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Q & A With Ralf Kuettel

Ralf Kuettel acquired his passion for nature’s edible bounty honestly.  Reared in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, the budding chef grew up roaming the Turbenthal woods and tending to livestock and produce on his parents’ farm.  Kuettel embraces a culinary concept that showcases the rich flavors of each season’s flora and fauna, as well as the classic Franco-Swiss technique he studied as a young man.

Kuettel first ventured onto the New York restaurant scene in 1989 at Union Square Café under Chef Michael Romano.  One year of intense kitchen training later, Kuettel took a brief hiatus to the West Coast, but the allure of New York’s restaurant scene drew him back.  He launched himself into a four-year turn as executive sous chef at Soho’s Zoe.  After short-lived stints at Cena and the Chelsea Wine Vault, Kuettel at last felt it was time to realize his dream.

With Trestle on Tenth, his first truly personal and proprietary venture, Kuettel explores all the foods and small-vendor specialty products he loves, from a crépinette of pork shoulder with sautéed nettles to scallops with housemade lamb sausage and corn succotash.  A warning to the meat-squeamish: an enthusiastic outdoorsman, Kuettel also finds splendor in the more eccentric cuts of meat, including braised tripe and crispy duck necks.

Status: Single/Married/Divorced
Was single, then married,
then divorced and single again, now very happily married to the best woman in
the world.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Tank driver in the Swiss

What was your first job in food?

How did you get from growing up on a small farm in Switzerland to the hustle and bustle that is NYC?
of the reason for
becoming a cook was the prospect of traveling around the world (my
parents also
thought it would be a grand idea).  So after several years as a cook in
Switzerland in a bunch of restaurants and hotels, I sent out resumes to
Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Milford, CT. Sure enough, I heard back
from Rudy’s in New Milford first and  after I got my J One Visa, I
started there.

Your father was a farmer and game warden. How did he
influence your career in culinary?

Primarily, “don’t kill
anything unless you are going to eat it.”  We never wasted any food.

Your first job in the US was at Union Square Café.  How
did you choose this restaurant, and did you enjoy working under the realms of
Danny Meyer?

a long story but
one that means a lot to me.  After a brief stint for the Restaurant
Association, I thought I would apply for a job at the top restaurants
in New York at the time.  La Grenouille, La Cote Basque (sadly I did
not know about the Quilted Giraffe then) and Lutèce. The morning I
contacted Andre Soltner he told me to see him that same morning.  After
a brief and honest interview he got on the phone and called Marc
of DeBragga and Spitler and set up an appointment with him, “sharp at 3
don’t be late.”  A couple of hours later I saw Mr. Sarrazin, who then
called Michael Romano told him about me.  One hour later I sat in Mr.
Romano’s office and trailed the same night.  Michael Romano knew the
restaurant where I had worked in Zürich since Mr. Romano himself worked
Zürich at Chez Max, a Nouvelle Cuisine restaurant with a chef of
character, who
was as demanding of his guests as he was with his cooks— a decade
Marco Pierre White.  Romano hired me on the spot and it was an amazing

What is your relationship with Danny Meyer today?
Very friendly, partially
because I worked for him and we kept bumping into each other throughout the
years, AND my wife works for him.  One thing I learned from him is to pay
attention when someone talks to you.  If you’re talking to Danny, the
world could crumble and he would not lose his concentration on the

After your tenure at USC, you moved to the west
coast, then back again to NYC.  What was it about New York that
brought you back? 

In the early nineties, Seattle was all about overcooked salmon.  But that’s not fair.  I missed New York, the food, my friends, and I guess I just did not see what the Pacific Northwest had to offer.  Also my first marriage was on the fritz.

You took a hiatus from the kitchen to work at the
Chelsea Wine Mart, eventually becoming the wine buyer and store manager.
What was the reason for this career shift?
The restaurant where I was
the chef de cuisine, Cena, under Normand Laprise from Montreal’s
Toque restaurant, did not fare that well and after one year it closed its
doors.  I was pretty discouraged and burned out, so I applied for a job at
the Chelsea Wine Vault.  I thought “why not?”  They gave me a great
opportunity and I discovered that food and wine is a marriage made in
heaven.  Sounds corny but remember until then I was a kitchen rat and not
really used to the finer things in life.

At what point did you realize it was time to leave
Chelsea Wine Mart and open Trestle on Tenth?
Opening my own restaurant
was always my dream—whose isn’t it?  I guess two or three years into the
wine gig I realized that something was missing in my life and of course it was
cooking.  I learned a lot and even today, I still put wines of wine makers
I met on my trips on my wine list.  It’s important to me, that connection.

What’s your favorite dish on Trestle on Tenth’s
menu, and why?
I would have to say the
crépinette of pork with sautéed spinach and pork jus.  Just one bite, it
melts in your mouth, the succulent pork, the sweet savoy cabbage and the
caramelized onions all wrapped in crispy fat.  It doesn’t get better.
Honest.  If there would be crépinette flavored toothpaste, I would use
it.  Or the duck necks.

What’s your least favorite dish (and yes, you must
pick one)?
My goodness!  I had a
dish on in the beginning, it was a stuffed veal breast.  It never came
together.  I’m still tinkering with it and perhaps one day the dish will
work.  Reality is when you open a restaurant, everything has to be perfect
or you get kicked between the eyes.

What is your junk food of choice?
Barbeque flavored kettle

Other than your own, what’s your favorite restaurant
in NYC?
I like the Diner in Brooklyn very much, including Marlow and Sons.  Have you read their quarterly magazine? Brilliant.

What culinary trend do you most embrace?
“Hoof and Snout” cooking.

What trend do you wish would die
Super-mega restaurants on
steroids. Ultimately, it really does not bother me.  If people want to be
treated like cattle, be herded around a 15- million dollar restaurant by snooty
waiters, pay $18 for a gin and tonic, that’s their choice of course.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Are there
any plans for Trestles on other Streets or Avenues? Spill the beans…
Nah, Trestle has plenty of
space to grow and mature. (Unless my wife wants to open her own boite.)

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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