Growing up on a farm in the tiny Alsatian town of Niederschaeffolsheim, Gabriel Kreuther was always surrounded by food: His relatives were butchers, bakers and restaurant owners; his mother loved to cook. After sharpening his skills in kitchens around Europe, he made his way to the bright lights of New York in 1997 to work as a sous chef at the fine-dining landmark La Caravelle. He then moved on to establishments of equal pedigree, including Jean-Georges, Atelier at the Ritz Carlton, and the Modern.
Despite his elite résumé, Kreuther, 49, has never forgotten his more humbling moments. Once, as a teenager visiting Paris for the first time, he was asked to leave an upscale restaurant because he didn't meet the dress code. "It makes you feel bad, it makes you feel angry," he says of stuffy, unwelcoming dining rooms. So, when he opened his eponymous Midtown Manhattan restaurant in 2015, he "wanted to do a place that kind of brings everything a little bit down to Earth."
Philippe Sauriat, head sommelier at Gabriel Kreuther, brings a similar sensibility to the restaurant's 1,600-selection, Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine list. In addition to big-ticket names from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and Italy, the Burgundy native searches out lesser-known producers in hopes of exciting and educating diners.
During a quiet moment at the restaurant, the chef and somm sat down with Wine Spectator assistant editor Lexi Williams to talk about the wines and pairings that excite them, how they make fine dining fun, and the perils of driving yourself "crazy-brainy" over wine particulars.
Wine Spectator: How do you set Gabriel Kreuther apart from other fine-dining spots in New York?
Gabriel Kreuther: In the restaurant business, things tend to go really, really far in complexity, making people feel bad, making people feel out of place, making people feel uncomfortable, and I can connect with that. I wanted a place where people are comfortable, where they can have a good time and they can feel themselves.
At the end of the day, it's only food and wine. And if you take it too seriously, I think that you get so boxed in. It's like people drinking wine, and they get too crazy-brainy, they miss what it's about. Or people who take one bite and think about it for 20 minutes, and then it's cold.
Philippe Sauriat: It's really understanding who you're dealing with and how you come down to their level. And also listening to what they want to drink and what they want to eat, how they eat normally and how they drink normally—creating that environment for them. And really always having this awareness that we're not the stars, even though in this world, the chefs are superstars now, sommeliers are superstars now.
WS: How does wine fit in with the cuisine at Gabriel Kreuther?
GK: I was always interested in wine, always having conversations with the sommeliers: "What do you think? What's missing? What fits well with this pairing?" Sometimes, all it takes is adding or taking one thing off a dish to create the link for that pairing.
PS: This restaurant is special in terms of how the culinary team always approaches the wine team. It's good because a lot of chefs forget that. One always helps the other, hopefully, if it's well done.
GK: It's not a one-man show.
WS: What is your favorite wine-and-food pairing at the restaurant?
PS: There's a classic dish here. It's something that chef had started at the Modern, I think. It's a sturgeon and sauerkraut tart. It was a challenge that was given to him by someone who said to him, "Can you make a Michelin-star dish with sauerkraut?" Which he did.
It goes technically very easily with an Alsatian wine, so I do with this dish, a Pinot Blanc from Marc Kreydenweiss called La Fontaine aux Enfants, the 2016 vintage. It has those bright acids that actually work really well with the acids in the sauerkraut. You're not covering anything, you're sort of going along with it. There's also sort of a little funkiness. In terms of the balance of the wine, it's gentle. There's a lot of personality in this dish. It's unique; I've never had a dish like this, ever, in my life. Together, they don't overwhelm each other, and I enjoy this pairing a lot.
GK: My pairing would be something where either Guigal is involved, or Chapoutier, or Domaine du Pégaü, or an old [Paul Jaboulet Âiné Hermitage] La Chapelle. And the dish would be the squab that we do—we don't currently have it on the menu, but it's squab croustillant with foie gras in the center.
WS: What do you drink on your own time?
PS: Sometimes I will drink beer; it's just a refreshing thing. I will enjoy whiskey and Scotch at some points. Some good Calvados also, but really, really good Calvados. But mostly, yeah, it's wine.
GK: For me, it's wine. Not that long ago, I opened a Les Forts de Latour. Maybe two months ago I had La Chapelle '89. I had the Pégaü '90 maybe three months ago. I'm a wine lover, I'm a wine buyer, I'm a wine collector—but I pop the corks. I'm just not looking at the [labels].
If I go somewhere and the wine is not to what I like, I'd rather drink water than bad wine. I don't care. It's either good wine or water. And people say, "You wine snob," but it's not about [being] a wine snob, it's just that not every wine out there is great wine. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it has to be good.
WS: How do you cater to wine lovers at this restaurant?
GK: We have aged bottles of wine at, I believe, fair pricing. Also, the wine list that we have, there are many discoveries that are not known in the U.S., really. Even the winemakers, when they come, they're like, "Wow, where did you get this stuff?" When you open one of those, and it's as good as a huge [name] Bordeaux, I think it's an eye-opener for people. We have a lot of winemakers that are not known as superstars, but [they] produce superstar wine …. That's where [diners] can get interested and say, "Oh, you made me discover something. I'm going to try to find that wine for myself." The big-name things, nobody needs help with that. All you need is cash [laughs].
PS: It’s so true. The value wines that are on this list, people don't necessarily realize. We're looking at a lot of winemakers out there that are producing value wines—in the Languedoc, in Alsace, in the Loire Valley—that are not expensive yet.
Sometimes people get annoyed at how much I taste. We work with 30-something vendors, and I taste regularly because we're always looking for something exciting to put on the list. There is always a desire to see what's out there. And also, I work with a chef who loves wine, so I am being pushed in that way, because I know he pays attention.
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