Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
In a little over a year, Marea, Michael White and Chris Cannon’s Italian seafood restaurant on Central Park South, has become as much of a fixture of the fine dining scene as some of the city’s great old timers and four-star restaurants. Although the duo’s future projects may be getting a lot of buzz these days, Michael and Chris are still constantly honing the menu and the service at Marea, and making sure that the dining experience is fun and approachable. We recently caught up with the two to chat about how the restaurant came together during a difficult time in the economy, the legacy it has built up in a very short time, and how they maintain the same level of quality at not only Marea, but at all of their restaurants throughout the city.
Chris Cannon, partner: It was about two years ago, maybe a year and a half, that we actually were thinking about doing a seafood restaurant. A bigger place downtown and something at a lower price point—the economy wasn’t very good. We thought that that would work and we spent four or five months looking at spaces. We were looking more downtown for something at a lower price point. More of a big seafood brasserie, or if not a brasserie, a big seafood concept. Michael White, chef and partner: We have a Southern Italian restaurant, Convivio, we have a Northern Italian restaurant in Alto, so it was natural to put this into the portfolio, because Italy is surrounded by water. So we definitely wanted to have a seafood restaurant, because seafood restaurants have always thrived in New York City. There's good seafood in the stores here, but to get that kind of quality, I mean — we’re a very fortunate restaurant of this kind of caliber to get really, really great seafood. So it's easy to make people happy as long as we treat the ingredients correctly. We're using really, really, top-notch seafood. And, in the Italian way, treating it very simply. And, especially in this space — we’re so fortunate to be on the park, in a historic space, such as this. Once it became available, we really wanted to have it.
What was your relationship to the space before moving in? CC: Well, it’s interesting, because Michael worked for the original San Domenico for six, seven years in Italy, and actually with Tony May as the general manager of Palio from 1986-1989, so we had a lot of connection to the space from two different ways. I’d met the owner of San Domenico in Italy many times, and the architect that we’d used to design the space, so it was kind of this strange circle of? we were looking at this like it all made sense. What was the build like? CC: I feel like that was pretty direct. MW: We got the whole space, and they hadn’t really changed all the mechanicals of the space for 25 years or more. And one thing the landlord was very enthused about was that he wanted us to upgrade all the air conditioning systems, the ventilation systems, and everything. So, we managed to get a very long-term lease, but it made sense to us.
Did you do any research before putting together the menu? CC: There was definitely research. We always go on trips together and eat. We have the concept, and we say "let’s go to taste food here, here, and here." We ended up going to three different regions. MW: Having worked in Italy for seven plus years, seafood is something that’s always very important to me, so we wanted to run the whole gamut of seafood, and that’s why we have such a large menu. There’s no rules here at Marea in the sense that you can sit at the bar and have the menu, you can sit in the dining room and have the menu. You’re not constricted to have a whole three course menu, you can come in and have a crudo and a pasta and leave. We wanted to have that part of fun. It’s a serious restaurant, but you can come here and feel relaxed. CC:I think that’s very American. Americans don’t want to feel pigeonholed into feeling like they have to have four courses? especially in this economy. People come here, and a lot of them are like, “Oh my god, I have to come here eight times just to go through the rest of the menu," which was kind of a planned thing on our part. All the great seafood restaurants around the world have great menus, because you have your soups, you have your oysters and clams, you have your cold fish, you have your hot fish, and with Italian food you have your crudo and pasta. So, as it ended up, we have 70, 80 items. MW: It moves around. But, yeah, 70 plus, all the time.
That must be a challenge to have so many different kinds of fresh fish on one menu. CC: We’re fortunate. One of those catch 22 situations with seafood is that we built a menu to be busy, and it makes us busy. The fish is fantastic as well, because the volume we move through means that the fish we’re selling today we got in today, because we sell it all out in a day. The demand is huge, but as long as people come in and enjoy the experience, the fish is always going to be some of the best in the city. We have the capacity to bring in really interesting fish from around the world, and really provide a great experience.
Did you have the staff you wanted when you opened? CC: What we tend to do is hire people well ahead of time. When we find somebody good, we’ll hire them, we’ll put them to work at one of our other restaurants for a while. So, the chef de cuisine here has worked as a sous chef at Alto for one and a half, two years. All the key player here had worked with us for a long period before they came here. So, they were familiar with us, we were familiar with them, we didn’t have to waste a lot of time communicating simple thing.
So how did the opening go? MW: We were very busy right away. At that time in New York, there was not a lot of things opening. So, it was all eyes on us. But we haven’t slowed down since then, I mean, it’s really been busy.CC: It was scary in the sense that the press was like “how can you open a restaurant in this economy,” and we were like, “we think this is the best time to open.”
