May 8, 2009 -- It takes a lot to rattle mild-mannered, humble chef John Fraser, but if there's one thing that gets under his skin, it's apathy.
"One thing I absolutely hate, it goes back to employees for me, it's apathy. Either you want to be here and you're here and you're present, or you're not," he said. "Also, in terms of customers as well, sort of being here -- I just can't stand that. Make a choice."
Fraser, owner and executive chef of New York City's critically acclaimed Dovetail (three stars from The New York Times) doesn't only have high expectations for his kitchen staff and his patrons, he expects a lot from himself. Known for his strong work ethic, Fraser said his parents -- his mother Liza in particular -- reinforced the importance of always giving 100 percent.
"My father always had two jobs. My mother had a job and was taking care of us. After I left the house, my mother went back to school and got her masters', and she is now in sort of her second career," he said. "But we always were working, I mean, whether it was around the house, sports, whatever it was. It was always about how hard you can work."
And the hard work never stops. Among his peers Fraser is known as a culinary mastermind. Most attribute that to his drive and his undying need for culinary perfection.
CLICK HERE for three of John Fraser's recipes.
Fraser, 33, grew up eating food grown in his family's Yucaipa, Calif., backyard, a farm of sorts with a bounty of foods including avocados, Meyer lemons, apricots, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes.
"My parents always made time to cook, so it was always family time," he said. Having a large family -- of Scottish and Greek descent -- made the memories that much stronger.
"It was always like a big turkey and a big ham, and a lot of vegetables," he said. "And you know, from the moment we got there we were eating; until the moment we left, we were eating."
For Fraser and his sister, Jennifer, going out to eat was rare but treasured.
"I think the best was like the once a year after we got good grades, going to Red Lobster or Black Angus, or something like that," Fraser recalled. "I mean, those are the first formative food memories where it was like a special occasion to go out and eat."
On family camping trips, they would fish in the streams at Big Bear and steam the fish over a campfire.
"It creates a certain thing in your head -- a certain relationship with food, that it was alive, or it came from a place. It could be swimming in the stream but it is providing me with nourishment," he said. "It's not just expendable."
He may love simple, locally sourced foods, but he also admits to loving one junk food in particular.
"Cool Ranch Doritos," he said. "Totally."
A Chef's Life: Blue Collar
For Fraser, food is also "entertainment."
"[Food] creates a community of people that gather, and it gives them a reason to talk, and it gives them a reason to share, and that's what growing up was always meaning to me," he said.
Fraser left his hometown at 17 to attend the University of California at San Diego, where he found a job working as a cook in a local restaurant.
"And at some point, I kind of fell out of love with the idea of being a doctor or being a lawyer and sitting in a classroom, and I really like working with my hands," he said. "And I got introduced to a chef who took cooking very seriously ... and I realized that food isn't just food. If you take it seriously enough, it can become art. It sort of raises the level."
Fraser was quick to point out, however, that he isn't an artist.
"I would consider myself more blue-collar than anything," he said. "I think the glamour of cooking happens at the table with the guests. I think that everything leading up to it, from the farm, to the kitchen, to the dishwashers, to the chef -- it's very blue-collar. I mean, it's a lot of hard work. And you get your hands dirty, and they get cut and burnt. And it's not, you know, it's not an artist's job, really."
That hard-work-does-you-good sensibility combined with the creativity necessitated by changing seasons and evolving techniques is a large reason why Fraser loves to cook. The moment he realized that he loved it so much came while he was working for one of Thomas Keller's restaurants, the French Laundry.
"I fought for a job at the French Laundry, and that's when, after being there for a year, I realized that I could do this for a living," he said. "It was after going through the hazing, so to speak, for a year of trial and error and trying to find my place in that kitchen. And once I sort of found my place in the kitchen, I knew that was it. That's when I knew.
"You're not born cooking," he said. "You don't come out of the womb with a skillet and a ladle and you're like, 'Let's go, let's cook some eggs.' You have to learn everything and if you apply hard work I feel like you can."
Cooking 2.0: Recipes Aren't Necessary
Growing up, Fraser wasn't afraid to experiment in the kitchen. Of course, not every meal was a success.
"I remember the worst thing I've ever eaten was made by my mom," he said. "It was this tuna casserole. It was horrendous. When my mom wasn't looking, my father was like, 'Eat some and drink some milk right afterwards' -- you know, to try and wash it down. But then my mom figured it out, and so it was a huge fight."
Fraser said his mom taught him that there's no such thing as a recipe. In other words, nothing is set in stone.
"Everything happens in that moment and, therefore, should be catered to that moment," he said.
Of his mother, Fraser said, "She is the nicest, caring human being on the earth."
Then he laughed and added, "I think that I am the opposite of my mother."
'I Had No Clue'
Opening a restaurant can be daunting, especially in a hyper-competitive market like New York City.
"I had no clue what I was doing" when Dovetail opened, Fraser admitted.
"I knew how to cook, but everything else was trial and error. I consider myself very lucky that the outcome has been very good," he said. "As far as business goes, I think the best thing you can do is provide yourself with infrastructure -- people around you who know and can catch you when you start to fail or slip. And some of the best chefs have failed because they can't count, essentially -- not enough seats, spending too much money. It's very simple. "
Want a great restaurant? Fraser believes you need a point of view. He hopes the one he conveys is simplicity.
"All of the athletes that I really idolized when I was a kid, they made it look easy and they made it look effortless," he said. "On the plate, hopefully, when people come to Dovetail, they feel that way. The food, while it might be technically sound, or while it may be difficult to produce, or while it may come from far away, when it comes in front of you, it should feel effortless; it should feel natural; it should feel easy."
In keeping with his family's hard-working reputation, Fraser is in the midst of planning his next big project. He is wooing the New York City Parks Department with plans to introduce a gourmet food cart and cafe. Currently, he is one of the top contenders vying for valuable restaurant space in Central Park.
If his proposal is accepted, hungry park visitors can expect reasonably priced little pizzas, salads and specialty cheeses at the cafe. The cart might include such diverse offerings as homemade sausage, gelato and picnic baskets with champagne, sandwiches and salads.
And the point of view? Just the same as Dovetail's: simple and delicious.