Yesterday evening Culintro hosted a panel discussion moderated by the Experimental Cuisine Collective's Anne Engammare McBride and featuring Alex Stupak of Empellon, Georgette Farkas of Rotisserie Georgette, and Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman of the Meatball Shop restaurants. The topic of discussion was reinvention — how these four people made a significant change of course at some point in their careers. For Stupak, it was leaving the world of avant-garde pastry to do Mexican food; for Farkas, it was opening a rotisserie concept after seventeen years handling PR for Daniel Boulud; and for Holzman and Chernow, it was finally deciding, after growing up together, to go all-in on a meatball restaurant.
Here are some of the best snippets of the conversation:
Farkas on getting her start with Boulud: "This isn't so much a reinvention as much as it is a continuum. I started out by working for Daniel Boulud, which went for almost two decades. It was a wonderful, wonderful ride. I worked for him as a cook first, but he ended up telling me that he had lots of projects and needed help. He never said it was public relations. Either he's so smart that he didn't want to say it was public relations, which I would say 'no' to, or he didn't know what public relations was."
Stupak on his first pastry chef job: "It was youthful arrogance, but the most important thing in the world to me was getting my name on a menu. When I was a sous chef at a restaurant in Massachusetts and the pastry chef left, I convinced my boss that I would do my sous chef job and the pastry chef job for the same amount of money if I could just get my friggin' name on the menu. They said sure, because it was a good deal for them and a stupid deal for me."
Stupak on getting into Mexican food: "My thought process began to change. I had always thought, for some reason, that if I didn't have my first restaurant by the time I was 30, I was a failure. I don't know where that magic number came from... I began working on business plans because I wanted to do this Mexican restaurant. I tried to explain to people that creativity, for me, was about trying to do things that you don't know how to do. Call it a punk rock mentality or immature, but when everyone finds out about something or a band becomes popular, it's time to go get into something else. I couldn't think about anything more daring than leaving what people expected me to do, the no brainer, and cooking the food I love most."
Stupak on early challenges convincing investors: "I was working at wd-50 and doing these investor dinners at my tiny apartment in Williamsburg... Some would look at me and say, 'You've never been an executive chef at a restaurant, you're not Mexican, and you don't know how to cook Mexican food.'"
Stupak on misperceptions: "There's this underlying theme that certain ethnic cuisines are cheap or lesser. That's something that really pisses me off, and it's changed my whole goal. I'm hell-bent on saying that these cuisines are not only equal — I'm chauvinistic at this point — they're superior."
Chernow on getting into the restaurant business after dabbling, working at a nightclub at 15, and other jobs: "I've always had this innate love for people... I worked at Frank Restaurant in the East Village for eight years. I ran the bar there and networked my ass off, which allowed me to meet a lot of great people. It let me see that opening my own business was actually a possibility. I told my friend who was in the business that I wanted to open a restaurant. He told me that he didn't know if I had it in me. From that day, I said I was going to show this guy."
Holzman on doing meatballs: "I always worked at fancy French restaurants for fancy chefs, but I realized looking at the guys who were at the top of their game, that they didn't seem so happy. I'm sure there are many people that have found success and happiness, but these guys didn't seem to be happy to me, and they were the best... We ended up deciding to do a concept-driven restaurant as opposed to a chef-driven one."
Farkas on getting people to invest in your concept: "There are two things: for messaging, it's best to have a clear, concise, and defined concept, as much as I hate that word. You look at all of us up here, and we all had very specific ideas of what we were going to do. That helps a lot. If you absolutely and utterly believe in it yourself, you then build the message around that. One of the best things I learned along the way, trying to sell this project to investors, is that these people aren't investing in your business or your product. They're investing in you. They believe in you. I think half of our investors didn't even look at the projections. So you have to tell your own story..."
Stupak on showing Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas his business plan: "Nick Kokonas was one of the first people I showed my business plan to, and he didn't believe in it because he thought that I was trying to dumb down my career or just make money. But he gave me some really good advice: 'You have to believe in it to the point where if I don't believe in it, you're willing to tell me to go to hell.' It probably was because when I brought him the business plan, I wasn't so sure of myself yet."
Holzman on the decision to have a Meatball Shop board of advisors: "We were so passionate that we thought that we would be well served to have a couple of people with financial interests in the business, so all our interests were aligned. If anyone tells you that a partnership is just a bed of roses, they're lying. So we thought that having a board of advisors would make it so if the debate gets to the point where we can't agree, we offer passionate arguments and leave it to them. And we've realized that we tend to agree on the important things — it's the little things that are sometimes problematic."
Chernow on the value of PR: "I worked for a lot of chefs that had lots of pride and didn't want to do PR, but if you can fit it into a budget, you must. I have nothing against those chefs, but in all honestly, take that pride and throw it out the window. People want to know about you, and when you open a restaurant, you don't have time to push your concept."
Stupak on early mistakes with Empellon: "When we were opening the first restaurant, I was so hell-bent on opening under budget, but looking back, I wish I had believed in it more and spent more money. I didn't build the exact kitchen that I wanted and I didn't think about soundproofing. The problem with that is that when it's open, it's the equivalent of fixing a plane that can't land. I wish we had opened with a designer and an architect. Also, it's better to wait a month to open so that you can provide brunch, lunch, and dinner, instead of opening with just one of those and doing it gradually."
Chernow on his focus on staff: "We don't give you a knife when you sit down or things like that, but I can tell you we take great pride in our service. I would tell you that I put my staff before my customers, because if your staff is happy, then they can pass that off to your guests. I've worked at a lot of restaurants where that isn't the case."
Chernow on hiring waiters: "I interviewed hundreds of people personally for 30 spots at one of our restaurants. If you come in and don't smile and seem like you can't connect with people, it doesn't matter how many of the great restaurants you've worked at. I'd rather take someone with no experience and the potential to really deal with people."