The Upper West Side wasn’t a trendy dining destination until late last winter. It certainly wasn’t a neighborhood where most young chefs dreamed of opening their first restaurant. But John Fraser fell in love with the neighborhood while working as the executive chef at Compass where he managed to turn the kitchen around.
Fraser left Compass to open his own restaurant called Dovetail, where he’s earned considerable praise for his refined American cooking. And just a few weeks ago, he expanded the dining room and added a 15 seat bar with a bar menu and a roving Armagnac cart.
Fraser went from anthropologist to dishwasher, bartender, line cook, quickly moving up to chef de partie at The French Laundry. After traveling through France, he helped launch Snack Taverna in the West Village, where he fainted his first night on the job. That didn’t seem to phase him. These days, Fraser’s running his own eatery and a newly implemented menu that features tempura duck skin with curry salt and
cured daikon, truffled mac & cheese, and snapper ceviche with octopus, quinoa, & lime.
What did you want to be when you grew up? A doctor or a professional athlete.
did you eat growing up? Did your mom cook? Both of my
parents cooked.We grew a lot of vegetables, had chickens, and pigs so the question of
where food came from was answered early in life.We were on a pretty strict budget, so the types of food were
humble and not as flavorful as they could’ve been.
your first job in food? What did you learn?A
dishwasher. It taught me that every position in a restaurant is of
importance and that when I used to show up drunk the restaurant went down in flames!
You studied anthropology at the University of California. What
inspired you to become a chef instead of an academic or anthropologist? Food
is an integral part of culture and dictates much of how we organize ourselves
as a society. There is a lot of crossover in the way I go about learning
about food and the tools I learned in college as they applied to anthropology.when I
discovered that food and restaurants are more than just places to eat but are
driven by creativity I got hooked.
you end in Montauk bartending & cooking? Where did you work? I worked at Shagwong, one of my favorite bar/restaurants in the world.It’s a magical place with tons of
history and a great fisherman’s feel.It’s rough around the edges as it should be and
the fish gets served the
day it is caught.There’s no
better place to have dinner and cocktails on the East End.I took the job there during
college and it was my first introduction to new York.I can’t say how I got the job (my mother might read this.)
spent considerable time traveling and training in some of the world’s greatest
kitchens, including the French
Laundry in Napa Valley, CA? What was it like working for Thomas
Keller? What was your biggest takeaway?Chef Keller is the single most
influential person in my life. I still can’t do anything without
wondering what he would say about it!
How did your training
in France influence your cooking style? Would you say you use mostly a
French technique or do you dabble in different culture’s methods? France was my first introduction to
what it means to be a locavore. They have such pride in ingredients coming from
their home regions and it is expressed in the way that they cook.I would say that
predominantly my technique is French.
When you returned to the states, you helped open Snack Taverna in the West Village. What was your first night like,
rumor has it you passed out on opening night? It
was a great experience and I made lifelong friendships there – it is still a
great corner in the West Village. And yeah, I passed out. It was a rough week
and we had only gotten our gas about 2 hours before service. The hoods weren’t
calibrated yet so it was really hot – so much so that I started to dry heave
and pass out. Lesson learned!
How different does it feel to be both chef and owner at Dovetail for the first time in your
very different. The responsibility of an owner is not something that can be
taught – it’s a rite of passage. I have no idea how these guys have more than
one restaurant and still retain the responsibility of chef. That being said, I
have a strong crew of people that push me as much as I push them.
Did you expect to be so well-received when you opened Dovetail? Were you ready for the
attention and reservations?Dovetail
was and always will be a neighborhood restaurant. It was opened to expand the
limits of what I thought the upper west side could handle while still
expressing my pedigree and training. I don’t think anyone expected the critical
praise. Especially me.
just took over the space next door to Dovetail and added a new bar menu with
some really imaginative and out there creations. How’s that going and
what are your favorite new bar bites?
It’s open – a small bar of about 15
seats. It’s very cozy and intimate. The dining room grew by about 20 seats, and
we also added an Armagnac cart, cheese chariot, and a large service station. I
can honestly say that there is not a bad seat in the house. I think Dovetail
took a huge step in the right direction and we are adjusting well to the new
space. The bar menu features duck hearts with poached
eggs and bone marrow on toast.
Sometimes, you seem like a classic French, while other
times, you’re coming up with combinations like foie gras, graham crackers, and
huckleberries. How would you define your cooking style ? I think to be innovative you need to have a strong
foundation. Our clientele is not receptive to food that is too far reaching. I
try to get people to go out of their comfort zone by mixing innovation with
things they recognize. I can’t yet say I have a definition of my cooking style
– it’s constantly evolving. Everything we do here is a collaboration of ideas,
from service style to menu, so the staff along with the seasons has a huge
influence on what we cook.
You and your pastry chef, Vera Tong,
have been working together for over a year now. What’s the secret to
getting along in the kitchen? Might it be staying on your side?Vera and I have been
working together for almost 5 years now.She was hired on as pastry chef of Compass.I think we have both
grown as chefs so much since then. I could not have done it without her, Staying on vera’s
side has been the secret to working together for so long!
What kitchen tool can’t you live
without? Min fish spatula
What culinary trends do you embrace? The differentiation between TV chefs and restaurant
chefs. It’s very difficult to be both.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?…
I wish the burger wars would take a back seat though – enough already. Shake Shack. Best in NYC. Case closed.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Dovetail? Salt-baked onion stuffed with truffles, maple brown butter, hazelnuts.
What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)? French toast at brunch. The people love it, but it’s way too sweet for me.
Where do you like to dine in New York City on your nights off? Bettola on the Upper West Side – Italian food. So simple, and they have delicious pizza.
Any new projects on the horizon? Or a book perhaps. Spill the beans… The expansion is enough!
I don’t have a problem with anything. I love food and I
encourage creativity even when the results aren’t always good. I do wish
the burger wars would take a back seat though – enough already. Shake Shack.
Best in NYC. Case closed.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Dovetail?Salt-baked onion stuffed with truffles, maple brown butter, hazelnuts.
What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?French toast at brunch. The people love it, but it’s way too
sweet for me.
Where do you like to dine in New York City on your nights
off? Bettola on the Upper West Side – Italian food. So simple
and they have delicious pizza.
What’s a favorite recent opening?Marea and the redesign of Café Boulud
Any new projects on the horizon? Or a book perhaps. Spill
the beans… The expansion is enough!