Harold Dieterle, the 38-year-old Long Island native who rose to nationwide fame as the winner of Bravo TV's inaugural Top Chef season, and who once presided over a trio of well-regarded Village establishments, is closing his remaining restaurants and at least temporarily leaving the hospitality industry.
Perilla, the nine-year-old neighborhood institution whose cozy digs and haute comfort fare served as an intimate counterpoint to the stadium-sized Asian theme restaurants of the mid-aughts, will shutter in early December. And Kin Shop, which helped set the stage for New York's modern class of Thai spots, will close before Thanksgiving. Last October, Dieterle said goodbye to The Marrow, an ode to his family's German-Italian heritage.
"I'm really proud of what we've done. It's all kind of run its course," Dieterle said during a phone interview on Monday evening. "It's gotten to the point where I'm not having fun and enjoying myself. I'm not saying I never want to return to the restaurant business, but right now, I'm feeling a little beat up and a little tired." Dieterle said he made the decision to close Kin Shop and Perilla along with Alicia Nosenzo, his business partner and a frequent front of the house fixture at all of their restaurants.
"The cost of doing business in New York is going up and up and up, and our sales haven't continued to go up to keep that in line. It's been very frustrating," Dieterle said. The chef added that he'd probably take some time off as he and his wife are expecting their first child in February. After that, his plans are up in the air. "I'd like to maybe do some consulting work and perhaps eventually get into a fast casual concept. But I don't really know. I'm kind of figuring it all out."
Kin Shop, for sure, was Dieterle's most influential restaurant, playing a role in the Southeast Asian culinary education of New York diners. Back in the late aughts, city dwellers largely expected the best Thai fare to come from $25-and-under joints in Queens and the East Village, from venues like Sripraphai, Ayada, and Zabb City, where the affordability of the dishes and the traditions underpinning them, whether real or perceived ("make it Thai spicy") took precedence over creativity, the chef's laurels, and the growing focus on sourcing that was so prevalent among American restaurants.
Dieterle helped change that narrative when he opened Kin Shop in 2010. He charged a few dollars more for humanely raised meats and local seafood (there's now bluefish fried rice). He pushed the pricing envelope even harder with tasting menus (there would eventually be a $60 prix fixe crab dinner). He used familiar Western techniques to introduce tame Manhattanites (and Top Chef fans) to assertive Thai ingredients in a space that sold quality wines and that took American Express.
"Mr. Dieterle is as Thai as John Boehner," New York Times critic Sam Sifton wrote in 2010, and then went on, in typical Siftonian fashion, to say that the chef "cooks from the Thai larder as if he had stepped out of a novel by John Burdett, a farang who can see ghosts, who knows that the mind is Buddha’s seat, who bleeds fish sauce." Kin Shop, in other words, was an American's post-semester abroad Thai dinner party, and that largely explained why Kin Shop why so exciting in its heyday. Dieterle wasn't interested in playing by the rules, he was interested in serving fried oyster and pork belly salads, one of the city's better fried chickens (marinated in shrimp paste), and a squid ink soup whose potent chiles made it taste like someone lit a gasoline fire over an oil slick. "You'll never find that soup in a Thai cookbook," Eater's Robert Sietsema wrote for the Village Voice. It's a pure invention of Dieterle, but one so consistent with the spirit of the cuisine that he might be counted among the great chefs of Siam."
Kin Shop helped bring the sour, spicy, funky flavors of Thailand into the culinary mainstream, priming the palates of New Yorkers to crave the more authentic cooking of Andy Ricker's Northern Thai Pok Pok, which would arrive in 2012, or of the Pan-Thai Uncle Boons, opened by a pair of Per Se vets in 2013. Both of those ultimately more popular venues, whose small plates format made them a hint more affordable, would eventually earn, along with the Issan-themed Somtum Der, a Michelin star, an honor never bestowed upon Kin Shop.
But the fact that Dieterle wasn't as wedded to a true Thai experience made Kin Shop important in another regard – it was was part of a growing chorus of iconoclastic institutions like Empellon Cocina (with its hot dog tacos) and Mission Chinese Food (with its haute fried rice), all backed by chefs who thought of tradition as a loose guidebook rather than a bible, and authenticity as something to rally against rather than rely upon.
"I feel happy that the restaurants were fairly well respected; it was a great run," Dieterle said. "The mom and pop model is very difficult in the changing economics of New York City...great neighborhood restaurants become forgotten at times when everyone's racing to the new hot spot."