Daniel Rose has built a career defying the odds: In 2006, the Illinois-born chef opened Spring in Paris, a restaurant so small that he worked there alone for several weeks. Just four years later, the restaurant was so successful, he moved it to a new, three-story location almost ten times the size of the original. More recently, he teamed up with Stephen Starr — who owns several of the highest-grossing restaurants in America — to open the ambitious, expensive Le Coucou in New York. The restaurant has been universally praised, perpetually packed, and was even named the country’s best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. (Meanwhile, he’s also opened two other successful restaurants in Paris: La Bourse et la Vie, and Chez la Vieille.)
Then, late last month, Rose surprised diners in both cities when he announced that he would close Spring. Grub sat down to talk with the chef about the choice to close the restaurant that many consider to be his flagship, as well as what the future holds for him and his family.
How long were you thinking about the decision to close Spring? Was it an emotional process?
Yes. You have to put it in context of what Spring was. Spring was sometimes a very tortured moment for me and sometimes simple joy. I think anybody who has a restaurant under those conditions thinks actively all the time about what it’s going to be, what it becomes. From the moment I opened Spring, there was always a thought that I was still defining it as I was doing it. It’s not a surprise to me that it can close and then reopen. Before I opened, I stopped cooking for a year and a half and I worked in a bookstore, and then I opened Spring. In between Spring One and Spring Two, I closed it down and turned it into something else. For me, Spring the restaurant is closed, but the process that is Spring, which is really the thing that is my own personal inspiration, is still ongoing, and there will probably be some other version of Spring again, with or without that name
It’s an interesting question: How long is any given restaurant really supposed to last?
It’s supposed to last as long as you can keep it excellent. I think that I’d much rather close a restaurant before it becomes an afterthought. If Spring was anything, it was honest. From the opening to its closing, things got better, things got worse. I can clearly identify three or four different periods at Spring. There was a period where I was in my Blue Period or whatever, or my Brioche Period.
In 2006, when Spring opened, it was radical. People around me were saying, “You’re going to go out of business. You don’t have enough experience being a chef. It’s not a restaurant.” I didn’t care. I didn’t realize it was radical at the time, but it was a big deal, this little restaurant, and then it became a very big deal because I think it inspired a lot of other people to kind of do the same thing. They tasted my cooking, and they saw what I was doing, and they said, “Well, if he can, then so can I,” which is awesome. And now Paris is bubbling with, whether the style is different or the décor is different or the food is different, little Springs.
How did you make such a personal, small restaurant work, financially?
You think, Well, what’s the worst that can happen? My business plan at Spring was four to six customers a night. I learned quickly that that’s not quite enough for a business to operate, but you then make it work. When I opened the second Spring, I tripled the budget, and then I tripled the amount of business we did, so things started to line up. Paris is an excellent place to go ahead and do it. In fact, in some ways it’s easier than New York City. I’m the proof of that, in the sense that there’s less regulation, believe it or not. The amount of investment you need to make is much less. Rents are less.
Is finding talent any easier?
Nope, not easier. That’s something that seems universally difficult everywhere in the world. But expectations are less. There’s definitely an effect of “We’re in Paris, so this is delicious.” People’s expectations when they walk into a restaurant in New York City, and when they walk into a restaurant in Paris are very, very, very different. And it’s the same people.
How have you settled into your life in New York? Do you feel at home here?
My life isn’t much different, being in New York or Paris. Décor changes a little bit, the intensity of things is different, but the rhythm is the same. My life still revolves around what time people are eating lunch or dinner or breakfast. That’s not so different. I still get home after everyone is asleep.
Do you feel connected to the city, outside of Le Coucou?
I feel connected to New York mostly through the people that I meet in the restaurant, and the people that I work with. That’s the same in Paris. That’s how my life has always been. That’s also why it’s very difficult to have two restaurants, one in Paris and one in New York, that require so much work. The other restaurants require lots of work, but it’s not the same. Spring was a personal laboratory for me for ten years. I built it. I know where every pipe is. I hired every person that works there.
