Last night, chef Gray Kunz died at the age of 65. A wildly influential chef most known for his work at ’90s destination Lespinasse in New York and the invention of clutch kitchen tool the Kunz Spoon, Kunz was most recently working at a hotel group in Asia where he helmed locations of his restaurant Cafe Gray in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Food world figure Dana Cowin today called him “a giant in culinary history,” who “shaped palates, influenced so many young chefs and of course gave us one perfect spoon.” Ruth Reichl tweeted that he was “one of our truly great chefs, who literally changed food in America.”
In 2012, I wrote a timeline/oral history of Lespinasse for Lucky Peach’s third issue. The piece covered Kunz’s work as a chef and mentor and boss, as well as the larger history of the restaurant’s ultimate demise in the early aughts. Kunz trained an entire generation of devoted chefs, but his legacy is not without controversy. When a hostess filed a sexual harassment complaint against a maitre d’ at the hotel, Kunz fired the hostess, leading to a front-of-house walk-out and protest. He left the restaurant nine months later. He then went on to open Cafe Gray (2004 to 2008) and Grayz (2007 to 2008) in New York before decamping for work in Asia.
In honor of his death, we’re republishing the timeline here.
In the 1990s, the handful of restaurants where talented up-and-coming cooks wanted to work were four-star (or aspiring to it), French, and run with precision. What distinguishes Lespinasse — the showpiece of the St. Regis Hotel from its opening in September 1991 until its closing in April 2003 — is not only its position as a groundbreaking restaurant among its contemporaries, but also its storied reputation as a proving ground: the place where young, ambitious cooks were molded or broken.
First, the talent: Andrew Carmellini came through the Lespinasse kitchen. So did Floyd Cardoz. And Corey Lee, Shane McBride, Fabrizio Salerni, Rocco DiSpirito, and Brian Bistrong. The man that brought many of them there was chef Gray Kunz.
Swiss by birth, raised in Singapore, and trained in the best kitchens of Asia and Europe, Kunz was a precise, disciplined perfectionist. He shipped in the best ingredients from all over the world; insisted on throwing out every sauce, stock, and other preparation at the end of every night; demanded spotless uniforms and specific tools; and made his chefs dismantle the stoves, clean the walk-ins, and sweep at least twice a day. The work was hard and intricate. Carmellini recalls the garde manger station alone had 125 mise en place items — all of which were tossed at the end of the night. Floyd Cardoz adds, “It was very intense, it was very hard, and you would punch in for eight hours but work seventeen.”
But the survivors of that kitchen learned more than just discipline. Kunz was the first four-star chef in New York to fully incorporate Asian ingredients and techniques into a French fine-dining experience, to dazzling effect. Chef Craig Koketsu explains, “At that time, he was doing things in food that were unique. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] was doing it, but his cooking was a lot lighter. Kunz’s cooking seemed light, but it was pretty deep and pretty rich underneath it all. In a service I would go through six or seven pounds of butter.” Or, as Ruth Reichl puts it, “I felt that Gray suddenly gave us a different flavor palate.”
Less than a year after a 1997 labor dispute (see the following timeline), Kunz left the restaurant. Christian Delouvrier, who’d spent the previous seven years at Les Célébrités, took over. Delouvrier’s cooking married lusty, rustic French country flavors with refined, precise technique. His menu was old school, and he acted as such: He yelled, he turned red, he ran the kitchen with military orderliness. But his protégés say that he was also a father figure, cooking shoulder-to-shoulder with his cooks, showing them how to imbue soul into fine dining.
In 2003, the St. Regis closed Lespinasse. The restaurant was never a moneymaker—food costs, traditionally kept below 30 percent, flirted with the 50-percent mark under Kunz at some points. In the end, Lespinasse ended up a casualty of 9/11, the crap economy, union labor demands, and changing tastes.
