It’s a chilly late fall day in Paris, and Daniel Rose is running down rue Bailleul between his restaurant and his wine shop holding a chicken carcass by the neck. The affable 34-year-old chef and restaurateur is squeezing in a magazine photo shoot and an interview before dinner service, and he’s in a typically energized state. After hamming it up with the chicken at his wine shop he’s darting back across to Spring proper, where he stands in front of the seriously open kitchen and chats with sous chefs, sommeliers, his fiancée and co-chef Marie; Rick Ross is blaring from the stereo. Clearly, this is not your average French restaurant.
Rose, it should be noted, is not your average French chef. For one thing, he’s from Illinois. As a young man, he headed to Paris, fell in love with the city, and, as he tells us in this rare interview, he needed to finagle a way to stay, so he chose cooking school. Years of study and working in kitchens later, the move has paid off. His original Spring, a 16-seater in a quiet neighborhood, drew raves from both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2010, he opened the wine shop just steps from Les Halles and the Louvre, and it’s become one of the best places in Paris to buy hard-to-find, small production French wines; the shop recently launched a wine club that ships to the USA ($500 for a case, customs fees included). In 2011, Spring the restaurant moved to the more spacious location on the rue Bailleul, and it’s been packed ever since. Writing in The New York Times, Christina Muhlke described a dinner last year, which included “poached sea bass served room temperature with a snappy vinaigrette, oysters and a cap of frizzled leeks; silky veal ‘candy’ cooked sous-vide and sweetened with butter-poached heirloom beets; rich and crispy shredded veal breast confit, cut with orange.”
Rose insists that what attracts his loyal following — which he says is divided between Paris-residing expats, food tourists and stiff-upper-lip Frenchmen — is the well-executed French cuisine. Which has become, ironically, something of a novelty in a city obsessed with New York and London–influenced spots like his friend Gregory Marchand’s Frenchie, or inventive and molecular-style cooking. “Some reactions are, ‘Oh, I thought it would be more technical or futurist,” Rose says. Nope, just classic French food prepared by an American chef and his international team.
The original Spring space was so intimate. That was your first restaurant that you started yourself, right? And you just wanted a small neighborhood spot?
I had no idea. I just wanted to have a restaurant where I didn’t have to rely on anybody else because I didn’t know how to do anything. I figured I could only cook for 10 or 12 people, so I’ll just put 10 seats in there. There were 16 seats in the end. I never once turned a table. It wasn’t really a vision; it was just what I was capable of doing. And then the idea was to do something else that I was not yet capable of doing.
Right. While you got the new location ready, you turned Spring into Table 28—serving one menu nightly with a rotisserie meat. I was lucky enough to go, and it was an amazing experience. Did you just get your hands on a roaster or something?
No, I realized it was something I had never learned while I was cooking, which was old-fashioned, um, roasting things. So I got rid of all the kitchen equipment and bought this big, huge rotisserie. I bought it based on the reputation of the brand and whether or not it fit under all the equipment that was already there and whether I could get it into the door. I plugged it in and I opened.
Let’s take it back. What brought you to Paris originally?
I was a student. I studied art history and philosophy in Paris. And after that, I thought I’d like to stay in France. In order to stay in France you had to have a visa. In order to have a visa you had to have a job or be a student. The only school I know where you don’t have to study is cooking school. So I go to cooking school, and then you don’t really stop learning how to do it. I went to Bocuse [in Lyon] and I stayed there for a year, instead of the two or three years, and then worked for somebody. He said don’t go back to school.
You also cooked in Belgium, Paris and — Guatemala?
I moved to Guatemala because I was offered a real job, my first real job. I was the chef. I did that for about a year.
Was that in a hotel?
Yeah, in a hotel. In Lake Atitlan. It was cool, beautiful. A Relais & Chateau. Guys would fly in by helicopter and have lunch. It was very chic. I lived in a little house in a garden with 300 different varieties of roses and all sorts of nice food and stuff with a beautiful view of the lake. Pretty great, now that I actually think about it.
What made you leave?
I decided to come back to France after a year. The woman who owned the hotel said, “You’re just going to go, it’s going to be all about insurance and taxes and problems.” She was right, but that doesn’t matter.
Are there any other well-known American chefs in Paris?
Well-known, I don’t know. But there are a couple chefs. There’s a guy named Mark Singer who bought the Cave Gourmande. He left that and just opened another restaurant in the 17th. [Ed note: it’s called Dodin.] He makes tasty French food, but I don’t think he’s well-known.
It’s just because everyone’s now obsessed with young, which is dumb—especially in the kitchen. The only reason to be obsessed with young is either because you can still get a good deal or because he will become something good or great later. But it makes for pretty shaky ground, I think.
Or inconsistent meals.
Yeah, exactly. Inconsistency. The question is: what is it that people are eating? So people who are interested in us young people, are they eating the food or are they eating all the rest of it?
“When you go out, you want to have a nice time, you want to feel like people are taking care of you, to relax. The style of the food doesn’t matter in the end.”
What about what you do here, making pretty classical French food, at a time when French food isn’t very trendy.
I’m the only guy that’s making French—well, that’s not true. We’re all making French food. I’m the only one who’s trying to make French food. Cooking at Spring in Paris is towards French cooking. It’s not a deconstruction. In some ways it’s a personal exploration of my vision of a restaurant in Paris. People like Spring because it’s French. This is not provocative cooking. Americans think it tests their limits because they’ve never eaten pigeon before. That’s just a question of perspectives. In France we eat pigeon and we eat rie de veaux [sweetbreads] and it’s not provocative at all. It’s very bourgeois.
You’ve spoken about the lifestyle of living in Paris suiting you as a chef.
I don’t know because I’ve never lived anywhere else as an adult. The lifestyle? I don’t know how much different my life would be if I opened a restaurant somewhere else. I mean, I live upstairs, I come down, I go back upstairs. You know? Maybe I’d imagine Spring in a different city. What kind of food do you make in New York City? What would be innately American or essential to do in New York City? I think this kind of food is good match for Paris. It’s coherent.
I would imagine you have relationships here with buyers that would be harder to have back in the states.
Paris is an essential place to do a project like this, because of the quality of the ingredients and the quality of the customers. You really have your pick of customers, with people who live here and their attitudes, which are complicated as an American to understand sometimes. But they’re not very free with their compliments, so when they do give them they’re very meaningful.
You do have a lot of French customers though?
Yeah, a lot. I think what they find satisfying is that it’s very familiar territory. They want a pigeon that tastes like pigeon. They don’t really care about the rest of the stuff.
Sometimes people say, “Wow this is really great. Your veal tastes like veal.” That’s a really high compliment. The point is not to bring attention to ourselves. It’s to make people have a moment to say, “Well, I’m glad to be here today. We go to work all the time, we’re anxious, we got shit to do, we gotta pay the bills.” When you go out, you want to have a nice time, you want to feel like people are taking care of you, to relax. The style of the food doesn’t matter in the end.
My mission was to make a restaurant that had a place in France, in Paris. I think that’s been achieved.
Spring, 6 rue Bailleul, Paris 75001; Spring Boutique, 52 Rue de l’Arbre Sec, Paris 75001, springparis.fr