Restaurant Hospitality editor Mike Sanson attended the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 18-21. The event attracts more than 5,000 attendees, celebrated chefs, wine makers and spirits experts. A component of the festival is several trade panels designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson’s focus was on covering those trade panels and interviews with top chefs and industry experts attending the event.
At the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, several revered chefs sat down to discuss the progress of their careers and, specifically, how they decide which deals to accept and which deals to reject. The panel discussion was held during the American Express Restaurant Trade Program and was moderated by Andrew Zimmern, a three-time James Beard Award winner and host of the Bizarre Foods franchise on the Travel Channel. Sitting on the panel were:
• Jose Garces, a James Beard Award winner, Iron Chef and the operator of more than a dozen Philadelphia restaurants
• Marcus Samuelsson, a James Beard Award winner who recently staked a claim in New York City’s Harlem, where he has two restaurants and a supper club
• Gabrielle Hamilton, a James Beard Award winner who has operated the much-revered Prune restaurant in Manhattan for more than 20 years.
• Michael White, a James Beard Award winner who is the chef/partner of Altamarea Group, which operates more than a dozen restaurants around the world
Zimmern got the conversation rolling by commenting that when it comes to thought leadership, “no” is the most powerful work in the English language. “This comes from a man who is the self-proclaimed captain of yes,” he said. Nevertheless, it was his learned ability to say “no” that helped advance his career. He asked the panelists how they determine what projects to accept or reject.
“Going uptown (to Harlem) forced me to start thinking local and decide what I couldn’t do anymore,” Samuelsson explained. His goal, he added, was to become part of the community and adapt his offerings to that community. His first restaurant there, Red Rooster, which specializes in fried chicken and other comfort food classics, is a far cry from the upscale restaurant (Aquavit) that put him on the culinary map. Red Rooster and his latest, Streetbird Rotisserie, better connect with the community he now calls home.
Zimmern: At some point when someone comes to you and says we have $5 million we can give you to open your restaurant with the kitchens of your dreams, how do you respond?
Samuelsson: This time around I wanted to do it my own way with sweat equity.
Zimmern: Michael, your first restaurant was a temple of gastronochmy. But the economy tanked and you have this luxury restaurant. You must have had 700 people in your ear saying, “Go to an all-pasta restaurant, dumb it down, open Mickey Mantle II.”
White: What happened during that time (2008) is that people began to get very choosy about where they spend their dollars. They were looking for an experience and cutting back on frequency. We provided that experience (without dumbing the restaurant down).
Zimmern: Jose, when I first came to Philly you had two restaurants and now you’re up to 19 restaurants.
Garces: I started in 2005 with Amada, a Spanish tapas place. That’s where it all began. Back then I was a lot more opportunistic. A developer offered us great deals in a B or C location and I took them. I had a lot of ideas; I wanted to get them out there and I took them. At this point I’m definitely more strategic about where we go next.
Zimmern: In the last three or four years, Philadelphia has changed dramatically. It, more than any other big city in America, is on fire (culinarily speaking).
Garces: I worked for Steve Starr for 5 years prior to opening Amada in 2015. I saw him put 13 restaurants in the market during my tenure there. I felt there was room in the market and I had a set of ideas and goals about opening more Latin cuisine in the marketplace, whether it was contemporary Mexican, an Argentinian grill or a Basque restaurant. Five years with him gave me the confidence to do my own thing.
Zimmern: At a certain point you win Iron Chef, your face is on TV all of a sudden you become a globally recognized talent. There must have been someone in your face saying you should do Sushi by JG.
Garces: I was really disciplined about the style of cuisine we were going to do. Saying no to things like that was pretty easy. I knew that Latin cuisine is where my heart was and that I was driven to be a Latin chef and I’m still on that drive.
Zimmern: If I ask chefs in New York City who they would like to see branch out into other cities, they would all say you, Gabrielle. You have become one of the four or five people in the country where chefs want to eat at your place more than just about anywhere else. Yet you remain at one restaurant. “No” has become a big word for you.
Hamilton: All the chefs say they admire me for staying true and that they want to come to my restaurant. But in a way, it’s as if they’re saying, “Yeah, Gabrielle, you go girl, and stay broke.” I never make any freaking money (at Prune) and it makes me think should I be doing more.
Zimmern: What is Prune to you?
Hamilton: It’s a feeling. When you walk in you know what’s happening and you can feel it. There’s a beating heart. It’s my heart, which is bleeding all over the place (laughs). It couldn’t be replicated. I have put all myself into one and I haven’t learned how to do more than one. I understand the things I don’t want. I have one restaurant, but I also want to write books and I do want to occasionally see my children and pat them on the head. So having one restaurant, writing (award winning) cookbooks and seeing my kids is a full day.
