Why One Rising-Star Chef Walked Away From a Promising Career in New York

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"If I didn't leave now, I don't think I would've ever left." Photo: Courtesy of Nick Curtin

At 27 years old, as the executive chef at Rosette, Nick Curtin was starting to attract the kind of attention that many chefs strive for: He received a glowing write-up from the Times, and Zagat recently named him to its 30 Under 30 list. It felt like the beginning of a successful career of cooking in New York, a city that's notoriously tough on its chefs. But, like many rising-star chefs these days (as well as veterans like Gavin Kaysen and Damon Wise), Curtin decided to split, leaving Rosette after eight months to move to Denmark without a specific job lined up. (He has since settled into a permanent gig at Almanak, which is part of Noma co-founder Claus Meyer's restaurant complex in Copenhagen.) To be fair, Copenhagen isn't exactly the middle-of-nowhere, but still: How do you say good-bye to not only a promising job, but an entire city, just when you're starting to make a name for yourself in a major way? Grub Skyped with Curtin to find out.

You were just starting to receive accolades for your work at Rosette. What made you decide to move on?
The decision was really made as I was coming onboard at Rosette. I just got married in March, and my wife is actually Danish. Moving here is something that we talked about for a long time, and we decided that this summer would be the time. I said that I could do this job well for [Rosette owner] Ron [Castellano], but that there would be a time limit. And he was onboard. Everything was pre-planned. All the good press was a wonderful, exciting thing. It exploded on us a little bit.

Did all the attention make it harder for you to stick to your plan to leave?
Yes, it made it tough to walk away. It's very difficult to build something and then walk away from it, both because you have an attachment to what you built, and because it was so great to be well-received. But there's also the scary unknown of going to a new place. I've been cooking in New York for 9 years. I know that city and the food scene in and out. It was scary to think about moving to a place like Copenhagen, which I did without a next job lined up. I had trials set up with people, but no expectations of where I’d land. Still, I was excited about going. New people, new products.

... And if I didn't leave now, I don't think I would've ever left. Now was the time for me to go. I am looking for a place where I can settle in for a long period of time. I still have the energy now to try something new. I knew that if I stayed, I'd be too comfortable. Not to say that New York isn't a place that's always challenging you, but I've gotten used to the challenges it presented. I knew that I had to leave now.

People are quick to point out your age when discussing your talent. How do you feel about the value put on youth in this industry?
At my first job, at Compose, I was told that I was super young. And at 20, I was too young or inexperienced for what the restaurant turned out being. New York's tough. It's a city that celebrates youth, but at the same time, judges youth a lot. It's a young city with a lot of energy, but it's also a city that has a lot of set opinions. While I think it was an exciting point for people that I was this young guy taking on big projects, and there's positivity around that, there's also a lot of criticism. A lot of people were very judgmental before even trying my food. That's what media is now.

You're certainly not the only young chef leaving town. Do you think it's become increasingly difficult to have an enduring career as a chef in New York?
A lot of the reason that I left was on a personal level — this is a place I wanted to be and have a family here — but on a professional level, New York is a city with a very limited attention span, and high costs. There are some really excellent purveyors, but the variety of ingredients is limited, and in many ways, it's in opposition to how the rest of the world works. I have many guys here who bring me beautiful foraged products and grains. It's the purveyor — the farmer — showing up at my door. As chefs, we have to be businesspeople, and understand our margins. There's a different understanding of what's important here. I worked for a lot of different people in New York, and at the end of the day, it was really just about the bottom dollar. You often couldn't get the tools you needed, or the product that you wanted. It's a very different mentality here.

How so?
I have incredible products. I have a beautiful kitchen. The goal is to make delicious, beautiful food. We're viewed as an inexpensive restaurant for what we're doing here, and the price per head exceeds any of the New York restaurants I've worked in. People don't view it as pretentious. Maybe I'm still too young and too idealistic.

Do you think you'll ever return to New York?
I don't know if I'd return. It's an incredible city. The intensity of being in a place where the spotlight is always on you — it's perform or die — there's something that's exhilarating about that. But right now, I don't picture myself going back. I want to spend time here and ideally one day open my own place, and allow it to grow and evolve in a way that a restaurant should. If that's in New York, great, but I don't picture it being a scene that allows you to take the time to do it. The media is really positive because it brings people in the door, and that's great. But after two or three months, it's onto the next restaurant, of which there are 20 opening in New York. You get reviewed so fast now. You open with a concept in New York, and it's very rare that you see it change. It discourages restaurateurs from being patient.

Recently, there are some that have revamped completely, like Chez Sardine to Bar Sardine, and Pulino's to Cherche Midi. But it's certainly costly.
My whole view is that a restaurant is like a kid: It's born, you go through a struggle as a parent as you learn how to raise the kid, and you try to figure out what kind of person the kid's going to be. A couple of years in, you finally start to see a person forming. Sometimes it's not always what you predict, but you work hard and try to make good choices that let the kid be the best it's going to be. If you expect to pop out a full-grown adult, you're taking the soul out of it.

Earlier: Why It’s Become More Tempting Than Ever for Chefs to Leave New York