Atrium’s Laurent Kalkotour: “Without the Farmers, There’d Be No Chef”


Yesterday marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, a storm so devastating to New York City that some businesses–restaurants included–have yet to return to the fold. Others, sadly, succumbed to the disaster; one of those was Governor, a then-new and much-lauded restaurant in downtown Brooklyn.

But from the wreckage of that project, which sent its partners separate ways, rose Atrium (15 Main Street, Brooklyn, 718-858-1095), a restaurant from a trio that met at DB Bistro. One of the owners who stepped in to take over the address is chef Laurent Kalkotour, a native of Provence.

Kalkotour learned to love food via his grandmother’s farm. “My great grandfather was also a chef,” he says. “We were a big family–always like 15 people around the table. I always liked to eat.” When he was a teenager, his mother noticed his fondness for helping out in the kitchen, and she encouraged him to go learn to be a chef. So he secured a job at the local Michelin-starred restaurant, where he stayed for five years. “I learned everything there,” he says. “I learned to peel a carrot–I really learned the basics. That’s where I found the passion. It was a small restaurant, but it was very busy and very famous. I worked long hours, and it was very stressful. I guess I made it.”

After a short stint in the army–where Kalkotour also served as a chef–and a year working pastry back in Provence, the chef was ready to move, and it wasn’t long before he landed at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Monaco. “I stayed five years,” Kalkotour explains. “Three in Monaco and two in New York. I had to forget everything that I learned before–it was a different way to approach technique.”

Here in New York, he met Daniel Boulud, and he briefly worked as a sous chef at Bar Boulud, doing 600 to 700 covers a night–“It wasn’t for me,” he recalls–before heading over to the St. Regis to become Ducasse’s executive sous chef. Two years later, Ducasse wanted to ship Kalkotour off to a different city to advance his career–but the young chef was married with children, and his wife didn’t want to leave the city.

So it was back to Boulud’s kitchen at DB Bistro, where he met his now-partners in Atrium Alex La Pratt and Leslie Affre. Last year, the group began putting together plans–and when they heard the Governor team was shuttering for good, they jumped on the space. After a renovation and overhaul, the restaurant opened over the summer.

In this interview, Kalkotour reflects on the neighborhood after Sandy, the French tradition, and why he dislikes restaurant critics.

You count Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud as mentors–could you distill down what you’ve learned from both?
I respect Daniel for what I learned as the New York way. In France, you do 60, 70, 80 covers, and that’s it. Here, my first service with Daniel was 200, and I said, “Wow, let me go back to France.” It’s different to make good food for a lot of covers. That opened my eyes.

Ducasse is known in the world–he’s the ambassador of French gastronomy, and he’s doing a lot. I stayed five years with Mr. Ducasse: three in Monaco, two in New York. Monaco was my light. My everything. It was a different kitchen. It made me forget everything that I learned before; it was a totally different way to approach technique. We were treating the product differently.

How so?
Simple cuisine–the philosophy there is really simple, light, flavorful, and tasty. It’s about taking each ingredient and making it the best–the best jus, the best sauce, the best flavor. Then when you have a bite of everything, you feel, wow. We had the lobster alive in the kitchen, and we would cook it a la minute. The product number one. It was fresh. Before I worked there, I was used to more family-style. It wasn’t at this level.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned from Mr. Ducasse?
Without the farmers, there’d be no chef. That’s nothing new, but he really supports it. Respect for the ingredient. For us, it takes two minutes to cook a carrot–for them, how long does it take for them to bring it to us?

Anything New York could learn from the French tradition?
10 years ago in the U.S. is different than what it is now. More people focus on organic and healthy, and I think that’s great. But I think some people are here just for the money. They don’t have the passion any more. They come here and ask for $14 or $15 an hour. They don’t want to work hard any more. I understand in a way, times change, everything is easy now, and you can kind of forget that our job is hard. But cooking is hard. We have a responsibility of putting the food on the plate.

Talk to me about the concept behind Atrium.
It’s very casual and easy, not fine dining. I use technique from my mentors, and I’m really following the season. The menu changes every night.

I don’t think fine dining would work here in this neighborhood. I don’t think people here want to spend many hours at the table. They want to be in and out with easy food.

Is it accurate to call it French-inspired?
Yes, my roots are French, but what we’re doing is a mix of cuisine. It’s not really American food–the French technique is there, and the philosophy is there. We’re using the American market, but the inspiration is French.

How has Sandy affected the neighborhood?
The neighborhood is very supportive, and it’s very happy that something’s happening again here. They’re going to do like a Chelsea Market; they want this neighborhood to live again. They’re very happy, and we have a lot of repeat customers.

Best place in the city for a drink.
Casa Mono and Bar Jamon. At the bar. I would like to open something like that. I really love it.

Best place in the city for a special meal.
Per Se.

Best place in the city for French food.

Best place in the city for a cheap bite.
Grandma’s Special at Little Italy on 43rd between Fifth and Madison–sometimes I just take the train and go there.

Best kept secret.
Hagi. It’s a Japanese restaurant in Midtown that’s open very late.

Kitchen where you’d most like to spend a night.

Person to watch.
The chef [Fredrik Berselius] from Aska in Williamsburg. He’s getting better and better and better.

Person you’d most like to cook for you.
Michel Bras

Person you’d most like to cook for.
Alex Atala from Brazil

Person you’d be most nervous about cooking for.
Mr. Ducasse. Always. It’s very intense. He used to sit in the kitchen and watch you cook. My hands were wet.

Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten.
Filipino eggs. Balut. They were disgusting.

Dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life.

Something you love about New York’s food scene.
There’s every kind of cuisine, and you can have everything here 24 hours a day. You finish late here, you want to get something, you can. It makes me want to be here.

Thing you think is weird about New York restaurants.
When people not from the industry try to open a restaurant.

What do you think about the NYC food media?
I don’t like the critics. It’s the same in France–this battle over the Michelin star and all that. I don’t like that one person can bring you down. You work so hard forever, and I don’t like that today you’re okay and tomorrow you’re not just because of one specific review. It’s a lot of power.

One word to describe the Cronut.

What’s your favorite restaurant neighborhood?
West Village

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
The chicken. It’s three ingredients: chicken breast, eggplant, and pine nuts. And harissa to give it heat. You don’t need to put ten ingredients on the plate to make it happen.

Any parting words?
Right now, we need people to know a little bit more about what we’re doing. The train is a block away, but it’s easy to miss us, and the scaffolding [currently outside] doesn’t help. The area is going to grow, but we need the people to come here.