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Michael White, Tapped Out in NYC, Looks to Asia

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Throughout the New York City Food & Wine Festival this weekend, Eater welcomes bloggers, journalists and food world stars to our lounge at the Standard Hotel. As the peeps pass through, we're going to chat them up and spit out the dialogue here in this business, From the Eater Lounge. Right now: Michael White.

Osteria Morini: how's it going one week in. It's great. It's packed. It’s only a week old. I’m on my way back there now. How is this opening different then your other ones? You know the one thing that’s difficult is it only 85 seats and it’s already too small. We’ve already had to turn 400 people away on the reservation line and 250 people at the door last night. I want everyone to be able to enjoy it.

Would you be able to get in if you were going at 6pm on a weekday? It’s definitely not a problem and late at night as well. It's a great late night spot. But it’d be impossible on the weekend. And we don’t take too many reservations because the amount of walk-ins is important.

So compared to other openings has it been more busy? No they’re all the same and they’re all difficult. We have more to do yet, more tweaking.

What do you want to tweak? You told me last week you wanted to change the music? We’re working on the music, the overall vibe. Also the food. We’re trying different things and getting to know our kitchen and the menu. The porchetta was recently added for one. When you see that people are eating pasta and meat then you can lighten up on other things, on the antipasti, and you can’t tell that until you open up and grow. Then you start to see trends.

And Ai Fiori is coming down the pike next month. Will you explain it for readers quickly who might not know what it is. It’s a luxury restaurant in the new Setai hotel on 5th avenue. The hotel is going to have 200 rooms and another 200 of residential condos. We’re going to have three services: breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a hotel so we have to be open. We have to focus on the hotel. We really brought a great team of people together.

So I have to ask. What is your reaction to Drew Nieporent's claim that you poach the city's best talent? Everyone is mad at me right now. If you read the comments, people on Eater seem to be on your side. You know it's unfortunate. I have a tremendous amount of respect for everyone. It’s a tightly-knit business and you want to show what people can do. And they’re going to leave that post anyway. One of the first questions you ask is “Are you looking to leave that business?” And if the answer is yes, then we move forward and can build that team. I want people to know that. You know, people think I’m flipping every pastas in every restaurant, and of course I’m not. So building a great team is really important. It’s been great and I’ve been very fortunate, and people want to go work somewhere great. We’re doing the best we can to build an all-star team.

So this will be your fifth place in Manhattan. At what point do you know, how many restaurants is too many? Well the press has said “White’s like the squid that ate Manhattan.” And I certainly don’t want to be the squid that ate Manhattan. It just happens that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity right now because of the downturn we’ve had. We’re putting real dollars into these restaurants though. We're signing 20-year leases and I own all of them, not operating companies. In Osteria Morini we’ve really transformed it from floor to ceiling to the tables. We’re really putting a lot of money into the restaurant.

Are you tapped out in New York? Yes, right now we are looking to other places. Hong Kong, the Middle East, Asia, Singapore. There’s a lot of stuff going on. In Hong Kong there are 76,000 millionaires and they love Italian food. Clams, shrimp, sauce, chilis these are things they can associate with. So we can translate it well to Italian. There’s a ton of Italian restaurants in Asia and I just want to have a part of it. Also, you know it’s just getting to have a team that wants to do new things. All the people that work with me, they want to do other things. So I would be doing a disservice If I didn’t open more things right now.

Danny Meyer has said the same thing before. Yes, because I’m not going to do this forever so they can keep on after I’m done. What about the ingredients you’re able to get in Hong Kong. I know the US has a lot of restrictions on what can be used. Is that something you’re looking forward to? One of the great parts about Hong Kong is we can get things from Italy that we can’t get in the U.S. We have restrictions on certain types of seafood because the bivalves aren’t allowed. We can’t bring in salami from small producers in Italy because of the restrictions. But we can do that in Hong Kong. Certain aspects of the kitchen will be better because of what we can bring in.

So the new Michelin rating. Did you do anything differently to go from one star to two? Well in any kind of restaurant when it’s new, it would be impossible to get a two-star rating right away. We opened in May of 2009, so we had very little time before they visited to get a feel for it. They do come throughout the year, so they got a chance to see all the different menus we do. It’s a very seasoned restaurant now. Plus the wine list is built up. It’s very rewarding to know we’re so busy because we’re a free standing without the built in clientele of a hotel.
· All NYCWFF Coverage [~ENY~]

Ai Fiori

400 5th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10018 (212) 613-8660 Visit Website

Osteria Morini

218 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012 Visit Website

Marea

240 Central Park South, Manhattan, NY 10019 (212) 582-5100 Visit Website

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