“I’m a type A introvert,” Chef John Fraser said, chuckling at the keenly observed incongruity—which just might be the secret ingredient to his success as a Michelin-starred chef. Indeed, it is honing in on surprising juxtapositions is what sets his dishes apart. A self-described “99 percent vegetarian,” Fraser doesn’t bristle at cooking the perfect steak or Long Island duck breast rubbed with lavender spices and paired with rhubarb. Fraser’s latest reimagining is North Fork Table & Inn (you can get that duck breast there), which reopened this summer to much acclaim.
Fraser hired Thomas Juul-Hansen who is known for the simplicity of his grandeur—more keenly observed incongruity—to redesign Table & Inn. “Thomas is an architect, so he approaches things through a lens of restoration and awakening,” said Fraser. “I wanted a wholesale new interior with respect for what was there—which is an almost impossible thing to do—but I think he did it. I just felt like he would be able to get it—but would be able to get it on the right budget.”
Balancing the books is integral to his sense of honor as a businessman but there is a deeper kind of balance Fraser seeks. He majored in anthropology in college, and still has an intellectual curiosity that is systemic in its application to his professional life. “Whatever remnants are left of those studies deal with the way in which small things can become big things and big things can become small things inside culture or a community,” Fraser explained. “It just felt like an obvious path as a chef was to be curious about how things run and then at a certain point, I had no choice but to own the restaurant. Some of it may be control freakish squeezing in there.”
Fraser paused. I can’t decide if that was really an odd little chuckle coming from him again or more of a cud of bemusement. I settled on cud. “One of my culinary partners tells me I cook with my brain and not my belly. I want things to taste good, but I require a story,” he said, echoing restaurateur José Andrés, who claims he is not a chef himself, but a storyteller.
Fraser’s own story started with Thomas Keller mentoring him at The French Laundry in Napa Valley. Keller has said, “When you acknowledge—as you must—there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That is what cooking is about.” Does Fraser agree with his mentor?
“There is a lot to unpack in the word ‘happy.’ It’s an easy one to sort of flop around,” he said. “In every restaurant there is a different sort of society that is happening. At The Loyal in Manhattan,” he said, citing another of his properties, “people are coming there and they are drinking and there is revery. At the North Fork Table, maybe it’s a bit more of a foodie rhythm. I think my job is first to define why it is that you’re there and then try to peek inside what your version of happiness is and provide it for you.”
And what would someone see if they peeked inside his own version? “This is not going to be a very sexy answer. I’m more relieved than happy. I don’t celebrate victories. I’m more on the other side of it where I say, ‘Thank goodness,’” he claimed, unclenching his jaw around that cud of bemusement to release a long, lovely sigh.
It was one of exhaustion, however, as much as it was one of relief. It was only a few days before the Fourth of July when we spoke and he told me he had just flown in after visiting his parents for the first time since the pandemic. They still live out in Los Angeles, where he grew up. “‘What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child,’” I teased him, quoting the Chinese novelist and philosopher Lin Yutang.
Fraser’s chaw of a chuckle was back. “The dining table was the place where my family did come together almost every day,” he recalled. “That is probably where it started. I was a pretty curious kid about science and chemistry and math. I was a lot less creative and a lot more the-inner-workings-of. How does macaroni and cheese go from milk to thick. That sort of thing. So food was a part of the way we came together as a family but it was also part of my curiosity.”
When it comes to creating his own family, Fraser himself is still single. His businesses and his staff seem to fulfill the need in him for companionship and even devotion. He’s been coming to the farthest reaches of Long Island since college, when he worked as a bartender and cook at Shagwong Tavern in Montauk. So why did he choose the North Fork—and not the South Fork—to put down stakes finally?
There was no bemusement now. There was no chuckle. He no longer seems exhausted but becalmed. “Maybe the North Fork chose me,” he said.