Daniel Rose, the American-born chef of Spring restaurant in Paris, says he doesn't get out much. But in the last week, he taught cooking classes in New York as part of the James Beard award festivities, sat down for an interview with Charlie Rose and cooked dinner at AnQi in Costa Mesa with chef Helene An. It was the first time he'd cooked professionally in California.
Six years ago, Rose opened a tiny 16-seat restaurant not far from Montmartre, the first incarnation of Spring. A former art history student who dreamed of running a restaurant, he was the sole employee, cooking his fixed menus of four courses for 42 euros. He immediately won over critics and was booked months in advance.
Considered part of the bistronomy movement of chefs who bucked the Michelin system and opened their own convivial bistros with high-level food at reasonable prices, he has since expanded into a larger Spring in the 1st Arrondissement, as well as a downstairs wine bar, and is about to open a new restaurant in the fall. He took time to talk to the Los Angeles Times about bistronomy, Mexican food in Paris and his new project. [Excerpts edited.]
How did you wind up cooking at AnQi in Costa Mesa?
I never leave Paris. I live across from my restaurant. So I never leave my street. But a customer asked if I would cook dinner for a James Beard benefit, and I said, sure. They said, it’s in California. I said, oh, OK. They told me I would be cooking with Helene An. She’s 70 and I feel a closer connection to her than I do to some of my contemporaries. She's very gentle and always tasting everything and saying, 'I would do this like that.' At first we were communicating through other people and then I called her up a month ago. We talked about what we would put on the menu. I would provide the fish, she would provide the sauce, vegetables, pickles. And what might have started as traditionally French would have her California/Vietnamese spin. If a chef’s job is to take a look around the world and share that experience with his customers, then maybe I should cook with other people. There's no structure in France to do that. I meet more chefs in L.A. and New York than in an entire year of being in France. I guess it's one of those things. You live two miles from the beach but rarely see it. I live a block from the Louvre and never go.
Where have you eaten in Los Angeles?
For the last three days I've just been cooking. Last time I was in Los Angeles in September I had an excellent dinner at Providence, very sophisticated. Slightly formal but different from Paris. I had fish I'd never heard of. A taco truck. In-n-Out. The best restaurant in the world is when you have a craving and they serve you what you were craving and it satisfied that craving, whether it's a burger or taco or two- or three-star. The substance doesn’t matter as long as it delivers on its promise. I went to Guelaguetza. I like going to places I can’t go to in France, that are very unique. Sometimes it's fancy, sometimes it's Oaxacan, sometimes it's Korean.
But you can get more and more Mexican in Paris, right?
It’s 12 euros for a taco, and then you have to eat it like the French, with a fork and knife or they’ll look at you funny. And they’ll order the guacamole as an appetizer and a taco as a main course, then dessert. And in L.A., Chicago or New York you can eat at any time of the day. In Paris it’s noon or 8 o’clock. Yesterday I drank coffee with my meal. In France they ask you what you want, but really your options are limited to three – wine, water or sparkling water. Otherwise you’ll get more funny looks.
When you started Spring, were you conscious of being part of the "bistronomy" movement?
It's difficult to have perspective on what you do yourself. I'm not conscious of being a part of it. People come and say how it's so great that you do your own thing. I can’t see doing it any other way. Classic French chefs were doing this well before I ever started cooking -- with Yves Camdeborde's La Regelade and even Christian Constant. They opened bistros. Spring just happened at a particular time. I didn’t have a lot of experience and did whatever I could to open a restaurant. I was young. But guys who open restaurants now are even younger and have a real point of view.
How has Spring evolved? What is "progression" for you?
I spend a lot of time trying to think about that. This is year three of Spring, well, six if you count the first place, so I’m closer to being in Paris for 10 years. That’s almost an institution, and that’s very exciting having started as a happy accident. I went from being the one employee to having 15 employees. I opened the smallest thing I could so I couldn’t screw it up too badly. The dynamic of being alone in this place led people to confuse charm with deliciousness. But maybe deliciousness has caught up. Sometimes I think I moved because somebody asked me for a coffee and I couldn’t make it while I was cooking and felt bad. Now Spring has a director and two sommeliers in a restaurant for 40. It’s very fancy, but people don’t know it. It’s more internal, to make it the best restaurant it can be and push further to make it better so people tell more of their friends about it. Sometimes I have a fantasy of returning to the very small place, but it’s not a viable business.
You closed the Spring Boutique wine shop. Will you be opening something new?
We’re opening something in September. It’s a secret. We tried to come up with a new way [to dine]. Spring is a very structured event with a fixed menu. Maybe a new way of having dinner in a less formal way, but not a wine bar. Some kind of single table where people come and go as they want.
Do you have any favorite spots to eat at in Paris?
There's a Japanese woman Masayo at Momoka on Rue Pigalle. Tiny. Japanese home cooking. Not pretentious. The French are anxious when they cook and here's this elegant Japanese lady, very composed. Shabu-shabu. Very fresh, very gourmand. Recently I went to L’Auberge d’Chez Eux. Lots of butter, cream, they cut the lamb at the table. Old-fashioned, generous, charming. Cream and butter done correctly, it really delivers. Now it's about purity and product, we’re told to like Corbusier rather than baroque. And then you find yourself eating something baroque. I think about the plate of asparagus with vinaigrette.
What's baroque about that?
It was abundant, too much, expensive. But it was delicious. And the sauces. When you use crème fraiche that is really fresh and delicious you can't stop eating it.
What differences have you noticed about cooking in Los Angeles as opposed to cooking in Paris?
I’m very happy to cook most of the time in France. I can get six different kinds of chicken that are all excellent. All ingredients are very seasonal. Here I think the emphasis is on vegetables. I get four kinds of duck from Oct. 30 to Jan. 1. Scallops, from the beginning of November to the beginning of March. Vegetables too. We just went through morels. We're moving from white asparagus to green asparagus. I think cooks in the States have it much harder.
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