Gray Kunz is one of the world's great chefs. As executive chef at the former New York City's Lespinasse and current Café Gray Deluxe Hong Kong, his reputation for innovation and creativity, and expanding the confines of a classical chef's repertory is unparalleled.
Kunz and Peter Kaminsky coauthored The Elements of Taste, a cookbook dedicated to understanding and mastering different flavor profiles.
At Cafe Gray Deluxe in Hong Kong, Kunz brings to bear the curiosities and delights offered by the local cuisine to the neo classical mode he first encountered as sous chef in the kitchen of Frédy Girardet. The menu reflects a master's obsession with sourcing the right ingredients while telling the story of a peripatetic gourmand. The menu has attracted foodies from around the world.
Ying Zhu: What do you remember most from your childhood in Singapore?
Gray Kunz: The fondest memory I have is going with my dad to the food stalls during the weekends. It was such an incredible picture: I see myself walking up towards the stalls, and the bowl of noodles was already there for him. He lived in Singapore for 40 years and he would go all the time, so they knew him really well.
I remember Serangoon Road in Singapore and all the smells from Indian spices. My father had a nanny who worked with him for many years, and they had great food at home, so I became very involved with that food at a very young age. The Asian stuff is kind of born into me. At the time, I had no idea how important those memories would be for me as I was entering the food business. Those memories will never go away.
You have said that your first forays into cooking were based on necessity. When did cooking stop being a job and become a passion for you?
The vocation really started during the summertime when I went to work with my brother to earn some money. My father was pretty strict that if you want to buy something, you've got to work for it. I apply that same strategy today, and I try to impart that to my kids as well. It became part of my life because I felt that I could probably translate food in a way that was meaningful to people. At a certain point, I was very discouraged about cooking. I was working in these very old kitchens where the chefs were drinking all day long. I'd really had it, and I said, "I'm going to go into something different within hospitality." I signed up to go to the hotel school in Lausanne, and then I got a call from the Spanish chef Frédy Girardet. I spent five years there and that's really where I decided, this really has a future.
It was an ongoing process. I didn't just say, "I'm going to take this as a vocation." People don't realize it, but a chef has to leave aside a lot of things. You have to work when everyone else is off, and it's very tough to raise a family when you're a chef. The income isn't great in the beginning--for many years.
I think one of the things I'd like to do is make sure that the reality shows don't portray the wrong picture, of how easy it is to become a chef. It's a very rewarding profession, but it's also a difficult one. You have to be totally dedicated.
At what point did you say, "Cooking brings me joy"?
It always has. I didn't say, "This is great, now that I'm successful." I always enjoyed it, but after sixteen–hour days, six days a week--I had to cook on the weekends as well--I would think that one day I wouldn't like to cook at all. [Laughs] But the love for cooking was always there.
Where and when did you learn to combine and balance the flavors of East and West? Was it part of your training, or just instinct and experimentation?
It was probably a combination of both. My classical training helped me enormously to be able to combine those two things together, and to be very cautious of thinking of my food as "fusion." I hate that word; it doesn't mean anything to me. The base that I established through very rigorous training before, and my childhood memories, and my time spent in Asia, had helped me balance flavors. I'm still fascinated today by spices. I know a little about them, but I think you can't know enough. What is fascinating about spices and combining them with cooking is that they allow you to travel. In your mind you can travel to India, or you can be in Indonesia. Travel becomes a part of the food experience.
It creates such a different level of food when you know a little bit about how to combine spices.
Is there anything you learned from Frédy Girardet that you try to pass on to younger chefs?
Some of the most valuable things he taught me are: rigor and precision; the total dedication towards product; very strong work ethics; a complete passion for what you're doing, not just for cooking, but total focus on the product itself.
At the end of the time when I was there, he would put the spoon in the pot and walk away to talk to a customer--he expected me to finish that dish. It was impossible, and yet I had a sense of where he was going. And believe me, in the evening, you better be prepared for that dish. He didn't even know how it was going to turn out but you better have those ingredients ready for him.
It was a thought process like how a musician feels where the next note is going to go, even though that music hasn't been played yet. In that person's mind and heart, you can see the steps being already presented, and that's what I learned. I also learned a lot about being a human being, a chef, and a mentor. He taught me that the most important things were the product, the training, rigor, precision, and the total honesty in what you're putting on the plate.
You have said that taste can be a very hard thing to teach. Singers can train and extend their vocal range through vocal exercises, but how do you train and develop your sense of taste?
Well I think you need a good palette to start off with. [Laughs] If somebody has a good palette to start off with, you can teach him the basic things about taste. We all know about salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. But there are nuances in there that can be taught, that can be brought out. And there is a language there. That's one of the reasons why I wrote the book, The Elements of Taste, because I felt it was a chapter that has not been explored. I don't know if you can really teach taste if you don't first have that raw talent. A lot of people have it, but don't know how to properly translate that.
