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Daniel Rose on Integrity and the Perils of Paris

Photo: Gabe Ulla/Eater.com

I first heard the name Daniel Rose when I was living in Paris for a brief time last year. The young chef and Illinois native had just opened Spring Restaurant on the rue Bailleul to hype from ex-pat bloggers and local critics alike. As many a post and article revealed, Rose had earned a serious, loving following at the original Spring, the tiny restaurant in the Ninth Arrondissement where he first modestly showcased his abilities with market-driven contemporary French fare that didn't break the bank.

It's not surprising that the new incarnation has been a critical success, the most recent indication of which comes in the form of a glowing review in the New York Times from Christine Muhlke. Nor is it a shock to see that the former American University student speaks of integrity, of the endless learning process involved in being a chef, and the beauty of interacting with different people with different stories in and from different parts of the world.

What is unexpected, as our chat over the weekend revealed, is that Rose doubts himself endlessly; if you were to speak to this guy for a few minutes, with no knowledge of his back story, you'd think he was a failure. Equally curious are his thoughts on the new wave of Parisian chefs ("Are we really that talented?") and his assessments of his restaurant one year in ("It's very fragile"). Here's part one of the conversation:

For those that might not be familiar, run through your story.
I was a student in Paris studying the history of mathematics and philosophy. I finished that, dropped out of college, then tried to join the French foreign legion, and then went back to college, graduated, and decided I would go to cooking school because it seemed interesting.

Where?
In Lyon, at Bocuse. I did that for a little while but I hate school.

After you graduate from college, school is kind of funny. I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have at the time, but I was anxious to go out and learn stuff. I spent a school year there and then went to a couple of different stages that became apprenticeships and then became jobs.

Where?
L'Auberge des Abers was one, another one was at a place owned by Pascal Alonso outside of Avignon, and in Brussels at a three-star Michelin. I also floated around some kitchens in Paris. I didn't have working papers so that was interesting. I did that for three years and then went back to the states thinking I could get a cool job.

I spent a day at a kitchen in Chicago called North Pond, then at a restaurant called Tru for one day as well.

Just one day at Tru?
It was awful. I mean, it just wasn't interesting. It might have been a good restaurant — I have no idea — but it just wasn't interesting. There was stuff to learn, but I realized I wasn't going to be fascinated by that, and furthermore, that it was that I liked to live in France or at least "somewhere else" more than I liked to cook. The idea of doing this in Chicago lost all its magic.

Plus the products aren't really that good in Chicago. There's no notion of seasonality. You're putting a lot of effort into something that's just not going to be as good. I can't cook with the shit stuff.

You think products are that bad in the States?
It's not just about the product. It's about the whole experience leading up to it. If you're excited to be somewhere and you have great product, then all of those things can come together to create something that really sings.

So I left Chicago about two weeks after I got there and moved to Guatemala, where I got my first chef job. It was at a small, 60-room hotel. The equivalent of a Relais & Chateaux. It was in many ways more French than France, since we had product coming in in the morning that had been picked a few hours before at night. It was neat. I did that for a year and got to learn a good bit about being in charge. There was also no financial barrier since we were buying in quetzal and selling in dollars. There was a lot of freedom in that sense.

Then I moved back to Paris after a year — a year's about my limit for most things. I got married to my girlfriend at the time, and that helped because I needed papers. That wasn't the reason for it, but it certainly advanced things. I also worked at Le Meurice for three months with Yannick Alleno

How was working with Alleno?
I don't think there was much imagination as to the idea of a what a restaurant could be, but I saw that the thing about great French cooking is technique and brute force. That you can rise to a really high level of cooking. He's very talented and makes very expensive food. I don't feel like anything I made there was exceptionally delicious or worth the price.

There's no correlation between price and quality in some places, and there doesn't have to be. It's a different market and a different system. Those types of restaurants are not for the type of people that want to go to Séptime and Frenchie and Saturne.

