Welcome to Kitchen Time Machine, a new interview series in which author and Toqueland blogger Andrew Friedman sits down with some of New York's most iconic chefs and restaurateurs. The series continues today with a two-part interview with Drew Nieporent.
[Drew Nieporent at Tribeca Grill by Daniel Krieger]
When Drew Nieporent opened Montrachet in Tribeca in 1985, he became one of the most influential American restaurateurs of his generation. The restaurant figures prominently in my forthcoming book about the American chefs and restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s. Drew, of course, went on to open an empire of restaurants that includes Tribeca Grill (where our interview was conducted) and Nobu. We sat down recently to discuss his plans for the space that used to be Montrachet, and then Corton, and which will soon reopen as Bâtard in collaboration with chef Markus Glocker, who comes to the project from Gordon Ramsay at The London, and former Daniel frontman John Winterman. We also talked a little about his beginnings as an owner-operator all those years ago.
Andrew Friedman: Where does the name of the new restaurant, Bâtard, come from?
Drew Nieporent: Well, it has more than one meaning but the easiest reference is to the wine in the Montrachet area. Of course, there's Puligny, Chassagne, Chevalier, Le Montrachet, but there's a Bâtard Montrachet. And just by coincidence, I guess, we had a restaurant there called Montrachet for twenty-two years, 239 West Broadway. We re-did it as Corton which is another brilliant wine in the Burgundy region of France. So now Bâtard is a reference to Bâtard Montrachet, but it's also the shape of a great French bread. It also means something: The interpretation of the word is "bastard."
Montrachet obviously left a tremendous history of chefs and wine people. It was a very important restaurant in America. Corton was equally as important, but it only had a five year run, and unfortunately, we probably hit the ground at a time where there was maybe a more negative reaction to fine dining.
Do you feel that's true, what people are saying about fine dining? Do you feel like things are mutating in a way that's going to really push that off to the margins?
Yeah. For a long time I denied it but now it's irrefutable. Most fine dining restaurants have gone by the wayside, and the very few that still exist I mean, I love La Grenouille, but I ate there the other night and it's a much older crowd. I think it's fine as long as they can re-acquaint themselves with a new clientele. But people have now finally cut through the facade of fine dining. It was too much of a ritual.
I say this quite a bit: I live restaurants. I work in them. I create them. I don't have to "play restaurant." It just seems to be a strange experience when you go to a restaurant and you get the sense that they really don't know what they're doing but they're playing restaurant.
When you say "they," who do you mean? Younger restaurateurs?
It could be anybody. And quite frankly, I would say in the earliest days, it was the same problem, which is when somebody thrust a giant pepper mill in front of you and asked you if you wanted pepper on your salad, that somehow this was defined as "good service." Instead, certain food critics like Mimi Sheraton, for instance, would say, "How will I know if it needs pepper? I haven't even tasted it yet." So there were certain rituals and they continue on to this day.
My whole journey, I think what I've been good at, is that I want to experience a restaurant myself without a lot of pretension. Pretentiousness just bothers me. So the proof's in the pudding with what I did.
When I did Montrachet, I had worked at all the most well known French restaurants: La Régence, La Réserve, La Périgord, and La Grenouille. And I go downtown and I basically, you know, I stripped everything back mostly because I didn't have a lot of money, but at the same time I focused on what? The food. And I cut the prices way back as well, and I promoted somebody by the name of David Bouley. And the stars kind of lined up.
Not that many years later, when I did Nobu, I did kind of the same thing. I made it more accessible. At that time Japanese restaurants in New York were only really marketed to the Japanese, and I was able to conceptualize an experience that didn't westernize or bastardize what they had set out to do in terms of presenting their culture or their food, but I made it accessible. I made it easier for people to experiment or feel comfortable in going to a restaurant and eating raw fish, which was something that they weren't doing.
So now I've done these two restaurants that became iconic in restaurant history. Nobu continues on as one of the most important restaurants. And Montrachet still has a very important place in the history of New York restaurants. Corton was supposed to pick up the mantle and take it even another step further. The only problem is that it was too fussy. And it actually went against all the tenets of what I just said which is you actually looked at a lot of what you were eating and you couldn't decipher it. It had to be explained by a waiter ad infinitum. Don't get me wrong, the food was brilliant. But it's too much work.
[Drew at Tribeca Grill by Daniel Krieger]
I don't associate the last thing you said necessarily with fine dining. You can get the kind of food you just described in Brooklyn at a very casual restaurant.
Yeah, but that's a casualization of fine dining. That's a redefinition.
You would have considered Montrachet at the time it opened still fine dining, yes?
Not necessarily. Other people define you, right?
Yes. For sure.
Let's just say one of them is the Zagat survey. Every year, to my consternation, we would be in a category: Best Bistro. Now, it didn't look like a bistro. I didn't have one bistro dish. I didn't have an onion soup or steak frites. Well, I had roast chicken but not in a bistro style. I had a three star restaurant. I had David Bouley who worked at Robuchon and Vergé and Bocuse. Guess what? I didn't call Tim Zagat and say, "Could you get me out of that category?" Because we wound up being the best in that category. But there were nights where I could swear I would see customers — they had read the Zagat survey. I could just see them looking around, thinking ...
