Before she was the executive chef at NYC's Resto, Koren Grieveson spent years driving Humvees and catering for rock stars.  
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Koren Grieveson
Credit: © Kevin O’Leary

Koren Grieveson took an unlikely path to chefdom, serving in the military for eight years and fetching diet Yoohoos for rock stars before ever considering a life on the line. But the Angola-born cook found her voice when she picked up a chef’s knife. Grieveson is an alum of the Paul Kahan juggernaut in Chicago, where she worked first at Blackbird and later at Avec as chef de cuisine. She was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef and earned a James Beard Award (Best Chef: Great Lakes) before making her way to New York, where she crashed on Prune chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s sofa and staged at Mario Batali’s Lupa. We caught up with Grieveson as she settled into her latest gig, taking the reins at the Belgian-leaning Resto in NYC’s Murray Hill neighborhood. Here, she opens up about her eclectic background and what it takes to bring new spirit to an established restaurant.

You served in the United States Army for years before going to culinary school. How did that come about?
Honestly, the reason I joined the army is that I really wanted to drive those Jeeps. But the year I joined, they switched out the Jeeps for Humvees! I was 17; when the recruiter came around, my mother said to me, "you do know you’re signing up for eight years of your life?" I didn’t know that, but being my typical stubborn self I bit my tongue, swallowed my pride, and signed up anyway. I am happy I did my time; I learned a lot, and thankfully I served Stateside and during a time of peace. I didn't have to think about what the troops are going through now. When I left the military, I ended up catering for rock and roll bands in New York. I did Lollapalooza, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones. Eventually my dad said I had to get a career, not just a job, so I ended up applying to culinary school and I got in. The rest is history.

A lot of chefs these days don’t limit themselves to the flavors of a single cuisine, but that global perspective seems especially important to you.
I was born in southern Africa and my dad was in the poultry industry. The job took our family all over the world, but ultimately the goal was to get us to the United States so that my sisters and I could get an American education. Along the way we lived in Brazil, England and Iran at the time of the Shah—maybe that’s what my urge to be in the military was really about. Our last stop was Glastonbury, Connecticut. I do remember the food in all of these places, and that probably plays a role in my culinary perspective. My mother was an excellent cook, but we ate a lot of damn chicken.

Resto is an interesting place. On the one hand, it’s always been somewhat chef-driven, and a lot of great talent has passed through that kitchen. On the other hand, the menu is full of mainstay dishes that regulars count on, like the Gruyère-topped burger and classic Belgian mussels. How do you leave your mark on a place that has such a devoted following?
Resto does have an identity and I do want to maintain it—make it consistent if not even better than before. But I’ve [found ways] to allow my lifestyle and background to influence the menu. I make my own harissa for those mussels now, and I’m doing a lot of work with spices and vegetables to coax more flavor out of certain dishes while keeping them light. Resto has always been a meat-centric kind of place, but I want people to be able to eat there two, three times a week and not feel stuffed and like they need to take their Lipitor. At the same time, I love that there are things on the menu that I enjoyed when I started visiting the restaurant [as a guest] eight years ago. I want to honor that.

Women coming up in professional kitchens is a big topic right now. Is that something you think about as the first female chef in a long line of men at Resto?
I love that there are all these articles about [female chefs] doing amazing things. But at the end of the day, they are still chefs first. They know how to run a business; they have a palate and it shouldn’t matter if they are male or female. If you’re a great chef, you're a great chef. I’m not going to hire a female cook just because I need more females in the kitchen—it’s all about whether or not you can hack it.