Christopher Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge understandably asks a journalist to call him Chef Christopher rather than Chef Gross: "I guess it's not the best last name for a chef," he says.
Growing up, Gross did balk at a lot of foods, though. He confesses he ate everything plain until he started working in the food industry and trying various European cuisines.
Gross learned his culinary skills at home and abroad: From Arizona to Los Angeles to London to Paris and back again. Now, he has his name on the door and quite a few credits to back it up.
Chef Christopher has been named one of America's Top 10 Chefs by Food & Wine magazine, earned the 1995 title of Best Chef Southwest from Perrier Jouet and the James Beard Foundation, and granted a Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence.
Still, Gross has his feet firmly planted in the ground. Today he tells us about how he dodged the bullet of school lunch, the ensuing panic after Food & Wine magazine dined in his restaurant under his radar, and the perks and busts about having his own restaurant.
What was your favorite dish as a child? As a kid, I never ate well. From kindergarten to sixth grade, I never had one cafeteria meal. I would go home to my grandmother's house, because it was in a small town. I got a little pass, so I'd never have to eat at school. In high school, it was the same thing. I ate everything plain. I'd never have a cheeseburger. I'd have a hamburger, mo lettuce, no tomato. Never ate condiments. Never ate salads. Very few vegetables. Just plain meat. And I guess my favorite thing was buttered toast. Or buttered toast with bacon and cheese. I think the first time I had pizza I was 14. I would never eat Mexican food. I'd go out with kids and they'd get a pile of stuff, and I'd be eating an expensive little hamburger.
What's one thing you will never ever eat? Something you've completely ruled out? There are a lot of things. I'll do some traveling with other chefs, when we're doing promotions or being guest chefs somewhere. I've been to South America, Bangkok. And there's things that some chefs say, "Oh, you gotta try this." And I say "No, no, I don't need to eat that. If you eat it and you start shaking for 30 minutes and feel like you need to smoke a pack of cigarettes, I'll try it. But if you tell me it tastes like chicken, I really don't need to try it." And If it doesn't smell good, I don't feel the need to try it. Canned tuna would fall in that area: It just doesn't smell good.
Best thing about living abroad? Seeing how little you can live on, [laughing] because it was very expensive. In London, I didn't get paid a lot, and housing was very expensive. In Paris, it was a lot cheaper, easier to survive on, but never a lot of money. I loved Paris. On my only day off, if I could get out of bed because it was exhausting work in the restaurant, I'd just go walk around and run into something to eat and drink or something visual. I just loved that lifestyle. And actually the people were very, very nice. They always say Parisians are very very nasty, but every one was very nice.
Do you speak any French? I knew all the technical terms from working in LA. So if it was a cooking procedure, I understood, but a lot of conversation I didn't understand, which was pretty good in the restaurant in Paris for the first six months because the sous chef was very difficult. He was a great chef, but really, really nasty. And when I started understanding better, I made a joke saying "I'm glad I didn't understand you better, because if I had known what you were calling me, I would've gotten very upset." But yeah, I acquired the ability to speak like a 3-year-old.
Proudest moment as a chef? I think the one that was the most shocking... A friend of mine was the sous chef at the Princess in 1988. I went to see him, and he said, "How did Food and Wine Magazine like their dinner last night?" And I said, "What?" And he said, "Yeah, they were in your restaurant last night at Le Relais." And I said, "What? I had no idea. Why didn't you call me?" He said, "I thought you would have known." I asked, "What was the name?" I was going through all the tickets, trying to find what they ate, and found that they ate pretty good dishes. Now I'm just sitting around and wondering if they enjoyed themselves. And then I'm thinking how I can call them to go fishing, sort of. And I thought of a reason that I was coming to New York and needed some recommendations of places to go. And I asked, "What else is new?" And the editor wouldn't say anything. Then about a month later, I get this thing from Food and Wine and it says confidential: "You've been selected for 1989 Top 10 New Chefs in America. Don't say anything." The James Beard Award was certainly the biggest one. And a flatering one was Mondavi used to get a group of food critics and select a culinary achievement award for six chefs each year. One year, they came and had dinner, and I didn't know what it was for. Then I got a letter that said I had been selected as one of the six with Thomas Keller from the French Laundry.
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Best recipe experiment? The chocolate tower recipe. It's been duplicated since it's been made in a lot of different places all over the U.S. It's certainly a signature. Michael Ginor did a book called Foie Gras, and my ABC Foie Gras is in there. And he quoted it as a "modern day classic." (Tune in tomorrow for more on the foie gras topic...)
One place you're dying to travel for food? There's a fun restaurant I want to go to up in Canada in Montreal Au Pied de Cochon. It's very urban. The kitchen wears whatever they want to wear. The food's really rustic, but it's supposed to be really good. I think that'd be a fun place to go see. I've been to a lot of places. I've gotten to travel to France, South America several times, Bangkok, China, North Africa, so there's a lot of places I've seen and gotten to eat at.
Best and worst things about having a restaurant with your name? Best is you can do what you want. Worst is you have to pay for everything that breaks.
Check back tomorrow for more with Gross including the hobby that launched his restaurant career and has yet to nearly kill him as well as the reason he's fanning the flames on foie gras tensions in the Valley.