Good taste also develops from being around good food all the time--adding a little bit here and there, and knowing when to stop. Those are things that you can train yourself to know. If something is too salty, you know right away. But I don't know if I can teach that if you don't already have a natural sense of taste.
Your cookbook with Peter Kaminsky, The Elements of Taste was categorized in a very unique way. Instead of arranging food by courses and primary ingredients, you arranged it according to fourteen basic tastes. How did you come up with this idea?
The basic idea came from the language of wine. There's a language of how to translate the taste of wine that I felt was missing in the language of food. We wanted to come up with something that was different and could encourage the larger public to say, "I'm going to actually try doing this. How do I put that together, whether it's a 'push' or 'pull' taste?" It seems outrageous but it really works, so we took that basis of ideas and started translating them into the recipes we cooked. Fascinating process. I think there's an unfinished chapter there and I would love to do more about that. I'd like to combine not only the elements of taste but also the elements of product, travel, and maybe even spices. There are many chapters I can come up with after that, but I think the book is a good start.
Can you walk us through the creative process? Lets say you're trying to create a recipe for one of the tastes: How do you start?
Let's say we went salty. There's a recipe in there of brine–marinated pork. It seems like if we're going to marinate this pork in this brine, it's going to be very salty, but that's not the case. Brining is a preserving process that creates salty flavors without being overly salty. Or with acidic flavors, you can balance vinaigrette out with olive oil and lemon juice. What do you do to make it less astringent and sour? You add a little sugar at the end, and a little bit of cayenne to give it some spice.
Those are some of the basic combinations already of how we started doing recipes, and it still today. Peter and I had such a great time doing that, but it was hard work. It took three years to get the book together but the process was fascinating. I think we had over twenty flavors and profiles in the beginning, and he said, "There's no way people are going to understand this." But once we nailed it down and we found the right combinations, how to translate them, it became quite natural. The recipes just started flowing. Sometimes when he and I talk, people must think we're crazy. [Chuckles]
For people who aren't professional chefs but just want to try cooking at home, what are the essential cooking tools they need?
You need fire. You need heat. [Laughs] You need a cooking surface. You need something to cook your food in, and it can be very simple. I think we're going overboard with the home kitchens. I think the simple tools are best, but I think the tools have to be used with a little bit of technique. You can do something very simple on charcoal grill outside, but if you know a little technique, you have something you can add to it, and it makes it all more interesting. I think the basic tools of cooking are also being able to keep from burning yourself, and knowing where the hot and cold are.
Believe it or not, I would look for a kitchen towel, because you can't reach for hot items with your bare hands. I think I would include one or two of the essential things: salt, sugar, oil, and a very good knife. And with that, I think you're off to a good start.
What's the hardest part about running a restaurant?
At this stage, the operational side is something I'm very familiar with it and I love doing it. That includes the training, the education, building the team, and being a good leader. But by far the most difficult part is finding the right partnerships, and finding the people that are dedicated, not to an instant success, but to long–term success. That's what I am doing right now, so it's not about running around looking for space, or trying to put your staff together. It's creating an understanding of how to make this project from a business point of view.
How do you make this project successful for your own sake, and for the investors' sake? Putting those two things together is a very difficult task.
Since the days of Lespinasse, has the New York restaurant scene changed for the better or for the worse?
For the better, I certainly feel that the awareness and the palette of the consumers have improved tremendously, which is a good thing. It's a challenge for the chefs but I think that's awesome. I appreciate the enormous explosion in the food products that we can find, the ability to find them in local markets, the variety of wines and breads you can easily find. It really has benefitted a wide range of people. For example, here in Brooklyn we have a couple local markets that you can go to and find the best ingredients that you want. Those are the huge gains that we've seen.
On the detrimental side, I hate food trends. I'm not in favor of all these reality shows because they don't represent the solid training and foundation you need to have in our profession. If people are entering the business because they want to be culinary stars, then maybe they need to change professions. There has also been a lowering of the standard of the very well–trained people, of great professionals that have a very strong foundation, which I think has been diminished in the past years, even though now we have excellent schools.
I think the population in the restaurant field needs to have a better foundation in general. I think it's fun to have food trucks all over the place, but I'm not sure what that really does for the professional world. I think it's fantastic that people can do it, but that's a sign of the times that we're in. In general, I see more positives than negatives.
Cafe Gray Deluxe is in Hong Kong. How does that effect what you do?
