It’s been six years since John Fraser first opened the doors to Dovetail (103 West 77th Street, 212-362-3800), the Upper West Side restaurant that’s both a neighborhood joint and an international destination, and it’s success is as much a product of its owner’s unrelenting drive to grow and evolve as it is a testament to his immense talent.
Fraser started his career as a short order cook in southern California when he was in college, and because he really liked the misfit hours of the kitchen and the camaraderie of the industry, he stayed behind the burners, rising to a sous chef position in LA only because, he says, he spoke English as a first language. “I was never the best cook in any of those kitchens,” he says. So when he went to work at the French Laundry, he dropped back down to cook, learning from Thomas Keller among a crew that included Grant Achatz and Eric Ziebold, guys that “in their own towns are the best chefs,” he says. “It was an all-star team.” It was there that Fraser really laid the foundation for his own style, and after he left, he went to Paris to solidify the lessons.
Back on U.S. soil a year later, Fraser was burnt out on fine dining so he moved to New York to help a friend open Snack Taverna, a project he thought he’d be involved with for a couple of months to cut his teeth on running a kitchen before moving on to something else. Snack garnered a lot of media attention in those early days, and Fraser stayed for two years, learning the lessons of leadership in the process. “I learned my management techniques weren’t going to work anymore,” he says. “All the bullying, screaming, and things I went through weren’t okay. It was a huge lesson.” He bounced around a bit after his departure from there, eventually settling into the Upper West Side’s Compass, where, thanks to a couple of less-than-stellar reviews, he had a chance to hone in on the kind of food he wanted to be cooking while flying under the radar. It wasn’t long before he started looking for investors for his own project, and in 2007, he opened Dovetail.
Fraser is very clear that the Dovetail that exists now is different front he restaurant he opened; it took time for him to achieve what he set out to accomplish. But now, he’s executing on his style, which he defines as vegetable-forward and Californian, and his restaurant has become what he wanted it to be. So he’s taken on another project: A few weeks ago, he opened Narcissa at The Standard East Village (25 Cooper Square), the culmination of two years of planning for a new kind of neighborhood spot.
In this interview, he talks about this vision for that new restaurant, how his veggie-forward philosophy has evolved, and why it’s hard to own a restaurant here.
How has your philosophy evolved over time?
Anyone who says they have a fully formed philosophy is probably taking someone else’s. I don’t want to act like I’m in a place that’s so nirvana, because it’s not true. But there are things I’ve discovered about myself and how I cook over time that I can own. Today, my philosophy is to touch it as little as you can, source the best ingredients you can, source as locally as you can, and don’t try to educate the consumer. Don’t try to educate the consumer because they’re not necessarily there for the chef or the food. If you lean in when you eat here, you’ll see something deeper than the service. But if you lean back, it’s food, it tastes good, you can come in and have some food and drinks and fun and go home. It doesn’t require you to go to the altar.
Talk to me about your veggie-forward perspective and how that’s evolved.
Three or four years ago, I started to eat mostly vegetables. People hate when I call myself a vegetarian because I’m not one — I eat mostly vegetables, but when I go out to eat or when I’m tasting, I eat meat. I was about to close Dovetail on Mondays and I decided to experiment with this vegetable Monday thing. At the time, I didn’t even know Meatless Monday existed. So we started to do this vegetable menu, which you could get either totally vegetarian or vegan, or have a vegetable garnished with a little bit of meat, like trout roe. People loved it — Monday is still our third busiest day of the week. On those original menus, I was trying to convince people that we could make vegetables as good as meat. Now, it’s about how we can make vegetables as good as they can be. It’s about how I can make that mushroom taste as good as it can instead of how I can make that mushroom taste like beef. That means I leave it alone more, so the leeks have to be the best leeks — there’s not a lot of pretty stuff to stand on. It’s a little modern art-ish. When you have a lot of lines on a canvas, you get distracted. But if you have one line on a canvas, that one line really means something. As you take things off the plate and get more simple, things that are on the plate have to get better.
Is it more challenging doing that kind of food here in New York than it would be in produce-plentiful California?
I find it more exciting here. In California, seasons are long and wide. There’s no feast or famine. In New York, you get real seasons. So if you’re cooking for the seasons, it feels right — you can make food connected to the weather and how we feel. Squash and mushrooms are what we want to eat when it’s cold. When it’s blistering hot, we have peas and we have corn, they’re just not as plentiful. At some point in the year, brussels sprouts are here, and tomatoes are gone. That’s more exciting to me.
You started doing this in the era of pork. How has clientele evolved? Has it evolved at all?
I don’t know — I don’t pay attention to that sort of thing. Fetishizing is mostly a media thing, not a cook thing. We cook for people, and media decides what’s hot right now or what’s going to be focused on. From that spin, people react. Does pork belly taste good? Yeah. I remember when pork belly was almost free, and now it’s really expensive. I can only speak to NYC — but gyms are popping up on every corner. That tells me something is going on: People are interested in taking care of themselves, or they’re at least interested in having gym memberships they don’t use. That tells me that people might be recognizing that pork is not a long term solution.
