Hot Spring in Paris

American chef Daniel Rose on his French restaurant

The hottest restaurant in Paris is run by an American. It’s a tiny 16-seater called Spring located in the ninth arrondissement and run by 30-year-old Chicago chef Daniel Rose. Booked three months in advance, it offers one set menu a night, and only one seating. On any given evening, you’ll find locals, tourists, and even off-duty Michelin inspectors enjoying Rose’s market-driven, constantly changing cuisine. Rose launched Spring in October 2006 with plans to keep it open only a year, as a hook for a book and other ventures. But he’s still open. He turned down an invitation to be on Iron Chef America because, until recently, he was Spring’s only cook. Rose shared details about his further ambitions early last month during mise en place at the restaurant. Louisa Chu

What’s on your menu tonight and what’s the schedule?

The concept should be done by 6 p.m. By then we should know what’s dinner. We’ll grind up the celery root soup, then taste it to make sure that’s done. The second course will be the St. Jacques [scallops] in kind of a tartare with radish, green apple, black radish, and this green sauce with watercress and a little apple cider vinegar and lime for something acidulated. There’s the rabbit with black olives and carrot purée, and maybe these panko things: Somebody who worked at Zuni Café told me how she likes to cook with dried breadcrumbs, then make a sludge with olive oil. And then I have this jus—everybody loves this jus. By 8 p.m. we should be chopping herbs and getting all that kind of stuff done. The first tables come in at 8:30 p.m. Things start getting going at 9 p.m. For dessert we’ll have orange salad with chocolate, chestnut cream, and fresh chestnut chips.

How has your cooking evolved since opening your own place?

I was going to add star anise with the butter to the soup as a beurre noisette, but I’m a little worried about it. I usually don’t cook with any strong spices. Clients are making reservations three months in advance, so I cannot do that. I have to do what they’ve imagined for three months that I’d deliver. When I first opened, it was much different. If you’d just come by, I’d put the star anise in there, but now I can’t do that. I think it’s time to close the restaurant. Or change it in some profound way.

Has the media, particularly the French media, portrayed Spring accurately?

They got it all wrong. They said it’s like coming to eat in some guy’s house, and I thought that was really bizarre. Except for the fact that I’m up close, I don’t know people who eat like this at home. In the beginning it was slightly different too. I’d write on the board outside “lamb, octopus, chocolate, foie gras,” and I made dinner for each table separately. I asked what they wanted to eat, how many courses. But it was a bit of theater. I’d suggest it like, “Maybe you’ll like it like this.” That went on for the first two weeks.

How do you think you became this phenomenon in Paris?

Because it’s a good deal and because the French sense a generosity from the person running it and that’s kind of rare. There’s a little bit more energy. This is a show—this is Broadway Danny Rose.

So what’s the real story about how you became a chef? Because, as the press tells it, you’re an overnight success: that you were an American student in Paris who lived upstairs from a restaurant, fell in love with the business, got a job at a Michelin three-star, then—voilà—opened your own place. I know it can’t have been easy.

It’s such crap. I’ve been cooking for seven years. In 1998 I was a student at the American University of Paris studying philosophy and art history. The first time I ever really noticed cooks was when I watched them smoke out back—I lived upstairs from Le Violon d’Ingres, and people say I worked there but I never did. They also say I’m self-taught, but I went to the Institut Paul Bocuse for a year after I graduated from university.

Where have you cooked then?

I staged at a Michelin three-star in Brussels, that’s no longer a three-star. Then I went to a restaurant in Brittany for a year where there were just three of us in the kitchen with a coal-burning stove. I came back to Paris and got a job at a small teahouse that no longer exists. Then I went to Spain to just eat for a while. After that I went to Avignon to work for about a year, then Italy for a little while. At the end of 2003 I saw an ad for a job in Guatemala looking for a chef. The money I put into the restaurant was almost all Guatemala money. I was really well paid and there were no taxes.

Have you ever cooked in the States?

Not really. I worked for one night at TRU, spent one day at Montrachet [currently closed for renovation], and one day at North Pond.

Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Paris and not Chicago, where you’re from and where restaurants are so hot right now?

I think it wouldn’t have been that interesting for me. Here I’m open Tuesday through Friday and sometimes on Saturday. You can’t do that in the States and make a living. I don’t want to open a business until I can find somebody who can run it. For me the payoff is something else.

I don’t understand. Isn’t this restaurant a business? And what’s the payoff?

This is not a business, it’s a project. Originally the project was to open the restaurant only for one year. And somebody else was supposed to be the cook, but he left before we even opened. But this is the worst investment in the world. For me personally it’s a good investment because it will open a door for me to meet somebody else. I keep a record of all my dishes for my upcoming book, 365 Days of Spring. I haven’t got a publisher yet, but I’m talking to some people. And ideally the best thing for me would be if I could be on TV. I mean not necessarily my face on the screen, but producing a food and travel show based here in Paris. Doing something like that, that pays money during the week, and something like this, that’s open and accessible at a reasonable price just once a week or twice a month, whatever’s feasible—now that would be pleasurable.

Louisa Chu is a chef and food writer who’s cooked her way through the world’s hottest kitchens, from El Bulli to Alinea. And yeah, that’s her taking Anthony Bourdain on the Paris meat market tour in No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Louisa can currently be found in Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie on PBS, Gourmet’s Choptalk, and her own food blog, Movable Feast.

Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe

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