Exit Interview: Chris Lee Tells Us Why He’s Jumping From Gilt to Aureole

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Today it was announced that Christopher Lee will take over the kitchen at Aureole, replacing former executive chef Tony Aiazzi. Lee, of course, won Beard and Food & Wine awards at the Striped Bass before replacing Paul Liebrandt at Gilt and quickly snagging two Michelin stars. Hell stay at Gilt till the end of the year, and then hell work on getting Aureole ready for its spring move to the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park. We spoke with Chris today to find out why he decided to make the jump, and what he has planned.

So why did you leave Gilt after getting two Michelin stars there?
The Michelin stars mean a lot to us and a lot to me, but planning my exit was brought up before that review even came out. Gilt was a great home, and great step into the New York dining scene. It was a great place to work, but it was time to move on. I wanted to get back to the private sector and get out of the hotel-union environment.

Whats the difference?
Its a different philosophy (I wont say work ethic) its a little more team-oriented when youre in a private restaurant. When I gave my notice there was a question about what can they do for me to stay, and I just said it was my time to go. Youre basically just a restaurant chef for a hotel youre only going to make so much because you have to be in the budget of a hotel. But if you get involved in a profit-sharing thing or more than one venture with someone, youre looking at progression in life.

So why Aureole?
Charlie and I have a lot of the same philosophies. And to work for such a legendary person like Charlie Palmer is going to be a very big thing. Were here to put Aureole back on the map youre looking at a superpower (one of the people who created dining in New York) and myself, more of a rookie and up-and-coming guy.

So was there a sense that Aureole was operating on autopilot and needed some sort of spark?
I cant speak for Charlie, except that he was very proud of the fact that hes been in business twenty-plus years and theyre moving to a new location and he really wants Aureole to go another twenty years. He wanted Aureole to come back to the forefront of New York City dining.

Whats the transition going to be like?
I have to observe and see the team, and then build the best team possible to reopen the space. Whether we do a lot of joint stuff on the menu, change half of it, maybe change a couple of things here and there, I cant say right now. I wont be there full-time till the beginning of the year. I think itll be a slow process in the beginning, and then were going to blow up and hopefully produce a rockin spring menu.

Who will your successor at Gilt be, or who would you like to see there?
We dont know yet, but were definitely working together on it. Ill be here with my menu through New Years. Id always like to pass the torch down and give an opportunity for my sous-chef or chef de cuisine.

Did getting the Michelin stars send people clamoring to your door? Did you interview for the Le Cirque job, for instance?
There was definitely a little more interest with people in the industry. But actually, Charlie and I were talking about this before that whole thing started. There were never direct conversations with Sirio or anyone who was a part of the organization. Its a great restaurant, but I dont think it was a fit for me theyre into classical French, where mine was more American-French.

Finally, youre owed congratulations on another front. How does it feel to be a dad?
It changes your life. I didnt think it was going to affect me as much as it did, but it gives you something to go home for. When I come home its all smiles. You dont get lost with those late-night rendezvous with your buddies. It clears your mind a little bit your escape from work is not a drink anymore!