So you weren't nervous about opening a fine dining restaurant in that economy? You know? no. Because we felt that the advantages of opening up with those kinds of prices were that there was nobody else to compete with you, and you get a lot of the attention from the press. And our plan was to be kind of quietly confident that we could provide a really great experience. We had total confidence in the location – I mean, how many restaurants are around Central Park in New York? And, you know, New York still needs fine dining restaurants, because we have some really amazing people living in New York that don’t want to go to a place where there’s no reservations, and no tablecloths, and where it’s uncomfortable. I think we managed to understand both that need, and understand the fact that the fine dining restaurant needs to adjust slightly to be a little more accepting of different kinds of people coming in, and different kinds of dining experiences. Our feeling was that the Italian idiom for a fine dining restaurant should be more convivial and fun.
What were the challenges of the kitchen when you opened? MW: Well, every day is challenging because we work with a fresh product, and we’re constantly foraging for a new project every single day. Because of sustainability — there are bodies of water that open and close once they reach quotas. We have fourteen purveyors that provide us with seafood, we don’t use one or two houses, but each purveyor does a specific thing. One purveyor does just one oyster for us, or they do one scallop for us. So we take it really seriously. We don’t just make a blanket order to a large seafood house. That’s how you get to have this great seafood. You don’t just do it by one-stop shopping.
What was the reviewing process like? CC: It wasn’t that fast. Because, it took us six and a half, seven months to get a New York Times review, because Bruni had come in once, and we thought that he was going to do it, and then we found out he wasn’t going to do it. Usually it takes three months for a New York Times review and here it took six, so we were kind of on pins and needles. We were on call 24 hours a day for six months—by the time that was over, we were pretty tired. It ended up being kind of a benefit for the staff, because for six months they were on such a high level of alert they really, really, really have maintained that kind of intensity still to this day. They take it really seriously, because, they didn’t know anything else.
So, when you saw Frank Bruni, did you think that you might be his last review? CC:That’s what the word was, a little bit. MW: As much as that is a focus, we have to focus on our guests. If one gets too wrapped up in? we’ve just got to make sure that we’re doing our best work every day. People ask why we don’t do competitions?it’s because we do competition every day. It's like we’re playing for market share in New York City, every day. It's all about having guests walking out of the restaurant and having them maybe make a reservation on the way out. It’s really? not to be corny or cliché, but that’s what it’s all about.
As your restaurant group expands, how do you make sure the quality stays the same? CC: I try and go to all the restaurants three or four nights a week and sit at the bar and try and order dishes, sometimes dishes like the fusilli to try and make sure that they tastes the same. And I eat in the dining room as opposed to eating it in the kitchen. I’ll go to Alto, I stopped by Convivio last night on the way home. You catch little things, and sometimes it's just tiny little things – they forgot to put enough salt in the pasta water, they put too many breadcrumbs in or whatever. That, I think, is one of my largest contributions now, to eat in the restaurant as often as I can for quality control, and to be analytical. It’s hard when you do the same dish over and over again, to keep the vibrancy of the dish there.
Michael, as a chef, how do you make sure that dishes keep that consistency? MW: Well... Where’s your go to neighborhood place? Like where do you eat more than anywhere else? It’s a takeout Mexican place called Yummy Taco. MW: And what do you have there? Usually an order of chicken tacos. MW: But you have that chicken and it’s fucking the same way every time, right? Yeah, they’re right on the money every time. MW: There you go, that’s consistency, Yummy Taco is the same thing as Marea, because you go to Yummy Taco because you love the fucking chicken tacos. That’s why you go. And you probably get the same thing every time right? Yes, that’s true. MW: It’s the same thing with the fusilli with octopus and bone marrow. It’s got to be the same every time. It’s the truth. It’s important, because the day that the chicken tacos aren’t the same at Yummy Taco, you’re going to be fucking pissed. It’s the same thing with octopus and bone marrow. If we’re not buying the baby octopus, or they’re tough one day, people are going to be pissed. It’s all about consistency. You make it great one or two times, no big deal. You make it great 20,000 times? It’s like, how did McDonald’s become McDonald's? The fries are the same everywhere.
What's next for Marea? MW: Marea is this thing that’s moving all the time, because of the fact that we have great relationships with our fishmongers, whether they are from Portugal or Italy, so it’s always moving. We’re going to continue to do what we always do, there are probably 70 plus items on the menu, and of those, there are probably six to eight items that we won’t be able to take off the menu because we create problems with guests because they come for certain items. It’s not about what I like, it’s about what the customer wants. CC: Good restaurants are always making minor adjustments to the menu and the service based on what’s going on in the marketplace. We go out to eat quite often, and we see what’s happening. And as opposed to making radical changes in one shot, five years from now, after it’s too late, we’re constantly adjusting, so you always feel fresh and current.
· All Marea Coverage on Eater [~ENY~]