PSFK Founder Sits Down With Michelin Star Chef Edi Frauneder
Piers Fawkes learns from restauranteur the ins-and-outs of the industry: food trends, hiring culture, online presence and operating local
Edi Frauneder famously won a Michelin Star only six months after opening his first restaurant in New York City. But a few years later, the Austrian-born restaurateur left the fine-dining experience of Seasonal to revisit what he strove for: to renew his spirit. Since then, Edi has opened four restaurants and one bar in Manhattan that are styled in a more relaxed European manner of dining and entertaining. Piers Fawkes, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of PSFK.com, sat and spoke to him about the insights that drive his work, food trends and the importance of connecting with the community around him.
We meet around noon on a Monday at one of his restaurants, Edi & The Wolf, in Alphabet City. The place is closed for lunch. The chairs are upside down, up on all the tables except for the table we sit at by the front of the restaurant. Around Edi is family. His wife Tracey is about to breastfeed his baby son, his mother provides the matriarchal watch over the pair and his brother-in-law Uriah dives into the plate of food before him.
Edi: To cook well is not enough. I had a Michelin star for several years and I can tell you it did not bring me much luck. You fall into this trap of being ‘fine dining’—of long, long dining hours, small portion size at higher per unit cost.
Fine dining is a drag. I didn’t like the person I became. I was really harsh on my employees. You have to be involved in every single step of the product. Something will always go wrong in the kitchen because a lot of moving parts is how you deal with it.
The pressure of having a Michelin star reflects also upon the leadership of the establishment. It becomes really militaristic. You yell at people at a peanut’s length.
It’s a high-pressure, low-margin-for-mistake environment: two factors which makes weak minds break and strong minds impatient.
The front of the restaurant has an open and pulled-back concertinaed window across the front. The seats are shielded somewhat by a menagerie of potted plants and hanging vines that surround the entrance. Edi waves at people who pass in the same way he waved at me when I couldn’t see the sign for the restaurant—he shoots this big arm up like he’s raising his hand for a question. People yell back as they push and pull their cargo along the sidewalk.
Edi: Ideally you want to create a restaurant where people can go two, three times a week, and you change it often enough in order to make it enticing and interesting but you still embrace the neighborhood around you.
Going local needs to be preserved, and I think the restaurant business can be one anchor of this locality. I think that it was John Maynard Keynes who said to spend your money locally. It adds three times the value to your environment than outsourcing it from another state or from another country.
A bell-tower’s thick, snaking rope hangs from the ceiling and divides the front of the dining room from bar, kitchen and the rear. The restaurant is layered—both in physical space and the look. It’s like a small cavern that wraps back from dining area to bar to kitchen and then through the other side to the garden. The walls have shelves that are stacked with things that, upon inspection, become cannon shells, abstract red art, ancient honeycombs. It’s obscure, it’s theatrical.
Edi: As a restaurateur you can try to create the cool, hot, hip space that’s going to connect the next avant-garde food trend. But I think the longevity of a restaurant is in producing something sustainable, which is number one. People can understand. They can relate to it. They feel good eating it. Also, a huge amount of authenticity is part of it.
I think the best restaurants are the ones who are embraced by the neighborhood. I think that’s the key, because if the neighborhood is not behind you, and to be purely destination, or a special occasion destination, then the air gets really thin.
It takes time to embrace the neighborhood and to pick the right kind of concept. We don’t multiply concepts. This is not a franchise: Edi & the Wolf is a homage to the Austrian wine tavern, The Third Man is an homage to the American bar in Vienna, and Freud is an homage to the Viennese coffee shop.
Edi leaves to get me a chicken sandwich from his friends at Bobwhite Counter. Uriah talks to me about the future of currency and Bitcoin. He is in the shadows of a European brown café wearing a black chiffon shirt with cheetah-patterned collars and cuffs while a rolled bandana wraps around his head and holds up a massive gathering of curls. The MIT student says he’s going to help fix Bitcoin and then he will reinvent it. Edi returns with an aluminum-wrapped bun on a plate and a can of sparkling Austrian soda.
Edi: If you are Dan Barber, you can at least try this fully vertically integrated system of farm-to-table, where you have your own farm. Only a fraction of chefs can have their Rockefeller estate given to them and become a farmer.
