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Marco and Paul Reflect on a Decade of Hearth

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In the New York City restaurant industry, it's very hard to make it to the 10-year mark. Introducing 10 Years In, wherein Eater meets with the restaurateurs that are approaching this milestone to chat about the ups and downs of their decade in business. Up first: Marco Canora and Paul Grieco, the dynamic duo behind Hearth.
[Daniel Krieger]
The menu that Marco Canora and Paul Grieco served at Hearth on November 20, 2003, looks remarkably similar to the one that they currently offer today. Marco and Paul are strong proponents of the three-course a la carte experience. Over the years, they haven't cut corners in terms of the quality of the food they offer or the service they provide to guests. And, even in the darkest days of 2008, they never caved by adding a burger or shareable small plates to the menu, even though many of their esteemed contemporaries went that route. Eater recently sat down with Marco and Paul to chat about the challenges of running Hearth over the past 10 years, and where they're at right now.

What was opening night like at Hearth?

Marco Canora, chef and owner: It was really busy. There was a lot of opening buzz because of where we came from. I spent three-and-a-half years opening Craft, which got all kinds of accolades and James Beard Awards, and Paul had done a 10-year stint at Gramercy Tavern where he, too, won awards. Gramercy was just the shit back then, and it still is today. So, when we both came together to do this, there was a lot of attention, a lot of eyes, and a lot of interest. A lot of people were like, "What a team!"

Hal Rubenstein was at New York magazine at the time, and he did the review. He used this metaphor about how the two presidents of the chess team are coming to the East Village to open their buttoned-up restaurant. 10 years ago, it was like, "These guys are going where, to do what?" It was a very different neighborhood. Admittedly, we were a little more buttoned-up than we are now. And, like everybody who starts out, we felt like we had a lot to prove. We were very serious, which is really not the way things are going now. We haven't really turned upside down or changed what we do in terms of the philosophy behind our food or the philosophy behind our wine and beverage, and all that stuff. I don't want to say we're doing the same thing, but we haven't changed massively in terms of the direction of what we do.

Paul Grieco, owner and sommelier: Conversations began 12 months before Hearth opened. Marco was still working at Craft — your final day was October 1, 2003 — and I was out of work. I left Gramercy Tavern on October 2, 2002. I was out of work for over a year, so I had a lot more time to think about it. But we met and talked, and the two things that we spent the majority of the time talking about were raising the money for this place and the idea. And we took those two things away from Danny Meyer. His counsel is that when you open your own place, you need two things to be in play: you're fully capitalized, and you have a kernel of an idea of what the place is, and then everything you do can be tied back to that kernel of an idea. What Hearth was, for better or for worse, was fully formed at that moment in time. When we say that we haven't changed, it's because we haven't had to change, because the idea, at least for us, whether it has been received by the public or not, was fully vetted out. The idea then, on that Thursday night, is the same idea that we have now.

You opened with a tasting menu in addition to the a la carte options. Were people ordering the tasting menu back then?

Marco: It was very a la carte. You know, this was before the small plates craze. People were eating in that appetizer, entree, dessert-type format, and they were very comfortable with it. The small plates thing didn't really happen yet.

What was the review process like?

Marco: Nobody dogged us at all. They were all incredibly positive and they were obviously positive enough for us to begin building a customer base, and they were positive enough for the fact that we're still here 10 years later through three or four years with one of the worst economies ever. So, in a broader overview, I gotta look at that and say they were good enough to get us here.

The only thing I will say is that, because he came from where he came from and I came from where I came from, it was one of those thing where at the six week mark, everyone chimed in. To sit here 10 years later and think about what we are today compared to what we were then, and to think about how fully-realized we are and how better we are today is fascinating to me.

I know there's always been talk about the review system and the star system, and I gotta say that restaurants are big, massive things that take time to get their legs. It's like an infant. We were reviewed as a six-week-old infant. And now we're a fully-formed, mature adult and a lot has happened from a six-week-old infant to a fully-formed adult. Who wouldn't like everyone to come around and chime in on who you are and how you've gotten better? Hopefully that's what they would say. God, I think about the retention of our staff. I mean we've had people here six, seven, eight, nine... some people have been here since day one. We're better for it.

How do you think the restaurant has gotten better since day one?

