Q&A Jonathan Wright

Jonathan Wright has been appointed Executive Chef of Rainbow Room. Lauded for his ability to command a kitchen and execute a wide range of cuisines, Chef Wright brings more than 20 years of international culinary experience to the iconic New York venue.

How did you get into the industry?

I was raised in Billingsly, a small village in Shropshire, England, an area rich in agricultural tradition and spent much of my youth working on local farms, fishing, foraging and bird hunting. My earliest memories involve raising goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese and helping in the family’s vegetable gardens.

My mother and grandmother were tremendous cooks and I eventually spent more and more time in the farm house kitchen. This formed the basis for my interest and passion for cooking and working with beautiful ingredients. My first exposure to the culinary industry came when I was starting out as a Graphic Designer in Ludlow, England, and in need of a part time job.

I first worked as a waiter / bartender and then as a line cook. In 1987, I began working full time in the kitchen, commencing a five year career with Trust House Forte while at The Complete Angler in Marlow, under the guidance of Executive Chef Ferdinand Testka.

Who have some of the key mentors been in your career?

Early in my career, an opportunity materialized in the form of a stage at the highly regarded Le Manoir Aux Quat Saison (Oxford, England) with Chef Patron Raymond Blanc, who was probably the key mentor in my career (although I have learned much from many professionals over the years). Over the course of eight years at Raymond Blanc’s 2 Star Michelin restaurant, I made my way through the ranks from Demi Chef de Partie to Executive Chef. I was fortunate to work closely with Raymond Blanc in developing the cuisine, training and mentoring young chefs, compiling cookery books and, in 1992, launching Le Manoir’s cookery school. The environment and experience at Le Manoir was so captivating, it strengthened my intention to pursue the career path of professional chef.

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What brought you to the Rainbow Room?

I was intrigued by the opportunity to work on such a special project and especially one located in NYC. When I learned more about the people involved, some of whom I’ve known in industry circles for years, I became convinced that it was an opportunity that I could not pass up.

What’s your read coming in on the New York City dining scene?

It’s exciting to be in a city where the best in the industry practice their craft, at all levels from food trucks to haute cuisine. I’ve worked in other food-centric cities, including Singapore, New Orleans, Miami, London, but New York is in a class of its own. I look forward to having more time to indulge in the city’s restaurant scene.

What made you successful in your various positions across the globe?

I believe that it is critically important for someone in my position to have the ability to develop a culinary team as a whole and individual team members alike. The success of any culinary establishment relies upon many different functions working closely together and supporting one another. If one area is weak, then the strength of another component may be undermined.

While I consider myself to be creative and passionate about my craft, I think that equally important qualities are the ability to communicate ideas, the ability to think through a plan from concept to execution, and the ability to motivate people to share and support in a common vision.

How will that same skill set create success in NYC?

My experiences in kitchens across the globe have been extremely valuable in shaping my career, especially in creating authentic, engaging dining experiences. One example was the signature, globally-inspired brunch at The Setai on Miami Beach, which was a visual feast with live stations and stunning presentations.

I draw a lot of inspiration from my favorite dining experiences in cities where I’ve lived and worked, from San Francisco to Singapore and beyond, to offer guests an extraordinary brunch experience in the unrivaled setting of the Rainbow Room.

We are fortunate to be in a city that attracts so many skilled culinary professionals from around the world, so we’re off to a good start in terms of building a solid culinary team. That said, many of the same principles that have guided my career thus far remain the same: communicating to the team, developing the team, motivating the team. Also, I try to demonstrate what I expect from the team in terms of organization, work ethic and collaboration.

How are you and Elizabeth Blau working as a team to accomplish Tishman Speyer’s goals?

Elizabeth Blau’s team has been an incredible resource and sounding board since I joined the operation in May. Elizabeth’s commitment to the project and clarity of vision has been remarkable; she has put her heart and soul into every stage of development. We collaborated on everything from equipment selection to menu development. It was a great pleasure working with her through the opening and I feel that we’ve put together a very solid team to move forward under my guidance.

Is local to table or farm to table a focus for your menu approach?

We are focusing on local and regional sources for our menu, which is not difficult in an area with such robust agricultural resources as the Hudson Valley nearby. While I’ve worked in the US for many years in the past, I’m continually impressed by the availability and quality of artisan products such as local cheese, honey, breads made with local flour, in addition to the produce, meat and seafood that comes from the Northeastern US.

How does your catering event menu strategy differ from your a la carte approach?

Our catering menus are driven by our a la carte menus, as we want to give our special event guests the same local, seasonal options as our a la carte dinner guests. We have one-on-one tastings for special events, where I spend time with each guest to make sure that we have a good understanding of their preferences. If we need to deviate from the a la carte menu to accommodate a special request, then we discuss this during the tasting but in general the two menus are not very different in that our overall approach is local/regional farm-to-table ingredients, which drive the menus.

What’s your approach to building a culinary team?

Building a strong culinary team is a process and does not materialize overnight. Beginning with the recruitment process, we are looking not only for relevant experience but also the potential for development and the right personality / temperament to thrive within a dynamic group of likeminded professionals. I think of myself as a guide and a coach, I take a lot of pride in supporting and developing my cooks (in the end I also benefit from the collaboration and learning process that we undertake). Every team is different, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and it’s always exciting to see how we eventually come to achieve the goal.

How do you source product? Do you go out to bid daily/weekly or do you look to build loyalty with vendors?

It’s a balancing act, of course you’ve got to make sure you’re buying at a price that makes sense and does not throw your costs out of line, so you must be aware of what the food should cost. That said, building long term relationships with vendors is usually the best solution for both product quality and cost because a byproduct of good relationships is that you support one another. The vendor and chefs together sustain the common interest of delivering the highest quality product for a fair price that will encourage on-going business.

In your previous roles, did you work directly with equipment manufacturers?

Yes, for bigger projects (in the US, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean) I work directly with the manufacturers. For smaller projects, I work with a local dealer or buy off-the-shelf.
What role does fine wine and spirits play in your customers’ experience?

Wine and spirits are integral to the overall dining experience, as is the setting and the service. We try to create an overall impression by offering our guests a range of wine and spirit options, all curated to compliment (and be complimented by) the dishes. We’ve got exceptional, talented craftspeople behind the bar who excel in both innovative and classic recipes. Our sommeliers are extremely knowledgeable about both old world and new world wines and how they pair with items on our menu.

Crystal ball … what will the Rainbow Room “look like” with your imprint?

I feel it is important to inhabit a space (and what a stunning space it is!) before knowing what will work well in that environment and it’s still early days. I try not to make predictions, especially within this industry….that said, the concept of re-launching a classic space is reflected in the cuisine. I think that once we have more time to work together as a culinary team, we may have some fun reinventing more of the classic dishes served in the Rainbow Room’s heyday. I love that New York has both an old-school, traditional side to its character, as well as a penchant for pushing the envelope with innovation and fresh ideas. These qualities appeal to my personality as well, so in many ways the character of the venue is a good fit for my culinary sensibilities. I’m as excited as anyone to see what the Rainbow Room will look like as we evolve and grow.