James Tracey embodies more than a couple of cultural contradictions, and he wears them really well. He’s a tall Texas boy without a shadow of the stereotypical bravado, the “everything’s bigger in Texas” attitude having missed him entirely—except for Tracey himself, that is (you’d probably pick him first in a pick-up football game). This Rising Star first discovered his love of cooking at an after-school bakery job in his hometown of Mesquite, Texas and hasn’t look back since.
After high school, Tracey went straight to The Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, Tracey moved to DC, where he worked in the kitchens of Red Sage (now closed) and Vidalia, two classic Capital City restaurants. But with its siren call of opportunity, New York City beckoned the young chef, and Tracey came to Luma, then Gramercy Tavern, where he first met his future boss Tom Colicchio.
From Gramercy, Tracey went on to work at Lespinasse at The St. Regis Hotel, then a New York Times four-star restaurant. Undaunted by the pace, discipline, and pressure of some of New York’s top kitchens, Tracey eventually accepted the position of sous chef on the opening team of Craft. In addition to helping the restaurant earn a James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in 2002, Tracey learned an even deeper appreciation for the integrity of ingredients at Craft. Now, as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Tracey lets the locally sourced and seasonally inspired products guide him, creating cuisine that’s complex and clean but still boldly flavorful—a hint of big-boned Texas in cutting-edge New York cuisine.
Interview with Chef James Tracey of Craft – New York, NY
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to begin cooking professionally?
James Tracey: I had a job in high school, just for extra money, at a bakery. After school, I played basketball and went to the bakery. I had my own little room with dry ingredients, mixer recipes. I really loved working with my hands. It was really peaceful by myself. I got into it. I was going into forestry but decided not to because George Bush started making cuts in the national parks.
AB: Who are the chefs that have influenced you the most?
JT: Tom [Colicchio] because I worked with him the longest—at Gramercy Tavern for three years. Also Jeffrey Buben at Vidalia.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JT: It’s all developed around the product. A dish is developed around the animal; how they raise it, produce it, how they get it to us, and how we handle it. We utilize all the parts. It’s all on the dish: the tongue, the gizzard, the leg, the breast, and on the charcuterie board.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JT: The restaurant does charity events; children, issues with food, Autism Speaks, Children of Bellevue, we do a lot of that. Jenny [McCoy] and I are getting involved with local school lunch programs. We go a couple times a year to a school in Bushwick through Bill Telepan's Wellness in the Schools program. At Thanksgiving Craft, Craftsteak, and Craftbar prepared dinner food for families in need, and an HIV-positive outpatient unit. Everyone came and had Thanksgiving at Craftbar. We all came here and cooked—we do a lot of that stuff.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JT: Tonight? The heat and the humidity! Try doing charcuterie when it's this hot. Other than that, I'd say trying to keep it interesting doing à la carte.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JT: Firing people, I would say, is probably hardest.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JT: Probably when I came back here and became chef de cuisine originally.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
JT: Probably at a certain point I'll open my own space. I love New York but part of me loves the outdoors. I would like to check out the Northwest—Seattle or Portland maybe. I would love to go fly fishing for salmon and forage for mushrooms in the Northwest.