Harold Dieterle On His New Book, Tasting Menus, And Why He Makes The Best Thai In NYC
What sort of cuisine did you grow up eating?
I grew up in an Italian-American household in Long Island, also some German stuff. I literally didn’t have my first avocado until I was 21. It was a lot of fast food. I ate shit growing up. My meals weren’t great. I did not dine out. I grew up in a very middle-lower class family.
Do you think that inspired, affected, or influenced your cooking style?
Yeah, definitely. I took a Home Ec class in high school to meet girls.
I’ve heard this anecdote.
Ha, yeah. I was never diagnosed as having ADD, but I was having a very hard time focusing on anything. And cooking in Home Ec class was the first time I was ever into something that wasn’t like, playing sports. I was really super focused, super into it. Literally, working in the food field is the only job I ever had.
How do you feel about culinary school?
I went to C.I.A. Culinary school is not for everybody. For me, it was the right move because I needed the structure, and I don’t feel that I could have just gone to the school of hard knocks on my own and just done it. I don’t think it would have worked out.
What was the first thing you learned to cook in Home Ec class?
Fried chicken. That was the first thing I made. I still make fried chicken, but I deep-fry it now. That first time was a shallow pan fry.
Shake n’ Bake style!
Yeah! Total Shake n’ Bake style. Totally.
Is there a dish or cuisine you’d like to master next?
I would love to do an Italian restaurant at some point. Way down the road. Like a southern Italian — my family is Sicillian. I feel a little intimidated with the Italian food scene in New York right now. It’s intense and I haven’t done the homework or research to feel like I could do it yet.
Is there someone in the food world that you think is doing awesome things and who doesn’t get enough credit?
My best friend, who’s a chef, is John Fraser, who has Dovetail on the Upper West Side, and I don’t think he gets nearly enough action. I’m a big fan of what he does. It’s just one of those things where [his restaurant] is so up there with the upper tier restaurants, but it just doesn’t get that love. It really should. It’s an exceptional restaurant. I feel like he needs more love. And he’s funny as hell.
If you could eat at any restaurant in the world with anyone and with no budget, where would you go?
You know, right now I’m really down on eating long, blown out tasting menus. I go through stages, where if I do one or two a year, it’s really cool. There’s three places I’d like to eat at right now. David Thompson’s place Nahm, I’d like to eat at Noma, and I’d like to eat at Sean Brock’s place right now. Or one of his places. I’d probably have to say my wife, because if I didn’t say my wife, I’d get crushed.
She actually enjoys the tasting menu more than I do. For me, it depends on the style of food. The best tasting menu I’ve ever had has been at Alinea. That was really one of the first around the world, or whatever they call it, tasting menus where I didn’t walk out feeling like shit. I love the French Laundry and I love Per Se and I love the points of service. And the food is awesome, but it’s like, you have the oysters and pearls, and then the foie gras, and then I’m fucking done. And I’m a dog. I’m not gonna sit there with the torchon and have them come out with the hot brioche and say, ‘No, I don’t want it.’ I’m not capable of saying no. I can’t do it. So then I eat it and I’m done. The rest of the meal, I just, like, can’t get through it.
Alinea was one of the longest meals I’ve had where I felt really decent. Actually, since they changed the chefs at Per Se — I went there about a month and a half ago — it was one of the better meals I’ve had. I left and I felt decent. But generally, it’s like, if it’s European food and there’s going to be a lot of dairy and butter in the tasting menu, I feel like shit. And I’m miserable the next day. I probably drank too much wine. So I’m dehydrated and I’m bloated from eating a pound of butter.
What else are you working on right now?
I’m working on a cookbook. It’s going to be called, Harold Dieterle: Kitchen Notebook. I had a really hard time coming up with a concept for it. Originally, I wanted to do a Thai concept, because I didn’t feel like there was a lot of them and what I’m doing would be fairly different form most Thai cookbooks. But everybody who was involved in the creative process thought I’d be pigeon-holing myself if I did Thai. So, a lot of my food has that one technique or ingredient that kinda pops and brings it all together and it’s not always the protein. So the book is based on that one thing, that one ingredient or technique, and then I roll out four to six variations on that.
We’re shooting for fall 2014 or something. It’s crazy how long it takes for that stuff to happen. I’m doing it with my friend Andrew Friedman [of Toqueland]. We found that whole ghost-writing thing very interesting. He’s done both sides. He’s been a ghost-writer and he’s been on the cover like, “Written by Andrew Friedman”. And we used that to a bit of our advantage when we were shopping the book around because ghost-writing was getting such a bad reputation.
Was it hard to translate your recipes to book-form? Do you feel like you lose anything in that process?
The hardest part was really picking recipes that lend themselves to cookbooks. Because, you know, we were battling a lot when we thought it was going to be Thai. Because he would ask me, ‘Where are you going to find Kaffir lime leaves?” And I was like, “I’m not doing the fucking book without Kaffir lime leaves.” There’s a chinatown inside every single market. They’re telling me they want me to do a cookbook for like, shopping at Pathmark. And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. Like, that sucks.’ I can’t have a multi-dimensional Thai cookbook if we’re talking about doing it like that.
You have a book agent, and he wants you to sell books. And the writer is somewhere in the middle, if you have a writer. And then you have the chef, who wants it to be super authentic, like, your vision, getting it out there. And the battle just became this circle of constantly fighting about the same things. And I was like, ‘You know what? I want to write my first book. I want to do what I want. You can tell me to do what you want. And we can come together somewhere in the middle. But it’s not going to be at Pathmark.’