By Chris Mohney
Gabriel Kreuther is chef/owner of the eponymous Gabriel Kreuther restaurant in New York, as well as the Grand Salon at the Baccarat Hotel and Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate. He recently published his first cookbook, Gabriel Kreuther: The Spirit of Alsace. During the pandemic, Kreuther started offering more flexible versions of traditional tasting menus that adapt to individual customer tastes.
In this new world, I believe that people are looking for an experience. Maybe a different kind of experience, where they are a little bit more in the driver’s seat. After a lot of reflection, it’s not that exciting for a cook, or a kitchen team, or a service team when everybody eats the same thing. Even if it rotates a lot, there is no excitement. There is not much happening.
When people are picking and choosing what they want, it creates a little bit more excitement in the kitchen. It keeps you on your toes. If you work in a factory and you have to do a thousand pieces of the same thing, there is something boring about it. When you go into a kitchen and you have to do 60 or 80 of something, and they are all exactly the same thing, there comes a point in time when attention to detail or to taste starts to lag. It’s just the same thing over and over. That’s not the fault of anybody. That’s just how we are as human beings.
The team—the cooks, the waiters, everybody—want to have an exchange with the guests. If somebody wants a particular tasting menu, we can adapt it. You can literally choreograph what people are really craving. We’re not here to force people to have something they don’t really like.
The creative approach with tasting menus means listening more to the guest, being more open to delivering an experience that people are seeking. The local community is looking forward to quality versus sitting too long at the table. You can have both possibilities. If it’s a celebration, you can sit there for as long as you wish. If it’s just eating out, having a great meal, then you can do that in an hour and a half.
What I’d like to do is entice people into that moment where it’s intriguing, and they are willing to try something that they’ve never had before. Suddenly they discover that maybe they had a misconception. Your taste keeps changing depending on how you get introduced to different foods or different wines. And it keeps evolving. I think that’s just part of life. I think that’s part of the experience.
Most of the people in the kitchen have been with me for seven or eight years. My pastry chef has been with me for 16 years. They believe in what we do, and they are also passionate about what we do. We hire the passionate person, not just the person that knows technicalities. I’d rather invest in somebody that has the passion to make people smile, make them happy, and give them the proper service.
I always say, “If it doesn’t make you hungry yourself, if you don’t want to eat it yourself, do not serve it.” That’s a little cliché, but you have to ask yourself if you want to eat this thing that you just cooked. If the answer is no, maybe it’s not the right thing to serve. I want people to be engaged to that point, to put themselves into the shoes of the guest.
When I find the right passionate person, they’re the ones that stick with me for a long time. Mostly they stick around because they keep learning. And most of them are starting with me after just one or two experiences somewhere else.
You often only start to have fun in the restaurant industry by being able to create your own dishes, or doing your own food, or being able to touch on more expensive products. That requires a certain level of experience that takes a long time to acquire. This is the hardest part to explain to younger individuals.
We do lineups twice a day. When somebody has an idea, we want to hear about it. Sometimes it’s not the head guy who sees something that needs to change. The world around us is changing, and so we are committed to change as well in our ways of working, in our ways of handling things. I have never been an addict of a very harsh work environment. It’s something that I’ve always disliked. I really want people to have a good time doing what they do.
Some of the nicest feedback that I’ve gotten was just after we reopened during the pandemic, when we started to do 25 percent inside. The waiters all worked with a mask on, but you can see in a person’s face, just in their eyes, how happy we are. When guests are leaving and they say something like, “I know they all have a mask on, but we can feel the happiness,” that is some of the most beautiful feedback you can get.
A restaurant experience is not just what’s on a plate. It’s everything that comes with it. People are the biggest asset that we have in our industry. You can spend as much money as you want to create a restaurant, all the best plates and gold and whatever. If it’s not populated with the right employees, with the right team, it doesn’t translate.
When less senior cooks are doing something that maybe only a sous chef used to do, they’re more engaged. They’re more interested. I’m always telling people that if they do something, they need to understand why they’re doing it. If you ask yourself that question—”Why do I do that?”—and you cannot answer it, seek the answer from somebody else. Because if things don’t make sense to you, then you don’t evolve yourself.
I’m always coming back to the idea of the toolbox. When a cook is at the beginning of their career and spends three weeks at the same station, they’re like, “I’ve mastered this station. I want to see another station. I want to learn more.” But when the movement is too fast, there is nothing ingrained in the person’s head. As soon as you move to something else, you forget it. I want them to master what they do, and then go on to the next step. Once they master a skill—boning a fish, boning meat, things that are not even taught anymore at a lot of places—I say, “Nobody can take this tool away from you. Put it in your toolbox, and seek a new tool.” You keep adding to the toolbox, and you’ve got your knowledge.
This is an industry that needs to modernize itself. Like with working less hours—changing some systems has brought that about. Right now we are only open for two lunches, on Thursday and Friday, and I think that has changed our way of working, and also our efficiency. I think we’re going to keep it like that. It’s been a nice discovery to see that we could focus even more on what we’re doing, have less people, and pay better wages.