The customer base is different of course–– but international travelers expect me to do something different in Hong Kong; they respect where I am. Hong Kong is an incredible food city. We use a lot of the ingredients that I can only find in Hong Kong. I don't think the base of the cooking has changed. It has evolved to become something even better. We've associated ourselves with the World Wildlife Fund to be at the forefront of the restaurants in Hong Kong to promote sustainability, especially in seafood, and I'm just thrilled with the way the restaurant is working. It's an incredible project, and that's an example of a very good partnership.
I hope there's more to come in Asia, but really the difference is the respect for where you are locally, building your knowledge, and turning out a product that has a twist because you're based in Hong Kong; in Bali, it would be a different twist. I don't think you can just translate a menu from what you're doing in New York to Hong Kong–– it just won't work.
In Asia people care less about presentation and more about flavor. Does that effect what you do in Hong Kong?
There's no question about that. And that's part of what I'm looking at in Hong Kong as well. It's all about trying to get the best flavors out. It's all about trying to get that acidity balanced, the sweetness balanced, the spiciness together. All of that comes together tremendously in Hong Kong because people understand those flavors. It's a much, much bigger challenge for me--not that New York wasn't a challenge--but it's a bigger challenge to bring that finesse into the food.
Any new discoveries?
There are lots of new ingredients. My chef du cuisine there is American, and he's very much in love with Bali so we've incorporated a lot of those flavors into the Indonesian spices. We're back to spices again. I discovered a tremendous amount of new ingredients in Hong Kong. For example, we do a lot of things with water chestnuts, even pureeing them to get the juice, which is a natural binding element. We do a lot of things with the natural acidity of fruits, such as pomelos; we do a lot with calamansi--a tremendous amount of vinaigrettes and things based on that combination of sweet and sour and spicy. It's an ongoing process. For example, when the fruit is in season, we make a cold mangosteen soup. You could only dream of that here in the U.S. We're also looking very carefully at working with quite a few local farms in Hong Kong, new territories that are actually organic. That brings a whole new aspect of food in Hong Kong, and it's taken on tremendous momentum.
Can you talk about how you're educating people about the food they eat?
I came in with the idea of building Cafe Gray Hong Kong with that idea in mind already. It was a very steep learning curve and it came from not wanting to point out every organic dish on my menu. It should be a given that as a chef and an entrepreneur, I do that research beforehand. That was a very different thought process but it has shown itself to be the absolute correct way. Now people expect that we have the best organic, sustainable, healthy food items that we can buy and present to you as a customer.
I believe we will see leapfrogging in China and Asia, in their research and their progress, of sustainable foods that are healthy, that are nutritious. The biggest challenge, I think, and I fear, is how we're going to feed nine billion people soon. Farming, the basis of farming started in China. I believe the Chinese, and Asia, are going to leapfrog any thought process we have here not because of wanting, but because of necessity.
I think that's something to watch very closely, and I'm saying that because I have one or two examples in China. Two doctors, who gave up their practices and are doing farming now. I can't explain that to someone if they haven't seen it. It's so mind––boggling and they're doing research into their food products. All sustainable with the clearest and the best waters you can find, up in an elevation of about 700 meters, and they're doing research now on how do we safeguard products at a certain time when our products have frost. They are doing very advanced research.
Do you have your own farm now? Are you still pursuing that dream?
Yes, it's something so dear to me. I've owned this house upstate for about fourteen years now, and there's a bit of land there. My son is actually very interested in agriculture. If I could put those two things together it would be a total dream come true. I could die and be peaceful if my son takes over the farm and runs it. But there are many steps before that, but at least the land is there. If a project happens in New York, the farm and the project will be tied together, there's no question. It's an incredible piece of property on the waters and it's 100% organic from the get––go. I'm very passionate about that. If I can dig out my own carrots, that's a pretty good feeling. [Laughs]
Can you talk to us about Kunz Food? What can we expect in the future?
Quite a bit, I think. There are a lot of things I want to tie in. One of my dreams is to create a product line. That probably will be happening in the course of next year. I will need to get the format together and the basis together. And in Kunz Food could be also kitchen tools; it could be ingredients; a line of wine glasses, for example. I'm formulating actually nine different themes to put together in Kunz Food.
The Gray Kunz Spoon (it holds exactly 2.5 tablespoons of sauce and has a slightly tapered edge for shaping foam.)
You got your pilot's license four years ago––
[Laughs] Oh boy.
Do you still fly?
I do, and got my seaplane rating this summer....and am working on my instrument rating.
When do you do that?
When I do that is mostly on the weekends. My wife is pretty liberal about it. And I spend the time with her in the airplane. I'm a very lucky guy to have a great family. It's been a passion of mine since childhood.