And you met your wife at Spring, right?
I did meet my wife through Spring. I met my wife on May 3, 2007, when she came in for dinner. She came back the next day and said something like, “I really liked the dinner. Do you need some help?” I thought she was a psychiatrist, but she was a cook. I was like, “Oh, she’s a social worker. This is perfect.” But she, at that time, had already worked for ten years or so in kitchens. She was the real deal, and she was looking for new experiences. Spring became that, and then we had a relationship and now we have a family.
She was in a prominent role operationally, but she was in a supporting role in terms of my career. That’s the other advantage of being in New York. Now so many things open up for her that she couldn’t do. I suppose you could do them in Paris, but there are many, many, many opportunities in New York that are very different than things you could do in Paris, so that’s exciting.
The scale of everything here is different. You can make your career out of so many different things here. In France, things are slightly more compartmentalized. In New York, you could work for a magazine; you could open a restaurant; you can open a bakery; you can do consulting; you could write cookbooks. You can kind of do those things in France, but not quite as quickly. It’s the American Dream thing. As Americans, I think we have a way of rationalizing risks that I think is actually a very important part of our way of working and seeing the world. In France, if you open a restaurant and it fails, you’re done.
Marie is this super chef, and now that the kids are in school, she’s thinking about all the different opportunities she has in New York. That’s why I was like, “If there’s a moment to close Spring, it’s now.” I wanted to make space for her to do her thing and me to enjoy my life more, even if I still have to travel back and forth, and spend more time with my kids while Marie is working on her restaurant. That’s inevitably what happens in a restaurant couple. Somebody has to take care of the kids. It can be a nanny, but for many years, it has been Marie. Now it’s my turn. I like that.
But you still go back to Paris to support your other restaurants.
I still go back, but having three restaurants in Paris is much different than having two small ones, and having a restaurant that requires such intimate involvement. It became less about me cooking there, obviously, because I wasn’t there as much, and more about trying to impart my vision and stuff like that, which is much easier to do at Chez La Vieille and La Bourse et La Vie than it is in a place that was very much linked to this process that was personal.
Stephen Starr is your partner at Le Coucou and Chez La Vieille. How’d you two first meet?
Stephanie [Fray, his public-relations rep] connected us. I had written menus for a restaurant that I had been thinking about in Chicago that resembled Le Coucou a little bit. I don’t think Stephen knew what kind of restaurant he wanted to open.
Was there a moment where you thought about putting it in Chicago?
Well, there was a moment in which I was going to go to Japan. There was a point at which I had a customer at Spring who knew somebody who had this tiny 12-seat thing that they were going to build, and I was thinking what an adventure to go to Japan and do this thing. Then I thought, Well, it’s very difficult to go back and forth between Paris and Fukuoka, at this point, even though I really wanted to have a restaurant in a place called Fuck You, Okay.
Picking New York City, I think it was really about who to work with, because it would be very ambitious. It would be impossible for me to come to America, having never worked here, and just open a restaurant like I did. You need an operational structure to do it. Stephen was funny. We had a good laugh. We drove around town looking into spaces and crazy things.
How do you see this partnership evolving? You’ve hinted at opening places around the world together.
Are there more things to do together? Yeah. I have lots of ideas and so does Stephen, and most of them are very similar. It’s a very organic thing. You have to have a plan, but then again, you have to take advantage of opportunities that show up. There are interesting spaces that are becoming available. We have all these great people here. We need to provide new opportunities for them. A sous-chef needs to become a chef someday, if that’s what they want. So if you want to keep cultivating that talent, then it would be good to open some new venues for them. You spend so much time trying to understand each other, and then when you know how to dance well together, it seems stupid not to dance. But there’s no rush. We’ve seen people rush in New York.
All the time.
I think I’d like to find that happy place between being open for ten years before you do something new in France, and being open for six months and striking while the iron is hot in New York. You know, I’m 40. I have 40 more years of cooking. I think we need to create things that will last for a long time and be interesting and good. Those things take time. I can’t wait to do more, but I can wait.