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Chef Mark Ladner on Celebrating Traditional Cooking

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

Mark Ladner had four cups of coffee before sitting down to do this interview. "I don't do much of this stuff," he said as he slipped into a booth at the bar area of Del Posto, where he has been chef since 2005. In that time, he, his team, and its owners — Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Lidia Bastianich — have managed to achieve a rather ambitious goal: crafting a four-star Italian restaurant in a New York space that exceeds 20,000 square feet.

Ladner's done it without making much noise, preferring instead to keep his head down and work, much like his pastry chef and friend Brooks Headley. He's also done it by embracing tradition and the idea that you should be able to accommodate everyone that walks into your restaurant. That, to him, seems to represent the most compelling form of creativity.

With notes in hand, and having read most, if not all, the interviews that have been published on this site, Ladner took some questions about what the last seven years have been like, and what the future holds.

Why'd you come to Del Posto from Lupa?
Solely for the challenge, really. I get a lot of satisfaction from fine dining, and it presents challenges that are exciting. It gives you the luxury of resources and facilities that other restaurants can't give you. You get to work with a large staff of people that are ambitious. I really love casual dining, because it's what really speaks to me, but I also like buying really nice porcelain!

At the time I opened Lupa, it was my first restaurant. Everything seemed possible and I dreamed and I micromanaged. It's what happens when you're just about to hit 30. Casual dining wasn't yet popular in New York, and I was begging people to share. Now, I'm begging them not to share, which I guess means I'm a complete jackass.

How do you see the restaurant's evolution from the opening until now?
The fall of 2005 was a very different time in Manhattan. It was before people had recognized or at least admitted to themselves that there was going to be a crest to this economy. Bigger was better, and everybody was doing big-box restaurants. We were among the first to capitalize on private dining, since corporate clients were a big part of our initial business plan. It worked really well at that time, and it still does...

But people were shelling out lots of money then.
Yes, they were! Back then, people would book for eighty guests, and then maybe fifty would show up and twenty would leave before dessert. And we would charge them for the whole thing, since it was in the contract.

So we started out much more volume-oriented. Since those times —I think it was 2008 — we took out thirty tables.

Was the food different?
It wasn't so much that it was different. It just wasn't as good simply because there were lots of times when we were overwhelmed on a lot of levels. The thing I've learned in hospitality is that you simply cannot let anyone leave the restaurant dissatisfied. It's very simple. But based on individual need, that can vary tremendously. There was a time that the staff could not perform because they were overwhelmed, and we couldn't meet the standards we originally set for each other.

What changed that?
The main thing that happened that ended up being really positive was losing our Michelin star in 2008. We had to reevaluate what we wanted to be. We had to slow down and focus more on details, and that's what we ended up doing. We focused on quality over volume. It was great for our own sanity as well as for the guests that were coming. Sometimes you have to do less to do more: we ended up doing better revenue.

How could you tell things were getting better?
When morale started getting really high, we were getting lots of repeat guests, and there was less turnover.

Was this before or after the four-star review in The Times?
That was about a year before.

Because I remember reading several pieces where Mario Batali flat-out said that was his goal. Was it yours?
That was the directive that I had during inception and when we opened. That was the goal. But I think everyone involved underestimated what it took to do that in such a huge space.

The one thing I wanted to say is that this isn't a boutique restaurant or a vanity project. This is a big, serious business.

Do you think people have that perception of the restaurant?
No, and I don't want to suggest that other restaurants in New York are hobbies. It's just that we aren't cooking for foodies every night, and we couldn't survive if we were just cooking tasting menus for everyone every night. We have to accommodate a really wide demographic here. I don't know many restaurants that operate this way: we can do tables of fifteen à la carte, seating at the bar, private dining, etc.

What do you say to critics or people that say Italian food doesn't belong in this context?
My general philosophy and ideology toward the food in both places — Lupa and Del Posto — is essentially the same. Italian culture, for me, represents food that is soulful, healthful, and nourishing. I wanted to be sure that we were representing familiar flavors. The difference is, I think, in the price point as it relates to amenity and service. For that additional expenditure, you're getting more luxury and comfort and waiters that are maybe more serious and focused on your individual experience. They have to anticipate and exceed your expectations. We also give away a lot of stuff that you don't usually get at a more casual restaurant.

People don't usually associate conviviality with a fine dining restaurant, so we're trying to change perceptions.

At this level, we're not doing a lot of free-styling or practicing on the guest. A lot of the stuff is worked out before they get here. Sometimes we'll be working on a dish to the point where we may not be able to put it on the menu since the ingredients are close to coming out of season.

So there's a lot of deliberation?
Creative vision doesn't really dictate how I do a dish. For me, it's more about how the dish works in the context of the other dishes, and also taking very seriously dietary restrictions and allergies. That's a major, major part of my job. A lot of the dishes that are on the menu are there because of an arduous process of elimination.

You should see these tickets. It's more the norm than not that people have restrictions. Now we ask right away what the allergies are, which may exacerbate people's responses. It gets really crazy. But rather than being really frustrated by it, I've embraced it. We get off making it work.

We are decidedly traditional. Now fun is the new thing in lots of restaurants, many of them on the San Pellegrino list. That may work in a boutique restaurant full of foodies, but that's not the restaurant we have here. We cater to clients who are adults and want what they want. They are generally wealthy people, and they don't think it's cute to be forced to experience a tasting menu of stuff that they don't really recognize. Where I find inspiration is a place like the Four Seasons, for instance.

Does it bother you that some of the restaurants on that list that might be perceived as riskier or younger get more attention?
It doesn't bother me at all, because I am first and foremost a student of this industry. I love it. I was born to do this. I really get excited about all these things. I eat out every night, because I love to study this. It's my hobby. There's room for everybody. These days there's an infinite amount of diners willing to try anything, it seems. I like the idea of young people being able to take risks, especially since older people don't tend to take as many.

Do you consider yourself older?
I definitely consider myself of the older group. As time passes, you get more mature.

So do you see yourself more as a skilled craftsman than a creator or artist?
I see myself as a curator, actually. I orchestrate all of these skilled craftsmen and professionals into what I hope is a cohesive package. You can't just have all of these artists doing their own thing and then try to bring it together and sell it to someone as a cohesive experience. I have to filter it.

Do you ever get fed up and feel that you should just do what you want and not worry so much about accommodating needier people?
No, because this is the world that we live in. I think what we do is just as creative as anything else in cooking, so I enjoy it. I think it's very creative to be able to take anything and turn it into a positive. That's, I guess, what I do. Another thing is the videos we do. We didn't start that to show off, but rather to preserve and show these old recipes that are mostly lost. You can't even find them in Italy. So we're going back to the future, in a way, like you see in lots of agricultural communities.

Finally, what's on the horizon? What are you thinking about these days?
Well, Brooks is my favorite non-savory chef and is a dear friend. We used to do this long, elaborate menu, the collezione, that you'd have to book far in advance. That ended up dying. Now what we're trying to do is apply the energy we did to that experience into the tasting menu that more people are likely to order. We're starting to design our own implements, and the elaborate hand-made booklet that used to accompany the collezione is now going to be a more professional one that we give to the guest. Each course is paired with a particular olive oil, and the wine that's paired with it comes from the same producer. We're trying to channel some terroir in that regard. It's fun.

Like I said, we're decidedly traditional and try to create excitement from that. There's lots of reasons why something is traditional — there are many, many developments over the years — and I think it's OK to celebrate that.

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Lupa Osteria Romana

170 Thompson Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (212) 982-5089 Visit Website

Del Posto

85 10th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10011 (212) 497-8090 Visit Website