... this ain't no bistro?
My point is: As much as you strategize or you think that you're going to define yourself, ultimately you get defined, whether it's by the press or by the dining public. And a lot of your calculation is meaningless. You become what you become. With Paul Liebrandt, it was easy actually to say this is modern French food. A lot of it's rooted in very classical French food, but it was modern. And we were very comfortable with that.
Bâtard's chef, Markus Glocker, is Austrian and even though he's worked with Gordon Ramsay, who's British but who's trained in the French way. So when people ask me, "What's the food going to be like?" I say, "Well, it's an amalgam of his experiences." He worked with Charlie Trotter. He worked with Eckart Witzigmann. They say, "Oh, so new American." I say, "No." I find that pretentious, for whatever reason.
I just don't like it.
Have you ever liked it? Did you like it when people started using it back in the '80s?
For Larry Forgione, absolutely. Yes. There's nothing wrong with it. I love it. In fact, I watched how Larry Forgione in a brilliant way basically created American cuisine as a category. That was equal in its creativity and deliciousness to French cuisine. And it wasn't easy. See, part of the fine dining equation, is it was all French restaurants. It was from the '60s and Henri Soulé and all the disciple restaurants: La Caravelle and La Cote Basque. And they were great restaurants. But the pendulum swings. And some of the French guys saw it years ago. Raymond Blanc did a whole summit in Oxford about, "Are we losing our grip on this thing?"
But I would have been somebody to defend fine dining. Because I grew up in it, I was enriched by it, and I still love to go to fine dining restaurants. That's still what motivates me. But I think obviously Ferran Adrià and all the disciples in Spain really just took everything and jumbled and changed it. And I think we have to accept today that there has been a re definition of fine dining.
Isn't it a natural thing, though? In other words, what you and your contemporaries did in the mid '80s — Montrachet and Chanterelle without a "Le" or a "La," Americans on the service floor, and all that. Things changed. They were a little more casual but still what today would seem relatively formal to a lot of us.
We had a backbone of formality.
But at the time that was considered a departure from what had gone immediately before it.
For me, when I set out to do my first restaurant, my challenge was just to do the fundamentals well. Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Be pleasant. Try to honor reservations.
Isn't it inevitable that this is going to happen, that things are going to "casualize?" Isn't it just the way things are?
It's not inevitable when you're living it. In other words, when you're brought up in a certain culture and that's the way it is, there's no inevitability at that moment. Like the Beatles. When the Beatles break through, do we know that inevitably it's going to change the face of rock and roll in the world? The good news is that I think across the board, in every part of the world, food has gotten better.
Part of my success in the earliest days, I swear to God, is how bad everybody used to do things. And I would be, like, "This place has a great presentation. How come this place is so bad?" So for me, when I set out to do my first restaurant, my challenge was just to do the fundamentals well. Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Be pleasant. Try to honor reservations. And I did. I think the best that can be said is that regardless of how we define fine dining today, the food is every bit as good as it's ever been. There's been a casualization of the experience, which is a good thing.
Can you, in whatever way you're comfortable, take readers through the process that led to you and Markus Glocker and John Winterman coming together? How did it happen? What was the chain of introductions and networking?
When I realized that Corton had run its course, I actually approached Paul Liebrandt and I said, "I think it's important what we've achieved here. It's not every day that you get two Michelin stars. It's not every day that you get three stars from the New York Times. It's not every day that a restaurant looks as nice as this and is as comfortable and has achieved this. So why don't we emulate what Daniel Humm and Will Guidara did with Danny Meyer. I think custodially this is your restaurant." And for whatever reason, that couldn't happen.
So I think I did a very honest thing. Corton was largely the success of somebody's talents. And when that ran its course, I made the hard decision of not only shutting down but reassessing the space and what I could accomplish in the space. And then I spoke to some of the most brilliant and talented cuisineers in the world, who would have fit like a glove in that space at that moment. But I guess my own hesitance was that I kind of wanted to see a different direction. There was a lot of hesitancy on some of these talented people of the inevitable comparison to Corton.
[Drew at Tribeca Grill by Daniel Krieger]
That was stated explicitly?
They would tell me. I would try to say that I don't think necessarily that would occur, but regardless they're going to reference the place with Corton. Of course they would. It's the premise. And there was a very high profile restaurant group that had come to me, and we were very far down the road, actually. We liked each other, and there were synergies that were good. But they weren't offering their chef.
You mean they had a name chef at the top of the food chain there?
At one of their restaurants. At one of their restaurants there's somebody who's very talented, has achieved a lot of accolades. But it wasn't like they were coming to me and he was going to be the chef of whatever we do in our space.
