NEW YORK’S CULINARY KINGS
BY JILL SIERACKI
Regardless of whether you consider yourself a “foodie” or just dabble in New York gastronomy, you have certainly heard the names Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, and Danny Meyer. The three men represent more than two dozen Manhattan eateries, ranging in size and scope from a New York Times four-star establishment to a multifaceted gourmet market or casual burger chain so popular even New Yorkers are willing to wait hours in line. However, their accomplishments are hardly limited to the kitchen—each has expanded his empire into products, cookbooks, and even television programs.
And while their areas of expertise greatly vary, there are many things the three have in common. “A through-line between us is restaurants with soul,” says Meyer. “You can’t be born with soul, but you can definitely earn soul over time, and it starts with the spirit of the restaurateur. It starts with the sense that nothing matters more than having this idea, pulling together a really talented team to execute the idea, caring deeply about the relationship between your idea and the staff, guests, and community, and you end up with these relationships with your alumni, with the regulars at the restaurant, with your community— it’s a really cool thing.”
Over the course of their careers, these three restaurateurs have produced an exemplary roster of alumni—Tom Colicchio, Andrew Carmellini, and White House executive pastry chef Billy Yosses among them—and in the coming months will be celebrating several milestones: Boulud will be marking the 20th anniversary of his namesake Upper East Side restaurant Daniel next fall as well as launching a new cookbook and restaurant in Toronto. Meyer is expanding his Shake Shack brand to Long Island and Connecticut, finishing Family Table, a cookbook filled with menus from nightly staff dinners, and releasing a new cookbook from Gramercy Tavern. Batali is expanding his Eataly empire, opening Carnevino in Hong Kong, and finishing In Search of the Genuine, a book cowritten by Jim Harrison about game cooking throughout the Midwest and beyond.
Here, as the city prepares to celebrate all-things epicurean at the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival, which hosts events across Manhattan and Brooklyn October 11 through 14, Batali, Boulud, and Meyer gathered at Meyer’s Maialino to discuss Yelpers’ influence on New York dining, being the Ivy League of restaurants, and the importance of staying the course.
How do you think this month’s Food Network New York Wine & Food Festival has impacted the dining scene in the city?
MARIO BATALI: When I look at the year, I see that there are really three events that I pay attention to. The first one has always been the James Beard Foundation Awards; then there’s the Big Apple Barbeque Block Party (it just brings in so much information, so many cool people, and different stuff than we would normally do); and then the Wine & Food Festival. It makes sure that we’re always still at the crossroads. It’s bringing everyone in, first of all for them to show us what they are doing, but also it gives us the opportunity and the pride to show people what we’re doing.
DANNY MEYER: And this particular one has also done great things to fight hunger. They raise an enormous amount of money for the Food Bank for New York City and Share Our Strength.
DANIEL BOULUD: We are in the business of entertaining people, but we are not in the business of entertaining them publicly. And I think Wine & Food offers an opportunity to be entertained with the great chefs, the great talents, the great foods.
For each of you, the majority of your restaurants are in New York. Why have you chosen to base your careers here?
DM: I don’t know of a city on earth that has a better balance of talented staff, a more sophisticated potential clientele from which you can draw, and a more interested media to shine a light if you do a good job. You have those three things together; where else would you rather be?
MB: You can totally curate an experience to the exact level that you want, knowing that even if you turn a few people off, because there’s such a good volume here, you’ll turn even more people on. In New York City, even if 2 million people hate you, there are 9 million left—and you don’t say that with some strange, swollen self-worth. It’s more that if we decide to play this music, have the lights like this, and serve this kind of food, there is a group of people who are going to support that.
DB: After living in France, I went to Denmark, and I realized that I was in a country with no audience. To me, coming to New York meant you could stay who you are and you’re going to have an audience for it with the money to support what we can do, which is great food, great service, great wine.
What do you see as the exciting culinary trends happening in New York right now?
DM: Better beverages. Chefs at breakfast are looking at fresh-pressed juices the same way that they’re looking at beer, coffee, and wine—and it should have the same level of sophistication.
DB: Growing food on your roof like Danny does at North End Grill; that’s the big thing. [Tribeca Grill chef] Don Pintabona was trying to open a mushroom farm in an old silo in Brooklyn. Urban farming is how close we can bring it to the consumer. That’s interesting, but we’re not really chasing the trends.
