For Damon Wise, French Food Never Left New York. And It's Sure There Now.

"When we open at 5:30, it's literally like a bomb goes off," says Damon Wise, chef de cuisine at New York City's nuclear-grade restaurant Lafayette. The sprawling NoHo brasserie opened less than six weeks ago. The private dining room we are chatting in smells of fresh paint. A new server is being trained nearby.

Wise, a longtime Tom Colicchio lieutenant, is used to the long and almost always bumpy opening of restaurants. He winces slightly when I ask if he had to fire any cooks yet. "There have been lots of cooks in and out, it's just the way it goes," he says, calmly. Wise is a pro if there ever was one. By his estimates, this is his 14th opening, but the first with Lafayette's chef and owner Andrew Carmellini (of Locanda Verde, The Dutch). I wanted to stop by to see how the new gig was going. Apparently, 450 covers a night strong, for starters.

How was last night, the first night after Memorial Day? Still busy?

Yesterday, coming off of the holiday weekend, was a little bit interesting because we had a humongous weekend with brunch and Saturday night service. Yesterday was all about getting the deliveries of stuff that we sold out of over the weekend.

What was selling?

We sell a tremendous amount of duck here, the duck au poivre in particular. But people are ordering all over the menu, which is pretty nice. There's a lot of multi-course stuff going on.

Have you seen a particular style of dining here? Are people doing three-courses? Shared plates?

It's such a mixture of people. Some come in for a quick meal — get one course and get out — or they're here to dine.

French food in New York has been buzzy of late. There is this whole meme going around that Lafayette is this return to French form or something. Do you subscribe to "French food is back?"

[Laughs] I don't know why they're saying it's a revival. It's everywhere. Maybe this format of restaurant needs a little bit of revitalization. All I know is how to cook it [laughs]. I'm a cook at heart and when Andrew and I got together and started talking about doing this, it was what is in our brains. Whether it's Craft or here, it's still French across the board to me. When people say, "Oh my God, French food is back," I'm not really connecting with it.

How did you and Andrew Carmellini start talking about working together?

I've known him forever. When he was at Café [Boulud], I interviewed there for a sous-chef job. I might have been at Gramercy Tavern or had just started at Craft, and I was looking around at my options. I met him at Café Boulud, trailed him for the day and cooked for him. Somehow it didn't work out, but it seemed to go well and I sat in the office with him literally for hours and we connected. We had the same mentality about how food was and we had the same ideals and wanted everyone to work hard.

Food comes first for both of you.

It is very important. So he shot me a text and I was kind of blindsided. He said, "I'm working on this project," and I was like, "Great!" We connected and started cooking stuff together, and it was awesome.

What do you mean by started cooking stuff?

They had planned this trip to go over to France, and they asked me if I wanted to tag along to do it. I was like, "Yeah man, great!" We rented a house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, which was the most incredible place ever. We'd scramble to markets in the morning and come back with all this stuff and cook all day long, basically, every day for two weeks.

Were you documenting it?

It was more for inspiration. It was so epic. We'd walk through the markets, see something and say, "I've got to get it!" even though it was too expensive. Then we'd be like, "Let's get it anyway!"

Now that you have been doing this for six weeks, what's a dish that you really love?

There are a lot of dishes on here that are really badass. This baked oyster Sargent with the seaweed butter is so delicious and it's very, very French in the way that it tastes. We messed around with it and used a bunch of ingredients and different seaweeds. It took a long time to test, but it was awesome as soon as we got it down. We messed around with the tripe bourguignon for quite a bit, trying to get the right mix of red wine sauce in there. I've got to speak about the bouillabaisse also.

It's impressive.

We tested and tested that recipe and it's very delicious. We just got a review from Adam Platt and it was called serviceable. It is epic. It is so good. It's hard to get good bouillabaisse in the city. I know Balthazar is doing it and Shane [McBride] is a great cook, which I know because he's my best friend. We worked really hard on the shellfish and the seafood in it. Even though it's a classic dish, it tastes very fresh and modern.

How is it modern?

No, it's really kind of straightforward and all of the fish is marinated for a day. It's traditional but the way we pick it up and refresh it with a little Pernod and add the shellfish juice to it. I get dizzy every time I taste it!

For years you worked with Tom Colicchio. Are you guys cool?

Yeah, yeah. Towards the end of my tenure there, I was burned out and couldn't wait to get out of there, but he's like part of family to me. I get emotional when I talk about it. He has such a vision about things that I really respect and is a super laidback guy. Of course, he's very, very talented.

Carmellini is different, right? He's really all about the kitchen, period. And not leaving...

It's hard when you're opening a restaurant and I've had friends say, "Come out and say hi to our table" and I just can't do it. You're really working on this project and have put a lot of effort into it but don't feel like it's there yet. It's the mind of a chef — and I hate to use that term because it's Anthony Bourdain's show now — but it is what it is. My lady will come in and eat brunch and on our first brunch, she will say, "That was the most amazing brunch ever" and I'm like, "I just don't see what you're talking about. I think you're lying to me." That's really the mind of a chef.

Do you like working with your new boss?

I do, he's awesome. We work very well together. He already knew what this restaurant was going to be before we opened — that's the way he thinks. Even though he said that we'll go through stuff and talk about how the logistics of the restaurant should work, I know that already in the back of his mind, he knows what it is.

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