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Shades of Gray: Interview with chef Gray Kunz

Published 28 March 2012   

As award-winning chef Gray Kunz’s Café Gray Deluxe celebrates its first year of wowing the city’s palates at the city’s Upper House hotel, the Chef’s Chef talks to FRV Travel about his start, fussy Hong Kong diners, and the role of today’s celebrity chefs.

Text by Nick Walton

You’ve earned four star ratings in the New York Times with Lespinasse and in 2002 were recognized by The Culinary Institute of America as a Master of Aesthetics, an award bestowed on a select handful of culinary professionals. What first got you into cooking and did it ever occur to you that you’d spend your life in the kitchen?
It never occurred to me I would spend my life in the kitchen; I had the boy’s dream of become a fireman, a truck driver and a pilot, and I got my pilot’s license in 2008, so part of my childhood dream has come true. On the other hand I am glad I decided to go into cooking and I’m still as excited as ever. My first forays into cooking were based on necessity and it was clear to me that if I wanted to own something (no matter what it was) I had to work for it and earn money. I therefore followed my older brothers footsteps and, while getting my college degree, spent time in the summer working my tail off in a restaurant kitchen. I fell in love with it.

Have you ever had a moment when you’ve thought maybe this is not for me?
Yes, many times, especially as I moved up the echelon in the hierarchy of chefs, I encountered the very hard and unhealthy lifestyle many chefs subject themselves to, including smoking, drinking, and at one point I was ready to leave that environment. The turnaround happened when I got a call from the renowned chef, Freddy Girardet, asking me to join his team. He’s still my friend and mentor today. I’m glad I stuck with it and the best, I believe, is still yet to come.

You previously worked in Hong Kong at Plume at the Regent before heading to New York, and it’s almost a year since you set up shop at Upper House – what have you re-learned about Hong Kong diners?
A great deal. I think the diners in Hong Kong are demanding, and rightfully so. However the more demanding it gets the better I perform. I also learned to be more flexible with my preparations since you can’t cook the same in New York as in Hong Kong. I do have to say that having been in Hong Kong previously has helped me immensely in this regard.

What changes have you made to your cuisine in that time?
Its just very recently that I have made a major change in our preparations – simplifying, adding clean executions, and aiming for organic and sustainable dishes, but most importunately, spending a lot of time on food research and being very demanding with food product standards.

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I get this question asked a lot and I don’t have a favorite, since the others would be less favorites (or less good). I love the directions we have taken – simplicity in its beauty – sometimes a hard thing to do.

What trends do you think are emerging in the Hong Kong dining scene and what role is Cafe Grey playing?
With the openings of several new restaurants, I see a trend towards going back to comfort. I’m particularly fond of regionality, comfort and straightforward approaches. Molecular is passé. Give us a great fish and chips! The role I believe Café Gray will play in the future will be to stay true to solid values; no gimmicks, great quality, and uncompromising hospitality. I also believe we have reinvented and elevated the title café.

What do you think of the celebrity status that many chefs in the US and overseas receive?
I don’t like it. I think great chefs have a very important message to give – let’s cook and create healthy lifestyles with food. Let’s create great businesses based on really important things in life, let’s move industries in the right food direction. It’s a lifelong undertaking and one which will benefit our kids.

Cafe Gray prides itself on its fresh locally-sourced cuisine. Are there ingredients that you find hard to source? What about ingredients that you’ve discovered in Asia that you now use regularly?
Yes, and I am on an absolute obsessive quest to find, source and ultimately cook with the healthiest products I can find. I miss sometimes a great organic salad, or a good cooking apple, just to name a few, and I want to be able to use them without having them shipped around the world. Slowly, I’m getting there. I’m also fascinated with the local markets in Hong Kong and, although I visit them frequently, I am just at the beginning of having a slight understanding of the immense food diversity in this part of the world.