Intelligent Design: John Fraser's Secret to Success Is Continuous Evolution
It's been six years since John Fraser first opened the doors to Dovetail (103 West 77th Street, 212-362-3800), the Upper West Side restaurant that's both a neighborhood joint and an international destination, and it's success is as much a product of its owner's unrelenting drive to grow and evolve as it is a testament to his immense talent.
Fraser started his career as a short order cook in southern California when he was in college, and because he really liked the misfit hours of the kitchen and the camaraderie of the industry, he stayed behind the burners, rising to a sous chef position in LA only because, he says, he spoke English as a first language. "I was never the best cook in any of those kitchens," he says. So when he went to work at the French Laundry, he dropped back down to cook, learning from Thomas Keller among a crew that included Grant Achatz and Eric Ziebold, guys that "in their own towns are the best chefs," he says. "It was an all-star team." It was there that Fraser really laid the foundation for his own style, and after he left, he went to Paris to solidify the lessons.
Back on U.S. soil a year later, Fraser was burnt out on fine dining so he moved to New York to help a friend open Snack Taverna, a project he thought he'd be involved with for a couple of months to cut his teeth on running a kitchen before moving on to something else. Snack garnered a lot of media attention in those early days, and Fraser stayed for two years, learning the lessons of leadership in the process. "I learned my management techniques weren't going to work anymore," he says. "All the bullying, screaming, and things I went through weren't okay. It was a huge lesson." He bounced around a bit after his departure from there, eventually settling into the Upper West Side's Compass, where, thanks to a couple of less-than-stellar reviews, he had a chance to hone in on the kind of food he wanted to be cooking while flying under the radar. It wasn't long before he started looking for investors for his own project, and in 2007, he opened Dovetail.
Fraser is very clear that the Dovetail that exists now is different front he restaurant he opened; it took time for him to achieve what he set out to accomplish. But now, he's executing on his style, which he defines as vegetable-forward and Californian, and his restaurant has become what he wanted it to be. So he's taken on another project: A few weeks ago, he opened Narcissa at The Standard East Village (25 Cooper Square), the culmination of two years of planning for a new kind of neighborhood spot.
In this interview, he talks about this vision for that new restaurant, how his veggie-forward philosophy has evolved, and why it's hard to own a restaurant here.