Chef Gray Kunz, whose novel culinary style and fierce dedication to perfection helped shape today’s fine-dining landscape, died of a stroke in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., March 5. He was 65 years old. Kunz was known for merging different cuisines into ingeniously cohesive dishes, in a way that was groundbreaking at the time.
“First and foremost, chef Gray was a dear friend,” chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin told Wine Spectator via email. “I respected him tremendously and he was an amazing inspiration.”
Kunz’s multicultural influences stemmed from his international background. He was born in Singapore, and cooked in Switzerland and Hong Kong before moving to New York in 1991 to open the legendary Lespinasse restaurant in the St. Regis hotel.
“Gray introduced a broader palate in fine dining that had never been done before,” said chef Andrew Carmellini, who spent five years at Lespinasse and now owns several restaurants in New York and Miami. “Sure there were touches of the East in French cooking since the ‘70s, but Gray's upbringing in Singapore brought true spice, acidity, pickling and fermented flavors into traditional sauce-making.”
Also setting the chef apart was his heightened commitment to wine, driven by deep curiosity and passion. Lespinasse earned its first Wine Spectator Restaurant Award in 1994 and became a Grand Award winner in 2000; it closed in 2003. The following year Kunz opened Café Gray in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, which held an Award of Excellence and was followed by Café Gray Deluxe in Hong Kong, which still holds an Award of Excellence, as does Salt & Char in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a restaurant Kunz helped open in 2016.
“I’ve worked with some of the best tasters on planet Earth, and nobody came close to Kunz,” said Matthew Conway, a former beverage director at Café Gray and the current beverage director of Best of Award of Excellence winner Restaurant Marc Forgione. Among Conway’s favorite examples is a time when Kunz identified a half-bottle of Frédéric Lornet vin jaune as “either Sherry or vin jaune” from 10 feet away on its scent alone, without even looking up from his computer.
Kunz was intimately involved in Café Gray’s wine program, and insisted that the team taste all the dishes alongside their wine pairings before anything was put on the menu—a rarity, especially today. “It was all with this insane, intense strive for perfection,” Conway said.
Every step of his career, Kunz made a lasting impact on the local restaurant scene and the individuals who worked with him. According to Conway, that feeling is palpable among the many prominent names that passed through Kunz’s restaurants. “As soon as you realize [you both worked with him], you start talking and you have all these stories, and you immediately start smiling and laughing.”
Kunz is survived by his wife and his two children.