Subtle is not a word one would use to describe the menu at Lespinasse, Gray Kunz’s four-star restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel. With its seemingly flagrant use of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian ingredients (white beans, mung bean, pink lentil and spiced leek emulsion) and bizarre sounding juxtapositions (like watermelon and tomato fondue), outlandish or ostentatious might appear better adjectives. But subtle is the term Chef Kunz uses repeatedly to describe his own cooking, and, upon tasting his masterpieces — the meltingly sweet sugar-snap pea soup with crisp disks of fried lotus root, the delicate salmon fillet discreetly perfumed with kaffir lime, and the cloud-like coffee cardamom soufflés — one cannot help but be persuaded.
Kunz’s love of Asian flavors and spices dates back to his Singapore childhood, where the smells of cardamom, cumin, and lemongrass perfumed the air of the expansive outdoor markets he frequented. The Singapore-born son of an Irish mother and a Swiss father, Kunz trained in the Lausanne kitchen of the formidable Fredy Girardet, a lucky break for the young chef, although he found that the experience led people to brand him a traditionalist, and to expect him to conform to the text of haute cuisine.
“I knew I wanted to do something different, but it was hard to get that big foie gras off my back,” he told New York Times food writer Bryan Miller. But instead of turning away from his training, and abandoning that fat liver altogether, Kunz looked to the ripe fruits of Asia to create his own sauteed foie gras with mango confit, introducing a style that combined little-known, little-used seasonings from around the world with classical French technique.
But in a city where eclectic cuisine is increasingly à la mode, Kunz rejects the title “fusion-cooking” in relation to what he does. “I really don’t like that term,” he admits, “[as chefs] we deal with all kinds of flavors to create a subtle new taste sensation, but a lot of people doing this kind of cooking simply go crazy…and then call it fusion,” Kunz’s creations are not a product of fad. Food writer John Mariani points out that Kunz is not simply showing off, but that he is instead showing how marvelously flexible modern French cuisine can be in absorbing unusual flavors. While other chefs explore Asian flavors by exploding traditional expectations and confusing the palate, Kunz integrates Asian and European elements in a thoughtful, satisfying, and, yes, subtle way.