Paul: In the formation of a restaurant, everyone says, as you do now, "What is your restaurant?" So, we had to come up with a simple statement originally, and it still applies today: We are an American restaurant with Italian influences. Invariably, implicit in that, you think about: Do you want to be a one star? Two star? Three star? Where do you aspire towards on that scale? And we agreed that we wanted to be a two star restaurant. And you get the review, and it's like, "Ah, shit! We only got two stars. We're better than that." You open, you're actually doing shit, and then you get two stars, and it's like, "That's it?!" That was an interesting process that you go through. And today, without question, we are a better restaurant across the board. We are better operators. I think that everything we do has quite a few more degrees of confidence involved in it. I think we stood the test of time, and we haven't changed.

Marco: I just wanted to touch upon the reviewing system, quickly. When I came to New York City, I started at Gramercy Tavern. I was there for six years and then I went to Craft for three and a half years. The information age was going on during my tenure at Gramercy Tavern, but nothing like today, and the end-all-be-all was that New York Times review. It was like the Michelin Guide to France, but forever. That's the culture I grew up in. When I started working in New York, at 26-years-old at Gramercy Tavern, I was there for the second visit of Ruth Reichl. And I cooked her fish dishes as a young cook. Cooking Ruth's fish dishes, seeing that three star review come out, and celebrating with that restaurant — it was a thing. It was magic, right? That was early on in my career. And it was always my dream, not to get three stars, but it was always my dream to have a restaurant that got reviewed by the New York Times. That was something I fantasized and dreamt about forever. And, ironically, when we got reviewed here, it was an interim reviewer, it was Amanda Hesser. And I had waited my entire career to be interviewed for the New York Times. Who had just stepped down?

Paul Grieco: It was between Grimes and Bruni.

Marco: So, it was weird because Amanda Hesser came in and it was the week after she just chimed in on the place on the top of Time Warner, Asiate, and she destroyed it. I was shitting myself. There was no history to look at, and I didn't know what she looked like, and it was this weird thing.

Were you relieved when you got two stars?

Marco: Yeah, it was a very positive two stars. Very positive.

Did you have to make any sacrifices or cut backs after the financial crash?

Marco: We saw dramatic decreases in business and had to make changes on a business level. I used to have the luxury of having a full-time butcher, who, five days a week, would butcher all the meat and butcher all the fish. We got everything in whole, and he did all the pastas — and we got rid of him. I used to have the luxury of having a chef at Terroir East Village down the street who owned it, he was the chef, a manager, whatever. I got rid of that. We lost it because we had to do more with less, and I felt compelled to rethink how I do things. And then we did things like we offered a Cucina Povera menu, which was a prix fixe for whatever the price was.

Paul: It was a three-course menu for $35. A la carte, if you came and had app, entree, and dessert, your check would be roughly low-to-mid-50s. So here's Cucina Povera, three classic dishes. And there is a grounding in Cucina Povera. It's not an economic thing so much as, "This is the food you grow on your land and this is the food that you made." Low and behold, we couldn't sell the goddamn thing. Here we are making a gesture to the economy and to the neighborhood and saying, "This is still legitimate food."

Marco: Nobody ordered it.

Paul: We almost sold more tasting menus coming out of fall '08 than we did Cucina Povera.

Marco: We killed Cucina Povera and put the "Put Yourselves in Our Hands" tasting menu for $78. They sold like fucking hot cakes. This makes no sense whatsoever, but that's typical.

What, over the years, has proven to be the relationship between Hearth and the Terroir restaurants? Do you guys have crossover customers? Do you find that more customers are learning about Hearth from the Terroirs or is it always the other way around?

Paul: I hope that we all benefit each other. We opened up Terroir to be a further expression of what we love to do — be it food, be it drink, be it service. The first Terroir opened in March of 2008 — it was the perfect timing for that type of restaurant. You could really control the price point. You don't have to eat a lot, and you don't have to drink a lot. You can get in, get out, and have a great experience with that. So we thought we were doing this on two different tracks. And then you get into the financial crisis, and you're like, "Hearth is suffering, but Terroir will keep the ship going well, and it will be an interesting introduction to our world," because people may not be able to afford to pass through our doors. Over the following five years, though, I think they established their own clienteles. But, what we have failed to do well is advertise that you can have a slam-dunk meal at Terroir.

