We Chat With Chef Edi Frauneder of Seasonal, Edi & the Wolf, and The Third Man
"In New York it doesn't matter where you're from, if you're young, or if you're inexperienced. People are interested in what you do and how you do it, and if they like it you will succeed."
Chef Eduard Frauneder and partner Wolfgang Ban made their mark in the New York food scene with their Michelin-starred fine-dining menu at Seasonal, where they focus on interpretations of classic Austrian dishes and a solid wine list. Farther downtown and tucked away on Avenue C, Edi and the Wolf offers a comforting, accessible menu. And now, just down the block, the recently opened Third Man pumps out "high-octane" cocktails and potently paired bites.
What is consistent among the three establishments is the dedication to top-notch hospitality. Community means something to Frauneder, and when we met at The Third Man, that familial aspect was evident; in Wolfgang joining and offering his thoughts, in Kasia Krupinska's attention to detail as she built cocktails, and in the constant coming and going of current and former employees. After the interview and shots were done, we lingered at over the cocktails and plates, the hospitable energy of captains, crew and the intimate space inviting all to "just be."
Before I start with my questions, is there anything you've wanted to express recently that you haven't gotten to? It's so recent, the flood that happened on Avenue C during Sandy, and nobody really went into detail on what restaurants had to go through. Even though twelve weeks have passed, we should never underestimate that impact. We're going to see more impact, more things to come. People struggling is just the beginning. Edi is a small restaurant so we had small problems. But bigger places that have been affected more heavily will continue to have a rough, rough time.
How long were you closed? Everybody really pulled together, so we reopened within four days at Edi. Was it perfect? No. But were we open? Yes. People were very forgiving, because they saw the effort that went into that week to turn this puppy around.
What surprised you the most of the impact on your community here? Many New Yorkers don't quite understand still the severity... They have no clue—no clue. The lasting lesson for everyone should be that we are all vulnerable, and we should believe in global warming.
The other lesson I brought with me is that during times of crisis you really see people's character. Some people surprised me in a very positive way, and there were some really weak minds that broke first. I saw both. You see the true nature of people in times like that; who keeps it cool, who keeps it real, and who doesn't.
You live around the corner here, too. Why choose this neighborhood to plant yourself? It's really European and homey here. It still has an edge to it, and even though it's been gentrifying over the years, the gentrification is not as forceful as it has been in other parts of the Village. Plus we're small operators; it makes sense with our boutique-y product to find a space that fits our needs.
Most importantly, I know the neighborhood—I know the people on the street. You hear, "this was fantastic yesterday, or "oh, man, you were so slammed yesterday I didn't even come in," and so on and so forth. And if there's a problem, like for instance with the flood, you see the neighborhood holding together. There's way more understanding here than other parts of New York.
So why New York in general? Wolfgang and I started working together 11 years ago, and we always want to do more things, and other things, and different things. And that's why we're in New York: in New York it doesn't matter where you're from, if you're young, or if you're inexperienced. People are interested in what you do and how you do it, and if they like it you will succeed. We always believed in consistent quality in all we do—the food, cocktails, design, and hospitality in all our places. And we also want people to be transported to how we do things in Austria.
How did that eventually translate into your first menu at Seasonal? I think we found at Seasonal the way we feel Viennese cooking should be interpreted abroad.
Do your dishes play to the setting of New York specifically in their interpretations? Produce and protein-wise, absolutely. Importing stupid stuff from other countries doesn't make sense from various perspectives. We believe in cooking within a certain radius and with the seasons.
And do you feel like you succeeded? I think ultimately at all our places we're "cooking for others," not ourselves. We believe in feedback from our diners about what they want us to be. You have to have integrity and your own idea of what your place is supposed to be, but you should always listen to what others are saying.
Seasonal is a Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant. What does the menu at Edi and the Wolf do for you? It's very comforting with some cornerstones of Viennese cuisine present—spatzle, schnitzel, pork belly, pickled vegetables. We wanted to keep it simple—life is complicated enough; we cook simply so people can understand it.
Personally, does the kind of food at Seasonal or Edi call to you more? Everything has a time and a place. We don't have a favorite child. Right now all the attention is going into The Third Man because it's the youngest born, but apart from that I have no preferences.
At The Third Man the cocktails take center stage. How did that affect planning the menu? The food menu here is bold—bold flavors to go with high-octane beverages. You can't go too fragile on the food notes, so it's the best of Edi reinterpreted here.
It's a block from Edi; how does that contribute? A regular bar will never have the toys the kitchen has, or the storage facility, or the regular vegetable and fruit supply. There are so many advantages where you can cross-utilize and find many synergies. I was throwing a pickling juice at Edi away; now we use it here in the bourbon cocktail and people love it.
Does that tamper the high-octane aspect of the cocktails to help slow down the affects? When you go to a cocktail bar like this you have three cocktails and you're done for the night. So we tune them a little bit down—not all of them, some want high-octane drinks—but there should be a way to balance cocktails.
Do you feel like you have a bit more control since both the cocktail and food menus here are rather small? We have a philosophy—"less is more." If you want to do it right you start small and grow. We have six or seven cocktails on the menu for now. This is already morphing, because in the beginning the staff was more protective of their cocktails, their "children." They were like, "ah, we don't want wine and beer on the list." After the first night they said, "please put wine and beer on the list because then we can manage with the volume we have." So in the next few weeks there will be more detailing and changes. And that's what makes it intimate—you tweak it to the needs of the customer.
You've tossed a lot out today about community and family, calling your restaurants and even the cocktails your "children." What brings you the most joy in what you do? I get the most joy with working with the people I spend every day with. I learn every day from them. And this is what I tell them: anybody can buy a chair, a piece of wood, and some mirrors and open a bar. Anybody can do that. But to add depth and a real idea behind it and to bring it alive is, in my opinion, an art. Do we have to make sacrifices? Absolutely. Do our personal lives suffer? Absolutely. But you grow and try to make it better and better and better every day. The biggest capital any hospitality business has is the people that work there. This is where I get my motivation.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about food and people and builds recipes for her (gluten-free) bread and butter. She's alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.