From Garden to Gourmet: Chef John Fraser’s Vegetable-Centric Triumph

Fraser's commitment to freshness, his knack for trendspotting, and his signature West Coast flair remain steadfast as he builds a hospitality empire.

Chef John Fraser at La Marchande
Chef John Fraser. Liz Clayman

In the land of supersized portions and meat-centric feasts, chef John Fraser stands as a verdant crusader, challenging America’s culinary norms with a dedication to all things leafy and green. From his early days in Los Angeles, Fraser has woven a culinary philosophy that places fresh, plant-based ingredients at the heart of every dish, infused with Mediterranean heritage and California’s bountiful produce. As his JF Restaurants empire has flourished across the nation, from Tampa to Boston, it’s evident that his produce-forward approach has resonated with a diverse array of diners. And while his menus do also cater to carnivores, Fraser’s personal journey towards a predominantly plant-based lifestyle, motivated by health insights and an industry-wide shift from indulgence to well-being, further cements his commitment to the vegetable kingdom.

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Yet, Fraser’s journey to culinary prominence was cultivated from rich soil, not mere kitchen scraps. He was mentored by the legendary Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and honed his craft in Paris at prestigious establishments like Taillevent and Maison Blanche; Fraser’s roots in fine dining run deep. His New York saga began with Snack Taverna, a quaint Greek eatery in the West Village, before he took the reins at the since-closed Compass, transforming it from a troubled spot into a Frank Bruni-approved, New York Times two-star establishment. This blend of international experience and a passion for plant-based cooking has made Fraser a unique force in the culinary world, seamlessly bridging the gap between traditional fine dining and the modern, vegetable-centric movement.

In 2007, Fraser launched JF Restaurants with Dovetail, which at the time emerged as the Upper West Side’s darling. The hotspot didn’t just bag a trio of stars from the New York Times; it also clinched its first Michelin star in 2011, catapulting the chef to culinary stardom. Since founding his restaurant consortium, Fraser has retained his approach to replicating his nascent success purely through expansion. “We’re not a growth at all costs company,” he tells Observer, eschewing the corporate climb for a more deliberate journey. While Dovetail eventually closed in 2018, his strategic nurturing has seen JF Restaurants go from a single New York gem into a national bouquet of 15 distinct concepts across five U.S. cities, each a vibrant expression of Fraser’s ever-greening vision and unwavering commitment.

North Fork Table & Inn. Courtesy Conor Harrigan/JF Restaurants

With the keen senses of a truffle pig, Fraser sniffs out emerging opportunities for JF Restaurants by exploring the dining zeitgeist firsthand. “I do as much listening and tasting as possible in the research stage,” he says, confessing that the “team dines together in multiple restaurants to see the drinking and dining trends that resonate along with what we can bring that may be missing.” 

From breathing new life into the farm-to-table mission at Long Island’s cherished North Fork Table & Inn to forging a partnership with Ian Schrager’s Edition Hotels (Lilac, in the brand’s newest outpost in Tampa, scored a Michelin star in 2023), Fraser’s green thumb has consistently yielded a bountiful harvest of success. With an astute sense of culinary evolution, Fraser has planted his flag in the revitalized heart of Manhattan’s Financial District at La Marchande, located in the Wall Street Hotel. “We were attracted to being part of an expansion of best-in-class restaurants moving downtown,” he says. “The restaurant scene in the Financial District, specifically, is drastically different from pre-pandemic than it is today, and it’s exciting to be part of that movement.” The menu, particularly the dynamic vegetable section, is an ode to the seasons, featuring innovative dishes such as maitake mushroom steak served with red lentils and fava beans, and French onion dumplings with truffles and gruyère nestled in a rich mushroom consommé.

La Marchande. Liz Clayman

Any in-the-know food fanatic worth their Maldon salt can attest that Fraser’s vegetable virtuosity has reaped a bumper crop of critical acclaim, with a collection of New York Times and Michelin stars under his belt. But this chef isn’t content to simply rest on his laurels. “It’s essential to continuously evolve through creativity,” says the ever-innovative Fraser. “When I was coming up in the restaurant industry, the leadership hierarchy was very top-down. I’ve long had the desire to create a more dynamic and inclusive company culture with opportunities for our team members to grow into leadership roles, and be rewarded for the expertise and value they add to the company.”

Fraser’s innovative spirit and hunger for growth have motivated him to boldly venture into the realm of fast-casual concepts and food halls, but he’s not navigating this culinary frontier alone. Among the entire team, it’s a trio of recent appointments that have really propelled JF Restaurants’ ambitions. Chief operations officer Nicolas Geeraerts brings strategic diversification prowess to tackle future concepts in mixed-use development concepts, stadiums, airport terminals and food halls. “We both have complementary three-Michelin star backgrounds—me on the culinary side and Nicolas working on the operations side—so we can speak the same language,” Fraser says. 

Iris Restaurant. Joshua McHugh

While Fraser is heavily involved in the big picture—concept innovation, design and first menu development—it’s chief culinary officer Berenice de Araujo who leads behind the scenes, taking those high-level ideas and bringing them to fruition. “She’s producing high-volume fine cuisine that’s nothing short of magic,” Fraser says. Rounding out this dream team is beverage maven Amy Racine, who oversees the entire beverage portfolio, from development to staffing. For Fraser, her influence since joining in 2016 has been nothing short of transformative, with beverage now accounting for an impressive 50 percent of JF Restaurants’ revenue. “She’s grown from sommelier at Dovetail to beverage director across our entire portfolio,” he shares. “Her impact is undeniable.”

As JF Restaurants’ portfolio continues to swell, with five concepts comprising The Lineup food hall in Boston’s Winthrop Center and the soon-to-debut Winnie’s, Fraser’s commitment to freshness, his knack for trendspotting, and his skill in infusing them with his signature West Coast flair remain steadfast. At heart, this Californian prodigy is a humble visionary, subtly revolutionizing American cuisine one exquisite vegetable dish at a time. With Fraser steering the course, the horizon of vegetable-centric dining is as verdant and inviting as ever.

From Garden to Gourmet: Chef John Fraser’s Vegetable-Centric Triumph