Condé Nast Publisher Truman Sets Sights On Restaurant Industry


It would be an understatement to say that James Truman has given some thought to how his new restaurant, Nix, will look.

Mr. Truman, 57, who once oversaw magazines like Vogue, Glamour and GQ as the powerful editorial director of Condé Nast, is a believer in the cumulative effect of the most minuscule details. He has spent months with the chef John Fraser, the architect Elizabeth Roberts and the rest of the team behind Nix ruminating on everything from the presence of decorative juniper roots to the fit of the servers’ aprons to the way in which the establishment’s name will radiate from a sign.

“The blessing of the name is that it’s all straight lines,” he said. “I’m fond of the N, the I and the X, because they’re all strong letters. They are very strong letters which we then want to make soft.”

To achieve this, Mr. Truman is going with a sign that uses amber and red neon. “But his design team is placing the neon behind a translucent Plexiglas scrim so it will have “a much more mysterious presence” from the sidewalk,” Truman said.

While it’s probably facile to note that Mr. Truman seems to be orchestrating the entrance to Nix the way an editor would map out the cover of a magazine, the comparison is difficult to resist. Magazines and restaurants tend to succeed when they convey simultaneous signals of accessible warmth and exclusive cool, and Mr. Truman has fashioned a peripatetic career out of mastering the balance between those two temperatures.

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Although it’s not widely publicized, Mr. Truman has been a restaurateur for a while now, having joined with the hotelier André Balazs to fine-tune the mission, hire chefs and map out the menus at Narcissa, in the East Village, and at the celebrity-clotted Chiltern Firehouse in London. He has also run the farm that shares land with Locusts-on-Hudson, an upstate estate owned by Mr. Balazs.

Nix, whose primary investor is Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, presents Mr. Truman with a gamble: He’s trying his hand at hospitality without one of Mr. Balazs’s properties as an anchor.

“He has this way of seeing what people want before they want it,” said Mr. Fraser, who is also the head chef at Narcissa and both proprietor and chef at Dovetail. When Mr. Fraser presented him with the concept for Nix — a vegetarian restaurant with a strong emphasis on the primordial pleasures of fire, as delivered by both a wok station and a tandoor in the kitchen Truman’s response was: “’Yes, that’s exactly what the next move is.’”

Other New York restaurants, like Dirt Candy and Avant Garden, have been uprooting stubborn preconceptions about vegetarian cuisine, but Truman, drawing on his publishing experience, views the crowded field as a boon. “It’s always better to be in a genre where you’re not the only magazine,” he said. “Because it validates the idea.”

Fraser, 40, who grew up in California and is known as a pioneer of vegetable-fixated cooking, gets visibly amped up when he talks about the Nix menu, with its shiitake cacio e pepe, and its carrots seared in the wok in the style of Chinese cashew chicken.

He will not use meat or fish, nor any stocks or fats derived from them. But he will cook with cheese and butter. “There’s a moment of sin, even though it’s quite virtuous,” Fraser said.

It’s hard to imagine Truman, whose hair retains the tousled, finger-combed quality of his wonder-boy years, swooning over a sinless restaurant. In casual conversation, he gives the impression of having lived a very full life; his musings are peppered with references to practicing Zen on a California mountaintop with Leonard Cohen and drinking wine in Northern California with Francis Ford Coppola, for whose company he was a board member.

Truman traces his interest in the cultural significance of food back to Oundle, a boarding school in England where, as a student, he wrote a newspaper column about the delights of hot-plate gastronomy. “The food in the refectory there was always disgusting, so I cooked my own food,” Truman said. “I remember a cheese and tomato crepe.”

His palate expanded as his parents tugged him around Europe on vacations. There were the featherweight cheese puffs known as gougères at a Michelin-starred restaurant on the French Riviera; there was pizza in Italy. “The first pizza I had was on the waterfront in Positano,” he said.

“That was astonishing. I don’t think I’d ever tasted anything so good in my life.” At Condé Nast, when he ascended in 1994 from editor in chief of Details magazine to editorial director of the company, Truman stage-managed countless aspects of the Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria. “I came to enjoy that at least as much as I enjoyed working on the magazines,” he said.

Asked about Truman’s expanding foray into hospitality, Ravi DeRossi, who also ambled into the restaurant business after pursuing a different professional path (as an abstract painter), said he did not believe in “an exact science to opening a restaurant in New York City.”

“Honestly, I think there’s a lot of dumb luck involved,” said Mr. DeRossi, who owns and runs 15 bars and restaurants, including Avant Garden. “At least that’s what I owe my success to – that and approaching each new venture as a piece of art rather than a business.”

Truman has strong ideas about the visual side of Nix. “It began with knowing what we didn’t want,” he said, by which he meant “one of the Brooklyn-style restaurants full of reclaimed lumber, and servers who look like agrarians from the 19th century.” In his mind, Brooklyn and bearded are out; Californian and hippie-willowy are in. “I felt this should have a feminine energy,” he said. “The current style of restaurants feels incredibly dated to me.”

Diners at Nix will encounter a distinct intention, he hopes, in even the smallest of gestures. On each table will be paper flowers from John Derian in the East Village. Sparkling and still water will simply arrive, in tandem and sans interrogation.

“We hate that first question, ‘Do you want tap, still or sparkling?’” he said. “Let’s move on to the stuff we care about.”

Truman takes a keen interest in what’s expressed between the lines and kept in the background, which makes him wary in a world of celebrity chefs.

“My opinion,” he said, “is that chefs replaced magazine editors as the most culturally overrated people in the world.”