One of hottest tickets in Paris is a reservation at Spring, run by Daniel Rose, an American chef as comfortable in the discourse of Aristotle and Lucretius as with the intricacies of cooking pigeon.
In its first incarnation, Spring was a one-man show. Rose was doing everything himself: front of the house, back of the house—and on top of that, changing the menu every single night.
No doubt he must have come across as some sort of maverick. “[Diners] thought it was very strange. They were like, ‘He cooks and he’s opening the wine and he’s writing you your check. It’s like being in somebody’s house,'” said Rose.
And yet it also made diners giddy. “It was different—because it was delicious, and it touched on things that they liked the most, which was human interaction in a world that’s increasingly more and more—I don’t know—not human. Corporate or digital. Distant,” Rose said.
If he broke some sacrosanct rules of formality, it was with one specific goal in mind: to create the same kind of experience that people got from going to “the great old-fashioned French restaurants in the old days, [and chefs] like Paul Bocuse, Vergé, Fernand Point, and Pic.”
“All these great restaurants, they were linked by one thing—joy,” he said.
“The word that comes to mind—it’s like you’re falling in love. It’s a heightened sense of—you wake up in the morning earlier, everything looks brighter. A restaurant, when it’s good, is a kind of drug. But it has a healthy effect. Instead of bringing you farther away from reality, it puts you in a very particular reality where it’s kind of amplified. You’re not escaping. Tu t’échappes par un rapprochement—you escape by getting closer to something.”
“And so to create the effect of a ‘grande maison’ but without resources I made it as simple as possible. And it was joyful. At its best it was joyful. At its worst it was probably épouvantable [horrible]. Because if I was in a bad mood … I’m sure there were days that people remember—what’s going on? I don’t want to make it sound like I got it right all the time.”
Spring, now in its second incarnation at 6 rue Bailleul, running parallel to rue de Rivoli in the 1st arrondissement, is no longer a one-man show.
Early on he got some help, when a woman who had dined there one night came back the next day and told him she thought he needed some help.
Rose told her, in his characteristic funny fashion, “Great, you’re a psychiatrist—or you’re a social worker.”
She told him she was a cook and wanted to work with him, that what she ate was delicious and that she’d never seen anything like it. Marie-Aude was her name, and she later became Rose’s wife.
There is no menu at Spring. At 84 euros, you get a classic French meal. The menu no longer changes every day but about once every 10 days.
When speaking about French cuisine, Rose’s inner classicist comes out. “It’s about books and learning the same things over and over again with the belief that the wisdom is never “épuisé” [exhausted.]”
“It’s like reading Aristotle again and again even though—how many commentaries have been written on it? You read the original to try to find out why it’s so important. That’s why we make classic French cooking, we try to figure out what’s important about it,” he said.
By the time I have dinner at Spring, I know about some of the underpinnings of Rose’s thinking—from the rhythm that dishes are served with (a sort of contraction and expansion as Rose puts it) to some of the ingredients that came through the back door that day.
I’ve opted not to know the menu, so each dish comes as a surprise. For the apéritif, there is the coolness of yogurt and cucumber—served with a lot of dill and lemon—juxtaposed with another little dish of watermelon and ham, and in another, a rosette of foie gras—smooth and silky. It’s almost as if my taste buds are awakened one by one.
There are cockles, which arrived that very same morning from Brittany, served in a wonderful broth that tastes of the sea. It takes me back to somewhere, sometime in my childhood, although I can’t tell if it’s real or imagined. There is duck served with girolles mushrooms and figs. There are a number of desserts, most memorably the impossibly floral clafoutis with white peaches, served in a skillet. A clafoutis is a fruit dessert covered with a flan-like batter.
In the open kitchen, directly across from me, I can hear everything. The sous-chef tells a cook in French, “This is the third time you’ve done it. When are you going to start listening to me! If it happens a fourth time, I’m going home.”
Another time, Rose said quietly, “Please put out the fire. Don’t let it burn out.”
There’s a frank honesty here—nowhere to hide, as Rose told me. “That’s one of the secrets: people who work here, they don’t turn [their emotions] on and off.”
I had arrived for dinner a little scattered, my mind occupied by the minutiae of travel plans. But somewhere between the seafood and the duck, something happened. Suddenly everything felt right.
When Rose talks about what goes on with human interaction, and with service, he truly believes that “deliciousness is augmented and magnified by those other things.”
Stepping out of Spring, heading a block or two west, I chance into a side entrance to the Louvre. When I emerge from the arched doorway, it is into the red Parisian sunset, among sculptures of the Muses, to the sounds of an itinerant cellist.
With beauty all around and a well-fed body and soul, it is the best of all earthly pleasures.