In flying you have an envelope. And in that envelope you stay, or you basically die. It's pretty simple. I like that structure a lot and I like the technical aspect of it but let's face it––when I'm in the airplane and I fly up the Hudson Valley, it's in the fall and there's a sunset: I can't tell you the pleasure I have doing that.
I also like the aspect of continuous education. I just got my seaplane rating this summer so I can land on water. I'm going to get my instrument rating next year. This thing takes me up, really up, somewhere where I can just focus on that and come back. It's a physical and mental commitment, but it takes that pressure away from me, from the other things I'm dealing with, and I'm absolutely passionate about it. I love it; I wouldn't give this up for anything. But I'm also aware of my responsibility to my family, in case something happens to me, so I'm very cautious. If you want to come up with me, we'll check the weather forecast six times before we go [Laughs].
If you had one piece of advice to give to a young chef who is starting out right now--dreaming of cooking in his own restaurant--what would it be?
One piece of advice? I have several of them, but I'll elaborate.
You have to have a fire inside that's burning so hot, that you want to do this, and then you combine that with education, techniques. My recommendation: no matter how hard it is, stick with the best people in the field and train with them for years. It takes a long time. Once you've achieved that–– and it's a path that has a lot of pitfalls–– if you want to see your girlfriend Saturday night, I'm sorry, that doesn't quite work when you have two-hundred covers waiting for you in the restaurant. So you need to make concessions on that end as well, which is very difficult. I think there's a balancing act, but the passion needs to be inside you.
One of the other things chefs need is to associate themselves with the best teachers they can find in the field. That's very difficult. And with more knowledge and education comes also the power to understand--to be able to perform. I think those are probably the most important steps, and really, to never give up, keep on going with what you love to do. And In general, stay humble; make sure that you over–perform. And don't be shy to pick up the piece of paper on the floor, or scrub the floor, if it has to be scrubbed. It's really part of the process. And if you don't know how to sweep, you don't know how to hold a knife.
I have a question about cilantro. Like Julia Child, I really dislike cilantro. For me, if there's a tiny bit of cilantro...
[Laughs] That surprises me, as you're Chinese.
I know. If there's a tiny piece in a dumpling, I can taste it. It's almost so overwhelming that it takes away from the flavor. How do you feel about cilantro?
I hated it for many years [laughing] I couldn't stand it. I had the same feeling. Cilantro is a very special herb, and it's so over–powering that you either hate it or love it. It's the same for durian, or certain other things. I'm not sure if I could cure you about that one [laughs]
But how did you get over it?
I started implementing it in smaller doses. You don't need to have a bunch of cilantro in a food item to make it taste good; you need to reduce, actually. If you make an herb mixture--let's say you make a vinaigrette--you reduce cilantro to the minimum because that's the strongest one. And you increase maybe the tarragon, which kind of overbalances it. So it's a balancing act, but it can be kind of hard. If you don't like cilantro, you don't like cilantro. I'm fortunate that I started liking it, but it's still for me, very powerful, almost overwhelming.
What's your recipe for a happy day?
I'm a pretty happy guy. For me, very simple things, like coming here every morning and having my coffee, getting straight with myself first is not a bad start [Laughs] And I can be inspired by very simple, small things in the course of the day. I'm saying that because if I can sit out here and look at these trees, whatever problems I have in the restaurant seem to be quite small. I can't bring that sense of happiness and freedom into my organization if I don't have the base of being a pretty content person as well. I have my ups and downs like everybody else. I'm very demanding with myself when it comes to my work. At the same time, I'm extremely passionate about how I solve those problems, and it's always tied into people, always.
Generally when things really get bad I say less, and think more. That might have something to do with what makes me happy. Something I learned in aviation: generally when something goes wrong: don't blame the airplane. Just sit back and look at what you're doing wrong first. Apply a change to that, and it'll affect your team.
But in general what makes me really happy is nature. I forage for mushrooms myself; I love that. It brings a balance towards life in general, and everything that I do still touches food. It may be a mushroom or something else. [Laughs] It touches food so it really makes me happy. I'm also very fortunate to have two great kids and an incredibly understanding wife, because I'm the oddball here, not them. [Laughs] But what made me a balanced guy are really the things I love. I ask nature a lot of questions. I get no response, but there's a thought process behind it, so I'm very fortunate in that sense. I'm very preoccupied with what the future will bring but I couldn't think of being in a better position than where I am today. Without even having a restaurant in New York, I'm probably a better human being for that.
Photo credit: Tom Moore
(with assistance from Karen Lo)
A bonus recipe from Chef Kunz:
Tomato Fennel Vinaigrette
"This vinaigrette can be served with Gilled fish, and other seafood such as scallops or even lobster."
(Photo by Andre Baranowski)