Harold Dieterle is the consummate chef's chef. He came up in kitchens under strong personalities, worked his way to the front of the line and — with the exception of a giant leap on television as the winner of the first season of a little show called Top Chef — he's kept his head down and become co-owner of three restaurants. It's keeping in step with the hardscrabble south shore of Long Island working class environment from which he emerged, ready to cook, albeit only after realizing that a career related to his other passion, tennis, wasn't likely.
"I was a really bad student," Dieterle tells me, seated at the bar of the latest and most hyped of his restaurants, The Marrow, on a recent afternoon. "I played tennis, but I was never going to be a pro tennis player. So I took a home ec class in high school to meet girls. Girls weren't lining up because you were the captain of the tennis team. I worked a different angle and started cooking."
Dieterle, who's now married, emerged from that home ec class and attended the Culinary Institute of America. After bouncing around Long Island as a chef in various beach resort towns, he found his way to Manhattan, and notably ended up in the kitchen at The Harrison, alongside other rising chefs like Brian Bistrong and Joey Campanaro. After winning Top Chef season one, Dieterle deftly parlayed his fame into a first restaurant, Perilla, which played off Asian flavors and which won a devoted following. Trips to Thailand inspired his second restaurant, Kin Shop, a continual hot spot on Sixth Avenue for several years now. These successes led to deafening buzz for The Marrow, which opened in January with a menu that plays equally off Dieterle's German and Italian roots — the menu is literally split in half between dishes from the two cuisines — and which earned a spectrum of critical attention, from glowing to befuddled. As we find out here, though, Dieterle doesn't really care what other people think. His secret to running three respected, perpetually packed restaurants at once is simple: make good food.
After cooking Italian and American food at other restaurants, why did your first restaurant, Perilla, skew toward Asian?
Well, it was New American, but there were a lot of Asian accents, perhaps because I had spent some time in Thailand and it was always the food that I was interested in. It was New American with Asian accents. But it was really like whatever I want. There were no borders — like you can’t do this here. Which is fun.
Next, you opened Kin Shop in 2010. At the time, there weren't many examples of non-Thai chefs opening a high-profile Thai restaurant—
It was really challenging to raise the money, because everyone’s like, this is coming out of nowhere; it sounds crazy. And it was a bad time to raise money with what was going on with [the economy]. What I did was, before I really committed to it, I probably spent two, three months recipe testing and putting stuff on the menu at Perilla and seeing what the response was. And it was working out really well.
Kin Shop's become a perennial favorite for New Yorkers since it opened. At what point did you feel ready to open The Marrow?
We originally had this deal, we were gonna do a hotel in Brooklyn. The deal kind of faded out. It was gonna be like a meat-focused restaurant, but it just didn’t have that identity. And then I don’t really know where the idea came about. I just had this menu and I’m looking at the menu and there’s German dishes and Italian dishes and I’m like, this is pretty interesting. I just put it together based on that.
Was it really tied to your upbringing — like you had German- and Italian-American cooks in the family?
And then when The Marrow was set to open early this year, the expectations just went crazy, right?
This was crazy. After I opened Kin Shop, honestly, like the first month of Kin Shop, we weren’t doing shit for business, and I was like, this isn’t gonna work; this is a big problem. It was slow. And then we started getting a couple of reviews and it blew up. So yeah, after having a couple of successful places, the pressure becomes crazy. Food critics were in here [at The Marrow] the second night we were open.
It seems like food critics used to wait a couple of months to let the restaurant evolve, right?
It was absurd. There’s no breathing room whatsoever. We were getting bombed from day one. There was a night the first week or so, I had Robert Sietsema [then of the Village Voice] in, I had Ryan Sutton [from Bloomberg] in, Jay Cheshes [then of Time Out New York] in, and I had Pete Wells [of The New York Times] over at Perilla, all on the same night. It’s like, what do you do? I was running back and forth. Then I got shin splints because I’m running in clogs on the cobblestone. It was brutal. It was very challenging.
Once you got through it, were you pretty happy?
It’s just — the review period is miserable. It’s not enjoyable. It sucks. And then you get all those people that come in the first week and it’s cool that they come in and check out your restaurant, but a lot of them don’t become regulars. A lot of folks would just go to the hot new restaurant all the time.
It's become a sport in NYC—
Totally. It’s like, can I get reservations at this place…
I had a great meal at Lafayette. I really enjoyed it…
What do you think of the whole French revival that’s going on in New York?
I know, it’s what people are doing now. It’s crazy. A lot of people are doing bistros again.
Are you, Harold Dieterle, developing a French bistro?
I am not. My knowledge of French food isn’t very high. I’ve never worked at a French restaurant. It’s not part of my repertoire.
You kind of went out on a limb with splitting the menu at The Marrow. What’s been the result of that? Have you stuck to your guns? You feel like this is something you want to keep, this German/Italian split?
Yeah, I do. You know, the servers have done a good job explaining it. There’s been a couple instances where people are very confused by it. I don’t find it that confusing. I also went out on a limb just by setting this up — like I’m playing the two sides against each other, and it’s really easy for people to say this side is stronger or this side is stronger right from the get-go. I just don’t really care. If the food’s good, the food’s good. I think it’s good.
Earlier, you were telling me about the start of your career in Manhattan, and how you were hoping to work with the team behind The Harrison to get your own top spot in a kitchen, but circumstances changed. It seemed like you were stuck being number two to Brian Bistrong.
That conversation was happening right around the time of the call for Top Chef. Everyone told me not to do it. Because the only sense of reality TV in relation to food and restaurants was Hell’s Kitchen and the show with Rocco [DiSpirito] — which are not good examples. So I was just like, this is going to be different. The only reason why I considered it was because the production company had done Project Runway, which seemed like a fairly credible show. It didn’t seem like a total disaster. [But] when they started shooting, the production company had no idea what they were doing. They knew how to make TV look really good, but just the aesthetics. The terminology — they didn’t know what a sous chef was. They gave us these plates the first challenge we had, there was only one plate. By the 2nd episode, we were making two plates — one for beauty so they could shoot and one for the judges.
Was Tom Colicchio present at that point?
Tom was present. Tom knows what he’s doing. That’s why he’s a producer now. If Tom wasn’t a part of that it would have been a fucking disaster. Tom’s like, "Listen guys, food can’t wait. It’s not like clothing where you can sit there and take shots of it for an hour. They need to make two plates: you guys will shoot one plate and we have to taste the food while it’s hot; otherwise it’s not going to work." Everybody was shooting from the hip. Tom very much brought the structure to making that show successful.
And you guys have become friends, right?
Yeah, he’s amazing. He has lots of great advice. He’s one of the godfathers of New American Cuisine.
What about other Top Chef contestants? A lot of them have gone on to big things in the restaurant industry. Any sense of cameraderie amongst the Top Chef alumni?
I think so, but I don’t watch, so there’s also a lot of people who come up and shake my hand and I’m like, I’m sorry, I don’t know who that is. It’s a little embarrassing.
Well, you're kind of busy running three restaurants. Any plans for more?
I mean, I’m focused on what I’m doing right here. I’m trying to find the happy medium, because I have three restaurants and they’re all totally different, and keeping the menus interesting and relative is challenging. I'm also handling the operation side of things and I have to turn in a cookbook at the end of the summer. There aren’t any immediate plans for another restaurant. Provided everything is successful and doing well and guests are happy, I’d love to do more.