Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Shaun Hergatt

Chef Shaun Hergatt shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.April 2013

Australian-born chef Shaun Hergatt took the Financial District by storm when his restaurant, SHO Shaun Hergatt at the Setai Hotel, received two Michelin stars and a solid 29 across the board in the Zagat Survey when it opened back in 2009. That same year, he was honored with the spot for “best new restaurant” in New York Magazine and Esquire, and in 2010 New York Times reviewer Sam Sifton awarded him two stars. In the last eight months, a lot has changed for Hergatt. He left his eponymous restaurant, which has since closed, and he’s moved on, and uptown, with a the much anticipated restaurant Juni in the newly refurbished Hotel Chandler in Murray Hill. This being the first of many concepts he is developing in his new role as Executive Chef and Principal of ESquared Hospitality.

We sat down with the chef in March to find out what it was like to leave his namesake restaurant, his plans for Juni—and beyond—as well as his philosophy on being a successful chef and restaurateur.

How did you wind up cooking professionally?
My grandmother used to cook with me at a very young age, and my father was a chef when I was young. In year 10 [of school] in Australia they send you out for two weeks to work, to see whether you like it. I went to a kitchen in a hotel and it was just crazy. I didn’t want to do it. Then when I hit year 12, I was a bellman in a very small hotel, just for pocket money. The executive chef asked me if I wanted to do an apprenticeship, when I was finishing school, and I ended up doing it. I was only there for a year and a bit, then I moved to a fine dining restaurant, after that, then I found my way.

Did you always want to become a chef?
I wanted to be an art teacher. When you are young, you don’t know what you want to do, you lock yourself into something. I am the type of guy, because I had so many people in my life that never finished anything, I was like “I have to finish this.” I don’t like to start something and not finish it. It’s 21 years in and I can’t stop. The train is moving forward and you have to stay with the momentum.

When did you first come to cook in New York?
I came to New York in 2001.

Did you experience any kitchen culture shock?
No. I found the American system a little bit different because the kids come out of school after two years and they are already working. You have to adjust your style because European kitchens, and also the kitchens I grew up in, are very militant. Very strict. Whereas American kitchens are strict to a certain extent, but they are also more social. You can’t beat them up too much, you have to be a little more proactive in the way you speak to people.

Catch us up, how did you wind up leaving SHO and join ESquared Hospitality?
It took me a year to open [SHO] with my old partner. We had opened for three years, and three years on the dot I decided to move my brand. Because there were certain things that were not being connected well, so we split our partnership. Six months before the third year anniversary, I had been consulting on Juni, I was going to open it as my second restaurant. Jimmy Haber, the owner of ESquared, said he wanted me to come work for him. I said no, because I already had an existing restaurant and I was about to open a second one. And over a course of six months, he and I started talking and we built a relationship and we came to an organized idea and signed a contract and then basically, he said let’s move SHO to a better location, and as you are already consulting on Juni, we will open up multiple restaurants. I have always considered that I would obviously like to expand, because I would like to have five or six or however many restaurants you build in your lifetime. So I thought it was a great opportunity.

Was it hard to leave SHO behind and all the details you put into it?
For me it is extremely important to understand that SHO was a great success and it was always going to be very dear to my heart, because it was the first restaurant I had back in New York. But, there are also another probably 20 restaurants that I will open in the city in my lifetime.

There is a lot to look forward to, in a positive nature, and there will be a time where I re-launch something of the level of what SHO was, but in a much better location. I would like that to become a 20-year-old restaurant. The plan for SHO was to keep it and make sure it was going to be a life-long restaurant, but unfortunately partners are like a marriage and sometimes you get divorced. But that’s okay. This is life. You move on, you have more children, you have another spouse, and you grow and you live and you stay positive.

You mention location, how did location come into play when planning for Juni?
With the refurbishment of the hotel they put a bunch of money into cleaning it up, but there had never been a restaurant in there. So we found the space and we put this concept together. It’s going to be a boutique restaurant with just 55 seats, it’s going to be beautiful. It is going to be something that is fine dining, equal to what I cooked at SHO, but it has a lot of different nuances and a very different feel. It’s just not like anything you have ever seen.

Does that mean there will be exotic elements?
There are so many different levels of the experience. It is not gimmicky—it is all about going there to eat true food that tastes delicious. It’s place where you can feel casual. It is a place that makes a statement, but the food is going to be excellent and it is going to be a place where people want to go.

Is there anything you learned from SHO that influenced your plans for Juni?
The one thing I learned from SHO is that people loved the dining room with 60-70 seats, but the front of house, where we had the big bar, didn’t take off. I guess I realize I am in the restaurant business and not in the bar business.

