The high priests of French gastronomy may not have been convinced that American chefs have arrived, but the market itself has spoken. Despite the limited success of American chefs on France's competition circuit, where gastronomic legends such as Paul Bocuse have focused on showcasing American cooking talent, it's the impossible waiting list at a young Chicagoan's Parisian restaurant that has succeeded in capturing headlines in France and abroad.
Daniel Rose, a New Trier graduate, would almost prefer a little anonymity. For the last year there's been a six-month wait to get a table at his 16-seat restaurant Spring, which is not related to Shawn McCLain's place in Chicago. The 32 year-old Wilmette native, whose parents now live in Evanston, often spends as much time replying to frantic reservation seekers as he spends cooking. On my recent visit, he was forced to seat the ambassador from Singapore at the end of a long communal table, where he knocked knees with his two invited guests.
In fact, Rose's culinary profile is so high that at the city of Dijon's recent 4-14 Festival celebrating Franco-American cultural exchange, he was teamed up for a cooking demonstration with Patrick Bertron, the chef from one of the country's most famous three-star restaurants, Relais Bernard Loiseau. That was after festival organizers paired him with the White House's executive pastry chef, Bill Yosses, to prepare one of a series of private dinners in Dijon homes.
The private dinner in Dijon was signature Rose. Arriving with a cooler stuffed with ground pieds de cochon (pigs feet), langoustines and veal for 40, he made no menu decisions until the very last moment.
At Rose's own place, in fact, he has no fixed menu at all. His restaurant offers a single four-course meal that changes every night. It's a riff on the French tasting menu but there's no à la carte option if you don't fancy a dish like Rose's improvisation of the BLT, which he makes by breading and frying pieds de cochon. Clients come on faith and they come back. The couple next to us had already been twice before.
Rose's dishes are all what he calls improvisations on the classics. No "food demonstrations" and no "floating rosemary air," as he puts it. When I was there, the main course was a vitello tonnato, not doused in tuna sauce but dabbed and topped with tuna tartare, tomato confit and fresh almonds. For dessert, Rose transformed the old fruit soup standby into an exquisite broth of white peach and rhubarb.
Everything is prepared in an open kitchen not much bigger than a galley in a New York apartment. Rose likes it that way. It lets him look directly into the restaurant and at his clients' expressions as they taste each dish. He says he's been known to change dishes mid-stream if he sees they don't like what they're tasting.
"Once a dish is good, I stop making it," Rose says. It's not exactly the recipe for getting and keeping a Michelin star, which, according to Rose, has loomed as a possibility. The notorious Michelin investigators have been in. But Rose worked briefly for a Parisian chef seeking his third star and he says the star system would be "distracting."
That may be because he aspires as much to a kind of ambience as to a particular cuisine. At Spring, he hopes to create gastronomic moments for endless conviviality.
"Spring Restaurant is just like my seminar at St. Johns," he says referring to the Great Books-oriented college, patterned on the University of Chicago, that Rose attended in Santa Fe. "Everyone gets the same meal. It's only the conversation that changes."
Eager reservation seekers may be soothed that Rose has broken ground on a new place in Paris' toney 1st Arrondissement, a move up by most standards from his current location in the 9th. But Rose cautions against expectations that the style and ambience will change. Even with more than double the space, he plans to add no more than a hand-ful of additional tables. Rose has an adjoining boutique in the works as well.
Growing up in Chicago, Rose spent his vacations not in Paris but in Mexico and the American west. It was during a road trip out west, he recalled, that he first experienced food that he said could only be eaten where it was. He recalls, like it was only yesterday, delicious creamed pheasant soup he had on a family trip to North Dakota. Spring Restaurant attempts to prepare food that, like the pheasant soup, cannot be eaten anywhere else, Rose says.
The French, he believes, understand the idea of seasonal and local better than the Americans, but Rose did not set out to become a chef. He went to France to finish college but fell in love with French cuisine. He recalls the magic of seeing his first cream puff rise. In the decade or so since he's been abroad, Rose has trained with some of France's best chefs, including the Hotel Meurice's three-star chef Yannick Alleno.
Rose is mindful of his anomalous success in the French culinary system and especially to the fact that he has leapfrogged over many young French chefs who could never imagine being featured side-by-side with a three-star chef so early in his career. Deferring self-effacingly to his French colleague Bertron, who prepared a filet of beef accompanied by a tomato-less ketchup at the Dijon demo, the playful Rose treated the crowd to fried green tomatoes. It was a wink, he said, at the tomato and frites missing from the three-star chef's dish.