The sandwich is perfect. Fried chicken in a bun with pickle. 2 slices. I add Edi’s homemade ketchup under the top slice of the bun—as is his suggestion—and then I apply hot sauce to the coleslaw. I remind myself to enjoy this slowly—but my bites are large. I ask him about online media and reviews because I doubt that he could possibly find the time to think about such things. I get surprised.
Edi: I think reacting to online reviews is important. It’s very important at all the times. It’s way more important at the very beginning to identify problems on an early stage or also a certain trend within a neighborhood or not. I react to them myself. I try to go ‘Sherlock Holmes’ style.
Ideally, you can get a first name and then work out what night that person probably came and then look up their phone number in the reservations. You can call people up. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Last time I had a customer saying that he did not like the elbow rubbing at the communal table, and he said that although the food was very good, he expected something else.
I said, “Listen, unfortunately I wasn’t there that night. Sorry that the seating wasn’t entirely like you expected. I would like you to give us a second opportunity to come in. Please let me know when you’re coming because I would love to be there.”
This is the ideal situation. You cannot do it all the time. But if you do complaint management right, you can only win.
[Voice over] A hot staffer huddles a large paper bag under his arm out of the restaurant. His hair is damp around the sides from sweat. The weather is a baking 90 degrees in the sun. Edi refuses to let him take his bicycle and orders him a car from his phone. In a few minutes the car arrives and a cooler employee leaves.
Edi: That was Mark. Mark is my chef at Edi & The Wolf. Super nice guy. Nice, giving, very savvy with his management style, very food-oriented, but in a smart way. He likes to buy seasonally, doesn’t over prep, doesn’t under prep, manages his people very well, trains them very well. Very open for comments. Doesn’t take them as personally as a lot of chefs.
You know how chefs are true restaurateurs when they really think that their restaurant is an extension to their psyche or their character. They sacrifice their time for the family, partially their savings, their life, their energy, their youth, you name it.
Of course, when people sacrifice that much and put that much input in there and then get criticized for it, they take it very personally. Somebody will always have something to say. It’s human nature. We love to share more negative than positive. It’s just the nature of the beast.
I just talked to Mark about the flat bread being not as seasonal as it could be, and it’s really well cooked, and it’s really tasty right now here, but it could be a bit lighter, and it could be giving more justice to the bounty of the summer.
He’s like, “Edi, you’re absolutely right. Let me just change it.” I tell him, “No problem. Go for it. It’s your canvas.”
I think I’m lucky with my hiring strategy. My saying is, “I’d rather hire nice people than very capable people.” If they are nice and capable—even better for me, but hire nice ones because what they need to know for you, you can teach them yourself. Being nice is a character trait. It’s either you have it or you don’t have it.
His mother is now pouring waters, brushing the table with a napkin. She doesn’t understand my questions to her in English. Edi explains that she is here as part of the support crew for the baby Edi (or maybe Uri, he and his wife haven’t decided).
Edi: I grew up in Vienna, in the bakery and the pastry shop of my parents. I was making pastries, and bread and everything. Then, after completing that apprenticeship, I realized I wasn’t a baker, so I went to culinary school in Vienna—and while I was at school at day, I also studied business administration in the evenings. Three years later, I knew that I had to get out of there.
After a year as the private chef of the Austrian Ambassador in the UK, I got a call from my buddy here in the US. He said, “Hey Edi, do you want to help me open a place in New York?” He told me that there was a private delegates’ dining room for the German mission at the UN.
So I moved to New York four weeks before September 11.
It took us a while to recover.
After two or three years, we knew that we wanted to open a new restaurant but we couldn’t afford it. So we founded a catering company. This created the financial cushion needed to open a restaurant and it also showed people that we can offer high quality food at manageable prices, which is the key in the restaurant business. If you don’t know how to do that, then don’t go into this business.
Then, finally, after six years being here in the city, we signed the lease and started construction for Seasonal.
Six months after opening, we received a Michelin star. But I got really bored after three years and left to open Edi & The Wolf.
The street is quieter now. Lunchtime deliveries are over. The family has left to put the baby down. Except for the Puerto Ricans who sit near an open door along the street, everyone has gone on their way or hurried indoors to escape the pounding heat. I ask him what he would do if we could dream anything. Would he open in Montauk? For a moment he struggles to find an answer.
Edi: My dream is just to…hey, hang on one sec!?
I thought I was living my dream!!