What brought you into the industry?
I was born in the industry. My grandfather opened a restaurant in Toronto in 1961 called La Scala, same name as the opera house in Milan. My father joined him on the first day, and then I was literally born there in 1965.
Now I know how you ended up in Toronto, I also know you ended up in New York. Walk me through how all that came to play.
I worked in my family’s restaurant and wanted to expand my experience and knowledge. It was emotionally hard to leave the family restaurant in Toronto, to go to work at another restaurant. But I also felt that the only way for me to grow was to leave. And so that necessitated my going south of the border and I went to New York City.
So the long story is that in conversations with Piero Selvaggio at Valentino in LA I was going to go there first. Go to LA for three months and work and then go to New York for three months and then ultimately go to Europe for a yearlong stage. And in talking with Piero Selvaggio he’s like well why would you go backwards? Like what’s happening in LA in 1990-1991 is so far forward of New York you would be taking a step back. Why don’t you go to New York first? And then come to LA. And then go to Europe. And, lo and behold, I went to New York, and I started working with Francesco Antonucci and Chris Cannon at Remi Restaurant on 53rd Street West. And I was having a great time.
Two months into my time there, my grandfather was on his deathbed, and I went home to see him. My grandfather told me to stay in New York. Now, I know why he wanted me to stay in New York, because he was actually born in Hell’s Kitchen, and at two years of age he moved to Toronto. Upon my return to NYC from his funeral I stopped by the restaurant and low and behold they had let a manager go in my absence. And so I said to them, where are you going to look for a new manager? Thinking that there’s no way in hell they would ever consider me, a guy from Toronto. It’s New York City. Everyone’s here. And they asked me if I wanted to be considered, I said yes. And they said, well, we’ll consider you only if you will tell us that you will commit at least one year to New York City. So I called my father, I called friends. And he said take it. So, needless to say I’ve never gone to Los Angeles or anywhere else. I’ve stayed in New York now for over 20 years and have relished every moment of it.
That’s funny. So, tell me a little bit about your first mentor whom you mentioned was Selvaggio.
Well, I would say that my first mentor was certainly my father and my grandfather by far and then Chris Cannon.
How would you describe what you learned from your dad and from your grandfather? Was it hard work? Was it dedication?
Well, my grandfather taught me hospitality. And my father taught me that we have to accept the mundane jobs that are the fundamental aspects of this industry, and relish them.
And the definition of mundane is?
The silver needs to be polished. The glassware needs to be clean. The napkins need to be folded properly. The tablecloth needs to be put on the table properly.
You know as a server you do those jobs. You as the manager ensure that they’re done properly. You as an owner ensure that they’re done properly. So no matter how many years you’ve been managing the restaurant or owning a property you still walk through your restaurant at 5.30 at night and make sure that the silver is polished properly. That the glassware is polished properly. That the napkins are properly folded. It never changes.
As if it was the first day you were opening?
Yes, those are the fundamentals. It’s much like becoming a cook. If you cannot shop, you know, if you cannot make mirepoix, then you’re not going to become a cook, no matter how creative you are. So, if you want to run your own restaurant than how come the silverware has fingerprints all over it? I don’t care what the place looks like, or the music that you’re playing, or the fact that you’re doing the menu from 15th century Renaissance Florence. My knife has a fingerprint on it, really? You know, it remains the ultimate challenge of managers in this day and age of embracing those mundane aspects. Because they never change. And if it’s going to bore you, then you’ll never be a good restaurant manager.
What about Chris Cannon? What impact did he have on you?He taught me to be hard, to be firm. When you’re in a family business, you never talked a lot about the business, I mean, the financial aspect of things. But Chris was the first person to teach me those fundamentals to hammer that stuff home, that the conversation of money is not such a bad thing.
So an understanding of DeBragga vs. LaFreida, Sysco vs. Dairyland. Those types of things.
Yes, it’s just looking at a P and L and understanding how all of these costs add up to you actually making a buck at the end of the day.
What happened when you left, where did you go after you left Chris?
In quick, quick succession I went to Bouley. Then Gotham Bar and Grill. Then Gabriels. And then Judson Grill. And then Gramercy Tavern in 1995.
One of my questions is between David Bouley and Danny Meyer and Alfred Portale, what are the lessons learned on all sides? With that many contrasting styles, what did you get out of that whole experience?
The 28 days that I worked at Ouellet were probably the most influential of my entire career because they taught me exactly how not to run a restaurant and then the other places just helped me to continue to hone in my love of the industry. I actually opened JUdson Grill with Chris in February of ’94, and it was tough. Stetson Grill took a long time to come around. And that was due to the perseverance and stubbornness of Chris Cannon. I left after 10 months because I thought the restaurant was not going to succeed. I had done all I could. Chris was a friend in addition to being a mentor and I needed to continue to grow and experience and I couldn’t do it there anymore. And so that’s why I went to work for Gramercy Tavern. And I didn’t go to Gramercy to work for Danny Meyer; I went to Gramercy Tavern to work for Steve Olsen who is the opening Beverage Director and Service Director.
How has the Wine Bar concept grown and evolved?
I wasn’t always an inspiring wine guy, to me I’ve been an inspiring restaurateur but, you know, Steve Olson was a wine God to young patrons back in the ’90s – the type of bliss he created – all of these things. I knew the restaurant was successful; I had always been an admirer of Danny’s so it was going to be cool to work in a new, trendy, successful restaurant. I don’t want to downplay this, because, I was there for seven years. And Danny helped me to expand the universe of hospitality in my mind and helped me to hone in on what my place in the hospitality world would be like.