Over the past few years, we felt Hearth could benefit from some Terroir-type energy. And we've done small things here and there. But now, Hearth is on its own two feet. It's got its own energy and is kicking ass, and Terroir is on a different track and is kicking ass in its own little way.

Is that part of the idea behind the redesign of the Hearth dining room? To give it more of that Terroir energy?

Paul: When we opened this place, people walked in here and remembered how relatively stark it was. People would say, "Well you open a place called Hearth which is supposed to be warm, and you have a stark environment." But it was ours and we liked it. And after a year we didn't make any changes and people said, "Oh my God, this place is so warm and inviting." Did the place grow into its own skin? Who knows? But once we had eight odd years, Marco led the charge for redoing the aesthetics of the place because it had gotten a little bit tired for us — not so much for the guests, but for us. So that led the charge for the redo of the walls.

Did you see a resurgence after the crash?

Paul: It took a while.

Marco: We're seeing it now. The first quarter of 2013? Finally, after '08, '09, '10, '11. and '12, of not seeing any growth — actually going in the wrong direction — it's amazing. We have OpenTable and you can track covers compared to the same night last year, and we're seeing wonderful growth, and it's so nice. You know brunch maybe helped get the word out. Everybody asks when they see the kind of growth that we've had, "Well why? Why is this happening?" And my answer continues to be, "I think it is a lot of little things." I think it has to do with what we did to this wall, and I think it has to do with the fact that we opened up for brunch, and I think it has to do with the fact that we're on Eater 38, and I think it has to do with him doing Summer of Riesling. I think it has to do with the fact that we continue to provide a consistent, value-driven experience for nine years. Us building a customer base is a big component of why. So, all of those things together, fortunately, this year are adding up to seeing more business.

Paul: I think that the hardest part of our business is continuity, and I would like to think that it is because Marco and I are still very active in this restaurant — Marco especially, after 10 years. It will be 10 years. Changes were subtle, but the attitude we have towards the place is that this is the mothership, this is our baby, and we're going to continue to drive it forward. We haven't got tired with this.

So, you guys haven't gotten sick of working together?

Marco: We do a good job at that.

Paul: It's peaks and valleys. It's a relationship that is no less fraught with highs and lows, joys and disturbances, than would be in a relationship between two people. It's hard. Don't let anyone kid you. We spend more time here than we invariably do with our families, and that's not easy.

Marco, a lot of the Hearth enthusiasts talk about how you are still, 10 years later, in the kitchen most nights. Is that a challenge for you, now that you've expanded across the city?

Marco: You know what's amazing? I can't tell you how many times I have interactions with guests and what they say and how they react to the fact that I'm here is as if the chef being here is some weird anomaly. Isn't it a funny world we live in where you, my guest, are surprised to see me, the owner and chef of my restaurant? I mean, I get it. People grow, and they expand, and you kind of expect it. But it's just shocking to me. But, at the same time, I do know that, to this day, Jean-Georges is actually at Jean Georges more than anybody would ever imagine. Same with Daniel at his mothership restaurant, and the same for all these big chefs at their mothership restaurants. You know these guys are there. I'm happy to be here. Michel Richard, who wrote that cookbook Happy in the Kitchen? That's like the best title ever, and I'm where I want to be.

Do you want to open more Terroirs in the next few years or have you expanded to a place where you are happy?

Paul: We certainly look down the road in view of landscape covered with Terroirs. But, for the time being, we are set on our five. We have to make them better in every which way shape and form, but we're pretty happy campers right now with where things are at.

Does it feel like it's been a decade at Hearth?

Marco: It feels about right, know what I mean? I want to say it's flown by, but it hasn't flown by. I think about the trajectory of those 10 years. It has gone by rather quickly, but I feel like it's about right. It hasn't taken too long and it hasn't flown by too quickly. It feels kinda perfect.

Paul: For me, my goal for a lot of my life was to open up my own joint. That's what I did 10 years ago. So, it wasn't as if I put together a time frame and I had to have this number of restaurants. No, I accomplished my dream on November 20, 2003, and I've been a happy camper, relatively, ever since. And everything that has happened after that is the icing on top of that cake. I'm just as thrilled today and, in that way, the time hasn't seemed like 10 years at all.
· All Coverage of Hearth [~ENY~]

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