More importantly, its shuttering may have also been the death knell of the high-stakes American kitchen, where cooks proved their mettle under old-school, hell-raising chefs. Now there are more quality restaurants to cook at, in more cities, with greater varieties of cuisine; the boot-camp mentality is becoming a thing of the past. Lespinasse alum Ben Pollinger notes, “The culture in general is changing and the culture in the kitchen is changing. As a human being I don’t feel at peace with myself going to work and being a maniac.”
The Lespinasse Timeline
Lespinasse opens at the newly renovated St. Regis Hotel, with Gray Kunz at the helm. Kunz made his bones in Hong Kong and then in Europe, most notably under legendary chef Frédy Girardet in Lausanne, Switzerland. His menu at Lespinasse is nominally French, though it incorporates a substantial number of Asian ingredients and unconventional techniques for a restaurant of such ambition.
The dining room is opulent and upscale: deeply cushioned armchairs, large classical murals, tables draped in thick white linen, crystal chandeliers, and walls done in shades of beige and white. Even in an era when La Caravelle still roamed the earth, Lespinasse was seen as over-the-top luxurious.
October 25, 1991
New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller awards Lespinasse three (of four) stars: “His creations are eclectic, intelligently conceived and visually dazzling. At times, though, he can go overboard. But no matter how many ingredients dwell on his plates, vital flavors are rarely obfuscated.”
October 28, 1991
Gael Greene reviews the restaurant for New York magazine. She declares the cooking “Kunz at his uniquely obsessed best.”
Gray Kunz: “I had and have a hand-on-the-shoulder kind of approach, but am very strict in the sense of standards. I’m very precise and meticulous about cooking standards. A lot of hotels stress that at any level, but we pushed the envelope to the point where the hotel looked to us to adopt our standards. I worked in the best places in Europe, and the standards were extremely high. I boiled down those standards.”
1992–93: The Kunz Spoon
Another legacy of Lespinasse is the Kunz spoon, dreamed up by Gray Kunz in the ’90s to fill the need for a perfect basic working spoon. Measuring exactly nine inches, it is a bridge between a larger cooking spoon and a small saucing spoon. It’s big enough to handle robust cooking tasks like basting, roasting, flipping meats, and stirring, but is still small enough and tapered at the tip, so it can be used for more delicate and precise tasks like saucing, making quenelles, and portioning.
During the early days of Lespinasse, Kunz issued a spoon to each chef (the chefs paid for their spoons) with a unique number and station engraved on the back. The number was recorded in a ledger in the office, so if anyone found a lost spoon, they would know whom to return it to (and whom to blame for losing it). In the early ’90s, the spoons served as a distinctive badge, as only cooks who had worked at Lespinasse had them. Kunz eventually began selling them through the vendor JB Prince, and the utensils caught on throughout the restaurant world.
Andrew Carmellini (1992–1996): “For the record, I never gave him a deposit for my spoons. Out of spite. I refused to participate in the deposits on the spoons. Though I can understand why he did that now. It’s a real pain in the ass. People steal them; they end up in the garbage. But yes, it is a great spoon to cook with. I have a bunch of Kunz spoons. I do not exclusively use them in my kitchens, because they’re too expensive—which is very Gray-like, by the way—but I use a similar kitchen spoon that I found on the Bowery. When you hold it between your thumb and finger it just sits properly. So it’s perfect when you’re sautéing something or roasting something, if you’re going to arrosée something or glaze something. It also has a nice deep well in it. I don’t know if he just got lucky or he consulted some yoga instructor or measured the distance between his thumb and his index finger, but it’s an important tool, the Kunz spoon.”
Craig Koketsu (1996-2003): “When you came to Lespinasse they gave you three Kunz spoons, a Peltex spatula with a wooden handle (which was perfect and now hard to find), and a heat-resistant spatula. Those were your tools. That and a meat fork. No tongs were allowed at all. Your spoon became an extension of your hand. You had to pay for them, and they numbered them. There are better saucing spoons now, which are smaller, but it is such a universal tool. It’s perfect for cracking stone-crab claws. You can wedge it in the side of a Rondeau handle to move the pan. Whenever I’m doing a demo with an avocado I use the Kunz spoons. It’s the best cereal spoon you’ll ever use. We even eat with a Kunz spoon at family meal.”
