While his teenage friends were sleeping on Saturday mornings, Craig Koketsu was catching up on a little food TV, checking in on the cooking shows that were then hosted by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Koketsu had been interested in food and experimenting in the kitchen since childhood, and during his high school years, he often cooked for his friends at parties. It wasn’t until he was working at a gourmet grocery store during college — where he was studying pre-law — that he considered food as a career, though. Then, he’d spend all of his free time researching recipes and working in his kitchen, and, he says, the idea of becoming a chef began really percolating.
After graduation, he started seeking out chefs who’d bring him on as an intern, reasoning that he’d rather make minimum wage while he learned the basics than go further into debt with culinary school. He landed a position with Steve Chan, a Chinese-American chef who headed up the French-Asian Martha’s Restaurant. “His chef that he learned from was a student of Auguste Escoffier, so thought it was cool to have that direct lineage to Escoffier,” says Koketsu.
When he left Chan, he worked under Jeremiah Tower at Stars, eventually becoming the private dining chef. And that’s when the seed was first planted to move to New York. “There was this peek-through window into the dining room, and I would hang out and listen to what the guys were talking about,” says the chef. “They would talk about NYC and all these cool restaurants: Bouley, Daniel, Le Bernardin, and Lespinasse at that time — that was the first time I heard that name. Then I saw the New York Times food section profile of Gray Kunz and his kitchen renovation of the St. Regis, and I thought, I have to work there.”
Koketsu sent out his resume, and he scored his coveted role at Lespinasse, eventually working his way up to chef de cuisine, and sticking around even as Kunz passed the torch to Christian Delouvrier. When a new restaurant with Delouvrier fell through, Koketsu joined the Smith & Wollensky group to try to revamp the Manhattan Ocean Club, but he found it impossible to turn the place around after 23 years. He helped change it into Quality Meats instead, and then he stayed on with the group through a number of additional openings. He now oversees the kitchens at Park Avenue, Quality Italian, and General Assembly (360 Park Avenue South), which replaced the Hurricane Club about a month ago.
In this interview, Koketsu talks about how Yelp brings him down and one of the industry’s most pressing problems.
You have a star-riddled resume. Any lessons that really stick with you?
When Jeremiah Tower was branching out to Hong Kong or Singapore and opening a new restaurant, I asked him, really frankly, “To what do you attribute your success?” He told me that there’s no division between his personal and professional life — his life is his life. That’s what’s happened to me. My work has become my life. One of Kunz’s huge things was about balancing flavors. His food was completely balanced, between sweetness, spice, salt, and tartness. That’s something I still think about when I’m making our food. You don’t just season with salt or pepper; there’s so much you can do to round out flavors. And from Christian [Delouvrier], I learned it’s important to have a general, overall passion for what you do. He’s a chef through and through. It’s in his blood. You can still see him cooking, and that’s inspiring.
What was your vision for the food at General Assembly?
One of the interesting things about our restaurants is that the design process is integrated into the menu development and vice versa. We like to develop restaurants holistically — we look at every angle so that everything makes sense working together. When we approached AvroKo [the designers], we wanted to open the space up and make it bright. The feel of the space felt like an updated version of a brasserie, and that sort of set the tone for the menu. So you find some things that are inspired by classic French bistro or brasserie items, but with an American twist, and definitely with a more seasonal twist. I also thought about the neighborhood. I wanted to make food that people can come back and eat many times a week.
How has your relationship with this restaurant group evolved as you’ve opened new concepts?
Being responsible for overseeing such disparate concepts is the challenge and appeal of what I do. I’m not knocking working in one restaurant, because I have a lot of respect for chefs who do and just focus on one thing. But I’m interacting with chefs at each restaurant on a daily basis, and I’m helping the chefs figure things out and solve problems. It’s very dynamic and exciting, and that’s what I really love about being part of the restaurant group. We’re working on new and interesting concepts, but we’ve also developed concepts that can grow outside of New York, and our next move is Quality Meats Miami.
When do you decide to cut your losses on a restaurant and reimagine it as something else entirely, as you did with the Hurricane Club when you turned it into General Assembly?
The restaurant business has changes so tremendously in the last 20 years, and it’s increased the sheer competition in the city. That mandates that you stay relevant and that there’s excitement around the restaurant. That can be the case for a 20-year-old restaurant, but sometimes, restaurants run their course — some have a certain lifespan. And at that point, you have to be willing to look at the cold hard facts and support it, or go balls out and make a change. We decided to make a change. It’s risky, but it’s paid off.
Talk to me about the evolution of New York dining.
I’ve been in New York since the mid-nineties, and I’ve seen it go from what Alan Stillman calls “the Le’s and La’s” — all the French restaurants, because at a certain point, all the best restaurants were French — to now. That’s a big shift. Restaurants are much more casual, which is more appealing to me personally. The restaurant scene has become so personal — there are so many little, chef-driven concepts. It’s really about the chef’s very specific point of view. I think there’s room for all types of restaurants, and I think what we’re doing as a restaurant group is exceptional: We’re running big box restaurants at a higher level than many other restaurants, and that’s really challenging. We’re contributing to the diversity of the New York restaurant scene by keeping the bustling, big restaurant scene alive. It’s not only about food here; it’s a huge experience. That’s something I really am proud of.
What unique challenges do you face in larger restaurants as opposed to the smaller ones?
It’s math — you’re dealing with everything in bigger amounts. When you’re cooking out of a small restaurant, it’s much easier to control situations. Small restaurants are self-limiting. Here, our challenges exist because we get really busy — but we’re running with the same amount of cooks as a restaurant half our size. So it’s about getting cooks to be much more disciplined and consistent when it’s busy. We operate in a really highly efficient world: Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do, and they have to do it for 250 or 600 covers.
