Look at any of Shaun Hergatt’s dishes and it’s as if you’re gazing into a universe, suspended in time.
In one dish, orbs of frozen foie gras share a wintry landscape side by side with licorice-spiced mountain huckleberries, preserved autumn berries, and pickled grapes. Powdered hazelnut on top simulates fallen snow; on the side sits a celery root purée. This serene world is too beautiful to eat—but this is food, after all, and what would be the point of not trying it? In Hergatt’s book, taste comes first.
Taste how, over a matter of seconds, the foie gras melts in your mouth, and at the same time, the acidity from other components cleanses your palate so the foie gras won’t feel heavy, Hergatt pointed out. The huckleberries lend sweetness and spiciness, the autumn berries and pickled grapes acidity.
It’s gorgeous, but presentation comes second to the experience of tasting—with every component having a well-thought-out role to play.
“You’ve got seven layers of texture, you’ve got another seven layers of flavor. You have to sit and think about eating it, it’s not just ‘cut the steak and eat,'” Hergatt said.
The flavor profile is classic—pickled grapes, foie gras with berries, hazelnuts—and yet completely dynamic and reimagined.
What’s remarkable is that Hergatt is constantly engaged in the process of developing dishes, working with the bounty of any given particular microseason. An ordinary restaurant might change its menu four times a year, if it considers itself bound by the seasons. By comparison, since Juni opened two and a half years ago, Hergatt has created somewhere between 250 and 300 dishes.
“We had a dish with the milkweed blossom or milkweed fruit. We only had that dish on for a month because the fruit was only blossoming upstate for a month. We developed a dish that looked like an angel wing. It tasted delicious,” Hergatt said. Only a few hundred people tasted it—and then it was gone.
“I can look at a pair of shoes and get inspired,” Hergatt said.
You might think he’s kidding but he’s not. Hergatt has been inspired by the flowing silk of a woman’s blouse (for a heart of palm dish); a childhood candy bar (for cherry-glazed foie gras mimicking a glossy cherry); travels through Scandinavia and Asia; growing up in Australia, eating his family’s traditional Finnish food. He keeps all those memories in his repertoire.
“What you do is you reproduce them onto something that is a canvas for your own ideas and own flavor profiles and once you understand the coordination of how it all works, it becomes an easy thing to develop. You don’t hit it every single time but it helps you. It keeps you going,” he said.
Another thing: he’s found being happy gives him more inspiration.
So much for the brooding artist stereotype. “I’m in a really bad mood or I’m upset if there’s something really going wrong, it blocks it.”
Developing a Style
Pick out the tasting menu at Juni, and among the dozen or more dishes, there’s no replication of ingredients, and often no repeated techniques.
“It’s very easy to pick up a book and replicate a certain style and pattern or how things look. Creation of flavor profile is the first key in the development of why I think food is interesting,” Hergatt said.
“The second part of it is you have to develop your own style, and style with a human being is not necessarily the easiest thing to achieve because people tend to replicate—unintentionally or intentionally. I’m not saying it’s a negative. I’m saying it’s their ability‚ whereas we have original creations here.
“If you’re going to come and eat my food there’s not another chef on the planet who’s going to be able to define it in the way that I do it.”
Not everyone gets it, Hergatt said.
“The majority of people are just coming for a dining experience so they’d be happy with a piece of fish, a nice purée, a touch of sauce, and a garnish because that’s what they’re programmed to, and if it’s delicious, it’s delicious.”
“Not everyone wears McQueen, not everyone goes to Dolce & Gabbana and wears a dress at $7,000. It’s not about the price point but it’s about the art and understanding how much effort and soul and human nature has been put into that gown,” he said. “I really don’t get upset anymore about that. Before it used to frustrate me—you have no appreciation that you have 60 people working for you. I’ve accepted it now there are a lot of genres in my life like art. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person because I can’t appreciate what the artist is about.”
The regulars are another story; they’re hooked. The perpetual changing nature of the menu and the relentless quest for perfection behind the menu keeps them coming.
Hergatt’s aspiration is nothing less than creating lifetime experiences for diners who come.
He recalled one such moment he experienced himself at Taillevent in Paris, during one of the greatest meals he’s had, and yet not entirely because of the food.
He was ill and initially didn’t want to eat, but was looked after by a maitre d’ he remembers to this day: “He was such a great amazing maitre d’. He just had a sense of understanding of how to calm people. He made me feel amazing. And when the food came out, we had a four-hour lunch.”
At Juni, he aspires to create something exceptional that will make a mark on his diners. “Those memories that we want you to talk about not only to your friends but 10 years down the tracks, ‘I had meals at this restaurant, and it was one of those things I can’t let go and is going to be with me till the day that I die.’ That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
12 E. 31st St.
5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday
5:30 p.m.–11 p.m.