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Journey to Cafe Gray

In a country where the word “comeback” is often applied to a relief pitcher whose minor arm surgery made him sit out half a summer, we sometimes overlook the most amazing stories that are practically laid out right before us. But the prototypical heart-wrenching Hollywood comeback story is one that contains many ingredients. Initial success, followed by many years of struggle amid constant pangs of self doubt, then financial strain and hardship despite an almost stubborn dedication to the trade that had originally brought him to the pinnacle of his industry. The best stories, the ones that grab our attention and refuse to let go, are the ones where the main protagonist is a likable family man with impeccable taste and values, whose only fault is his inability to do anything that does not feel honest. If the story ends happily, not quite like a fairy tale but in a believable fashion that is at once joyous and redeeming, it can be a liberating experience for the reader. Finally, if it returns our hero to the very pinnacle of his profession where he once was and rightly belongs, then we have an invigorating tale to tell. This describes the story of Gray Kunz.

This is normally where the book is closed, and the lights are dimmed. Yet the story is far from over, and in some ways Mr. Kunz’s career is just beginning to take shape. Although it took him nearly six years to make Café Gray a reality, it’s clear from his words and his resolve that his new plans (some of them quite extraordinary) will not require what he calls his “personal MBA education” before they are launched. One of his plans, a small working farm in upstate New York, is more of a personal goal than a business venture.

“One of my dreams, which is probably going to be the next thing I am going to be doing, involves a little bit of land around my house upstate. Something that I’ve always wanted to do is to create a very small farm that will provide my restaurant with food products. There is no doubt – and I’m sure that every chef has told you this – that it really starts with the best product that you can find, and that requires constant research all the time, every day.” So an invigorated chef Kunz, always known as an innovator, will begin his farm with flowers and herbs, and then eventually move on to vegetables and livestock, with the ultimate goal of providing his restaurants with ingredients that he has literally grown himself.

Another dream that chef Kunz has been able to realize now that Café Gray has a year of success behind it and a talented team has been built to run it, is his childhood dream of flying a plane. His team at the restaurant bought him a flying lesson on his 50th birthday, and he is now a mere eight to ten hours away from getting his pilot certification. Although he admittedly has “a lot of learning to do,” (meaning his other chef buddies might not exactly be begging him for a ride just yet), he has already hatched a plan to turn his new passion into another business idea.

“This is the time for me in my life to go and do this, because I will never have a chance like this again. My wife thinks it’s pretty crazy, but it’s a dream of mine, and I have an idea down the road, which I cannot express too loudly right now. But I have a chance to actually turn that into a business. It is in a small airport upstate, and it’s not even a 15-minute drive to there. It’s a converted barn, and they kind of threw a landing strip next to it. ” Suddenly I saw an image of Mr. Kunz laughing happily, flying a crop-dusting airplane dangerously low over vast rows of healthy vegetable plants. But no, perhaps the bigger plan is “Kunz Airways”, where well-financed gastronomes are flown into this remote section of upstate New York for a tour of the Kunz garden, where one can personally pick fresh mushrooms for their star-chef-prepared mushroom fricassee risotto. We’ll just have to wait and see what Mr. Kunz does next.

NYRI: One of your mentors was Frédy Girardet, with whom you spent over five years. What are some of the most important things you absorbed from him?
Chef Kunz:When I started with Girardet, I really started gaining faith in the profession again, because I loved what I was doing. I think what Frédy gave me was a true sense of belonging, a true sense of honesty, generosity and precision, and the techniques. But then I also received a very rigorous training in cleanliness and in how to prepare yourself as a chef. So we’re doing that, and we’re cleaning in front of the customer. I think this is kind of like an extension of all that time that I spent behind the scenes, not showing people how we actually cook. It’s all good to see when you see the food on the plate, but that notion of, “Don’t go in there and look in that kitchen, otherwise, you wont eat,” is for me just passé. You can’t do that any more.

