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Rockwell and Kunz

The Collaboration to Create Cafe Gray

When I walked into Café Gray for the first time, my expectations were not very high. I had seen New York Magazine’s review with the unflattering photograph printed beside it, and I had read Bruni’s New York Times review where he whined about the view being blocked by (gasp) chefs. But as I always do when I meet a new person or step into a new restaurant, I ventured forth with an open mind.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the new unheated swimming pool they erected in the middle of Columbus Circle as much as the next New Yorker. But do I need to admire the view while one of the greatest chefs in the world prepares my dinner? And let’s be honest, who would be silly enough to complain that the same view that you likely ignored during the cab ride to the restaurant is partially blocked by the incredible theatre of a first-rate tag team of culinary masters at work? I don’t know, I really don’t.

So my advice to you is, peek at the nice view on the way to Time Warner, then check it out a second time on the second floor balcony. Finally, if during your meal you can pull your eyes away from one fabulous plate after another, take a moment to look down and through the 100-foot wide window to verify that yes, the granite Columbus statue is still there. If you still aren’t convinced that this is one of the most exciting restaurants in a town already crowded with excitement, David Rockwell and Gray Kunz are happy to explain it to you.

The Collaboration to Create Cafe Gray: Rockwell and Kunz

NYRI: The idea for Café Gray began years before Time Warner was even finished. Can you tell me how it ended up here?

Chef Kunz: I had traveled to Eastern Europe, Vienna mainly, to look at café concepts because I was always very intrigued by them. I felt that people didn’t quite understand what the Eastern European café was, but generally refer to it as their extended living room. That was kind of the basic idea I had, and then along came the fact that David and I wanted to work together for 7 or 8 years. I had been searching for a site for four years and all of a sudden this opportunity came along which was actually a retail space and not a restaurant space. And so when I looked at it for the first time, I walked in here and I knew exactly that this was the right concept at the right time. We had three schematics, basically three design elements to choose from, and we went with the one that was the most crazy!

David Rockwell: There was no question in my mind when we first started talking about working with Gray seven years ago that the goal for me was working with a chef who had such a strong point of view. I think from the beginning, there was this idea of food being offered in a fresh new way. As a designer what you’re always looking for is someone you can work with where the decisions aren’t arbitrary. Everything here was scrutinized and filtered through Gray’s point of view, and my inspiration came from his point of view. So if this were a play, Gray was the script.

Chef Kunz: There are limitations with retail spaces, but once David squared away the dining room in the center of the space facing the window, we ended up with all these nooks and crannies. That’s one of the reasons why we actually put the kitchen into the window, because we would have ended up with half the size of the dining room if we hadn’t done that. So there were also some physical limitations in order for us to move forward with that idea.

NYRI: There were early reviews of the restaurant that spoke negatively about the design’s layout, and that the view was impeded.

Chef Kunz: I think that just in taking a step back and looking at those critiques the one thing that I told myself is that I am not going to change a single thing in this restaurant because of a critic. To the contrary, I am going to reemphasize and retighten the screws and make sure that the concept actually continues to be even stronger, and that was absolutely the right way to go because the truth lies in the pudding, and the truth lies in the numbers that I am doing. We’re generating probably one of the biggest numbers in this building, so we have to have done something right. I knew for a fact that people who are sitting in that dining room are going to experience the whole package of what David just talked to you about. And that was, for me, the most important thing.

NYRI: In a busy kitchen there are times when chefs yell at each other, but you can’t do that here. Yet I notice that Larry Finn and some of the other chefs seem to have special communication devices.

Chef Kunz: I’ve never wanted to yell; never will, never have. We do have a couple of technologies here for that, but we never yell and scream into them, we’d blow their eardrums out! Yesterday I called two of the chefs over because they were using some kind of language and I told them “look you cannot do this here. You cannot do this anywhere if you are a professional.”

NYRI: What sort of techniques did you implement to improve the acoustics, in order to make up for the extra sound that the kitchen may generate?

David Rockwell: We took the sound issue very seriously. This suede wall material with noise dampening fabric surrounds the entire restaurant. The ceiling drop panels are acoustic fabric, the chairs are upholstered, and the room is carpeted. Also, there was a discussion when it opened about how close together the tables should be. Although it is a café, you really don’t want to have to strain to have a conversation.

Chef Kunz: We can do well over 200 covers on the weekends, and even when the restaurant is really jam packed it has a good buzz to it. You can still hear yourself and from this side here, I can almost hear the customers talking over there. It’s really quiet amazing.

NYRI: Any true test of a successful collaboration is the question of whether you would work again together. Are there any plans like that in the future?

David Rockwell: We’re already taking about it.

Chef Kunz: Yes. Definitely. But to me we couldn’t have thought of a better launching pad after not being in the field for few years.





           

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