Chef Chris Lee of Gilt @

Chris Lee
455 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10022
(212) 891 8100

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Will Blunt: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking?
Chris Lee: My father was a chef and consultant for a restaurant on Lexington Avenue when I was growing up, and that restaurant is still in all of my memories from that time of my life. I watched a lot of cooking shows at home, like Julia Child and Yan Can Cook!, which I’m sure influenced my decision to go into the industry. I started working in a restaurant in Long Island when I was 14, and I wound up at the salad station by the time I was 15. After that, I landed a gig at a catering company in Locust Valley with a CIA-trained chef. I stayed there throughout college. When I graduated, I moved to San Francisco and went to CCA. I worked in restaurants the whole time I was going to culinary school.

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Chef Chris Lee
Gilt | New York

The restaurant business runs in Chris Lee’s blood: he grew up with a family restaurant on Lexington Avenue and a penchant for cooking shows; he got his first restaurant job at 15, and hasn’t left the industry since. He worked at restaurants through college, then headed to San Francisco, enrolled full-time at the California Culinary Academy, and promptly began working 6 nights a week, first with Chef Bruce Hill and later as garde manger at The Fifth Floor. After graduating in 2000, Lee spent time at Jean Georges and Daniel in New York, and as chef de cuisine under Neil Gallagher at Oceana, who he credits with opening his mind to flavor theory and introducing him to every fish known to man.

After Oceana, Lee spent two and a half years at The Striped Bass in Philadelphia, first as chef de cuisine under Alfred Portale and later as executive chef. Now back in New York, Lee runs the bright, semi-open kitchen that rests a few steps above the sumptuous dining room at Gilt, where his dishes confidently walk the lines between logical and exciting, and luxurious and humble (that is to say, they’re the best of all four worlds). His cuisine fuses high-concept thought and flavor pairings with a respect for purity and seasonality, always with the diner in mind.

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Interview Cont'd
WB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
CL: I started out at Bruce Hill in San Francisco, which was the first gig I had where the staff seemed truly inspired. In 1999 I got a job as general manager at 5th Floor. I took the fast track by working while I was going to school. When I graduated in 2000, I moved to New York and got a job at Daniel, then I moved to Jean Georges. I was offered the chef de cuisine position at Oceana working under Cornelius Gallagher, where I stayed for 2 years. While I was there, Alfred Portale approached me and asked me to open as chef de cuisine at a new restaurant he was consulting for in Philadelphia, The Striped Bass. I came back to New York in 2006 to take over at Gilt.

WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
CL: I worked the entire time I was at culinary school, six days a week for two and a half years. By doing both, I learned more in two years than someone just doing one or the other would learn in five years. I’ve only hired one person in my kitchen who didn’t go to culinary school, and I called him ‘the project.’ Culinary school is not a waste of time if you utilize it well. It’s about learning vocabulary, techniques and products.

WB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
CL: Alex Lee, who was my team leader at Daniel, inspired me with his passion and knowledge. He taught me to love what I do and how to cook the right way – to really respect the product – and really opened me up to new theories and flavor profiles. Cornelius Gallagher at Oceana taught me how to break down every fish known to man. Alfred Portale brought me into The Striped Bass, which really helped bring my career all together – I was able to finish my training in a leading restaurant because of him. He rounded me out by teaching me business and ethics, and showed me how to cook more for the people than for myself.

WB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
CL: I ask ‘Are you willing to learn?’ I need to know that they want to learn not just from me, but from everyone. I value jumping from restaurant to restaurant to experience all different types of chefs and kitchens and really learn. If they want to be a sous chef here, they need to commit three years to ‘the program.’

WB:What are your favorite flavor combinations?
CL:My favorite flavors vary by season. I look for balance and global flavors. Right now we’re doing guinea hen with foie Guinness sauce, sweet pea puree and carrot essence. Lychee-based ceviche with scallops is also a nice combination.

WB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
CL: My Vita-Prep and sausage stuffer. I walk by a halal cart on 54th street everyday on my way to work, which inspired me to start making my own sausages. Now we’re making moradella, pancetta, guanciale, everything.

WB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and used in an unusual way?
CL: When I came here, there were some cooks still here from when Paul Liebrandt ran the kitchen, and they showed us a bunch of new things. They taught us how to make really superior herb oils. First, they blended the herbs raw with the oil, then heated it, then cooled and strained it. The result was twice a bright and flavorful and a lot cleaner, too – it’s a great technique. We take classic techniques and do them right. We don’t skip steps. There’s a lot of science to it.

WB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
CL: Sauces: Classic and Contemporary Sauce Making by James Peterson.

WB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
CL: Italy. I would love to get lost there for a year. I’m really into Italian wines. After Italy, I’d go to Japan or China.

WB: What languages do you speak?
CL: Kitchen Spanish and French.

WB:What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
CL:I love the pasta at Lupa and the gyro stand up the street from here is pretty great.

WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CL: Food is all about flavors and products and farms and satisfaction. I want to take what my mentors did for 25 years and keep that going for 25 years, and keep the cycle going for the next generation of chefs.

WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community on a national and global level?
CL: I’m a big supporter of anything that has to do with breast cancer and autism. I donate gift certificates and do anything else I can. I’ve also helped out a lot for Citymeals-on-Wheels.

WB: What does success mean for you?
CL: I’d like to have my own restaurant company some day and develop concepts that are geared toward a more middle-class demographic, like gastropubs, wine bars and pizza places. I would love to do a franchise. Ultimately, I want to be able to live life to the fullest and provide for my family. I love this industry. Food has come such a long way. It’s great entertainment.

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   Published: August 2007