Long Island native Christopher Lee is a fine dining journeyman. As in, he’s spent some serious time in kitchens shooting for Michelin and New York Times stars — not a trending hashtag on Twitter. As in, he’s not interested in running a pop-up jam shop.
After working his way through the stations at Daniel and Jean Georges, Lee went on to run the show at Gilt and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole — which he recently left. He’s damn serious about the craft of cooking and the time it takes to evolve from stagiaire to executive chef (it’s a long time). But Lee is done with fine dining for the moment, having focused on two more casual projects: Eden in Miami and the soon-to-open gastropub Huntington Social, on Long Island.
“What they don’t understand is that most people who become the [big-name chef] cooked for 10 to 20 years,” says Lee, not faking frustration. The “they” in question are today’s young cooks. They, as we summarize, are leading to the death of fine dining—a subject the chef is not shy to talk about. Also leading to the death of fine dining? Critics, bloggers, casual restaurants and other acts of nature.
You were pretty burned out with the business of fine dining when you left Aureole. Correct?
Pretty much. A dedication to the work is just not there anymore. The work ethic of the young chefs has diminished. The younger chef doesn’t understand what it means to work a full day. They go into it for all the wrong reasons.
And those reasons?
To make $100,000 a year. They don’t go into it for the love. Fine dining requires so much effort, which eats at you. It drove me out of it.
So let’s be clear. The young chefs of today are not in it for the long haul.
They are there with false intensions. They see all the chefs on TV and want to be that. What they don’t understand is that most people who become the guy cooked for 10-20 years — to become the guy. It doesn’t happen overnight. If you go to the classic writings of Escoffier, he says that every part of the meal means something.
But it’s not just the young chefs who are killing fine dining…
It’s also the voice of the people that has killed fine dining. The voice and all its negativity. People don’t go out [to dinner] for the joy. If you are a high-profile restaurant, people go out to prove a point. I hated the fact that I would receive comment cards from people complaining that the bathroom ran out of toilet paper. Alright, great, thank you very much.
And certainly with the social-web-obsessed world we live in, this information travels much faster, and wider, than a note on a comment card.
You talk about blogs. People need to understand the responsibility of their words. When you critique a restaurant or review a chef, do you have to use derogatory terms? Do you have to offend somebody to the point that you destroy a career? People don’t understand that when somebody loses their job, it puts their family in jeopardy. They like to sit there and mouth their words, but not understand the recourse. And what credibility do these people have to sit there and critique somebody?
What blogs are you talking about?
One of the worst things in the world is Eater. The worst, worst imaginable culinary site in the world. Eater is the demise of our industry. That thing should be shut down and nobody should bother. It’s disgusting. They put people in categories that are not even close to being cool. Why do I care about who is the best looking chef in this industry? This outside bullshit doesn’t matter in our industry. We’re service. We serve people. That’s what we do.
Let me throw this out there. The interest surrounding The Chef has changed over the past 15 years. The idea of the celebrity chef is now part of pop culture. And people want to read about this stuff.
That’s people’s fault. That’s not our fault. Forces outside the industry have created these things. They’ve distracted the chef.
Can you give some examples of blogs that get it right?
There are some blogs that get it right. It’s just (pause) the only thing I say to people who want to write something is to be mindful of what they say. Because their words can hurt, or haunt, somebody. Critique what you want. I could care less. But be careful. Chefs are not sane people. If you were sane, you wouldn’t be working 14 hours in a kitchen. So all I’m saying is that there is a lot of ill-will in the kitchen towards certain people.
OK, back to fine dining. How does it survive?
It’s not going to.
There’s not light at the end of the tunnel?
I don’t see it. You have to charge more and people are against that. You aren’t going to see the next Daniel Boulud for a very long time.