Zimmern: You have found what makes you happy and you live your life the way you want to.
Hamilton: When you say no to all the opportunities, it can be lonely. But you gather all the people who are like you and you become a community of like-minded people. That’s satisfying.
Zimmern: What inspires you, Michael?
White: I am the luckiest guy in the world. I cook primarily Italian and I get to not just focus on one restaurant but on a whole palate of Italian restaurants. When I travel I get inspiration from all over the world, whether it’s in China or elsewhere. You can learn from chefs everywhere.
Zimmern: How does Italian translate around the world?
White: What makes it interesting is the quest for ingredients. Italian cooking is all about using the best ingredients and it’s not always easy getting them. For example, we have a restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey, and there is a huge import tax, so getting balsamic vinegar into the country costs 150 percent more than here. On the flip side, they have wonderful vegetables. In Hong Kong, you can get anything you want because there are no import restrictions. That makes it very easy and what’s even better is that when you import broccoli rabe there, you’re getting broccoli rabe that still has the flowers on it. Whereas in this country, we’re getting broccoli rabe from California and it’s short and stubby and not the same as getting it from Puglia.
Zimmern: Marcus, how do you decide what your next move is?
Samulsson: My feelings are very much like Gabrielle’s. I have a soft spot for Prune. It’s very much an original and it represents the neighborhood it’s in, just like Drew’s (Nieporent’s) restaurants did in Tribeca. So my restaurants must represent the neighborhood they are in and cater to the likes of the customers there.
Zimmern: Red Rooster is one of those restaurants that has a heartbeat. You feel it. You know why it’s different.
Samuelsson: I’ve thought about growth for a very long time and how to I do it. I knew my first restaurant had to be bird (cause of the fried chicken element). I was also inspired by the neighborhood, so I found a corner where all the drug dealers hung out and I turned a negative into a positive.
Zimmern: Jose, you have a lot on your plate and your company has grown quite large.
Garces: People ask me all the time, “How do you do it? You have all these restaurants, you have a foundation and a farm.” I break it all down into three buckets: family first, the farm and restaurants (culinary creativity). I divide my day into those buckets. I ask myself: What are we doing locally? How are we better incorporating local artisans into what we do? How do I inspire my team? I’m still the culinary director and I have three or four very talented chefs whom I try to inspire every day. Frankly, that’s my favorite part of the day. The philanthropic foundation is also important. We have the Garces Foundation and we help the underserved immigrant community with health care and farm programs. Between those three buckets and raising two kids, that’s probably all I can do. I can still do those things and stay relaxed and have a happy life. As far as the current concepts, it’s about staying relevant, on brand and staying focused. I have two kids who keep me grounded.
Zimmern: I thrive on the frenetic. I’m at my best with 200 things going on. Everything tends to slow down and I see the playing field better. How do you deal with it all?
Hamilton: We are freaking cooks and we feed people and the community. And even when we are growing an empire, we ask others if they are okay, did you get what you needed, can I take care of you? It’s so not grotesque to do what we do.
Zimmern: The single greatest community of people is the culinary field. When there is a call for charity, we are there. When the disaster relief people need to be fed, we are there.
Hamilton: But we want to retire, we want to relax, but we have to make a living. It’s difficult way to make a good living, but it is fulfilling.
Audience question: Do you embrace social media in your restaurants or do you stay away.
White: If someone wants to take a picture with me, I say “Yes.” There are certain chefs who say “No.” Are you out of your mind? People ask if they can take photos of the food. Yes! That’s just the world we live in right now. There are probably 200,000 photos of any one particular dish in my restaurant. The reach is terrific.
Hamilton: I don’t care what anybody does in terms of social media, I’m not interested. I’ve stay on my path and I’m still here.
Audience question: How do you feel about a customer requesting a deviation from a menu item?
White: We are in the hospitality business. So many of our peers forget that. They have made a reservation and come to your restaurant. There is a small fraction of people in the business who say, “no, you can’t have it that way.” But if you want to build your client base, you say “Yes.” Of course, you don’t go crazy with it. But if you can help people enjoy their experience that much more, you say “Yes.”
Hamilton: I am happy to do anything I can that I know how to do. I’m not up on all the allergy restrictions and gluten-free, but I’m here to take care of you and I don’t want to hurt you in any way and I’ll do anything I can to help you out. However, it’s confusing for me when the guest’s allergy exists all the way through dinner but as soon as they get to dessert they toss it out the window.
Garces: I’ll do basically anything I can. If they want eggs Benedict at 7 p.m. Saturday night, I’ll do it.
Contact Michael Sanson at [email protected].