How much of a hand do you have in the design of a space when you first open a restaurant?
I have a hand in every aspect, from the design of the kitchen, to the whole dining room. I mean, Jacques Grange had never done a restaurant before in his life. He mostly did residences, so The Mark was really his first project. When he built this, he said, ‘What do you need? How many tables? How many chairs? How many bars? What kind of texture are you looking for, etc.’ So you get involved. After building so many restaurants, I feel like I’ve become a first-hand designer, because I was involved in every aspect of it.
So it’s more like you’re a creative director now than a chef?
Half and half. I’m actually a third; the business is important too. A lot of chef’s think, ‘Okay, I build a restaurant for cooking my food, and I do my thing.’ The fact is, you have to think about paying rent, and paying the employees. It’s a business in the end. I do a couple of hours a day in the office to make sure the business is good, and that we have income and people come back. Then we have to keep up the decor and the upkeep of the place. And then the food has to be great. That’s the third thing that is very important. You try to create cravings to make people come back. You come back to ABC Kitchen for, I’m sure, two or three dishes, and then it attracts you. We have people at The Mark that come five times a week. It becomes their living room. I think we’re all creatures of habit. If you can create something that people have cravings for, they’ll come back – even if it’s for the flowers or the chairs.
Originally, what struck you about Asian cuisine? When did you know you wanted to integrate it into your food most of the time?
I was always fascinated by traveling and by spices and things. I started cooking way before you guys were born – 1973. I did five or six years in France, and I was always using spices, but I didn’t know where they came from. I was using black pepper, which doesn’t grow in France. I was using nutmeg, star anise, and mace, but I never knew where they grew or how they grew. I wanted to go to the source of where the spices were coming from. So in 1980, I went to Bangkok. I had an opportunity; I became a chef at the restaurant in the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. I was twenty-three, and it changed my life. At the time, no one was using ginger, lemongrass, chilies, or galangal, so I was like, ‘My God, this is amazing.’ And most of the spices you would find in Europe were dry. In 1980 you couldn’t find fresh ginger, fresh peppercorn, fresh lime leaf, and chili.
What do you think when people use the word fusion?
I think it’s been a little bastardized, but it’s a normal path. There is no kitchen without a piece of ginger now. Even Italians who are very stuck to everything have ginger in their kitchens. The world has become one. Everybody travels and you can have everything everywhere. I think we are fusions. Half Dutch, half French; everybody is from somewhere. Everyone is a mix today, and I think to mix food is totally logical.
Is there a trend in the New York restaurant scene that you’re not a fan of?
I’m not a fan of, and have never followed, that new molecular stuff – using a lot of chemicals. When it was the hottest thing around, I went in the polar opposite direction. I went to farm-to-table, to ABC Kitchen. I couldn’t cook with those gels and all of the different chemicals that people are using. I think food as a science is not for me. Food for nutrition, food for well-being, food for nurturing your soul – yes. If I eat a shrimp, I want it to look like a shrimp. I don’t want my shrimp to look like a noodle. I’m a purist when it comes to food; I really want the product to be the product. If it’s an all-organic chicken, you can season it with a little bit of licorice or something, and you create a new chicken, instead of chicken looking like a crab. I think creating a new flavor or a new sensation is good.
I prefer to waste my time looking for the best fisherman. A lot of people don’t know about fish, and have big boats that leave on Monday and come back Friday. Some of the fish that was caught on Monday has already been on ice for a week. That’s most of the fish you buy at Whole Foods, and all the supermarkets. We only work with small boats. They leave in the morning at six, and they come back at twelve. The fish is in the house at four o’clock in the afternoon. It’s like when you go to the market and you buy fresh corn or tomatoes. They were picked that morning or the day before, and when you have them the next day, they’re sweet and delicious. If you buy tomatoes from a green house and they are sitting on a shelf in the supermarket for months, how can they be good? I see people forget season as well. People are eating strawberries in December and there’s no flavor. They’re white inside. My goal is to source the best items I can find.