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Chef John Fraser Talks Narcissa and Vegetable Power

STEV_JohnFraser_HR_ThomasLoof.jpegCalifornia boy John Fraser has presided over the swank, Michelin-starred Upper West Side restaurant, Dovetail, for the past six years. Now the chef divides his days between uptown and downtown, where he's the culinary mastermind behind André Balazs' Standard, East Village hotel. Just-opened Narcissa is the main attraction, where crisped beets do time in the rotisserie and steamed black bass sits in a bath of fragrant curry. Here, Fraser talks Thomas Keller, Montauk summers and the power of the vegetable.

Restaurants have long relegated vegetables to side dish status, but several years ago you ambitiously put them at the forefront of Dovetail, most notably in the form of Monday night vegetarian prix-fixe menus. What do you think now that more and more chefs are putting vegetables in the limelight?

As a guy who likes to try and eat mostly vegetables when I go out, it's super exciting. I think it's growing out of a movement of people wanting to be healthier. There's also a fun, contrarian thing happening; I guess the equal and opposite reaction to pork belly is to go toward vegetables. Sourcing ingredients locally and going to greenmarkets hasn't changed, but now we are focusing -- and places like Gramercy Tavern and Gotham Bar and Grill have been doing this for a while -- on vegetables as the main dish.

Ten years ago you staged at L'Arpège, the Paris restaurant chef Alain Passard has made a revered vegetable temple. How did that experience shape your passion?

I actually staged at L'Arpège before taking a position at Taillevent, and it was interesting to see the difference between their cooking philosophies. Taillevent was very much in the style of a New York City restaurant where all the dishes created were based off of recipes and there was a rigid focus on execution. L'Arpège was the opposite, with a spontaneous menu that changed from day to day and dependent on which vegetable was having its moment in the season. Passard would often serve a vegetable more than once in a meal, which makes sense seasonally, but isn't something we see often in restaurants. The big takeaway from my time in Paris was that these two schools of thought don't have to be opposing to each other; they can work together and create beautiful dishes. We are doing that at Dovetail, and now at Narcissa.

The night I ate there it was bustling and Judith Light and America Ferrera were a table over. It is certainly a different scene than the Upper West Side's.

There's definitely a downtown vibe at Narcissa, whereas Dovetail is maybe more of a special event. It's always nice to have people who know good food, but it doesn't matter who's there. We're going to cook the same way every night.

The food at Narcissa is inspired by California cuisine. We often hear this term, but what does it mean to New Yorkers?

The idea of California cuisine is kind of broad, like the idea of Chinese food. As a person who grew up in California there has always been an emphasis on ingredients for me. In New York we can fall into the habit of how cute we can get with food, but California cuisine means touching it less. For example, we cook meat on the bone here, which preserves flavor.

You had the ultimate crash course in California cuisine working with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. What was one of your most valuable takeaways from that era?

I was fortunate to work next to Thomas for two years and the biggest lesson I learned from him was one of his favorite sayings, 'Treat it like it's yours because some day it will be.' From the moment you start working at the restaurant, you take a lot of ownership and it's ingrained in your head to treat it like it is your own kitchen. It wasn't long before I owned my own restaurant and I have to credit that lesson to Keller, as it made the transition from chef to chef/owner much easier for me. A heavy emphasis was also placed on having respect for our ingredients. A lot of times we had to actually pick the vegetables we needed for a dish that evening, and that makes you think more about the produce than when it just arrives to your doorstep.

Bouncing around the two restaurants you probably don't have time to eat out at much, but where do you like to go?

My favorite restaurant in New York is Basta Pasta. I love the transparency of the kitchen and the fact that it is completely wide open. The food is super simple and I love the way they handle their vegetables. They serve a mushrooms en papillote that is absolutely incredible.

You spent time cooking in Montauk before it became the hipster answer to the Hamptons. What do you think about it now?

I love the idea of what Montauk represented when I was there, this place far away from civilization, very chill and blue collar. I think Montauk has the infrastructure to keep it from ever becoming the Hamptons, but I'm kinda torn about its popularity. On one hand it's not my secret anymore, but on the other I'm happy more people can appreciate such a beautiful place and the locals have come to peace with it and embrace the scene the summers have turned into. At the end of the day, people who want to get away and relax and have fun all look the same -- hipster or not.

Photo by Thomas Loof

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