Floyd Cardoz (1992–1997): “There were knife drawers for every station where we kept the spoons. They were locked up at the end of the night.”
March 11, 1994
Ruth Reichl, then the new New York Times critic, awards Kunz his coveted fourth star. The intro reads, “Pow! The food at Lespinasse comes out shooting. With your first bite you know that you are in for an exciting adventure. These are flavors you have never tasted before.”
Ruth Reichl: “I remember going to Lespinasse and tasting the food and thinking, I can’t take these flavors apart. He has flavors in there and I don’t know what they are. Tasting his food, I felt I was entering a whole new level. It was subtle and exciting and I just fell head over heels for what he was doing. When he went over to Lespinasse, it was as if he had been unleashed. It was like encountering a chef at the full height of his powers.”
Andrew Carmellini: “Kunz used to get northern pike flown in from an Indian tribe on Lake Superior. And he had them FedExed to the restaurant twice a week. No one’s doing that now! The cost was crazy, and that was before we got the big review. We had to throw everything away every night. Everything. It was crazy. I would hide mise en place all the time. One of the pluses of being in a hotel is that I could hide sauces all over that place. I had a refrigerator on the twentieth floor that I used to keep all my backup sauces in.”
April 4, 1994
Kunz tells The New Yorker — in a “Talk of the Town” piece about the downsides of a four-star review — that every week, 25cooks come looking to work in his kitchen. “I could become a celebrity chef, out every night,” he tells the magazine. “Believe me, I get the invitations. But my task is here, in the kitchen.” At this point, Andrew Carmellini and Floyd Cardoz are working with him. Rocco DiSpirito, Scott Bryan, and Brian Bistrong have already passed through.
Lespinasse closes temporarily to install a million-dollar, state-of-the-art kitchen, designed down to the last detail by Kunz. It features soft lighting, air conditioning, rubber tiling, and a PA system so Kunz can speak through a microphone to his whole staff.
Floyd Cardoz: “Kunz was the first person that I knew who embraced Asian ingredients and techniques and really understood them. The first thing he told me in the kitchen — and this was very important — was it’s all about balance. Nothing should be overpowering. I took that from him and it has affected my cooking to this day. I like things to be layered and balanced.”
Andrew Carmellini: “There was that pop of flavor that still exists now in the way that I cook, or at least I try. Whether we make fried chicken or raviolis, whatever we do really stems from Lespinasse. Back then people weren’t playing with acids so much. There wasn’t that extra squeeze of lemon or vinegar reduction or chili oil — the things that really open up the palate. Umami was not being explored at all. No one in a three- to four-starred New York kitchen was using fish sauce. No one was making peanut sambal and serving it on Limoges china.”
When the restaurant reopened that fall, the Times called the new kitchen “the most expensive and the most technologically advanced kitchen in the city, if not the country.” Everything was made to the chef’s specifications, from the black-tiled floor to the stainless-steel ceiling. Alumni of the restaurant say that even by today’s standards the physical space of Lespinasse’s kitchen was a feat, and an undeniable selling point for up-and-coming chefs (despite the fact that they had to take the whole thing apart and clean it twice a day).
Gray Kunz: “If you create a certain environment, it does affect not only customers’ food but also the people working there. It can be a stimulus for you as a chef, and this is very important, I think.”
Cornelius Gallagher (1997–1998): “The kitchen was very smartly designed. It was kind of a Disneyland for chefs. It was almost unreal, that kitchen. The floors were perfectly pitched to the drains. The sinks had lips on them so a perforated hotel pan could sit perfectly and act as a drain pan. The pass-through for the dirty pass was efficient. There was a reflective stainless ceiling so you could power-wash the kitchen. There were magnets all along the wall. Each cook had a knife drawer with a lock on it so you could keep your knives there. We never ran out of utensils. As soon as something was broken, it was fixed.”