Talk to me about that for a second. So what was it he expanded and what did the vision end up being as a result of that?
Well, the primary thing is that you need to take care of your staff. The number one priority is his staff. His number two priority is the guest, his number three priority is the community, his number four priority is the purveyor, and then his number five priority is the bottom line. And ideally, if you do one through four well, the bottom line takes care of itself. We see restaurateurs nodding their heads and saying, oh yes, I get it, I’m going to do that. But, they don’t realize the energy, and the time, and the cost of taking care of your employees. Danny never strayed away from this.
Tell me about this.
We would make decisions in the restaurant. Restaurant Management 101 through the eyes of Danny Meyer, and I still practice it today, and as Danny likes to say when people leave his employment, that’s spreading the seeds of enlightened hospitality. So I would like to think that I’ve been a pretty damn good gardener in spreading the seeds of enlightened hospitality. But, you know, I also think I had the fundamentals somewhat, from my grandfather.
And he really helped to hone in on what these things were and my place in this world. And the second thing he did is he allowed us all to go and do what we wanted and fulfill our passions. So I was able to do things at that restaurant. It was certainly still Danny’s restaurant but I was allowed to do things there, certainly with the beverage program, and push the envelope on things. And Danny would support us in doing these things with all due respect to Cornell, the graduate program in restaurant management should be at Gramercy Tavern.
It sounds to me like really at that point you make a decision either I’m going to be in the real estate business or I’m going to be in the people business. And that seems to be what you got from that. Is that an accurate portrayal?
Let’s not underestimate Danny Meyer. He’s an exceptionally smart individual, and he took a massive risk in ’85 by opening Union Square Cafe, on East 15th Street and then one might say he did the same thing in 1994 when he opened Gramacy Tavern on East 20th Street in areas that were not lively like they are now by any stretch.
Now, in taking care of people does it always mean compensation? Does it include ongoing training?
Everything. Every single thing, and every staff member is different, their needs are different. But, you know, fundamentally there are two prime concerns. Am I going to make enough money to survive in New York City and am I going to get the schedule I want? Everything else follows. So and so is celebrating a birthday today. You know they live in New York; they’re away from their family who are all on the West Coast. Well, we’re going to have a birthday celebration for them at work.
How does your wine bar program differ from other restaurants?
When one day I write the book of the history of wine bars, it would be it taught us that you don’t have to be big. That you can be in a very small space. So that, real estate-wise, or occupancy cost-wise, you can afford to do what you do. That you need minimal staffing, and that you can have a point of view. Then we started to see that even in a small space, you can continue to push the envelope of wine even further. When we buy wine I don’t buy it to please the customers. I buy it to please us. I buy it for me. I buy it for my staff. I do it to challenge us. Then our job is to educate the customers. We just don’t drop a wine list in front of you and walk away, and just let you order, and we can’t talk about the wines. We want to have a conversation with you; in fact, I would love to one day not have a wine list. You just come in with your family and your friends, you sit down, and we have a conversation about grape juice, and then I bring you stuff.
And I’m going to teach you about it. It makes it fun because it changes every day. It’s never the same. Listen, you know, it’s the world of wine that we love. I can never compete with Daniel or any of those restaurants in terms of verticality. I can’t afford to acquire the 10-year offerings of Latour or Lafite but what thrills me is finding a cool indigenous varietal from Hungary or Croatia, getting some cool expression of grape juice from Uruguay or Brazil.
Those are the things that rock my world. Not that I’m going to be an uber Bordeaux, burgundy, champagne guy, and have a thousand selections with incredible depth. I can’t afford it, and there are guys out there that are much better than me. That’s when you go to Terroir, my challenge to my staff and myself is that we’re going to have a wine list that even you as a wine lover would open it up and go I don’t even know any of these wines. If that happens, then I’ve succeeded.
What makes Riesling special?There was never an ah-ha moment where I had to rethink and was like, Oh my God, my life has changed. It was over a lot of years. If there was one fundamental wine in there it would probably be the 1976 JJ Pr Riesling Spatlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr. But I think most beverage directors and sommeliers love Riesling. We love its acidity. We love its balance and all of those things. When sommeliers get together and drink Riesling and all of that stuff -everyone says God I wish our guests would drink more Riesling.
You’ve compared wine to a Zamboni, please explain.
Well, I’ll never be a hockey player. Maybe one day, I’ll be a Zamboni driver.
But, you know, you take a bite of food, you have a sip of wine, and that acid cleans the palate, so that you can have another bite of food. Much like the Zamboni cleans the ice and lays down a brand new sheet of ice so the guys can keep playing hockey.
Does the wine drive your menus or the menu dictates the wine list?
I’m a restaurateur first. I was born in a restaurant. But you know my love of wine came secondary to my love of the restaurant industry and hospitality. So, I’m a restaurateur first, I’m not a beverage guy first. I’ve made that my reputation, it may be my forte and it’s absolutely a love of mine, because the world of wine involves so many different disciplines that drive it.
Crystal Ball? Additional NY restaurants, Las Vegas?
There’s nothing inspiring me right now that other people are not already doing. What inspires me though is taking Terroir to the masses. That’s what I want to do. I want to be the Starbucks of the Wine bar world. I want Terrior in every city. But I want to be the place where everyone can come to for education, for inspiration, and for a damn good glass of grape juice. With or without food.