Something is happening on the second floor of the Carlton Hotel. Hot is colliding with cold, Asian is merging with French, and tuna is appearing in dishes where steak once reigned. Welcome to Millesime, where ambition and simplicity emanate from chef Laurent Manrique’s lauded kitchen. With a career that began at the Waldorf Hotel’s Peacock Alley, and is dotted with Bon Appètit’s "Rising Star Chef Award" and Michelin stars (his cooking earned San Francisco’s Aqua three and a half stars), Manrique is back in New York and shaking up the French scene with his signature class and innovation.
How would you describe the cuisine at Millesime?
Seafood cuisine, simple preparation, focused on quality of the product. And French, of course.
Which dish are you proudest of?
The tuna tartare. It’s a tuna dish I did when I was running Aqua in 2003 in San Francisco. People really love it, so that’s one of the dishes we put back on the menu here. It’s not a classic dish; it’s usually a steak tartare, but this dish is one of the exceptions on the menu where we adjust.
Is that also the most popular?
That, and the grilled Caesar salad. It’s warm and cold.
Millesime is French for “Vintage.” I know that you own a vineyard and make your own wines. Did that have anything to do with it?
It actually doesn’t have anything to do with it. A lot of people think, “Okay, that’s going to be a restaurant oriented with wine,” but vintage is also something old, and when I look at the space inside the Carlton Hotel, I noticed the dome: it’s a Tiffany glass dome, a landmark in New York from 1904, when the Carlton was known as the Hotel Seville, so that was one of the first things I really liked. The tile floor is original mosaic from 1904. I didn’t want to call the restaurant “vintage,” but we thought, hey, it can be Millesime.
How has your cooking style changed since you worked at the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley 10 years ago? It’s incredible you were the executive chef at 26 years old!
That was quite an experience for me. It was my first position in New York. I was young, aggressive, and I tried to impress a lot. So, my food was all over the map, whereas now, with my experience in California 10 years later, my food has really evolved. I’m still cooking French, I would never want to forget my roots, but I’ve been living in this country for 20 years, so I’m changing. I cook differently for my family, I eat differently, I’m more open to different flavors, and that indirectly transfers to my cuisine. For example, 20 years ago, the only spices I was using were black pepper and fresh thyme. I would have never dreamed of using ginger, or soy sauce, so that’s a big step. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question.
No, no, you have! Jumping off of that, how has the New York food scene changed since then?
Before, you just had upscale restaurants on the Upper East Side, and if you wanted a casual dining experience or a fun place, you had to go all the way downtown. Now, you can find a bit of both everywhere — in Hell’s Kitchen, Union Square, the Bronx. You can have an incredible food experience in a casual place at a wood table and no napkins, nothing. Before, you had to go to a place categorized as “fine dining” to have the kind of great food experience. When I came back, that change was a big surprise to me and it made me very happy.
Is there a certain dish you cook for your family that they love?
I’m back and forth between New York and San Francisco—my family still lives in San Francisco—so whenever I go back, I cook a lot at home because I do enjoy cooking no matter what. Sundays are usually roasted chicken; it’s one of those traditional dishes. I do a lot of soup with my children. I’m not too much of a good baker. I don’t like baking too much. Our cooking also depends on the season: in the winter, we like to do stews; in the summer, we like to do barbecues outside.
I’d imagine, in comparison with cooking, baking must be so limiting for you since it’s more formulaic.
Yes, yes, exactly. For me, baking has too many restrictions. There’s a science, so you can’t just, you know, play around. If you put too much flour, the dish doesn’t come right. You have to be very specific on the baking, whereas in cooking, you just let your mind go for it. If you’re a baker and you have a bad day and you bake a tart, that tart can’t be spicy, right? But if you’re a cook and you have a bad day, the dishes can be spicy because you’re angry, so you use up all the spice!
That’s a very good point. Cooking is so improvisational. It’s like the jazz of the culinary world.
Yeah! It’s like Miles Davis, right? You let the music go. Whereas you have some old, classic jazz players who just respect the notes, look at the music notes, and don’t move around from that. That would be a similar comparison.
What New York restaurants do you like to eat at, besides your own?
I’m very close to Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin. We’ve known each other a long time and are each other’s fans, so we eat together a few times when I’m here. I like to go to Prune, Blue Ribbon is sometimes open very late; that’s where you see a lot of chefs hang out.
It’s like the chefs’ clubhouse.
Yeah, you should try it. Great seafood.
You practice Buddhism; how did you get involved with it, and how has it influenced your cooking?
I was looking for something different that fit my beliefs and my faith. I grew up in a typical Christian family, and at one point, I thought “Wait a minute. I’m not sure if I agree with what I’m reading here.” And I started to look somewhere else, and I saw that Buddhism fit my beliefs and I got involved with that. I started studying, going on some retreats. Buddhism helps me remove the unnecessary things on the plate; if it’s not important, what’s the point? You go straight to the point. Don’t try to bake or mask by covering dishes with a sauce, a piece of fish with too much spice, because you remove the true nature of the product. It’s almost like if you have a beautiful diamond, right? Why would you want to put sapphire around it? If you do that, we’re not going to see all the diamond, and we’re not going to see all the sapphire. So, you’ve got to choose between one of them. Make them better, not hide them.
What are some recent culinary trends that excite or frustrate you?
One of the trends that frustrates me is that more and more now, you see young chefs that have beautiful execution of the design on the plate of the dishes, but they’re not actually sitting down and tasting the dishes. The dishes look like paintings, it’s very minimalist, and there’s nothing wrong with that, right? But at the end of the day, it’s still food, and you want to make sure you are able to eat and enjoy it. And I understand the way the world moves—design has become more and more minimalist and sleek—cars, clothes, restaurants, cuisine. Young chefs take themselves too seriously. It’s just food.
What motto do you live by?
Honesty. Honesty with yourself, with the people you work with, with your customers.