Dear Grub Street,
I’m in New York on business for a little while and will have the opportunity to try a handful of restaurants while I’m here. What are some of the top spots in the city where the chef whose name is on the door is still in the kitchen? I’ve eaten at both Lupa and Otto, but I imagine Mr. Batali’s clogs haven’t graced either kitchen in some time (though the food and service at both were excellent, especially Frank behind the bar at Otto). It’s not that I need to see a celebrity chef in person … I just want to try good food from good chefs who are still plying their trade. For example, my understanding is that Wylie Dufresne actually still works at wd-50 every day, and, as you recently mentioned in one post, Eric Ripert is always in the kitchen at Le Bernardin. Anywhere else?
Meet the Chef
Dear Meet the Chef,
We’re with you 100 percent. It’s not just a matter of vanity: Kitchens of the kind that make waves in the food world are incredibly complex affairs, with dozens of difficult tasks being performed in a white-hot crucible of pressure and stress. The chef has to crack the whip, make sure everyone is doing his job, and sometimes even oversee each plate that comes out. Wylie Dufresne, as you have heard, hovers over his food, frequently tasting everything to make sure it’s right, and oversees the plating. April Bloomfield runs the kitchen at the Spotted Pig like a Daytona pit crew. The ultimate hands-on chef, of course, is Masa Takayama, who literally makes the food before your eyes and hands it to you, should you have the good luck to eat at his omakase bar.
But rather than make a list of places where the chef is present and plying his trade, we would suggest a few rules of thumb. Try to eat at restaurants that are the chef’s only concern; try to eat at places, such as Hearth or Café Gray, that have open kitchens or chef tables; and don’t be sure that, just because a big name isn’t in the kitchen, the guy actually running the show, the so-called chef de cuisine, isn’t every bit as talented. Most big shots started out in someone else’s shadow. Worry less about the chef’s identity and more about his competence. The bigger the name, generally the less the chef actually cooks, but often, the better they are at finding talented people to express their vision and maintain their reputation.