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The Return of the Prodigal Chefs

Thomas Keller and Gray Kunz, two of the most brilliant cooks in America, have been AWOL from New York kitchens for more than five years. Their sagas couldn’t be more different, but both are about to make a dramatic reentry via the Time Warner Center, as part of the city’s most ambitious culinary venture ever.

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Into The Fire: Gray Kunz, left, and Thomas Keller will put their reputations on the line in high-rise, high-rent restaurants at the Time Warner Center.  

This is a tale of two chefs.

One left New York at a low point in his career and went on to create a restaurant unsurpassed in America. The other reached the pinnacle of the New York culinary world before going into a five-year restaurant exile. Both were scarred, and in some measure strengthened, by what can only be described as critical success and personal defeat. Both have been sorely missed by New York food lovers, who have fantasized for years about the chefs’ return to our city. Both will seek redress, if not redemption, at Time Warner’s new headquarters on Columbus Circle: one chef on the third floor and one on the fourth.

The chef who left town in defeat only to triumph in California is Thomas Keller, the lanky, whimsical, and compulsively hands-on creator of the mythic French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. The restaurant, which could easily be mistaken for a nice but unremarkable suburban home, earned its reputation with its impeccable food and all-embracing service. Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, has followed Keller’s career through its ups and downs and says his great talent is that “he never tires of coming up with new, surprising, and well-executed variations of the possibilities of something as simple as an egg or a tomato. He explores every facet of an ingredient in every possible way—playfully yet intellectually and dramatically. I get the sense that he tries new flavors and dishes because he wants to please himself.”

The chef who walked away from full houses and universal acclaim at Lespinasse is Gray Kunz. Brought up in Singapore and Switzerland, educated in cuisine in Bern, and apprenticed under one of the greatest European chefs, Fredy Girardet, Kunz exudes courtliness and a sense of old-world decorum reinforced by Asian-inspired reserve and propriety. Similarly, his food is the product of two worlds, marrying classic French technique with a mastery of the flavors and ingredients that he first acquired during his childhood in the Pan-Asian food culture of Singapore, and then broadened during five years as a chef in Hong Kong. His cuisine is not so much fusion as the product of a man fluent in the food languages of Europe, India, China, and Southeast Asia. When Ruth Reichl gave her first four-star review in the New York Times, it was to him. “He struck me as the first European-trained chef who really understood Asian ingredients, not just as an accent, but innately,” recalls Reichl, now the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. “You can’t learn this. I don’t know of any other chef who has it as part of his vocabulary. You add that to his impeccable training and it gives him something that nobody else has or can compete with.”

But in his final years at Lespinasse, then one of the finest restaurants in the world, Kunz was like a restless partner in an unhappy marriage. His dissatisfaction permeated the organization, and the staff could feel it.

The return of the prodigal chefs to New York was engineered by Kenneth A. Himmel, the intense, almost messianic developer of the vertical mall that comprises the first five floors of the Time Warner Center. Though this kind of self-contained city-within-a-city has been successful in places as disparate as Boston, Las Vegas, and Baltimore, it has rarely worked in New York. We may be a vertical city, but we are one that largely eats, shops, and consumes art on the ground floor.

One of Himmel’s stratagems was to put an arts attraction with some star power in the building. Jazz at Lincoln Center, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis, will draw crowds and lend chic. With that in place, Himmel set about creating what he calls “a restaurant collection” of five of the great chefs of America, whose combined luster, Himmel figured, would generate a gastronomic critical mass. “It wasn’t difficult,” he says, “to ask who would be the single individual who would turn everyone’s head and cause them to say, ‘My God, I should pay more attention to this project.’ ” The answer was Keller, whom he hotly pursued and ultimately enticed. At Time Warner, the chef will attempt to re-create the essence of the French Laundry in his new restaurant, Per Se, serving sublime cuisine on exquisite china in an Adam Tihany–designed room. The price tag for Per Se, reputed to be the most costly restaurant construction in history, is reportedly more than $12 million, much of it borne by Himmel’s organization.

Keller was even offered final approval on which chefs would be invited into the building, a power he exercised as firmly as the president of a Park Avenue co-op board. In addition to Keller and Kunz, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whom Himmel had committed to early on, will join Chicago legend Charlie Trotter and sushi master Masa Takayama in the building.

Whether Himmel’s strategy works or whether it becomes a super-upscale outpost of American mall culture is the central question facing the developers of the $1.7 billion Time Warner Center. In the most recent comparable efforts, Las Vegas’s Bellagio, Mirage, and Mandalay Bay hotels have imported nationally famous chefs as the anchors of a Rat Pack–esque theme park for grown-ups. But New York already has the chefs and the urban cool built into the fabric of the city. In a way, we see ourselves as the theme, so why would we need the park?

It was both good luck and bad that took Thomas Keller from Soho to Yountville, California, an unremarkable little town in the Napa Valley that was just beginning to feel the effects of the American fine-dining revolution. The Napa Valley and its concentration of wineries presented Keller, who was flat broke at the time, with the opportunity to cook for a captive audience of aspiring epicureans who were ready to open their wallets to pamper their palates.

Unlike Gray Kunz, Keller was not a product of a cooking school. He got all his training on the job, starting by filling in behind the stove when the chef quit at the Palm Beach club his mom managed. Next he knocked around New England and New York City, picking up skills, staying under the radar, but learning as he moved from place to place.


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