"You see an open door and you want to look in." Gabriel Kreuther, chef at The Modern, is describing the impulse that will grip people when they walk past his kitchen on their way to the dining room. He might as well be describing the curiosity that brought him to one of the country's most classically modern institutions: New York City's Museum of Modern Art, which just reopened after a $425 million renovation.
Kreuther has been busy preparing food to serve at a party for his fellow Modern-ists, including Manhattan restaurateur Danny Meyer and the principal architects and designers at the firm Bentel & Bentel: Peter Bentel, Susan Nagle, Paul Bentel and Carol Rusche Bentel. The Modern was a daunting project for all of them. It's the most ambitious fine-dining restaurant in MoMA's history; Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group will oversee the food served at three cafés, two for museum patrons and one for staff. And then there was the weight of the history of all the art and architecture within the museum itself—not to mention the expectation that the food be as surprising as the Pollocks on the wall and as graceful as the Moores in the sculpture garden the restaurant overlooks.
The search to find a great chef began even before Meyer got confirmation that he'd won the bid to run The Modern early in 2003. Kreuther, then at Atelier at the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, met several of the restaurateur's criteria: "They had to be really good chefs who had already made their most egregious mistakes on someone else's nickel," Meyer says, "and had yet to do their greatest work." The 35-year-old native of Alsace-Lorraine was named an F&W Best New Chef 2003, and Meyer felt there was more glory ahead of him. Geography played a role too. "The modernist movement is historically an international one," says Meyer. "A lot of it happened in Austria, Germany and France. This is exactly the part of the world Gabriel is from, and his cooking style, like the Bauhaus design that originated there, is spare, intelligent and clean. It's about the flavor and not the flourish." After having a few meals at Atelier (Meyer recalls the wild mushroom stew with Louisiana crawfish and the Chatham cod crusted with chorizo), Meyer put the chef at the top of the list of candidates. "Before I met Gabriel, I had his food a couple of times," Meyer says, "and he spoke to me with his whisk."
Meyer knew the architects he wanted for The Modern: Bentel & Bentel, responsible for his restaurants Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and 11 Madison Park. After they beat out several better-known firms for the job, Bentel & Bentel's task was to place The Modern at the intersection of MoMA's architectural iterations: the International Style building designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone in 1939; Philip Johnson's 1964 addition; and the new construction by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. "Among ourselves we describe this job as like being asked to design a chapel at the Vatican," says Peter Bentel.
"I like what the architects did," recalls Kreuther. "Sort of like what we do in cooking sometimes—getting rid of what's not needed." Though it would be natural to expect there to be a lot of art on the restaurant's walls, only a single work adorns The Barroom, The Modern's casual dining area: an 8-by-36 foot image of an artificial forest designed and photographed by contemporary German artist Thomas Demand. A curved, sandblasted glass wall lit from below ("like daybreak just before dawn," Peter says) leads from The Barroom into the main dining room, a warm but spare space dominated by a view of the renowned Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden—which has been restored to its pre-1980s greatness, right down to the weeping birch trees. The restaurant's clean lines and minimal design are hallmarks of the International School that emanated from Germany's Bauhaus movement—the style of the 1939 MoMA building.
"Our research started when we were born," says Peter. He and Paul are the children of architects: The original Bentel & Bentel were their parents, Maria and Fred, students of modernism. The house Peter and Paul grew up in was designed by their parents in just that style, a one-story poured-concrete frame structure with brick and glass panels. "And today we work in modern buildings and live in modern homes," Peter adds.
Meyer wasn't the obvious choice to land the job at MoMA. As well regarded as he and his Union Square Hospitality Group are, he had never before created a restaurant for a cultural or corporate institution. But that lack of experience may ultimately have worked in his favor. "Who ever wrote the rule that says that just because a restaurant exists within an institution it has to feel institutional?" he asks rhetorically.
We are sitting in his office overlooking Union Square as he says this, snacking on cookies and chocolate truffles left as a calling card by one of The Modern's prospective pastry chefs. Until now, all of Meyer's restaurants have been within a five-minute walk of his home near Gramercy Park; The Modern, in Midtown, is a half an hour away. "This is the first time we've created a new restaurant outside our own precinct," he says. After he submitted his proposal to MoMA, it took nearly a year for him to get the nod. "The process was great for the economy of my restaurants because curators, executives and trustees paid us scores of anonymous visits," Meyer says.
The Modern represents another kind of departure for Meyer. Though he has partners in his other ventures, none are institutions, much less ones with the heft of MoMA. There were graphics curators who collaborated on the graphics, art curators who consulted on the art, design curators who wanted a voice in choosing things like the tabletops and uniforms—not to mention executives and trustees with names like Rockefeller.
"The risk is, with too many cooks you're not going to get a clear consommé," Meyer says. "But every time we made a change the project got clearer and cleaner and stronger. It never got more muddled."
Kreuther's culinary vision is very much in evidence at the dinner he prepares for The Modern's team. In a twist on tarte flambée, a traditional Alsatian tart, he turns egg-roll wrappers into crispy little toasts topped with sour cream, bacon and onion slivers. For an earthy soup, he flavors a mushroom broth with a touch of cream, then adds chorizo, mushrooms and scallions. A succulent beef tenderloin draws on American ingredients (a pecan coating) and European ones (a jus made by flavoring the meat drippings with Syrah and juniper berries). His frozen nougat is like a light ice cream studded with all kinds of delicious things—dried cranberries, apricots, candied orange rind.
"I don't mind using stuff from all over," says Kreuther. "I'm grounded in French technique because of where I grew up. But when something's good, it's just good."
Both the tart and the beef will probably end up at The Modern, though the chef insists he hasn't yet finalized the menu. "It's like someone writing a letter," he says, "starting with an empty page and throwing it away five times before he comes to the point."
At the party, the Bentel kids (Peter and Susan's daughter, Antonia, and Paul and Carol's children, Lukas, Nikolas and Michela) build houses out of cards while the grown-ups talk about the making of The Modern and the challenge of creating a great restaurant in a museum, which isn't the usual venue for spectacular food. Meyer says some museums in Europe have already taken the lead, citing London's Tate and Paris's Pompidou as examples.
I mention that I ate at the café in the Guggenheim in Bilbao last year and that the food was much better than it needed to be. Meyer throws up his hands. "You see?" he says. "That doesn't even speak my language."
Sean Elder is a freelance writer based in New York City.