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Daniel Rose on Tenuousness and Constant Discovery

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Photo: Spring

Here is part two of an interview with the chef Daniel Rose, of Spring Restaurant in Paris (see part one here). The concluding portion of the interview centers around Rose's thoughts on critics and bloggers, the overwhelming amount of work that goes into opening a restaurant, and the possibility that Spring, though very busy and very well-reviewed, may not last much longer.

What are your thoughts on blogger (and food writer) buzz?
The process of Spring Restaurant brings in people that like what we do. If you're open to that experience already, it's more than likely that it will please you. And those are the people that are excited about it and write about it.

But part of it is also that people get excited about this because it's in their best interests to be excited about this.

How do you mean?
There are people that are addicted to the restaurant scene, with who is opening what, when, and where. And I adore them. But most people in the world don't give a shit. If you're here and you write about this stuff, you can't just write that the same old thing is going on. "There's some OK stuff going on here." No. There has to be a wave of young chefs, there has to be a revolution, there has to be brilliance. It's not true.

So you think there's not much to all that's being written about Paris, that it's now one of the most exciting places to eat in the world?
I don't know. Is it that revolutionary? I'm wondering today if it's not the case that this sort of thing happens in New York all the time. That there's many more restaurants that are excellent in New York than there are in Paris. That's my notion. I'm not sure.

Is it really that big of a break from the past? Look at the reality of what's happening: these are not businesses that are going to function for a very long time. The first Spring was a total fantasy. It was not a functioning restaurant.

This restaurant here, I'm not sure how long I can keep it going. I could raise the prices, but that denatures the experience.

How much does it cost now?
64 Euro, which is not a small sum of money.

Slightly more than most of the restaurants people would group Spring into.
Right, so you could go to a similar restaurant like Séptime for less money. We're trying to avoid it. I can stick with this and make 1800 Euro a month for the rest of my life, but it's just not feasible. A guy in Spain at a shit coastal resort in Malaga with six tennis courts and a swimming pool makes 7000 Euro a month. How are you going to keep all this going? For the love of cooking? I don't think so.

Did you imagine that going into the first restaurant?

And opening the new, improved one?
No, and probably going into the next one I'll do the same thing. Because there is passion.

Talk a bit more about the state of the restaurant, why you don't know how long you can keep it going?
I can tell you that this restaurant cost me 1.4 million Euro to open. It took me three years to build it. This wasn't like I got off the plane and said, "Hey, I think I want to open a restaurant!" Even the other one was an experience that took five or six years to put into place. I had to study restaurants, figure out how to get a loan from the bank, and all of this took a long time during which I wasn't getting paid.

It's really not an investment that's rentable. But that's okay because it's a learning process.

So this Spring is a process that took three years of other restaurants, plus one year of time in between, plus two years of construction, plus a lot of dedicated people that put in time who weren't getting paid but imagined they would at some point in the future.

We asked ourselves what a wonderful restaurant is. A wonderful restaurant is a place where the customer is satisfied and feels they are getting an abundant exchange. It's the experience they want and they expect, and maybe even something more — every time they go. And it's a place where the people that work there are satisfied with what they do, they have time for a personal life, and there's a nice equilibrium between frustration and joy. And it's financially sound.

How do you see it now?
It's very fragile.

Even though you're packed night after night?
Despite the fact that it's full all the time and there are huge waitlists and all that, which is great. That doesn't mean it's making any money.

There are many constraints. In France it's difficult to hire, it's difficult to fire. Opening up a restaurant is difficult anywhere because once you figure something out, there's always more work to do. There's always room to improve.

So what happens?
You just go. You do it.

I mean, what's your plan?
I want to make this the best restaurant that it can be. But that could take twenty years. My tendency would be to change early and start over, but that would be a mistake, I think.

So you're going to ride it through?
I'm going to ride it out. You have to. People will comment either to me or in writing [negatively] that the restaurant is always changing. We just stopped serving lunch to be open later during dinner to take walk-ins. So what? It's a process of discovery. And a lot of people that come to Spring like that, because they're a part of that process.

I don't think we do anything on purpose to piss people off. We have sixteen people working at this restaurant, and all of them are super fucking talented. All of them are very nice and have a lot of experience. So when you have a customer that's not satisfied, it's a real shame, since you've spent so much time, effort, and money putting it into place. From getting the products, to the weekend spent thinking about the plate, how could you not be frustrated? It's hardcore.

Are you burnt out?
It probably sounds like it. Close to it.

