How One Hypertalented Chef Shifted Gears to Become an Empire-Builder

John Fraser at the Edition in Times Square. Photo: Noah Fecks

If you’ve had trouble keeping tabs on chef John Fraser over the last year or so, you aren’t alone. In June, he closed his 11-year-old Dovetail, the Michelin-starred dining room where he made his name (and from whence our own Adam Platt once came away impressed by the chef’s “knack for shuffling traditional, populist flavors together in ingenious ways and making them his own.”) Then, in September, Fraser stepped away from the Standard Hotel — where he opened his second-ever restaurant, Narcissa — after announcing a partnership with the famous hotelier Ian Schrager’s Edition Times Square. In the meantime, Fraser also announced he’s taking on a collaborative role with the Met’s restaurant the Dining Room, and that he’ll open an outpost of the Loyal (his Greenwich Village brasserie) in Miami.

It’s a lot, but the main thing to know right now is that tonight, Fraser will open 701West, a wine-drenched marquee restaurant in Schrager’s Times Square hotel. But even this career development is not so simple, because this is just the first of four spaces that Fraser will operate in the hotel (there will also be an all-day brasserie, Terrace Restaurant; a lobby bar, called the Lobby Bar; and the cabaret space Paradise Club, which opens later this week).

Fraser, though, says all of this is about his plan to move away from being a chef and into being a full-blown restaurateur. Grub talked to him about the moves, and — of course — about the new restaurant.

Last year was a big year for you.
Yeah, for sure. We had to consolidate some of the team and that was all part of the plan in anticipation for Times Square.

So you were shifting your focus around the hotel?
The shift in focus was more about going from just being a chef to being a restaurateur. That’s probably more of it than anything, and that’s just defined by recognizing that there’s more to this than just the food.

When did you decide to go from being a chef to a restaurateur?
Well, I mean, I think I’ve always been food-first. I can’t help it. You kind of have to be when you’re trained as a cook. But the idea that was kind of introduced to me by the Standard is that there are a whole bunch of different types out there. Not everyone is there for the food. Sometimes it’s the experience, sometimes it’s the design, sometimes it’s the service. So it was maybe opening myself up to the idea that there are a bunch of different ways to cut up the apple. I felt in many ways I was just playing a one-man sport, and now I’m creating a team so we can do multiple projects and our reach can become a little bit longer.

Quail au poivre with juniper red cabbage and nettles. Photo: Noah Fecks

How are you adapting to this?
I think the process is for me to maybe be one beat more removed and allowing our leaders in every restaurant some autonomy and creativity. Which was not easy for me to do in the beginning, but I’m happier and they’re happier now, which I think is a win. Allowing some of their personality to come through and not be such a control freak, I think, makes the restaurants better but also allows us to retain and get talent we wouldn’t normally [be able to get]. The collaboration and allowing other voices in the room has allowed us to grow quickly but also, I think, intelligently.

So what do you have going on here?
Yeah, it’s actually four total venues. The Lobby Bar, which is maybe not that interesting to you but is a classic Ian Schrager, it’s gorgeous, well put-together, and well curated. The Terrace and outdoor gardens, it’s our three-meals-a-day restaurant but it really is a modern New York brasserie. It has all the panache of a brasserie with the serenity of design. It’s quite beautiful. We have the Paradise Club — where the nightly show is a collaboration with House of Yes — and lastly we have 701West, which is really two rooms. One is the salon, for cocktails, and the dining room, which is fine dining.

Have you refined your approach at all?
It’s kind of weird. It’s like asking, “Are your kids different?” They have the same basic DNA, right, but the way the DNA is expressed is perhaps different. I don’t, yeah, I mean I don’t want to reveal too much, but I feel every one of these options is distinct, it belongs to Times Square. So I don’t want to diminish them. But you can’t look at any creative person and not say there’s a certain style. I think that’s maybe what we’re talking about. Maybe I’m starting to settle into a certain style of cooking.

The menu here still has an emphasis on vegetables, and vegetarian dishes.
So, yeah, by no means did I make up vegetarian food. I think eight or ten years ago, when everyone was going towards pork belly, I was running towards carrots. So I was sort of running the opposite way. And, lo and behold, food culture and the style of eating just happened to come on to my side. Or at least it is right now. Maybe we can call ourselves early adopters of a style of cooking which hugs vegetables very tightly.

You cannot think about Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] without thinking about tuna pizza at the Mercer Kitchen, right? I just think as we’re settling into who we are and what we care about, you just can’t separate our style of cooking from thinking about vegetables.

Foie gras with apples. Photo: Noah Fecks

Are you responding to the culture right now?
I was responding to myself back then. I had been asking myself, “Is the style of food we’re cooking sustainable for the people who are eating it long-term?” And the answer was no. If we want to make people happy and hopefully make them healthy as well, we have to start to change the way we’re cooking. That’s not to say there aren’t sensual moments and it’s not to say that all the vegetables we cook are low in calories or great for you. As a frame, I started to ask myself questions like, “Why not change your diet? What’s the reason not to?” And then it became a creative effort of, “What would I eat if I did?” That gets me to today. The frame we created for ourselves deals in vegetables and it’s become part of our brand and part of who we are and hopefully we’re leaders in that field.

So what are you doing differently here?
So, again, responding to my own taste, I feel like what I miss is the fine dining restaurant that focuses on wine. 701West has a prix fixe menu, but [many] of the dishes were created with wine by the glass and the wine tasting in mind. Everyone on the floor is a sommelier, it really is about guiding the experience from A to Z, food-wise, with wine. When I came to New York, there were restaurants like Veritas and Cru, which I miss dearly. That style of eating was super simple, super ingredient-focused and very refined, paired with an incredible wine list with a great level of knowledge. I feel like every restaurant has become a generalist with wine. In my whole career it’s like, “There you go, sommelier, it’s asparagus with artichokes.” We forced ourselves into a conversation with the sommeliers, it’s been quite collaborative.

Octopus carpaccio with a jalapeño and tomatillo mosaic. Photo: Noah Fecks

How has expanding and becoming more of a restaurateur affected the cooking in your restaurants?
I’m not totally certain it has. The piece I’ve allowed to happen is just to have more voices present in the creative process. I think that, stylistically, has changed things, but I certainly don’t think we’re dumbing things down or creating some machine that can operate without high-level talent. That’s certainly not the case. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. To ensure that no one can say that.

701West, 701 7th Ave., nr. W. 47th St.; 212-261-5400

How One Chef Shifted Gears to Become an Empire-Builder