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When much-lauded chef John Fraser isn’t tending the pass at Dovetail, the acclaimed Upper West Side restaurant he opened in late 2007, he’s living a lifestyle that includes vegetable-forward eating and practicing Muay Thai, a form of Mixed Martial Arts known also as Thai boxing. His personal diet made an impact in his kitchen, where he says he’s become more attuned to flavor and inventive with produce. It also inspired his Monday night vegetable menu and garnered his eatery a new following. Now, he’s taking his fitness hobby to a new level: This Friday, Victory Combat Sports, the Mixed Martial Arts event production company in which Fraser is an investor, will host its inaugural event at Terminal 5.
We caught up with Fraser, who talked to us about his involvement in the Mixed Martial Arts world, his own training routine and eating philosophy and how his lifestyle choices affect his cooking at Dovetail.
Village Voice: How did you get involved with the Mixed Martial Arts world?
John Fraser: I’ve been a boxing fan my whole life, and I became a Muay Thai fan once I started to do it. After that, I became a Mixed Martial Arts fan via the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship]. So I’m basically the ultimate fan turned minor investor. The guys who set Victory Combat Sports up really know the fight game well. Ultimately, I see this as something that’s terrific — it’s not like boxing, which is grueling, violent and hurtful. I’m really excited by it as a fan, and there’s only one place to experience it right now.
How does Victory differ from the UFC?
With UFC, it’s this huge production. It’s almost like a circus. It’s so impressive, so larger than life. But this is not about lights and firecrackers, it’s about human experience. I liken Victory to watching your local college football team play, and you’re integrated into the whole experience. You’re going to be able to reach out and touch what’s going on in the cage. Kevin Lillis, the CEO, and Justin Blair, the head of Friday Night Fights, saw a hole in the market for people who love MMA but can’t go watch it because you just feel like you’re in a street fight location. That chokes off the audience. Kevin is a restaurant hospitality guy, too, and we’ve thought a lot about the experience outside of the ring. We’ve thought, what if you don’t know who’s fighting? Could you still have fun? We’re going to bring an experience that will feel home-grown. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get all of our ideas into this first show, but eventually, outside of the ring will be just as exciting as what’s in the ring.
What’s your own training routine like? What’s the appeal of Muay Thai?
I did martial arts and karate when I was a kid, but I was introduced to Muay Thai by a friend at a gym in New York City. It’s a good balance of getting out any aggression you have and a simple cardio workout. I’m not sure how many years I have left, though. It’s definitely a young man’s sport.
Is that why you became a vegetarian?
Well hold on a second, because you say I’m a vegetarian, but if vegetarians heard me say that, they’d rip my arms off. Whenever possible, I’m a vegetarian. But if I’m at someone’s house for dinner, I’m eating meat. I just took a trip to Portland and had three days of meat and fish for research.
So what is your philosophy?
I don’t have a good reason for having bacon on my breakfast sandwich or chicken on my sandwich for lunch. I don’t really like how those things taste, so I don’t really need them. So this was really an experiment that turned into a lifestyle, but I don’t have a political motivation. I cook for flavor, but I see food as fuel more than flavor for myself. It’s fuel to keep the body working hard and brain operating at a high level. That’s important for successful fighters, too.
How does this affect your cooking?
Vegetables are so much more interesting and nuanced to me. From the point of view of cooking, that’s taken me to a completely different place. I focus on the experience of the vegetable. At a lot of restaurants, you just cook the vegetable to make it to the fish station — it’s something you’re trying to move past, so the vegetable is not as special. This refocused me and my team on what’s happening in the vegetable. It’s not hard to cook a great steak if you have a great steak to begin with, but it’s harder to make great asparagus and potatoes. The window is smaller for vegetables.
Food is my way of expression, my way of creativity. Anything that I eat or come into contact with is going to somehow make its way onto the menu in the form of cooking. Because I eat mostly vegetarian, when I look at cauliflower in the walk-in, it takes on new meaning. It’s not support for the steak or lamb or John Dory, it’s the main point.
Eating a vegetable-forward diet also affects my palate: When I taste a lardon of bacon or a meat-based sauce for seasoning, my palate is very acute because it’s not being subjected to the same flavor over and over again. I’m a much more sensitive chef when it comes to flavor. [laughs] I’m a very sensitive chef.
How did the Monday vegetable menu develop?
It started two or three years ago. I became a vegetarian when I said, “I’m gonna cut meat out and see how it feels.” It was summer then, and business on the Upper West Side in the summer is pretty rough because a lot of people leave the city. I thought, maybe I’ll just give the restaurant and staff a break and close on Mondays. We weren’t killing it, so why not give everyone the gift of rest? I decided instead to experiment with a vegetarian style of food. I was just going to do it for the summer time and then cut it down at the end of the season and go back to our regular thing. Monday became our third busiest day of the week. From a revenue side, I have to do it. But we also get to touch a completely different kind of customer on Monday. There’s a very specific style of neighborhood customer on the Upper West Side. Monday almost feels like a pop-up.
What about the other nights of the week?
If you announce yourself as a vegetarian, you get a completely different menu. Chefs might have one vegetarian entrée or they’ll put one together for you that’s really just the garnish from the lamb, the garnish from the beef and the garnish from the fish on one plate. What annoys vegetarians most about restaurants? There’s no choice. We’re approaching it differently, so we offer a lot of choice.
It’s great that this has been so good for business.
Hey, the world is going in that direction. I said that three years ago, and I’m saying it now, and now it’s very out in the open. And some of that is that after ten years of pork belly, you’re going to have an equal and opposite reaction. I just wonder what comes after the tattoos of pigs and butchery all those chefs have. Is the vegetarian crowd more buttoned up, or are they going to have tattoos of carrots on their forearms?
How does this link back into Victory and MMA?
The same way I might make the argument that my fish is better or carrots are better because we’re supporting a local guy, these fighters are homegrown and local. This is their outlet and their expression. We’re gonna see minor leaguers, and we’re gonna see people who come through this and make it to the big leagues. This is their chance to express themselves and get out there.
Fight dates, tickets and more information on Fraser’s MMA venture are available on the Victory Combat Sports website.