Are we seeing the rise of a new kind of restaurant group?
Everything comes and goes. We’re right in the heart of the personal, specific type of restaurant, and that’s going to evolve again into big bustling restaurants. In Manhattan, it’s more difficult because of the real estate. But in general in the U.S., you see smaller restaurateurs who have made a name for themselves branching out.
You’ve seen a lot of change in Midtown, Flatiron, and Gramercy since you joined Smith & Wollensky. Where does it go from here?
Just walking up and down Park, you see the hotels and condos that are developing; it’s really growing. In a lot of ways, we’ve been fortunate to keep our clientele from Park Avenue — they’ll come down here and they’re loyal to us here [at General Assembly], and that’s very reassuring and surprising. But this neighborhood has businesses, hotels, and residential property, so it pulls from everyone. We’ve been in Midtown for a long time, and it’s a great area. There are lots of hotels and tons of businesses. That feeds a lot of our restaurants, especially Quality Meats and Quality Italian. And take a place like Ma Peche. There, a quintessential downtown restaurateur is making his mark in midtown. That says a lot.
What’s the secret to opening a successful NYC restaurant?
Hard work and commitment. And thick skin. You have to want to put out the best possible thing and make people happy — that’s what hospitality is. That’s all we’re doing. We’re cooking for people, and hopefully they’re going to leave happy. I like it because it’s very simple.
What’s the hardest part about working in New York restaurants?
Yelp reviews. If you want to really feel shitty about yourself, just visit your restaurant’s Yelp site. That’ll bring you right down to earth. I think it’s great that everyone has a voice, but people are so hyper-critical now, and they don’t know how much work and effort people put into running a restaurant. Every restaurateur is trying to make the best food they can possibly make — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. So when people nitpick about a little thing here or there, it takes the wind out of your sails. Single critic reviews are no longer as important as the general consensus, so you just try to hit with most of your guests.
Does that play into how restaurant media has evolved? What affect does that have on the industry?
It has a tremendous effect on the industry. In many ways, it’s positive. Us sitting here, you interviewing me as a chef, is probably something that wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago. It has legitimized the occupation of being a chef. But it’s also brought a lot of people into the industry who might not have gotten into the industry, for better or for worse. What that means to me as a restaurateur and chef is that there are a lot more people and a lot less talent. I’m not even so concerned with talent anymore — I’m more interested in commitment. Young kids out of high school go into culinary school, which I think is a mistake — they should go to college and learn to live life first, because then you get life experience and you commit to finishing four-year school. I’ll take a college grad with no experience over a culinary grad almost any day. At the end of the day, this is hard work, you’re on your feet, you’re working holidays, and you never see your spouse or loved ones or family. That’s the reality. That’s one of the things I tell cooks when I hire them. So when it comes to week before Christmas and they’re asking me for Christmas day off, I can say, “Remember, we talked about this.”
Is there a personality aspect or particular passion that’s essential when it comes to being a chef?
As a chef, you have to be able to roll with what comes to you. You can have control over some percentage of things in the kitchen, but there’s at least 20 percent that’s completely out of your control. Everything works out in the end. At the end of the day, we’re cooking food for people to enjoy — we don’t have people’s lives in our hands. It should be fun.
What are your goals?
To retire. To take vacation. No. I mean there is truth to that, but I think I’d get bored, so I don’t know what I’d do with myself. But I’d like to have more time to travel and get out and see the world a little bit more. Professionally, my goal is to help grow this company into a nationally recognized restaurant group — I think we have the potential to have a national or international presence.
Best place in the city for a drink or a beer:
For a beer, McSorley’s for the sheer atmosphere and history and that’s what they serve there and it hasn’t changed for so many years. I have a lot of respect for that. For a drink, our bar [at General Assembly] after work. That’s where I’ll get a drink most frequently. Our barman Bryan Schneider. At the end of the shift, I’ll say, “I feel like gin or bourbon tonight,” and he always makes something amazing.
Best special occasion restaurant:
It’s obvious, but Eleven Madison Park. You can get dressed up but you don’t have to. That’s the thing I like about it most. The food is amazing, and the overall experience is a lot of fun, too. They have a good sense of humor; dining is about more than just the food.
Best no-occasion restaurant:
I live on the Upper West Side, and Nick and Toni’s is sort of my personal dining room. My wife and I go there a lot when I’m not working. They have really good product, and it’s really under-the radar. They also make barrel-aged negronis, and that’s the best negroni I’ve had in the city. It’s food you can eat every day.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Smith & Wollensky. I have to give a shout out to our mothership. It’s a piece of New York history, and some of the servers have been working there for 40 years. It’s amazing. It’s the best steak you can get in the city, and I really feel like steaks are one of those things that are such a New York thing.
An underrated restaurant:
Sakagura. Nobody even knows where it is — that’s what I like about it. It’s a cozy little place, and I have a great time when I go there. The food’s great.
An underrated person:
Dishwashers. A good dishwasher is worth his weight in platinum. It’s one of those things you take for granted, but when you don’t have a good dishwasher, you realize you much they contribute to how your kitchen is running. I love my dishwasher; I love all the dishwashers in all of our restaurants. They work so hard and contribute so much.
Dish you could eat forever:
I’m a carbolic, so white rice or pasta.
A pressing industry issue:
Human resources. It’s the biggest challenge that we face as a growing accompany: finding good people. It’s not sourcing good products. That’s fun to do, and it’s easy because there’s great products out there. Great people are few and far between.