At the end of the day, this premises, which I've had over 29 years — I signed the lease there in 1985 — has a three star legacy. It's always served three star food. And so my goal was to sort of look at what we had achieved at Montrachet. But I'm not one of these people that say,"Oh, let's just call it Montrachet. Let's reconstitute that." And I've already explained that I wasn't going to carry forth as Corton. So Bâtard is going to be something in the middle. And fortuitously I got their business plan. Markus Glocker and John Winterman, as a team, were looking to do a project together. When I got their proposal it was almost like I had written it.
In what way?
"We want to do a restaurant with very approachable food." "The food's going to be great but we want to casualize the experience." They could have been defining exactly what my goals were for this space.
So they were trying to do something that happened to align exactly with what you were wanting to do?
That happened to fit very closely with my idea. But keep in mind, I had met with, I would say, almost 30 different people. A lot of people had sent me emails or asked if I'd be interested. There were a number of people I met with and had serious conversations with, because at this stage the most important thing to me is that I don't make the same errors again. You have to learn from your mistakes in the restaurant business. And although Corton was a magnificent achievement, I have investors. We invested a great deal of money. I have a fiduciary responsibility to those people. So, you know, we can separate the artisanal aspects and the creative aspects from the financial aspects. So I have to reconstitute this place and give it a fighting chance.
I made a decision, because I kind of knew a little bit of Markus's career. I had met him and I actually helped him, I think, achieve citizenry.
So anyway, these guys come across. And what was really important to me was their character. And I did something unusual, which is almost uniformly if somebody came to me, we sort of auditioned chefs. And so every time there was a tasting, most of the food was fine, but it wasn't fine in regards to what I wanted to do. With Markus and John — and this might sound silly — I made a decision, because I kind of knew a little bit of Markus's career. I had met him and I actually helped him, I think, achieve citizenry. I wrote a letter, amongst other people, to help him become a United States citizen. Anyway, the bottom line is I didn't make them audition.
He didn't cook for you?
Had you eaten his food at Gordon Ramsay?
No, I had eaten at Ramsay but not his food. When I feel very strongly about something or I have an instinct about something, I'm usually right, and I didn't want to prejudice my own opinion, because I'd gone through so many people. So anyway, I'm happy I actually did it this way because I think I proved to them that I was entering into this arrangement on a very honest basis based on their character, not based on my opinion of if I think they're talented or not, because I might think they're the most talented people in the world, by the way, and I could be wrong.
How long have you known John Winterman?
Not a very long period.
You guys never crossed paths before?
Well, I'm very respectful of Daniel Boulud's organization. Daniel and I worked together. We're friends. So I pride myself that I've never had to look at other people's talent pools and try to pick off their talented people. One of the biggest problems was the fact that I didn't want to fracture my relationship with Daniel so I made sure that John was in a place where when this was going to occur, that in no way, shape, or form did I ever try to recruit him. He had already made a decision to do his own thing and he was going to be leaving regardless of what his opportunity was.
I pride myself that I've never had to look at other people's talent pools and try to pick off their talented people.
Can you give me any sense of what the food's going to be at this point in time?
The one thing I would tell you is that we're not going to play into the tyranny of the prix fixe menu. I get it. I understand when a chef wants to do a multi course menu, they can control it better, the cost and the experience and everything, but I do believe that control of the meal should be shared and that you can control certain facets. You're already picking out the silverware and the tabletop; why don't you let them choose the food and you can put out a roster of dishes that they can choose from? The food is going to be rooted in European food, not only French, but Markus is Austrian. And I love those flavors, whether it's Czech or Hungarian or Austrian or German. These are delicious cultures of food. So I think it'll be amalgam of his experiences. Things like sweetbreads and rabbit and things that we like to eat that aren't necessarily on every menu, that it takes a talented chef to know how to actually prepare these things correctly.
How is the room going to change?
I would show you a picture but we ripped everything apart. It's totally different. I think Corton was actually a really beautiful room. It was comfortable. It was well laid out. It was spacious. And it fit what we tried to do perfectly. There were good synergies. The experience of the food, and the design should fit. I want it to be less fussy. I want it to be more user friendly. The tonality was a little too...
Well, it was hushed but it was also — even after we repainted the entire room, they still would say it was white when it was beige. So I think we're bringing the tonality of the room down and changing a lot of the furniture. And we're still up in the air about tablecloths but the odds are we're probably not going to have a tablecloth.
And what's your ETA at this point in time?
I'm hoping in the next two, three months. [Note: This interview was conducted on February 28]
How much does sentimentality play into your holding onto this space as long as you have? Is it hard to let go of it because it was your first thing?
No, no, no. Like I said, I would have handed the restaurant to my partner if he was willing to carry forth. I think it didn't make any sense not to do it that way. So that was my first choice. When that choice was no longer available to me, then I had to reassess if I could sell the space. I did have a nice relationship with this restaurant group. They were very earnest. They had stepped up to the plate and made an offer which ultimately I think they made a decision not to go forward with. That would have been a very good scenario because I trust those people and I think they would have done a very good job. All I care about is that the space carries forth with somebody in a good way — that it doesn't become a Hooters.
Head over to Toqueland to read more of Andrew Friedman's thoughts about Drew Nieporent. And stay tuned for part two of Andrew's chat with Drew tomorrow.
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