumes that could be utilized. I think a second cookbook is probably something that needs to get done. What else can I think of? There are concepts. I'm not quite sure. I don't know about restaurant concepts. I just think that with these two restaurants, I'll have my hands full. If the opportunity comes along, and maybe there's an opportunity out there already, to go back to the Far East, I would definitely do that.

But that's a place where you couldn't walk 10 minutes and be there.
That's right. That needs a whole different organization.

If you could do anything, regardless of consideration of cost, whether it's a restaurant or fly to the moon, what would you do?
Well, I have my pilot's license, so, maybe I'm not too far from hitting that [laughs]. I just got it, actually, yesterday, or the day before. One of the dreams I've had, for a long time, is, A, get the pilot's license, and B is to maybe, you know, create a business inside the business, looking at how hospitality could influence a flight for customers, and then, relate that together with food, and then, maybe even fly the plane myself [laughs]. So, that's my dream.

What type of planes do you fly?
A single engine right now. It's a pilot license, but it's really a license to learn. And then, you can go on and do your instrument rating, and so forth. I don't know where I found the time to do it.

That's what I was going to ask you.
I found it on weekends. I squeezed every moment that I could in the morning, early, to learn, and it's tremendous. It's a great feeling.

Do you give yourself weekends off?
With the flying, I've done it, yes. I try to, and it's worked out pretty well. My staff has supported me with this. They actually gave me the initial present to do my flying school, because they know that's something that I always wanted to do, about a year and a half ago. I'm trying to be much more cautious of what I'm doing with my own time. If the business owner is tired, the staff and the business will be tired. I still work a very hefty day. But if the evenings are a little bit quiet, I can justify leaving a bit earlier. But I'm so involved with this operation. Many people are amazed at how much time I spend here. This is what I love. I love to see what the progress is.

That's pretty unique, in your position.
I'm here every day because the people, they're like sponges around me. They're just dying to see something new, that I'm there with them. I don't think this would have been ever the restaurant that it is today without me being here. I truly believe so. But it's heavy on my shoulders.

-- Anne E. McBride