Chef John Fraser
Dovetail | New York
John Fraser insists he wasn’t shooting for 3-stars when he opened Dovetail; the New York Times’ starry review made him change some things, in fact. What opened as a chic but neighborhood-focused Upper West Side restaurant drew such acclaim that Fraser put his servers in ties and made a tasting menu – but the comfortable, approachable character stayed the same.
Fraser’s first exposure to the culinary industry came as he pursued a degree in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. He worked as a bartender and line cook during the year, and spent summers in Montauk, Long Island, cooking in various American bistros. Exposure to freshly-caught fish and local Northeast produce captivated his attention, and confirmed his inkling that a career as a chef was the right path to pursue. He proceeded to cook for two notable Los Angeles establishments, Cocco Pazzo and Raffles L’Ermitage Beverly Hills, rising through the ranks to become sous chef at both locations. Seeking to further cultivate his fine dining expertise, he moved to Napa Valley to become a chef de partie under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry.
Fraser spent two years steeping in the renowned chef’s philosophy of seasonal ingredients and playful creativity, and Keller’s influence shines through on the creative, refined dishes of Dovetail. Stages in Paris at Taillevent and L’Arpege were influential as well – they gave him a global perspective on haute cuisine, and inspired him to move to Paris for a year to return to Taillevent and Maison Blanche, and spend a year exploring the city’s food markets and learning from local restaurateurs, farmers and chefs.
Back in New York, Fraser opened an intimate Greek trattoria, Snack Taverna, with a friend, and 2 years later moved to Compass, where he drew critical acclaim, and 2 stars from The New York Times. Fraser was named one of only four young chefs to watch in America by Esquire magazine in 2006, and rave reviews for Dovetail began pouring in as soon as he opened the doors.
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Will Blunt: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
John Fraser: I was 17 when I first started thinking about cooking for a living, and four years later it became my career. I was in college at University of California in San Diego and wanted to be a doctor. I was taking all these courses and things were going well, and meanwhile I was bartending, cooking and working in restaurants. Then at one point I came to realize my work life exceeded my school life because the physical and artistic aspect of it was one of few things that motivated me more than the school. I began to think that the food industry had people with a lot of intellect and that cooking is definitely a thinking man’s game.
WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JF: I didn’t attend culinary school. I employ culinary grads, and I think for some it’s a great preparation for some of the things you’re going to need to learn. I didn’t go because I fell in love with cooking, which was more about doing instead of sitting in a classroom and learning.
WB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JF: My parents – I got my work ethic from them. My dad held two jobs during night and day, and they worked their asses off. They are “get it done” kind of people. I became a real cook while working with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. He was the one who taught me how hard you have to work to make it.
WB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JF: You can learn about someone’s drive just by seeing where they want to be.
WB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JF: You have to keep in mind that everyone has something to offer. From the dishwasher to captain or back waiter, you’re going to have to know everyone’s job inside out and be able to hit the reset button after work and restart the next day.
WB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? Why?
JF: Sea salt – there’s an undefined layer of flavor beyond just salinity.
WB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and use in an unusual way?
JF: We do pilot light cooking – for instance when we confit in extra virgin olive oil, the pot stays at a constant heat on the pilot light because its very gentle and slow. We do it on both the South Bend and Jade ranges and one of the dishes we do it on is the butter poached lobster. We use a temperature gun to measure the temperature.
WB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JF: I’d love to go to Asia, because I’ve never been there. I want to go to Japan, Thailand and Vietnam because they are just elaborate ingredients and styles of cooking that I haven’t been exposed to yet. I’ve heard so much about the area. I appreciate ethnic cooking here and want to see where it started.
WB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JF: Local sourcing and knowing where your food comes from and who grew it. Also, the idea that your staff is part of your customer base. I try and keep the staff as happy as possible because they are your face and your name.
WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JF: My philosophy is evolving every day. The moment I think you have a philosophy it changes because I’m always trying to get better. I’m also trying to streamline dining as much as possible – there’s only what’s necessary on the table and the result is a clean way of dining, living and feeling. The design of the restaurant and the food reflects that – it’s a very simple, clean, delicious, and fulfilling dining experience.
WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JF: I’m still in debt right now so I’m not thinking of that right away. There will be a time and place for everything.
WB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JF: I’d want to be doing something in the arts. I only realized how important art was when I was in my 20’s. In my daily life creating is important and I need to be making something and seeing the results.
WB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
JF: My goal is to get some balance in my life and hopefully improving to the point where I’m perfectly happy with what’s going on at Dovetail. The goal would be for me to be really happy with what we are trying to do now. It’s not just for me, but it’s also for everyone from the general manager to the dishwasher.
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