NYRI: You’ve been called a chef’s chef. What does that mean to you?
Chef Kunz: I don’t know who came up with the “chef’s chef” thing. I don’t know what it really means. Maybe it means that I’m professional and I respect what I do, and I respect my colleagues as well, because I think that this is a very difficult job. But the people who have inspired me, they are also great, great friends of mine. And I think that group, from Daniel to Le Bernardin, we would without a doubt help each other out if there were a crisis. There is no doubt in my mind about that. If something were to happen to Eric, we would all be there. And that’s the kind of thing that I really love about New York. Having four or five or six guys in the city that I can call if there’s an emergency is something that is very special to me, and that is something that you will not find very easily in a big city like New York.

NYRI: It does seem that chefs tend to like to hang around other chefs.
Chef Kunz: Chefs are very tight-knit guys. And I do believe that we have also a lot to say for our health and for our future in the environment, being spokespeople for a lot of things that are going to be related to our environment; our health, our future, our kids’ future. Chefs can do a lot for them, much more than they are actually doing now, which I think is going to be one of the biggest things that we have to work on is making sure that we can get pure water every day. And chefs could be very, very strong advocates for that, because it touches such a wide spectrum of people. Alice Waters is a lady who has done so many good things for food, but also for the people, for the children. I mean, for me, food starts at the lunchbox with the kids. If we can improve that, we’ve done a tremendous job in providing something for the future of the next generation.

NYRI: How did you keep yourself busy waiting for Café Gray to happen?
Chef Kunz: The most difficult part was waiting to see if this deal was ever going to happen. But I had made myself very busy writing the cookbook and doing consulting things, but it was not really where I belonged. Somebody who leaves the restaurant field for four or five years has really a very small chance to come back and reinstate himself. I did that because I kept my name out there very carefully, and I did not make the big mistakes that I’ve seen, just to take on the next thing just because I wanted to take it on, but that came with a lot of sacrifice. That was four years where I actually used up my whole, entire life savings. That was not an easy time for me at all. But at the same time, it makes me appreciate this tenfold. I think that if my company is going to grow, it’s because I invested that huge amount of time into my own education.

NYRI: Are you working more now than you were at Lespinasse?
Chef Kunz: I am here every day with my guys. That is one of the most important things, that I’m really here with them every day. Maybe I don’t have my hands into chopping shallots any more, but I do have a very good vision of what the whole entire restaurant needs. They need a person to be able to go to. They need somebody that they can look up to. If the owner is there, it is very, very important. It is not that I am working less or more. I may be working differently, and probably a bit smarter about the time I spend.

NYRI: Are you working on the Fall menu right now, or is that something you haven’t started yet?
Chef Kunz: Yes, but I do it in two steps. First I do the Indian summer, which for me is one of the nicest times of the year, because you have all of the summer products starting to gradually get into fall. Every year I do an Indian summer for a month or six weeks and then lead slowly into fall. So the Indian summer is right now, which I’m thinking about. It takes me a while. But the Indian summer is really a fun season, and it provides an opportunity for the customers to experience something that is half-fall half-summer, which I think is really a lot of fun. It takes about six weeks to completely change the menu here.

NYRI: So you change the seasonal menus gradually?
Chef Kunz: Yes, we do a lunch and a dinner special, and then we take that special and put it on to the a la carte menu. That is how we do it every week until we get the whole menu down. So it takes about six weeks, which is an interesting concept, because it is a much better way than trying to change everything all at once. There are over 130 employees here, so the front of the house needs to follow us. We can go very quickly with the menu, but that communication to the costumer won’t be as fast as we can go. So we have to take it in sequence, and it’s better for us to be really precise with the food.

