What are your earliest memories of being interested in food?
My grandmother used to cook with me at a very young age and childhood memories of planting seeds or picking cherries with her are still a great source of inspiration to me. My father was also a chef, and so were all of his friends, soI was in commercial kitchens when I was young and really early on cooking kept popping up as a possible career path. While I was still at school I worked in a hotel where I kept finding myself drawn to what was happening in the kitchen and, although in high school I was very passionate about art and considered going to university to study History of Art, I soon started feeling like food was part of my destiny and a huge part of my identity. But my love of art still plays a crucial role in my approach to food and cooking has enabled me to combine both passions.
What would you say has inspired your cooking the most?
My ideas and inspirations come in many forms, at all hours of the day but I am particularly inspired by everyday experiences of art and nature. Inspiration can spark at the oddest times and without warning. The key factor is not the idea itself, but rather how you capture it for use in the future. I always keep my phone close so that I record everything as creativity strikes. I keep my sketchpad even closer so I can visualize my dishes before I plate them. Dishes like Hearts of palm, which incorporates white flavours of almonds, was inspired by the desire to recreate the flowing silk of a lady’s blouse and its wonderful movement. This is an example of how the everyday experience of art in my life influences the dishes I create and becomes my own culinary design.
Describe how you see your own culinary style and how it has evolved over the years…
I’m a classically trained, creative modernist. My cooking is organized and technically precise and inspired by nature, art and my daily life in New York. At Juni I talk about seasonality. But for me it means so much more than four seasons. My food philosophy revolves around the many, many micro-seasons that occur throughout the year that can last for just a few weeks or a month. I pick the ripest and finest product available at that time and serve it as the star so ramps and apricots that are in season for about a month only appear on the menu during that time. To make it onto the menu, produce has to be at its very ripest and having grown up on a farm where I learnt how to cook straight from the earth, ‘ripeness’ comes as second nature to me.
Juni managed to retain its Michelin Star for 2016, how did you feel when the guide was released?
I felt really proud of what we’ve achieved here at Juni. For me, the most rewarding thing in the world is that our reputation keeps growing and improving. Ratings matter because I want to get people through the door but the most important to me is building my reputation and making lifetime memories for people. If I dietomorrowand haven’t had a book out or opened 35 restaurants, I wouldn’t mind, as long as I knew that I was good at what I did. My main goal right now is for our team to be successful, to be rewarded and to enjoy what we haveplanted here at Juni. I’ve planted the seed and want to see it grow.
Tell us a bit about what you’re currently doing…
At present, I’m focusing on redesigning the menu to draw more vivid feelings and emotions from the food. I’m connecting my work with that of foragers and farmers in order to source the freshest, earthiest ingredients that evoke sensations of warmth and comfort and create a dish that is very memorable. I plan to undergo quite a dramatic change. The menu will be rich in quality, but dedicated to simplicity – it is all about going to Juni to eat true food that tastes delicious.
What kind of experience do you aim to give guests at your New York restaurant, Juni?
It is a really important thing for me to turn every meal into a special occasion for my guests. I want people to leave the restaurant having forged lifetime memories; as for me food is all about joy and experiences.
What would you say has been the most memorable moment in your culinary career so far?
Rather than pinpointing a specific moment, I think that what has been most memorable for me is my own personal development and understanding of food. I am now at a point where I can be entirely experimental in creating new dishes; although it is a great compliment to receive an award and to be recognised for what you do, the most rewarding element of this is the freedom of expression that grows from it.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self, starting out a career in the world of food?
I’d have gone to work in Europe. I think that the European ethos of cooking is similar to my own; there is an evident passion for culture and tradition that is reflected in the food. An authentic Italian pasta dish or a fillet of French beef can elicit a compassion and nostalgia for the country in which it was created, which is something that I think is hugely important. There is such diversity across European food and I think this stems from its central location; there is a greater understanding of global food culture which is something that, as a young chef, I would have gained invaluable experience from.
If you could take a plane ride to any restaurantin the world, just for one meal, where would you go?
I’d go to my favourite restaurant in Bangkok – Harmonique. I like the place because it serves authentic Thai food which is made with a lot of love.