Corey Lee (1998–2001): “The kitchen had every piece of equipment you could need. You could tell a chef designed it. It was detail-oriented, every corner had a purpose; all those details you take for granted, but it was not typical. It was not just some hotel kitchen. It was customized for a particular kind of service, a particular kind of food, a particular kind of experience. What I wanted to portray when I built my kitchen at Benu, and this is the sense I got from the kitchen at Lespinasse, is that this is a serious place serving a quality product. And it all begins with the physical space.”
Craig Koketsu (1996–2003): “Gray, he had a really quiet intensity to him. He’s very exacting, and he commands a lot of respect, but he wasn’t a screamer, at least when I was there. I heard it was different when it first opened. But when I was there, it was his sous-chefs who did the dirty work. Those were the guys you feared. The sous-chefs were like Nazis.”
New York magazine cites Lespinasse as a good “place to have an affair,” writing that “the exquisite saucery of Gray Kunz ignites all senses. Idle fingers caress handsome Oriental ceramics and witty silver casseroles, fueling fantasy.”
Lespinasse expands to Washington, D.C., opening a branch in the Carlton Hotel. (At the time, the plan was to expand the concept to St. Regis hotels all over the world.) Kunz’s sous-chef Troy Dupuy (who later lands at New York’s La Caravelle) relocates to Washington to run things.
October 23, 1997
A hostess at Lespinasse files a sexual-harassment complaint against a maître d’ at the restaurant. Kunz fires the hostess, leading to a walkout by all front-of-house restaurant staff and most hotel workers. On the day of the strike, all but two chefs scheduled for the shift show up. They go through with lunch service. Kunz runs dishes out to the dining room, and then comps every single meal. Dinner service is canceled. The hotel rehires the hostess the next day and no longer allows Kunz to give orders to anyone not under his direct supervision.
Floyd Cardoz: “I left six months before the strike, but I could see the way it was changing. There were people who cared tremendously and there were people who didn’t. There were some cooks who cared and there were others, who, because of the union, just didn’t.”
Craig Koketsu: “All the other hotel employees surrounded the outside of the kitchen and were yelling at us to stop cooking. Kunz was running food out to the dining room. He was like Superman, changing between his chef’s whites and his suit in seconds. It was nuts.”
October 24, 1997
Kunz takes a three-week break to “cool off” and manages the kitchen by phone. He returns on November 19.
July 26, 1998
Kunz leaves Lespinasse to write a cookbook and asks his friend Christian Delouvrier, of Les Célébrités, to take his job. Kunz doesn’t announce plans to open another restaurant, but the restaurant world and the media assume he will. In 2004, he opens Café Gray in the Time Warner Center; in 2007, he opens Grayz on 54th Street. Both are now closed. More recently, Kunz opened a Café Gray in Hong Kong. Ruth Reichl, on a Kunz-less New York dining scene: “I think Gray Kunz was the most under-appreciated chef in America, and the fact that he’s not working in the United States anymore breaks my heart. He’s a magical chef.”
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide acquires the St. Regis Hotel.
Lespinasse closes while Delouvrier develops a menu and readies the kitchen. Some of the chefs stay on, but most leave. Delouvrier brings in his own team.
Gray Kunz: “I was at Lespinasse for almost ten years. There were some labor issues that were very difficult to deal with. My drive was looking to different areas. I wanted to do a cookbook, open my own restaurants. I took a break and came back and I still feel I have a place in New York.”
Corey Lee: “Lespinasse became an institution because of the reputation that Gray Kunz established over the years. The kind of food that Kunz was doing was different from a lot of the other traditional restaurants. And I think good cooks attract other good cooks. Restaurants can get a reputation within the industry. As a chef, you know which kitchens have a lot of strong cooks, and you gravitate toward them. It’s very competitive, and that challenge is what you look for as a young cook.”