Are you thinking of the reviewers when you are creating the concept?
I believe people have success in their life and they have failures and the funny thing is, what is your interpretation of success and failure? Some people said [SHO] was a great restaurant, some people thought it was an anachronism and they all had their own opinion about the restaurant. My biggest concern, as a restaurateur and as a chef, is not the press, it is not the opinions, it’s about what’s on the plate. That for me is key.

How does that drive you?
When people come and eat in my restaurant and they eat my food, I am delivering a product that I want you to love. I want you to come back and spend your money with me because you love the experience so much that you become a loyal fan and a loyal client. That is my goal. That is what I drive for. And everything else comes later on.
I couldn’t sit there and tell you I was ever going to get three 29’s in Zagat. I never could tell you I was going to get two Michelin stars or “best new chef” in this, and best new restaurant from Esquire. If you are excellent in what you do, then these things come. It’s almost like a reward to say here’s a pat on the back. That we recognize that you are really excellent at what you do. That is a great compliment and that does drive business to a certain extent, but the reality of it is, you are coming in for a personal experience with me. It is not just coming to have a dinner, this is a true, life experience. We make memories for people. All of the great restaurants that I have ever worked or eaten in, that is the philosophy. If you have a young couple get engaged at your restaurant and you give them the best table and amazing service, you have just created something that they will talk to their grandchildren about. But on the flip side, you have the responsibility if something goes wrong, then you also have the responsibility to carry that you could ruin a life experience for them too. Because if they are getting engaged and they have a terrible meal and the service is bad, then you have already integrated into their life and they will never forget that.

Maybe you’ll derail the whole plan?
You never know. But there is a lot of crazy stuff that happens in a restaurant. People always see it from a client’s perspective, but I always see it from many different angles.

When the doors to Juni open on day one, what goes through your mind?
You are happy you are open, but it’s a marathon. It has nothing to do with the first three months of your life. Three months in a restaurant and you haven’t even burned the kitchen out so it tastes correct. It takes time to get the terroir of the food. You have to work on the synergy of human beings so you have flow with the service. No restaurant I have ever been to in the first year is excellent. It takes a full year to get under your belt so you can get in the rhythm and once you are in the rhythm—that’s when things start to click.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be in the business?
If you like responsibility, multi-tasking, and you like to commit your life to a career—then this is the right thing for you. But if you don’t like any of those three: you don’t want to sacrifice your life for you career, if you don’t like to multi-task, and if you don’t like to really dedicate everything you do in your life to this, then don’t do it.
Everybody says I want to be like this chef, or I would like to be like that chef, I want to be a Thomas Keller. But what you don’t know, is when he is standing in the kitchen at four in the morning cleaning a pig’s head because he is making the terrine, and he goes to bed for a couple of hours, goes back to work at nine—you don’t know the commitment level of what you are doing. You have to be a perfectionist in your mind. Then you have the business side of it, you have the human side of it—where you have to deal with different human nature and different psychology of people and you have to deal with their successes and problems. Then you have your own mind to deal with, your own competitive mind that is always racing because there is never enough time in the day to be able to create what you want to do. I am two years away from 40, and I feel like I am in a bit of a manic stage where I am losing my life and I haven’t created enough and I haven’t built enough. It is a complete obsession.

Turning forty does make you think, “What have I done so far and how fast do I have to work to do the other things I haven’t?”
I feel like 50 percent of my life is gone and that is a reality. For me I can’t stay up any more in the day and I can’t work any more in the day, because there is no more day left. “I don’t have that third star” and “I don’t have that fourth star” and that is the craziness of my life.
Because it is not a choice, it is not a want. You want to have money in the bank, right? That is a choice. I have been building my entire life towards this silly thing. If I die without it, then I have just built my entire life for a goal I have never achieved.

But obviously, you do love what you do. Why do you love being a chef?
There is a very social thing about it, you mentor a lot of people. I got to the point in my life now where I can educate, that is important. I am still in love with taste and smell and sight. But I sometimes wonder what it would be like not to be a chef.

You think about being an art teacher?
I used to smoke cigarettes and I was in love with these things because I just loved smoking—it was cool. I was always sitting there thinking I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t smoke. Anyway, I haven’t smoked for almost a decade, but there is life after it. You do have things that fill in that position, because cigarettes really dictate your life. Then I compared that to my job—it is not as cancerous and definitely not as detrimental to your health, in some ways, but I am sure there would be a life outside of cooking. I just don’t know what it would be. But I think I am going to cook until I die.