Out of the Box: Craig Koketsu Reimagines the Big, Bustling Restaurant
While his teenage friends were sleeping on Saturday mornings, Craig Koketsu was catching up on a little food TV, checking in on the cooking shows that were then hosted by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Koketsu had been interested in food and experimenting in the kitchen since childhood, and during his high school years, he often cooked for his friends at parties. It wasn't until he was working at a gourmet grocery store during college -- where he was studying pre-law -- that he considered food as a career, though. Then, he'd spend all of his free time researching recipes and working in his kitchen, and, he says, the idea of becoming a chef began really percolating.
After graduation, he started seeking out chefs who'd bring him on as an intern, reasoning that he'd rather make minimum wage while he learned the basics than go further into debt with culinary school. He landed a position with Steve Chan, a Chinese-American chef who headed up the French-Asian Martha's Restaurant. "His chef that he learned from was a student of Auguste Escoffier, so thought it was cool to have that direct lineage to Escoffier," says Koketsu.
When he left Chan, he worked under Jeremiah Tower at Stars, eventually becoming the private dining chef. And that's when the seed was first planted to move to New York. "There was this peek-through window into the dining room, and I would hang out and listen to what the guys were talking about," says the chef. "They would talk about NYC and all these cool restaurants: Bouley, Daniel, Le Bernardin, and Lespinasse at that time -- that was the first time I heard that name. Then I saw the New York Times food section profile of Gray Kunz and his kitchen renovation of the St. Regis, and I thought, I have to work there."
Koketsu sent out his resume, and he scored his coveted role at Lespinasse, eventually working his way up to chef de cuisine, and sticking around even as Kunz passed the torch to Christian Delouvrier. When a new restaurant with Delouvrier fell through, Koketsu joined the Smith & Wollensky group to try to revamp the Manhattan Ocean Club, but he found it impossible to turn the place around after 23 years. He helped change it into Quality Meats instead, and then he stayed on with the group through a number of additional openings. He now oversees the kitchens at Park Avenue, Quality Italian, and General Assembly (360 Park Avenue South), which replaced the Hurricane Club about a month ago.
In this interview, Koketsu talks about how Yelp brings him down and one of the industry's most pressing problems.