resy: You’ve had a fascinating career path. from aspiring ballet dancer to gramercy tavern dessert diva, then country innkeeper, followed by his recent triumphant return to new york. looking back, how do you see it?
fleming: It felt like a natural progression to me, I don’t think in terms of dramatic storytelling. yes, I danced but [that was] a long time ago. and the whole time I was already working in restaurants and loving it, unlike other creatives who were embarrassed to wait tables. That was in the mid-1980s, the beginning of truly American restaurant cooking as we know it: Larry Forgione at an American place, Charlie Palmer at River Café. a move away from Eurocentric white tablecloths and fleur-de-lis logos. A true American identity was developing and I was enthusiastically drawn to it working at Jonathan Waxman’s Jam, where the dessert chef was a Nancy Silverton protégé. it was an exciting time in American food.
while you were at gramercy tavern, you pioneered many things that now seem obvious: savory and savory elements, seasonality, a simplicity that is so perfectionist, actually.
the salt stuff, don’t get me started; it’s so exaggerated now. why do you need salt on strawberries? Seriously though, I don’t want to take credit for all those innovations. I guess I was in the right place at the right time working for a danny meyer-tom colicchio restaurant that had so much visibility. I don’t like the “presentation” or too elaborate plated desserts. I guess I was always a frustrated cook, looking for inspiration in tasty cooking. so my style followed naturally.
but you went to france to apprentice in pastry shops. Does that style of candy and your own experience there feel relevant now?
Dessert culture in American restaurants is very stylized and organized, but you don’t always learn real techniques. I felt like I needed a foundation. technique is the basis of creativity. and france seemed like a logical place. I wasn’t that interested in gâteaux and mousses, but the experience was really shocking: the production system; the systematization of tasks, the professionalization of the trade. I still remember at Fauchon in Paris, how at 1 p.m. everyone dropped what they were doing and started making macarons – there were 35 people doing the same thing, and it felt like fantasyland. and that was at a time when most Americans didn’t even know what a macaron was.
and then, at the pinnacle of her new york career, she left it all to open a country inn in north fork, long island, with her husband, gerry hayden. how was that?
Hardest thing I’ve ever done! going from ushg “disney land” of everything you ever wanted, always [be] available, to suddenly running your own business where everything was a crisis. it was exhausting and debilitating, but also very rewarding, creating something special and truly beloved: an institution. that experience seems so beautiful now, despite all the difficulties. Plus, we were a part of that farm-to-table “moment,” working with incredible producers right down the street who supplied us with some of the best cheese, vegetables, and poultry in this country. we were a community.
so why leave all that to go back to new york?
ultimately the inn was gerry’s project and i always supported it. but when he passed away, there was no point in continuing to live someone else’s dream.