I'll buy that maybe, but there are a lot of very successful people in this business who sound an awful lot like you. People who doubt themselves in really surprising ways.
You have to doubt yourself. It's constant. Pierre Gagnaire told me once, "The greatest thing I ever did was that I lasted." That's unbelievable. That's genius. Is everything coming out of his restaurant genius? No. But has he lasted? Yeah.

It's easy to make a restaurant like this for a year. There's all this energy, all this "go," this ability to put up with all these frustrations. The sewer system backed up last week and I spent 24 hours sitting in front of the thing making sure it wasn't going to explode. Then you read something on a blog about the restaurant not meeting up to the hype, and you're just like, "Wow. That sucks. I shouldn't be reading that."

Lots of creative people — David Byrne, when he's on tour, comes to mind — don't read reviews.
You can't. He's absolutely right. It actually fucks you up along the way, since it puts a bump in the process. But I'm also very curious. Today I measure the success of my restaurant not in terms of money but in terms of the satisfaction of customers. How many people come back,? How many people send their friends? A situation where someone wraps up dinner and says, "When can we come back? Can we stay for breakfast?" That's what's important.

Do you sense a certain fickleness in the critic/blogger scene? Is the love tenuous?
It is tenuous, of course. But you can't worry about that too much. Food critics don't come in for dinner every day. But plenty of people do, and they send in their friends.

But I live in a world that is constantly under assault. It's the challenge. This is the worst place in the world to open a restaurant. I really think so.

You really think that?
Go to New York. You can be open from 5:30PM to 11PM, do 300 covers.

People from all over the world come here, but most of our customers are from Paris. And that's the way that it has to be. They don't spend that much money. They don't have expectations that this is going to be a transformative experience, like someone visiting might. That's what's dangerous. Spring was invented for the Parisian that had been to all these three-star Michelin restaurants, which is one of the things that's crazy about people who might complain about the price of the wine list or something like that. It just proves that this is all about perspective. Someone might come in and think the portion sizes are regular, and that that's a relief, while another might come in and say, "Putain! There's nothing to eat."

What I ask of my staff is that they try to treat people like human beings, and I think people who come to our restaurant should act the same way.

In other words, don't immediately turn to negativity?
You were telling me on the walk over here that the place you had lunch at today wasn't too great. And that's frustrating, because who wants to pay 60 Euro for a shitty lunch? Is it really a service, though, to take to the megaphone and say that place sucks? I'm not sure. It could have been an off day, and there very well could have been people in there who loved it. I know for a fact that our worst days at Spring now are better than our mediocre days a year ago. And there have been moments where I think things are going brilliantly, and then I hear the opposite. Or when I think things are in the shit, all I get is praise. I'm fascinated by the whole thing.

What I'm trying to get at is that the credibility of people who write about this stuff has less to do with what they write that's negative than with their silence.

In what sense?
[A journalist] was telling me that she had had a bad experience at a restaurant, and she asked me if she should write about it. I told her not to waste her time. Write about a place you like. And the reality is she could send somebody there and they could end up hating it.

But what about places that purport a certain level of credibility, talent and quality?
The question is who purports that? Look at this new place Agapé Substance. Who purported that the guy is a genius? He never did. He just said he opened a restaurant. He just hopes, like most people that do this, that there's an audience for what he does. But what happened? A blogger wrote "Genius!" And today, something else came out, and guess what it said? "Not a genius." This is all instead of saying that it's interesting and that it will be great to watch him grow.

I suppose it's okay in cases where it's egregious and offensive. It's a difficult question. But for the most part that negativity is dangerous.

Before we wrap this up, I want to ask: are you happy?
Yes. This is a process of anguish and frustration, but I'm positive. Someone just told me that their dad has kidney cancer. Another guy came into the restaurant and told me that his pregnant wife has cervical cancer. I got nothing. This is a restaurant. It's the center of the universe but not the center of any important universe. So, I'm pretty good.

Spring is not the end of the road. Some day we'll make a better one, and then after that we'll make another one.

When we were about to open the new Spring, I was telling Alec Lobrano that restaurants aren't really restaurants. I mean that in the sense that cooking is a way into the world, a way to learn about people and a city. That's why I like Pierre Gagnaire, because you are in front of somebody who is engaged in that struggle.

Today at lunch, you felt like you were in front of somebody that just wanted your 60 Euro. It comes down to this: you need to fight to preserve your integrity, you need to fight to have enough tools to sustain your process, and you just have to keep going.

· Daniel Rose on Integrity and the Perils of Paris [-E-]
· All Daniel Rose Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Paris Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Spring Restaurant

6 Rue Bailleul 75001 Paris, France

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