You Don't Have to Look hard to see Peter Karpinski's fashionable, eclectic style in any of Sage Restaurant Group's properties. Sage operates Second Home Kitchen and Bar, an urban retreat putting a modern spin on timeless favorites, and The Corner Office, a retro-style restaurant and bar, both in Denver; Temple Downtown, a contemporary American bistro in Providence, RI; and Mercat a la Planxa, a modern Catalan tapas restaurant in Chicago. This fall, the Denver-based group will launch Departure and Urban Farmer: Portland's Steak-house, both in Portland, OR.
When asked what inspires Sage's senior v.p., he can't quite tell you, but the answer is obvious. Being able to work from a blank canvas and turn it into not just a restaurant, but an entire experience is, as Karpinski puts it, “a thrilling proposition.” Contributor J. L. Becker recently asked him about that style.
RH: How do you balance each of your concepts without being too generic or gimmicky?
Karpinski: I try to immerse myself in the city where the concept will live. I take stock of what people want and need there. I especially try to get a feel for what is lacking. Plus, with each of our concepts being so different, we have a library of ideas to use as a point of reference. Take our most recent concept, Departure, for example. It sits on top of the Meier & Frank Building in Portland. It is a Pan Asian concept that blends Portland's pioneering past with its progressive future. It's a really aggressive project with incredible architecture and it's a unique space for Portland.
RH: Why is that?
Karpinski: The design is as daring as the food, yet the atmosphere is cool and relaxed. There is an elegant lounge and a panoramic deck that sits just above the city center. It's uncommon to find outdoor dining in Portland, especially of this caliber. Departure not only fills that void, but it also brings value to the city. And I love to be a part of making the cities our concepts are in better places to live and work.
RH: Sounds like you put a lot of stock into your concept development. Is that part of your creative process?
Karpinski: I would say so. My ideas are based on the cornerstone of what I think is really important in life — perspective. I've been really fortunate to have been able to build up a great deal of perspective on life, people, cities, ethnicities and all the factors that can give you better perspective. I travel all the time. I make it a point to really get to know and understand places and cultures. In my work, I surround myself with people from all walks of life and all different backgrounds. Actually, most of my team members don't come from the restaurant business.
RH: You're quite the motley crew. If you had to pick another career, outside of the restaurant business, what would it be?
Karpinski: My philosophy is to love what you do and love who you do it with. So long as I was following that mantra, I think I could do pretty much anything. Given the choice, I think I would own and run a big winery.
RH: Why is that?
Karpinski: One of my most memorable meals was at a winery where I was helping pick the harvest. When we broke for lunch all the pickers sat around this long wooden table, while the chef brought us all different types of fresh grilled meats and fish that were cooked over cuttings from the vineyard. It was one of the most magical meals I've ever had.
RH: Do you have a favorite wine?
Karpinski: Of course, champagne!
RH: So you have memorable meals. Do you have a favorite meal, too?
Karpinski: I don't know that I have just one favorite. My favorite Sage Restaurant Group dish is the Fried Chicken and Waffles at The Corner Office, though.
RH: What if you had to eat just one meal for the rest of your life?
Karpinski: First, I hope that never actually happens to me. Second, I would probably choose a big bowl of Cheerios with raw milk, fresh strawberries and honey.
RH: You're a breakfast person!
Karpinski: Actually, no. My wife has been trying to get me to eat breakfast since the day we met. It hasn't worked, though. In the morning all I want is a really rich dark cup of coffee with cream and sugar. My daughter, however, loves breakfast. Whenever I'm home, she insists I make it for her.
RH: Kids can be picky eaters, so you must be pretty good behind the stove.
Karpinski: I can whip up some tasty scrambled eggs and pierogies.
RH: Are there any specific characteristics that you look for in a great chef?
Karpinski: I look for high levels of specialized culinary skills, high financial acumen and a sense of humility — a very rare combination.
RH: Do you have an equally high service standard?
Karpinski: You bet. Service should be on a personal level — from name recognition for guests, to welcomes and thank yous, to the presentation of the food. We are in the business of emotions and that is what a good brand is built on.
RH: What food trends interest you?
Karpinski: I love watching professional culinarians take food that is really pedestrian and translate it for modern America, like the pretzel-crusted crab cake at Temple Downtown or the lobster mac & cheese at The Corner Office.
RH: Mac & cheese is the ultimate guilty pleasure. When it comes to food, do you have any guilty pleasures?
Karpinski: Peanut M&Ms. RH