Are you adamantly opposed to the idea of the three-star, 300 Euro tasting menu?
No, not at all. I was at Pierre Gagnaire for dinner a few nights ago, and I love it. I mean, is it better than something I had at the Chapeau Melon? No. It's different. It's coherent, it's intègre. That's what's important in all circumstances. I had just as much fun at a place that charged me 36 Euro as I did at one that charged me literally 2500 Euro for dinner. It's all about integrity and coherence.

What for you constitutes integrity and coherence in a restaurant experience?
An equilibrium between the price and the quality of the execution and the idea. I don't mind going to a place that's not very expensive and there's lots of great ideas and it's pretty well executed. Sometimes I also don't mind going to a place that's really expensive and there's some idea and it's not very well executed either. Which is essentially what Pierre Gagnaire has going on. Sometimes it's better than others. I noticed that an appetizer is 130 Euros, and I thought...

This better be damn fantastic?
No. Because if you have that attitude going into it, you're going to get screwed. Nothing you eat is worth that when you abstract it, when you think about how much work you have to do to get that. You just have to do it. This is what it is.

The question is whether you want that whole thing — going to a place where as much effort and thought goes into one dish as it does for an entire menu at other places — and how much you're willing to pay for it. Cooking isn't just about who cooks the best. It's about who cooks the best thing at the best price day after day for the most number of people possible. At least I think.

So I respect the quality of the work that goes into it. Nothing was bad, and a lot of things were close to brilliant. I don't know if the whole thing is cynical or the very opposite of cynical.

Look, I'm going to Chicago soon and people are telling me, let me make a reservation for you at this restaurant from Grant Achatz. But I only have a few days there and I just don't want to. Is it amazing? Probably. But would I much rather be with my cousins, mom, and dad eating something off the barbecue? Absolutely. I won't ever regret not going to that restaurant.

All this long process I'm explaining boils down to something really simple: being curious about restaurants and learning about how they work. During Le Meurice I thought I could do something, not necessarily amazing. But I could open up a place and learn along the way. So that's what I did, opening up a place with whatever means I had, however I could. And the only way I could make anything halfway edible for anyone was to not have too many covers and to make the same thing for everybody.

Which seems to be in line with what many talented Parisian chefs have been doing.
Are we really talented?

A lot of people who know a thing or two about restaurants in this city seem to really enjoy it.
That's the question, really. What is the end result? I don't think it's the sum of a talented chef. It's the opposite. Somebody doesn't want to be a chef.

But many have described these chefs as having the chops to work in those three-star kitchens.
They have the taste and the vision. But in my case, I don't have the capacity or the technique to run a kitchen with more than one menu. It would be a disaster.

I think it's smarter for them to reduce the number of distractions from the food, which is what you do when you take away the choice on a menu. You concentrate on one menu and give a better price. So we don't piss too many people off, we make the best food we can. I would never consider myself a talented chef. I have a few notions about being able to pull this off for a certain number of people. I may have gotten closer to the essential experience of a restaurant, though, which is great for people like you, who don't care what I decide to make. But for others, they might come in and say, "I can't choose? What kind of a restaurant is this?"

Sure, it's an interesting phenomenon. But some day I hope to have a restaurant like Pierre Gagnaire. That's luxe! I want a restaurant where someone wants écrivisses, another wants turbot, and maybe they'll order something else to share. That's a grand restaurant.

You really don't think you're doing anything special.
I don't want to change any paradigms. I just want to find the right customer for the right experience.

I've never been to a restaurant that has reinvented the wheel, and those that try to, I don't end up liking too much. A restaurant is a place where you go to have a nice time. It can be, but it usually isn't, a transformative experience. And it usually doesn't have as much to do with the food as you would think.

It's happened in the restaurant before. If we are vibrating on the same wavelength, then it happens. But there are so many factors that are outside of anyone's control. It's a fascinating thing.


In part two of the interview, Rose talks about what it takes to open a restaurant, bloggers and critics, and being burnt out (or not).


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Spring

6 Rue Bailleul 75001 Paris, France