NYRI: Being a chef/owner means you can now help to control costs, how is that going?
Chef Kunz: Yes, it’s an upscale café, and in order for me to keep the prices in such a way, I need to be very careful who I buy from and what I buy. But the purveyors have been extremely good with me because of the past record that I have with them, and the way we’ve dealt with them. Therefore, I can demand more than what other people normally can demand, because we’ve been up front with them in saying, “You know what? I think our scale is going to be slower in the summertime, but we’re going to give you a 15-day payment in the fall, when the cash flow is better. And everybody understands that, and that’s why they are much more lenient with us.

NYRI: Tell us about your dream to create a working farm, is that idea meant to help bring costs down?
Chef Kunz: It’s not only a dream, it’s something that I have been working on for a while in my head. To put it together, you need the financing in place. You need to have a game plan in place, a business plan in place, and a short/medium/long-term strategy. Are you going to expand the farm? Are you going to go somewhere else and plant it? Is your farm organic or not?

NYRI: Would you supply other restaurants, or just your own?
Chef Kunz: It could hopefully turn into a business by itself. But I think we would review the prototype for the restaurant, because we use a very large amount of products here.

NYRI: Richard Hollocou is the general manager at Café Gray. Is his role here to manage the front-of-the-house?
Chef Kunz: You know, this restaurant’s been set up great for a general manager, because he doesn’t even have to worry that much about the back of the house. But I think with Richard, if anything were to happen with the back of the house, he would be able to jump in. But I wanted to create a very, very solid team in the kitchen, so he doesn’t have to worry that much about it. So it’s a good system we’ve worked out now, and I am very, very pleased. That is why I can talk to you about probably expanding the company, because six months ago, I would have never been able to do that. So Richard has made an enormous impact in a very short period of time, and he brings a lot of experience with him, as well. I do believe that you’ve got to be smart about your key management, because in the long term, people will not work for just a salary. They want to be somehow involved in part of the business and the growth of the business.

NYRI: Your executive chef Larry Finn also seems very passionate about his role here as Executive Chef.
Chef Kunz: It’s a passionate business. In my opinion, good businesses run well because you are creating mini-crises all the time - not bad mini-crises, but crises nevertheless, in order to improve. I think that chefs definitely are passionate people in general. You can’t do this job if you are not. For us, what is just so great is that we can see the passion actually executed and consumed right then and there, which is really very special. I mean, Larry calling out this order now, you can see that food being served. We are executing, we are putting it on the plate, and we are seeing our results instantly. Instant gratification. And then a customer pays for it and says, “Goodbye, and thank you!”

NYRI: Nothing seems to go out to the customer unless you or Larry sees it first.
Chef Kunz: Larry always works that station together with me at the front, and the way this kitchen is broken down is, you see this back line over here? That is where all the stuff is being cut to pieces, the portions. And the cooking pit is on the other side, and then the pots and pans get pushed over to Larry, and Larry plates the food onto the plate. That’s the final control. So it’s a one, two, three-step process. And nothing gets on that plate if it is not right. The pot goes right back to the cook. It doesn’t even come to the customer. And that is our quality control. And before we accept that fish or that meat or that sauce or that vegetable, whatever it is, it goes to that front part of that kitchen there, gets put on the plate; and at that moment when it’s put on the plate, then we write the plates down. It’s like we sign off on it when we bring it to the customer.

NYRI: What do you look for in a young chef?
Chef Kunz: I think it is the work ethic, the passion. It’s the dedication, and of course the techniques that they learned in school. Very often I even have pot washers who are promoted from within if I see that the person has got the hands and the face and so forth. Generally those turned out to be really, really great people. So you have to look at the personality of the person, and very often the body language. I can walk through a kitchen, and I can pick the best people working in that kitchen, just from the way they move. Not because of what they cook, but just the way they move. And I think one of the aspects that the young chefs tend to forget is that if you have acquired some of the techniques, a lot of them actually don’t know how to taste. But that takes a long, long time to train. And you either have a good palate, or you don’t have a good palate. Unfortunately, that’s how it is.


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