The first time that Larry Finn, the new chef at Scala’s Bistro in Union Square, had a taste revelation was in the early 90s, at New York’s legendary and now-closed Lespinasse.
At the time, Finn was working as a sous chef at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. One day, the chef at Union Square Cafe, Michael Romano, was soliciting lunch suggestions from his cooks. Finn half-jokingly suggested Lespinasse, the four-star destination where Gray Kunz was creating a “beguiling” and brilliant cuisine of his own. Romano obliged.
“I never thought he’d say yes, but he did — and took the the whole AM staff to lunch at Lespinasse,” says Finn.
For Finn, it was a meal that would never leave him.
“The flavors, the sweet, the crunch, the texture. When you ate the food, there was a party in your mouth. I hadn’t tasted that anywhere,” remembers Finn. “[Kunz] used a lot of acid. When you taste it alone, it’s not right. But when it’s combined with the other components, then you understand. It comes together.”
“That’s where my palate grew. When I ate that food, I said I want to learn how to cook like that.”
Indeed, Finn tried to get a job at Lespinasse for years, but could only manage a stage. Kunz had no room for him in the kitchen, but instead, set up Finn with job in San Francisco at Campton Place, where Todd Humphries was running the kitchen. Finn, a native East Coaster, spent the next five years (1994-1999) at Campton Place.
Finn eventually returned to New York, again lured by Kunz, who had left Lespinasse and was working on a new restaurant. However, the restaurant (Cafe Gray) wouldn’t open for years. In the interim, Finn was tasked to work on Kunz’s 2001 cookbook, The Elements of Taste.
“Working with him one-on-one was great, and that period also took me on the interesting journey of looking for a restaurant in Manhattan,” says Finn, who was Cafe Gray’s opening executive chef.
“Next thing you know it’s five years later and finally it did open … Unfortunately it was the only restaurant I’ve ever closed.”
Kunz — and Cafe Gray — are in Hong Kong nowadays. After the restaurant closed in 2008, Finn held other New York executive chef positions at the Four Seasons and Morimoto.
Now, he’s back in San Francisco, only a few steps away from Campton Place. Finn has started his new gig as the chef at Scala’s Bistro. He’s currently getting up to speed at the busy Union Square restaurant.
“Nothing is broke here, which is great. It’s a busy place,” Finn says.
“To me Italian food is taking the best quality ingredients and showing them respect with the proper technique and handling,” he says. “Sometimes it’s easier said than done though.”