The lauded chef Laurent Gras, who left Chicago's L2O last year to move back to New York City, is still in the process of looking at spaces for a new restaurant in which to showcase his authorial cooking. A few days ago, Gras invited me to meet him at Coffee Shop in Union Square, where we discussed his sense of organization and discipline, his evolution as a chef, and why he's not afraid of failure.
Let's start by talking about Chicago. What did you like about it and what didn't you like about it?
It's a beautiful city with a wonderful summer. People are out, swimming in the lake and doing sports. But the winter is very hard. In a way, it's like two different cities.
I'm talking more about the restaurant culture.
It's a great culture. Different from New York, different from San Francisco.
How is it different?
New York is a more cosmopolitan city with more tourism, more European influences, and maybe more business. New York is more connected to the rest of the world.
Why did you decide to leave?
I decided to leave because I could be in a better situation here in New York. We happened to get three stars at L2O right when I was leaving, but this was just a coincidence.
There were some rumors floating around that you left when you found out about the Michelin ranking, and that there may have been some clashes within the restaurant.
It has nothing to do with that. I have a good relationship with my partner, but we just had two different visions. I'd rather leave than change my way of looking at things. Nothing was wrong. I think that everyone has greatness in them. If you read anything that I have said, nothing is negative. I have nothing bad to say.
What direction do you want to go in now?
What is the direction? I started 25 years ago to cook, spending 15 years in France and the rest here, so all of my basics are very strong. Then I moved to the US and discovered New York, a time when I synchronized what I had learned with Guy Savoy and Maximin. When I moved to San Francisco, I really discovered Asia and the idea of having relationships with farmers, which reminded me of my time growing up in the south of France. This whole experience has pushed me to go in the direction where I love Asian cuisine, especially from Japan, and French cooking, because it's a wonderful way of looking at technique and ingredients. French cooking also goes very well with Japan.
My question is, will it be different from what you did at L2O?
Yes, it will be an evolution.
Do you know in what way that will manifest itself?
I don't know exactly how. I don't force those things. Evolution is not something you plan. In twenty years, I of course want to be something different. But I can't plan what kind of guy I will be in twenty years. You can plan the near terms, of course. I know where I will be tomorrow, but it's hard to plan more than that. A lot of people know exactly what kind of restaurant they will open, but that is not necessarily me.
To illustrate this, consider what would happen by just a difference in location. Even if I wanted to open the same restaurant, it would end up different if it was in a space in Tribeca versus here [in Union Square]. It's not going to be 100 percent different, but maybe 10 percent. Even the plates have an effect. I may have a vision for what a dish should be or look like, but a small detail like the plates I have available can alter that.
I'm not in a rush. I just want to continue. What I cook is what I know the best. I'm not going to do casual.
So you're going for the stars again?
I want to do good cooking. For me, I don't say I want to open a three-star Michelin restaurant or four-star New York Times restaurant. That's an achievement. You cook for great food, because you are enthusiastic, inspired, and know there is potential in the restaurant. And that can lead you to three Michelin stars in one, two, or five years. If they come, they come, and it's great. But most of all, you do your best and what you feel is right, and then see what happens.
I was just talking about fine dining with Eric Ripert. Do you believe New York will welcome very high-end dining in this climate?
That's what I have been doing for 25 years. If you think about it, New York in the past five years has not had many fine dining restaurants open. Corton, Brooklyn Fare, but what else? I think everybody talks about casual now, but I think in a city like New York you need fine dining. People want to go out, have good food, be surprised, and have a great experience. If you look at Tokyo or Paris, you have many places for this, with pristine products and pristine preparations. If New York doesn't support that, there is a problem. A real problem. I'm very confident about this.
I'd like to talk about something you're known for, you're extreme sense of discipline.
It's not discipline as much as it is about organization. Cooking is very vague. I will speak as a chef, which is different than speaking as a cook. As a chef, you open restaurant and think about the menu, dream about the results —you have a vision. Then you have a team that has to absorb that. For this to happen properly, I believe you need to have a very specific organization.
What is your routine, for example?
My routine is working hard. When I was at the restaurant, I woke up at 5 o'clock in the morning to cycle and then be done at 7:30AM so I could be at the restaurant at 8:30AM to work until midnight. Nobody can replace a chef. Sure, you have a capable team, but there are ways to do things, touches, that nobody can see. It's your vision, and nobody can replace that.
And if I'm not mistaken, you're not one of those chefs that goes out and gets hammered after service; they wouldn't have cited you in that Times article about chefs being inspired by marijuana.
I don't believe in that. This is illusion. When you smoke marijuana, it's an illusion. You're high, everything is cool, and you feel creative. But it's not real. Realism is real life. It's when you wake up in the morning, you have a good coffee, and you have a good day. That's real life. It's not about daydreaming on a sofa completely stoned. It's being with people, sharing moments, and when you cook, that's what you do — with the staff, the customers, and the media. If you need something else, then there is something wrong.
What inspires you, then?
I get inspired by beauty. I went to the Alexander McQueen exposition at the Metropolitan. I love fashion. That's so inspiring: the craftsmanship, the work, the vision. You see paintings by Picasso, the cubism, and that's inspiring. When I watch a bicycle race on television, the way those guys cycle, so disciplined and strong, that's inspiring. A beautiful Ferrari is inspiring, since it's a result of great technology and material — of evolution.
Does your way of looking at things affect interactions with colleagues that might want to have more fun?
I respect everyone. My opinion is my opinion, and I don't want to change anyone. You know, I'm not five years old. When you grow up and get older, you balance all of this.
What made you decide to be this way?
I learned it myself. I teach myself to be like this.
Because I want to do better. You need to teach yourself how to improve. Mistakes are normal and good. They teach you what doesn't work. If you never make mistakes, you have a problem.
How would you describe the environment in one of your kitchens?
Everybody in my kitchen loves working with me. They say it's hard and that you don't have fun, but when they leave, they have learned something. They consider it an experience that they can't find somewhere else. A lot of my cooks who leave, they tell me that they miss working in the kitchen. They say they can't find that with another chef. The environment is good. It's disciplined. Everyone works, no one yells. The way I set up the kitchen, everyone has everything they need to be successful. I want no failure. If someone comes into my kitchen to work and they smoke marijuana, for instance, they will fail. You need to be well-rested, fit, and ready to work, and you will have all the tools to succeed. That's a fair game.
Last question: do you fear failure at all, coming back to New York and opening a new place?
No. I told you, I have a lot of confidence. That's maybe a strength, maybe a weakness, but it makes me feel good. I like to climb the mountain, and I have been doing it for 25 years. I can tell you that we are going to have fun and not be tired when we get to the top, because I've been doing it for so long that I know.
I will do whatever it takes to make it successful. I will, for sure. But I will have to work extremely hard.