Ben Pollinger (1998–1999): “I was one of Christian Delouvrier’s cooks at Les Célébrités, in the Essex House hotel. I remember the moment when Christian came into the kitchen and gathered everyone and said, ‘I have an announcement to make. Gray Kunz is leaving Lespinasse.’ We were all floored. Then Christian goes on to say, ‘And I’m taking over!’ I was just praying to God he was going to take me with him.”
October 4, 1998
Lespinasse reopens with Christian Delouvrier in the kitchen. Where Kunz’s food was playful and inspired, Delouvrier’s menu is earthy and robust, offering an upscale take on French country cooking. The tasting menu is $135.
Craig Koketsu: “Everything was different. The style of cooking. There were a lot of stylistic differences and management differences. Christian definitely got upset, and when he got upset he would turn red. He is a genuine person; he is a very, very warm person, and he’s very old school. The discipline and the position that I learned from Gray has stuck with me. Just having cooking in your heart is the way Christian cooks, and that’s really stuck with me, too.”
Ben Pollinger: “Most cooks have it inside of them: it’s a matter of getting it out of them. And both Gray and Christian pretty much used old-school methods for getting it out. With Christian it was an emotional roller coaster. Any given day you’d go from being filled with joy and pride about what you were doing to feeling that what you were doing was worthless. But what he did was he pushed you and made you a better cook. I’m appreciative of what I got out of it. At the end of the day I can look back and say he really brought it out of you.”
Yuhi Fujinaga (2002–2003): “Delouvrier was the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. He showed us a lot of commitment. I didn’t see that from other big-name chefs at that time. He was cooking with you shoulder-to-shoulder, showing you and teaching you and kind of being a father. It was one of my best learning experiences. Of course, I got yelled at so much I almost left. He would say things like, ‘I’m going to kick your ass so hard I’m going to send you to Hawaii.’ But he would only say that because he really cared about us getting better.”
November 9, 1998
Gael Greene gives Lespinasse a favorable review, but notes posh French restaurants are already passé.
December 2, 1998
Ruth Reichl gives the Kunz-less Lespinasse four stars. She notes that Delouvrier’s food lacks the pyrotechnics of his predecessor, but the cuisine finally matches the room. According to Reichl, Delouvrier had delivered “a sumptuous menu so right for this staid, extravagant room that he is likely to be revered by his guests… The combination of his food, the quiet setting and the solicitous service create an experience so opulent and old-fashioned that it can be a serious shock to walk outside and find no coach waiting to take you home.”
Ben Pollinger: “Perfection was the only way. There was no other option. No room for error, and at that price point, there shouldn’t be. But how do you get people to be at that level of intensity all the time? I was not in the military, but cooking at Lespinasse was like being in boot camp. You had to be extraordinarily intense.”
Shane McBride (1999–2003): “You had to really know your shit, and you had to know how to move or you wouldn’t make it. It wasn’t that they fired people; people just quit. It became painfully clear when people couldn’t hack it — they moved them to banquets.”
May 10, 1999
The New Yorker writes a “Talk of the Town” piece about the lofty cost of Christian Delouvrier’s $35 leek-and-potato soup with langoustines and black truffles. He contended that because of the truffle cost, the restaurant probably broke even.
The restaurant stops serving breakfast and lunch. Rumors spread that the business is in trouble. The hotel’s manager, Herbert Pliessnig, denies these rumors.
The restaurant closes for two months after 9/11, and then reopens for just a few nights a week before eventually reinstituting the full schedule. But business plummets and never recovers.
Shane McBride: “‘Fresh every day,’ that was the mantra from the beginning. I was there right after they got the four-star review. And that’s how Christian was at Célébrités. But that faded over time, because the price was incredible. When you’re throwing away things that cost dollars per ounce, it was mind-numbing.”
April 19, 2003
Lespinasse closes due to economics. Delouvrier says: “It is much better to close Lespinasse as a four-star restaurant with all the glories.” At the time Lespinasse closes, appetizers are $28 to $48, and some entrees are in the $50s, but the restaurant is hemorrhaging money.