Joonbug arrived at Graffit near the corner of 69th and Broadway around 11am and descended into the well-lit, colorful restaurant. A floor-to-ceiling mirror with the definition of “graffit” outlined the entrance, along with mismatched frames housing different textures creating the perfect so-simple-yet-so-chic décor.
Long communal tables with tall seats lead to a long white bar mid-way through the restaurant. Throughout, the mix of wallpaper and exposed brick with carefully selected pieces of graffiti created a connective thread through the seemingly different rooms.
From behind the bar, Chef Jesus Nunez said hello while pouring himself some orange juice. Since there is no lunch service, Chef was sans chef coat and looking casual and hip, with a touch of youthfulness mixed in.
After exchanging introductions, we settled at a table near the bar and started chatting. It was immediately apparent that Chef Nunez did not enjoy being the center of attention, but it was only a matter of time before he opened up and told us his story, philosophies, and future plans…
Joonbug: Tell us about your history as a graffiti artist.
Chef Jesus Nunez: Well, when I was younger, around 14, my friends and I started doing graffiti. I guess you could call it “social crime.” We all had our individual tags and would just do what we wanted to do. There were a couple times when we ended up running from the police though.
JB: Sounds exciting! So how did you end up in the kitchen?
JN: I guess I liked being artistic so I tried to be a photographer after I finished school. Then, I ended up working with air conditioning units. At some point, my friend asked me to make a birthday cake and that ended up starting my interest in cooking so I started taking cooking classes at night. From there, I was interested in being a hotel director, but I hated the classes and being in the front-of-house really.
JB: Did you have an “a-ha moment” for when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
JN: When I was about 21 years old, I started working with another chef. He was the first chef I ever worked under and I worked with him for three months. Working with him was eye-opening because he showed me all about fine dining and that there was a different way to cook.
JB: So where did the idea for Graffit come from?
JN: Really it came from the NYC subways. Looking around, I thought New Yorkers appreciate art and beauty in all different forms. For instance, in Europe you can find graffiti art in galleries. I liked this idea that perception is different for all people and wanted to represent this [concept] in a restaurant. I also find it amazing that in NYC, if the product is good, people will wait for two hours or more. In Spain, that doesn’t happen. New Yorkers are a special type of audience.
JB: Of all the neighborhoods in NYC, why the Upper West Side?
JN: I first found an ideal space in the West Village, but in this city of departments…there were no permits for that space so I had to find another. When I saw this space, I fell in love. It was kind of a dump before, but I saw the potential. The descending steps in the entrance add mystery and the natural light in the back adds an entirely different element.
JB: Interesting, tell me about the transformation, how did you release "the potential” of the space?
JN: Well I like the philosophy of working “with” someone, instead of for them. So, when I found my architect, I brought him to my apartment and made him a 20-plate tasting menu in my tiny kitchen. I wanted him to understand my ideas and me so that we could be in sync and create a space truly representative of my ideals.
JB: The restaurant is very eclectic. You seem to be a very thoughtful person; can you walk me through the décor choices?
JN: I wanted the restaurant to be eclectic, like myself, but reflect fusion between three concepts: elegance, vintage, and modern. With the help of the architect, we created three different rooms, all with different themes. We used dishes to set up palettes for each—the first room (tapas and bar) is white chocolate, the second (dining room) is carrot cake, and the third (garden) is broccoli and cauliflower. Another thought I had was to think of the restaurant as the basement of a brownstone where an artist lives. He has little money…so what does he do with the walls? He puts his own graffiti up, leaves wallpaper where it already is, and embraces instead of changes the old, uneven floor.
JB: I like this idea of working “with” people; how do you implement this philosophy with your staff?
JN: I constant[ly] challenge my staff by giving them weekly goals. I tell them “Don’t think like a cook, think like an architect, or sculpture, or painter, or in figures.” Sometimes I’ll even just give them phrases such as, “Be more provocative.” I want everyone to understand everything and for us to all have the same idea. Presentation and flavor are very important, so I make everyone taste everything.
JB: Do you have a favorite dish on the menu and do you plan on changing the menu often?
JN: No favorite dish—I never fall in love with a dish. For now, we always run specials so the menu is constantly changing. I like to keep the menu moving because it keeps myself and the staff challenged and fuels our creativity. I do not want to ever be stagnant.
JB: Do you have any future plans for more restaurants?
JN: I would like to create a brand—maybe a tapas and cocktails restaurant or another more traditional restaurant.
JB: Any comments on Jehangir Mehta’s lawsuit against you over the name Graffit? How, if at all, does the name affect your plan brand?
JN: First, we have completely different concepts in completely different neighborhoods. And second, I hope that my brand will go beyond the name Graffit. I hope for Graffit to be one restaurant in a group of many. Take Thomas Keller for instance, he has Per Se and French Laundry but we still know those are his restaurants despite different names.
JB: Alright, “lightning round:" give me the first answer that comes into your head—no thinking! Favorite cuisine?
JN: Fatty food—although I do like to prepare balanced meals.
JB: Drink of choice—alcoholic or non-alcoholic?
JN: Orange juice in the morning and Coca-Cola throughout the day.
JB: This one’s tricky…if you could choose, what would your last meal be?
JN: That’s impossible for me to say…but melted cheese, maybe Spanish, and bacon would definitely be elements in it.
Chef Jesus Nunez’s Graffit was just reviewed by The New York Times.