Writer Jasmine Moy recently sat down with Gabriel Stulman for Esquire to discuss the openings of his two fall newcomers Jeffrey's (check back here for a tour later today) and Fedora. But there was plenty more to talk about. Here now, she offers some extra tidbits and follow ups with the Joseph Leonard owner.
How easy was it to get your start in New York? GS: Not at all. I moved to New York and I ran into a brick wall. There’s this ignorant mentality that restaurant operators have, which is that you’ve got to have New York experience. This attitude that there’s no city anywhere else in this country that is busy, and there can’t be a single establishment anywhere in this country that has standards of quality, or that expects good or knowledgeable service. Every time I handed out a resume they’d say, “This is New York. Get some new york experience,” and how do you get it when nobody will give you a chance? 300 resumes later, I ended up doing coat check at a nightclub. There was promise of a bartender leaving, and when that bartender left, I could take the job. Sure enough that bartender left and instead of hiring me to do the job, they hired someone else.
I felt slighted so I quit. I ended up getting a job at a wine bar in the East Village called In Vino. I took it because working there is like being a bartender and a waiter, you basically run the place yourself. Then I ended up bartending for six months at Hearth working with Paul Greicco and Marco Canora and simultaneously as a bartender at Pace where I worked for a year. I left Pace and did the business plan for Little Owl after that.
You live in the building where Joseph Leonard is located. Which came first, the restaurant or the home? GS: It was an accident. I had been living for the last six years on Rivington Street and I loved my apartment. This building only has seven apartments and the majority of them are rent controlled and the tenants have been living there for twenty-plus years. The week Joseph Leonard was slated to open, somebody moved out. Since I was in here doing construction every day I heard about it before the place ever went on the market. My super was like, “Hey, you know Claudia’s moving out.” I said, “I did NOT know Claudia was moving out. Thank you.” And so I called up my landlord, went and checked out the apartment and it was just a no-brainer. "Wait, really? The opportunity to take naps?" YES.
So now you actually live in the neighborhood that you're constantly courting. The whole fuss about Fedora was that a lot of people were interested in the space and you were the one who won her over. How? GS: I think one thing that made Fedora feel comfortable and her family Marilyn and Charles is that it’s one thing to be able to say “I’m gonna do X, Y, and Z with the space.” It’s another thing to say, "Why don’t you come to my home and see what I do?" That’s what they did. They came here, they ate here and they did it once with me knowing and they did it a few times without me knowing because they reported to me and said, “oh, we were there for lunch. It was great, your staff is amazing."
You've said you're worried about criticism of Fedora, why the concerns about this space in particular? GS: I’m sure people are going to say, “Oh, it's just another place like Minetta, The Waverly, or The Lion,” all the ones people have likened to someone taking over an old institution and trying to revitalize the glory days of its heyday. Look, Keith McNally is in a league of his own. The guy is a champion. He’s The Man and I’ll never build anything as successful as anything he touches. The Lion is gorgeous, Waverly is a beautiful place that has its crowd. Why the city likes to put everybody in categories and shoe boxes is a mystery to me. We are excited to be doing something in the old Fedora space because it is a great physical space and has a rich history, but we are by no means trying to revive what it was. We are building our own thing there it just happens to be in one of the most storied spaces in the West Village.
And are you staffing it with more Wisconsin folks? You're probably employing most of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Alumni Association here at Joseph Leonard. GS: We’re also employing more people from Wisconsin across the street at Jeffrey’s. We want to rebrand this like little pocket, the three blocks from West 4th street down where Fedora is all the way down to like Christopher and Sixth Avenue. I’d like to rename this little area “Little Wisco,” because we’ve got the oldest and most prominent, Kettle of Fish (a true Wisco bar), we’re here, Jeffrey’s is here, Fedora will have Wisconsin people and a friend of mine that I went to college with is opening up a clothing shop on Christopher and Gay so it’s a lot of Wisconsin. You know they’ve got a Little Italy, I think we should make a Little Wisco in the West Village.
Random, but Shitshow Week last month. Thoughts? GS: It's interesting, those people. There are certain people who have managed to close many restaurant attempts in a short period of time yet still have funding. To them I say, "touché.” I don't think I'd have money if I failed my investors so many times. I've seen the list, the deathwatch and stuff like that, I haven't been to most of them, and, I don't know, I’m kind of boring when it comes to eating out. I don’t try as many new restaurants as I’m interested in trying. I usually have a few that I go back to a lot and I order in a great deal. I fuck up the delivery menu at Grand Sichuan on a regular basis. I get a lot of sushi delivered home too.
Is that a function of you not having a lot of time? GS: No, I think it’s a function of, “I love my couch.” I really love my couch, and it’s just really comfortable to be on and watch TV, and I guess I don’t get to do that much. I don’t have a lot of time for that so I enjoy those moments. Fortunately for me, so does [my wife] Gina.