Celebrity chef Michael White isn’t playing it safe.
White, who already has six restaurants in NYC, 10 more spread across four countries and two Michelin stars under his belt, isn’t resting on his toque blanche. Known primarily for his famed Italian dining rooms like Marea and Ai Fiori, White’s latest venture is Vaucluse — his first French effort.
The 12,000-square-foot French brasserie at 63rd and Park Avenue on the Upper East Side is currently your best chance to catch the hands-on chef in the flesh. LLNYC met White there recently to chew the fat.
“Something I want to focus on is making sure that I am in the kitchen a certain number of hours a day,” White says, adding that he likes to lead by example. “I love to be in the kitchen, that is why I got in the business.”
For his French food debut, the affable chef has created fresh spins on French classics. The rotating menu of 50 or so items includes a hors d’oeuvre course dominated by seasonal vegetables, choice cuts of meats (dry-aged in house) and five types of extremely fresh fish.
On a walk through the restaurant’s enormous kitchen, White demonstrates just how fresh the fish are, grabbing a large striper and opening it wide to show its bloody innards. White picks up some of the blood on his index finger and asks me to have a sniff. “What do you smell?” he asks.
I’m not sure what to say.
“It doesn’t smell like anything! Fresh fish don’t smell,” he laughs.
White wasn’t just involved in creating the menu at Vaucluse, he is also an exacting designer, touching every element of the restaurant’s four dining rooms with the help of Myer Davis.
“I wanted a little bit of that octagonal, geometric pattern with gray and steel tones because that evokes Paris,” White says. “But then we have subway tiles, because we are in New York City.” But even those tiles have a French connection — they were ripped up and imported piece-by-piece from the South of France. White says he wanted something with patina.
“These kinds of things are very important to me, to create the right kind of ambiance. It’s got to be tight!” he says.
“I use real silver because I want you told hold it in your hand and know that it is special. I want texture and lines.”
White says that he doesn’t typically make deals with restaurant management companies. White and his partners control all but one of his restaurants personally. “We own these restaurants and that means we have a vested interest in everything I do,” White says. “We have skin the game.”
“My philosophy is first and foremost that I am in the hospitality business. A lot of people forget that. But people have a choice,” White says. “People are coming into your restaurant to spend their money and people want to know that they are spending it on a great experience.”