Tell me about the vision for Narcissa.
The major thing that we decided is that we wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant. We wanted to be affordable, a place that people could get into, and a spot to eat at rather than a place to dine. (Eating is satiating, having drinks, and going home; dining is making an event out of the meal.) From there, it was me putting on a creative hat and trying to do something that could be served at that price, at that volume, in this service style, and for that type of person. It’s different than what we did at Dovetail. It’s very fun — we’re taking cabbage and oysters and turning them into something much more than that — or it’s getting stuff from the farm and leaving it alone. Those two things are equally exciting. And it’s sort of a rebirth — I’m new to downtown. I’ve been on an island up north — I get to touch all new people here.
Up next, Fraser talks about why locality is important for success.
Think that island is unique to UWS, or is that all neighborhoods in NYC? How are the neighborhoods different?
On the Upper West Side, we have a lot of guests that are 100 percent neighborhood people. The critical acclaim and Michelin star drive the rest toward us. I love Dovetail so much — it’s so of itself. It wouldn’t work here, it wouldn’t work on the Upper East Side. It’s of the neighborhood. And to me, the best restaurants in the world, you can’t remove them from where they are.
Is focusing on a neighborhood the key to success in New York?
I don’t know what the key to success is in New York City, but I think that’s the key to my success. I stay insular and close to what’s important to me and find ways to express that to other people.
What’s been the biggest challenge with owning multiple restaurants?
From a professional standpoint, it’s great — I have people from Dovetail working with me here. They hit their ceiling in terms of money and position they could hold, and opening another venue allows them to go to another level. I love the ability to switch hats — downtown, it’s as simple as barley with clams, and uptown, it’s more complicated. From a personal side, it’s been very difficult. I’m very connected with Dovetail personally — I carried it on my back for a long time. I have a lot of relationships there that I don’t get to see every day. Cooks come to Dovetail to put the star on their resume, but I think they also come to work with me and to be part of the culture that I set up. But people there have also been able to break through because I’m not on their asses every day. I’ve become their editor. It’s been great to watch them flourish.
Where does the industry go from here?
I’ll tell you what I’m nervous about happening in the industry: I’m nervous that rising prices will get rid of small business, so all you’ll be able to get here will feel like big box restaurants. It’s really difficult to be a small business in New York, and it gets harder every year. The margins are so thin. What will we lose as a creative restaurant culture because it’s so hard to open restaurants? Will we be able to find those investors that can make those big bets? Will it all become department store-sized restaurants? Does Brooklyn become the only option?
How has media changed over the course of your career?
Let’s start with criticism: There used to be only a few critics, and now there are many. The person in your dining room is criticizing you on Yelp. Also, almost every food television show is some sort of competition with judges — so people tasting your food talk about your food like they hear other people (and by that I mean judges) talk about food. That’s the vernacular for how the public speaks to me about my food: criticism. That’s the way people now talk about food now. Everyone’s a critic. When I was coming up, there were critics and there were people who celebrated food.
What about the review cycle? Has it changed?
I sit on both sides — of course I’d like to have two months to get things in order, but at the same time, I’m open for business and serving people at full price, so I’m subject to criticism. If I’m not ready to be open, I shouldn’t be open. I weigh on the side of the consumer. That said, I do think that waiting a bit longer could allow for a better story to be told in the criticism.
What are your goals?
If you’d told me when I was 25 that I would have owned a restaurant for six years at this point, I would have been like, no way. My goal is to stay close — I just opened a restaurant, and I want to make it a success. We’re eventually rolling out lunch and brunch, and I feel like it will be nine months before I can pop my head up and say, “What’s next?” In the future, I’d like to take weekends off. Some of my friends do it, and I’m so filled with envy. I’d like to own a sailboat.
Up next, Fraser names some favorite places in the city.
Best place for a coffee or tea:
Cafe Standard is where I drink my coffee every morning.
Best veggie-forward restaurant that’s not your own:
Best place in the city for a drink or a beer:
Someone you’d really like to cook for:
Someone, living or dead, you’d really like to have cook for you:
Someone you’d be nervous about cooking for:
Special occasion restaurant:
My favorite restaurant in NYC is Basta Pasta
Taboonette. That’s my splurge eggs in the morning.
Quintessential New York City restaurant:
Gotham Bar & Grill
Dish you could eat forever:
Something you love about the NYC restaurant industry:
Person who doesn’t get enough credit:
Dan Barber. His restaurants are amazing, he’s revered, but he doesn’t get mentioned as much as others.
Pressing industry issue:
I think cooks should cook.
Is there any part of your story that hasn’t been told?
I’ve given my whole life to service. I’ve skipped every wedding, birthday, and Christmas. At this point, it’s a lifestyle, not just a job. Hopefully, that gets onto the plate — hopefully, if you lean in, you’ll see something more than just food. There’s a narrative, and it’s never going to be the same again.