“Vegetable-forward” has become part of the standard dining lexicon in NYC, used to describe everything from the playful, meat-free dishes at Dirt Candy, to the merely meat-accented, avant garde tasting progressions at Semilla. But if you’re looking for the genesis of today’s widespread, produce-focused movement, consider the legacy of transformative chef John Fraser, who forever altered the definition of fine dining (previously the domain of foie gras, filet and caviar), when he introduced his “Meatless Monday” menus at Dovetail back in 2010, and now launching a chic, vegan/vegetarian eatery in Union Square, called Nix.
“I don’t know how much credit I’m owed, but I definitely love that our work at Dovetail is seen as a big part of bringing Meatless Mondays to New York, and influencing the dining scene here,” Fraser demurred. “It was a bit of a fluke. We were experimenting with vegetable menus and the timing was just lucky. The press coverage we received was something none of us expected.”
And the forward-thinking chef continues to draw raves for his inspired work with fruit and veggies, after teaming up with Andres Balazs to open Narcissa (which sources from the hotelier’s farm in the Hudson Valley), and now Nix near the bountiful greenmarket in Union Square, which informs dishes that aren’t just vegetarian, but often, entirely vegan (think Cauliflower Tempura with steamed buns, Charred Asparagus with spring onion crepes, and Artichoke Sauté with preserved tomatoes). “My ideal meal is the Tandoor bread and a triple order of hummus at Nix,” he said. “I can eat hummus everyday; and often do!”
We also spoke with Fraser about his disinterest in appearing on television, his favorite spot (besides his own) to eat in the city, and the impetus for recently revamping the venerable Dovetail.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
I actually fell into the restaurant world while I was studying anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. Working in restaurants really paralleled what I was learning in the classroom and it wasn’t long before I was hooked on being able to see those ideas and theories come to life through presenting food.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
Working next to Thomas Keller was the moment I realized that restaurants were more than just places to eat. He inspired so much in me that I still look to him. Beyond any other experience professionally that still has the most impact.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
“Treat it like it’s yours, because some day it will be,” Thomas Keller told me.
What inspired you to open Nix and why choose Union Square as the location?
On a basic level, I live in that neighborhood and always struggled to find a casual dining place that served really good food. I knew that if I could see the need for a restaurant like NIX in the area, then others that live there might feel the same. The proximity to Union Square was also important, given that the Greenmarket there is one of the most amazing sources for produce in the city.
Do you think this changes who you are as a chef? How have you become a better chef since becoming a vegetarian?
We are always evolving as cooks. This is just another chapter in trying to obtain excellence in an area.
How do you think each of your restaurants uniquely represent who you are as a chef?
I think like any creative person, there are movements and focuses. The restaurants reflect my evolution from just a cook to a restaurateur, as well as whom I am as a person.
What made you decide to recently revamp Dovetail?
Dovetail will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2017, and in some ways it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. We have a great team there, as well as a great core of regulars – we wanted to make sure that both groups were excited about the menu and experience we were offering at Dovetail and it seemed like the right time for a refresh. The Upper West Side has changed so much over the years, my style of cooking has changed over the years, the way sophisticated dining presents itself has changed and we thought all these factors presented compelling reasons to give the restaurant a facelift to help it be successful in its next ten years of service. On a simple level, it’s a busy restaurant that takes a beating, so the kitchen was in need of a lift. I have fantastic partners at Dovetail that were totally on board with keeping it current. I feel very lucky in that sense to be so supported.
Can you imagine yourself doing another ever-changing restaurant concept like What Happens When?
Never again. But it was so exciting. I would like to explore the pop up again in a different way; more event driven.
What are some culinary trends you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I don’t really pay attention to that sort of thing, but I am excited for the next generation of diners; they are self aware and interested in realness. And I’m excited to see the way other cities reflect their history through cuisine. Traveling in America for food has never been so exciting.
What do you hate about cooking? Is it hard to have a social life, a normal life?
I haven’t had a life yet, but that is on the list of things to do this year. Cooking has offered me a pretty cool path; hard to hate that.
So many other chefs have gone on to do television, but you’ve flown relatively under the radar in this respect. What’s your take on the celebrity chef scene?
I realized early on that I’m not very good at TV, and it’s not a skill I have an interest in fostering. I have a lot of respect for those that are good at it; it has, in many ways, become the mouthpiece for our industry. Here’s hoping that more responsible programming comes along – do we need another competition show?
What do you like to do (and most importantly, eat) in the city on a rare day off?
My favorite restaurant is New York is Basta Pasta. I love the transparency of the kitchen and the fact it is completely wide open. The food is super simple and I love the way they handle their vegetables. They serve a mushrooms en papillote that is absolutely incredible. I love working out; if there are free hours, that’s what I like to spend them doing.
What do you consider to be your single greatest accomplishment in your career thus far? What brass ring are you still reaching for?
Surviving in NYC is one of them. The trophy case feels like it’s in a good place; its not really about that anymore. I think developing a personal life and continuing on the veggie journey are top of the list.