DM: Everything that we do is based on classic technique and hospitality. And what’s great is you get to see how people who have graduated from our kitchens put their own twist on that technique and make something their own. New York is an incredibly expensive city in which to open a restaurant, which is why you see so much casual stuff happening, especially in Brooklyn.
MB: When I got here in 1992 the East Village was where people who couldn’t open a restaurant or an atelier went because the rent was low and the threshold to get into your own business was much lower. Now the East Village is expensive, and the people are in Williamsburg. You find the crazy, arty ideas in places where the thresholds to get into the game are much lower.
DM: When there are fewer seats to fill, you can have a sharper point of view: I don’t need salmon on my menu if I only have 22 seats; as soon as I have 180 seats, I have to have salmon. Every year that I’ve been in this business, there’s a new trend. The first year I got into business in New York City, 1985, the big trend was mesquite grilling. Then two years later the next trend was architectural presentation on the plate. The next t rend was making your sauces out of vegetable juices. A restaurant needs to stand the test of time, and, year in and year out, the staff is great, the food is consistent, the place is full—it is so much harder than you think to do that, especially because the media loves to focus on what’s brand new and you can only be new once. In order to stay in business and stay busy, you’re really developing a culture.
What is a unique challenge to operating a restaurant in New York?
MB: The tendency to constantly chase the microhits that involve being very hip right now. In a world where social media is becoming so relevant, it can often deter you from keeping a very steady ship, thinking, I so want to do a pop-up restaurant with René Redzepi, but in the long term, maybe your brand is better served by a slightly longer vision. There’s so much temptation to involve yourself in the things that everyone does. My greatest weakness is always wanting to copy somebody else very quickly, and in New York City there’s no better place to do that.
DB: Once you drop somewhere, you start to really root yourself. I stay in the Upper East Side; I landed there by coincidence in 1982, and I never left the zip code.
DM: I agree 100 percent. The only thing maybe is the other side of the coin of what Mario said is that in a city that has so many restaurants and so many people commenting on those restaurants….
MB: Yelpers, we call them….
DM: ….it’s increasingly hard to come up with an idea that is both fresh and relevant today. The fads come and go; they always have, but the one thing that remains is everyone wants to go out, be well treated, and eat good food. I don’t think any of us shies away from competition.
What are some restaurants that you enjoy going to that are not your own?
DB: The first week I arrived in New York, the president of the hotel I was working for said, “We’d like to take you to the best restaurant,” and they took me to the Four Seasons. I didn’t really understand what “the best” meant at that time, but for most birthdays for the past 25 years, I’ve been going to the Four Seasons just because I love that place.
MB: My birthday is coming up, and it’s actually between the Four Seasons (because my children have never been there) and Blanca, which is [Bushwick restaurant] Roberta’s tasting menu place. I’m going to let the kids choose.
DM: Out of 10 dining experiences, I really like six of them to be at a place I’ve never been because I learn something new, but I also really like going to four that have been around for a long time. I love going to restaurants that have the equivalent of bottle age, where the pedigree has shown through, and the restaurant has actually enriched itself. Of the new places I try, I would say that 90 percent of them are either opened by friends or by alumni.
MB: Let me just suggest that each of us choosing four restaurants, three of those four will be within four to six blocks of our house because that’s how New Yorkers operate. I will go to Pearl Oyster Bar at least once or twice a month.
DM: That’s Casa Mono for us.
MB: You go to these places because they give you exactly what you came for. People aren’t going to take a taxi up to Rao’s even if they like lemon chicken and fusilli with cabbage and sausage. New Yorkers are very geographically based. In a city where it is so tempting to be segmented into being the pizza guy or the dumpling guy, how do you define yourselves?
MB: All three of us are the guys who no longer want our restaurants to be a dinner party. We want to offer a variety of experiences. We’re not the meatball guy—although we’ll have a great meatball—sadly and yet remarkably, we’re The Man. We are not the indie band, although we were the indie bands when we started, and we have indie band brains. We’re the guys who the young guys have to figure out how to beat or compete with.
DM: If I were going to make a metaphor, it would be almost like being three great universities because I think that people who come through our restaurants to work go on to do really remarkable things. I would love if the metaphor is that we were universities—Ivy League no less.
NY Culinary Kings
NEW YORK’S CULINARY KINGS