"The second I stepped into a cooking class in junior high school I pretty much knew that this was what I was going to be doing."
At 34, Harold Dieterle is already a bit old school. He prefers his kitchens at Kin Shop and Perilla to Top Chef and television. When cooking at home he opts for classics—beef Braciole, duck confit and platters of shellfish dishes—over playing around. His third restaurant (delayed, but still in the works in Brooklyn) will focus on the German and Italian/American foods he grew up with as a kid.
What's the whole package—being a boss, working the stove, winning Top Chef, creating the kind of restaurant he wants to eat in—look like for Dieterle? A fried calamari and watercress salad, maybe: fresh, savory, and just a bit rough around the edges.
You've remarked that you went into food to meet women. Fair enough. But when did cooking become something personal to you? Even though my reasons for getting into basic food prep was to meet girls, the second I stepped into a cooking class in junior high school I pretty much knew that this was what I was going to be doing.
How'd you know? I hadn't really been passionate about anything on an academic level. I totally despised school. And that food prep class was the first time I'd ever gotten an A in my life. It became very obvious—any my parents saw it too—that I had a passion for this.
You won the first season of Bravo's Top Chef. What's the greatest gain for a chef to get by going on such a show? Exposure. And that comes at a price. Sure, it fills your seats, but you open yourself up to scrutiny from critics. We certainly had things we had to work on—we were too busy when we first opened and I was having a tough time executing the food I wanted to execute. But at the same time I felt like it was impossible to get away from Top Chef. I wanted to focus on opening a restaurant but there wasn't a paragraph that could go by without mentioning that.
Going back would you do it again? I don't have any regrets doing it.
Was there something you didn't expect that threw you off your game? It's sold to you as a cooking competition but you're spending maybe an hour a day cooking and twelve hours a day on camera with them prodding you with booze. So it was not so much cooking and a lot of reality, and that's the part that I loathed. I just didn't want to play that game. If we had downtime I pulled my backpack up and literally went to sleep. I think I was very well rested.
What would you advise chefs to be wary of if they're thinking going on television? My biggest thing is that everybody thinks they're going to be a superstar, and they quit their jobs. And I just think it's bullshit that you grow up cooking your whole life and you go on TV to stop cooking. Is the profession so bad? I have a big problem with that.
Do you see the TV culture changing what's actually going on in the kitchen with younger chefs? There's definitely a different sort of drive. The amount of no-show/no-calls I've had in the last three years is unbelievable! The whole text-message era of, "Chef, I'm going to be late for work" is insane. I don't know when this became okay. I don't want to say I'm old-school because I'm only 34 years old, but if I tried to do that to my chef in the 90s, I'd be crying.
That seems crazy for a field that's so focused on discipline and hierarchy. It's really hard to install that fear nowadays. I think a lot of the kids coming up are in this entitlement era—they've been babied.
Do you think that's from the TV scene or the generation in general? I think both.
Has there been a moment when you've wanted to walk away? In 2002 I closed a restaurant, Red Bar. I'd never experience that before: closing a restaurant and finding out that it was in debt. I went right from there out to the Hamptons to work for the summer and party a lot, and I didn't know if I wanted to work in restaurants anymore because I wasn't creating or working with passion.
What turned things around? I started talking to Jimmy Bradley from the Harrison and did a trail there with Joey Campanaro, and Joey and I fell in love and lived happily ever after.
You've now chosen Asian and Thai influences for the menus at your restaurants. What excites you about those cuisines? It's personal for me. I traveled a lot over there and thought a lot about what I wanted to create. I want to apply those flavors and techniques to ingredients I'm finding in the greenmarket. I find that interesting.
A Serious Eats review remarked that you don't create "authentic" Thai dishes, but that you're true to the flavors of Thai Cooking. Would you agree with that? I absolutely would. Considering the mystique of Thai food, I find it very hard to call anything authentic when some of the ingredients that we use over here aren't as good as they are over there.
Is there a cuisine that you're not familiar with right now that you'd like to explore? Probably Italian food. It's weird because I grew up in an Italian American household, but after taking my honeymoon to Italy and Sicily I realized I have a lot more to learn. I'd like to do an Italian place at some point in my life. Not here, though.
Why not here? There are just too many good cooks. I'm intimidated. But I don't see us expanding just yet.