Author Meg Zimbeck Photography Kai Jünemann
SPRING SPRUNG IN 2006, and Paris has been buzzing ever since. Chef Daniel Rose’s seasonal menu—served to only 16 people at a time, at a very reasonable $55 for four courses—grabbed the attention of critics and scores of patrons who crowd the doorway to snag a table. For his part, the 31-year-old Chicago-born culinary star just wants to cook. “The phone is the enemy of joy,” Rose says. He could fill a restaurant five times the size of
Spring, but staying small is the only way he can focus on what he loves—daily improvisation with seasonal ingredients. Here he explains how his approach is helping to reinvigorate French cuisine and how he learned to appreciate le petit things about cooking in Paris.
Hemispheres: You’ve said that you “learned how to eat” as a university student in Paris. What do you remember about those early restaurant experiences?
Daniel Rose: Well, I once almost drank the fingerbowl at a Michelin-starred restaurant… I had no idea! That was at Le Miraville, a one-star restaurant I visited six or seven times. It was delicious, but also very personal. The place was small, so there was this notion that they were doing everything just for you. And they were so very careful about everything—that was magic.
Now that you’ve incorporated that approach into Spring, do you think that smaller is better?
Small isn’t always better, but it’s easier to make something exceptional for a small group. For 1,000 people, you can make something very good. But by scaling things down, you can make something extraordinary. It’s hard to get access to good products when the scale is so much bigger.
Why did you choose to make your menu seasonal?
You can’t make good food without good products, and you can’t get good products when they’re out of season. But it’s more than that. In Paris, when asparagus is in season, we make it every day, because that’s part of how you experience the time of year. If you can get asparagus year-round from Peru, you don’t ever learn about that sort of pleasure.
Within months of opening your first restaurant, you were already acclaimed. What’s it like to achieve your goal so soon out of the gate?
Was that my goal? This sort of frenzy wasn’t what I set out to have, and I think the customers know and respond to that. What I really want is calm, peace and the chance to go out to dinner with my girlfriend. Spring is like any relationship—I want the joy to outweigh the frustration. And
There was a period when I felt a tremendous amount of pressure. How can you cook something that’s worth a four-month wait?
it usually does. But this balance is so fragile—the smallest thing will throw it all off.
Speaking of girlfriends, how have things changed since welcoming yours, Marie-Aude Mery, as your co-chef after a yearlong solo act?
She is super-important in this process. Apart from her technical capability, which is far beyond mine, it’s just fun to share this with somebody. In reviews, critics have praised the market-inspired cooking, the low prices and the intimate setting.
What element do you think is most responsible for the restaurant’s success?
I think the low prices—a certain spirit of generosity—have a lot to do with it. But my favorite quote from a critic came from Emmanuel Rubin (Le Figaro) when he said that Spring was a restaurant “qui ressemble à la vie”—that resembles life. I think people are looking for a connection, the idea that something real is happening around them. They want to see the melancholy along with the joy. Even when some traumatic things were taking place [his marriage broke up during the restaurant’s first weeks], people liked that those things were expressed in an authentic way, that they were able to see it.
Your open kitchen lets you see the customers and allows them to watch you work. Is it difficult to cook for critics, bloggers and people who have waited four months for a table?
There was a period when I felt a tremendous amount of pressure.
How can you cook something that’s worth a four-month wait?
All we’re trying to create is an atmosphere where you come and have a nice time, where you enjoy the person sitting in front of you. There’s nothing more to a restaurant than that. Nothing I’ve ever cooked has changed anyone’s life. As for the critics, my experience overall has been very positive—less so with the whole blogger thing. Some of them are taking this too seriously. I want to say, “Put away your camera and try to enjoy yourself!”
You’re moving Spring to a new space near the Louvre this year. What will you do differently this time around?
The food won’t change—that we know how to do. But we’ll add a lunch service so that people can come more spontaneously. And we’ll add more staff, which will allow me to do things that are a little more creative than answering the phone. The idea is to reduce the frustrations so that the joy which is already here can have room to express itself more fully. I may be dreaming, but I think there’s a way to have a restaurant with both happy cooks and happy customers. Doesn’t everyone want to have fun?