Gray Kunz may be getting older, but not weaker. The Swiss chef talks to Crave about the future of food and why China will lead the environmental movement.
Words Tiffany Chan
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 88, October 2017
Gray Kunz isn’t in the spotlight much these days, but he was once deemed one of the world’s most illustrious chefs. Born in Singapore and raised in Switzerland, he trained with venerated European chef Frédy Girardet in Switzerland. After moving halfway across the world to Hong Kong, he was executive chef at Plume at the Regent Hong Kong hotel for five years. Fluent in French, Chinese and pan – Asian cuisines, he uprooted and moved to New York where he really made his mark with Lespinasse at St Regis Hotel. There, Kunz seamlessly married the flavours and aesthetics of East and West into what was considered one of the best restaurants in the world in the 90s, earning a four – star rating from the New York Times.
In 2002, Kunz was bestowed the title of Master of Aesthetics by The Culinary Institute of America, and in 1995, he was nominated Best American Chef by the James Beard Foundation. Three years later, he entered the Restaurant Hall of Fame. After leaving Lespinasse, he opened his first Café Gray Deluxe in 2004, earning its first Michelin star within the year. He opened the second Café Gray Deluxe in Hong Kong in 2009 and will be opening the third, in Shanghai, by the end of the year.
Kunz has been quiet in the past couple of decades, but not sedentary. He’s been thinking about the future for a while now, he says. It has only a little to do with the revitalising menu he introduced at Café Gray Deluxe, which is the original reason behind our meeting. “It’s not really about revitalising or invigorating, or whatever it is called,” he says. The menu is, frankly, nothing special. It’s designed to cater to special dietary requests and to be lighter in aesthetics, smaller in portions. It’s importance is not in being trendy or what it means to #eatclean, but in “the things happening to people’s bodies that we need to try to understand; being sensitive to what you eat, how healthy it is, and how sustainable it is”, he explains. “And it’s not going to go away. If anything, it will amplify its importance.”
Kunz corrects himself. The world “sustainable”, he says, is overused, almost always wrongly. In his gentle but thoughtful manner, he is adamant: “It should be renewal, because with sustainability, you can sustain it for a while, and you can almost count on it going down. It’s ironic. It’s good to start with and then we need to have renewal. You have a base product, it gets better and better, and then you have to renew it. Take the next route. Renew it again.
He cites the return of heirloom tomato varieties as an example. “I think those tomatoes are really fabulous because what I was always longing for, especially coming from Europe, when you cut a tomato open, that flavour is there. So when you look at these heirloom tomatoes of sorts, it’s a very good example of how renewal is going to happen,” he says. “If I see a beautiful tomato that comes from somewhere outstanding, I can already see five dishes.”
The introduction of the revitalising menu may seem insignificant, but it is indicative of the chef’s larger ideals. He is catering not only to people with special dietary requirements, but to all his diners. He spends a tremendous amount of time researching ingredients, and sourcing trustworthy suppliers who can provide non – GMO produce. “We have to be very careful and resourceful in searching,” he says. “The biggest misunderstanding is when people say it doesn’t make a big difference is when people say it doesn’t make a big difference. It’s also very much tied to this notion that this is too expensive, which in certain ways it is. But my reaction is: can we afford not to, in the long run? Or, how much is it going to cost you, when you end up in the hospital? Would you eat that food yourself? Would you give to your grandson to eat? It’s pretty sobering.
Indeed, his two – and – a – half – year – old grandson Jean – Luc is a fundamental, compelling motivation for his initiatives. He takes out his phone to show us a photograph. “If I can’t help this guy before he turns 30, as a chef, then I have done myself so much injustice. I want him and all of his friends to be able to choose from good products,” he says.
With the imminent opening of his restaurant in Shanghai, he’s been looking to Mainland China for organic products. He says, without any irony, China will be a leader in changing environmental behaviour. “People think I’m wrong, but I know I’m right. They have the population to do it [and] they will always have a tremendous business advantage if they do. They will capture it,” he says.
“What’s happening with the issues with the pollution in the air, China is doing things the US is not doing. Our government right now is not for it. You cannot have a movement for cleaner air, cleaner water and locomotion and not think about food. It will not work. This is not going to go away. [It’s] only ever going to increase. It’s in front of us. If it’s going to grow, the impact from China is going to be tremendous.”
Kunz is currently working on a worldwide seafood initiative to create a network of trusted suppliers and renowned chefs who pledge to work with non – GMO and sustainable products. The campaign may not launch for years, but once it does, he hopes it will have enormous consequences and change the way we consume food. He feels more excited, eager and enthusiastic than ever.
“You thrive or you shrivel with your responsibilities, I have never been in a position to talk about the things that I think are really important,” he says. “Let me tell you: this is the best part of my life and I’m going to capitalise on doing good things, things that are good for chefs, good for the environment, good for our customers. And why not?”
|My Favourite Things with
1. Where do you like to eat in Hong Kong
I don’t eat at fancy restaurants. I hang out at the corner store. I used to go a lot to Sham Shui Po, Sheung Wan and Wan Chai. Every time I go to the market I see something new, it’s fascinating.
2. What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a pilot and I fly my own plane. I’m a fervent nature guy; I hunt mushrooms. I’m a diver, but I haven’t done that in a long, long time. I have these activities.
3. How do you stay energised given your schedule?
Being fit helps me stay focused and I want to be around for my grandson. I went to a health and fitness camp in San Diego six months and they told me things I didn’t know. It was a lifestyle change. For a chef that’s very difficult – the hours, all the heat – but I was able to manage a very good synergy between what I’m going now and what I want to do in the future – and the future looks really.
4. Best advice for chefs?
Put family first. Supportive factors from home could be carrying you for a long time. You have to have an incredibly understanding wife. It’s a very difficult thing. I’ve been married 37 years, which is a feat in itself. She should have had a sainthood many times over already.
5. Bad habits?
Chefs generally have high blood pressure; way too much consumption of food. The things you have to take out of the equation are the bad habits of smoking and alcohol. There are things you have to try, but in moderation.
6. What do you eat for dinner?
I like steamed fish and really good salad.
7. Most important part of a dish?
Look at all the preparations you do and the effort that goes into creating the dish, but if you don’t season it right, that bit a the end, it doesn’t mean anything.
8. Most misunderstood part o the food industry?
The farmers, in my opinion, are the stars. Forget the chefs.
9. Any guilty pleasures?
I have an incredibly sweet tooth, so I’m always hanging around the pastry section. Carbs are something you have to be careful about, so I’m staying away from the carbs.
10. What keeps you going?