It's been a little over a year since Georgette Farkas opened Rotisserie Georgette, her rotisserie chicken-focused French restaurant on the Upper East Side. The opening was a major career move for her, given that she'd spent the 17 years before that working as Daniel Boulud's head of PR and right hand woman. At her side was Katina Pappas, a business school grad from a family of Texas restaurateurs, and chef David Malbequi, a veteran from the kitchen side of Boulud's empire.
Things started off well enough, but nonetheless Farkas decided to replace Malbequi just a couple months in, hiring Chad Brauze to take over. Here she and Pappas discuss why they were so quick to make that change, plus why it took Farkas so long to set out on her own, and where the restaurant goes from here.
You spent so many years working for other restaurants. When did you decide you wanted to open your own?
Georgette Farkas: I started as a teenager working in restaurants. Age 15 was my first kitchen job, not just as a summer job, but as path I was forging. I knew as a little kid I was going to go to hotel school. I know that sounds crazy, but there were these two Swiss hotel school guys who worked for my family. I thought that they were magicians and masters, and that's what you do.
What was the first restaurant you worked at?
I waited a really, really long time, until I felt like I couldn't go another day working for someone else. Georgette: It was a tiny little bistro on 49th Street near the UN that does not exist anymore. I worked in garde manger, and what I remember best is using a mandoline, and losing a good quarter of a fingertip. It was more blood than potatoes. That was age 15, and then when I was in college I took a year off to work for Daniel as a cook. Years later I came back to work for him on other things. I did college first, and then I went overseas to go to hotel school. It was clearly with the idea that I was going to open restaurants, but I'm the sort of person who can't do it until I know absolutely everything. Also, when you work for someone like Daniel, why would you want to do anything else? I waited a really, really long time, until I felt like I couldn't go another day working for someone else. I had to prove to myself that I could create a restaurant. Everyone in my family's an entrepreneur, and they would look at me like, "What's wrong with you? We don't work for other people in this family."
What does the rest of your family do?
Georgette: Oh, nothing to do with restaurants. They were in the real estate business and department store business, but, Katina, on the other hand, grew up in restaurants.
Katina Pappas: Yeah, in Texas. So my first job was at 11, in the back of restaurants. It's called Papasito's, Pappadeaux, Pappas Brothers Steakhouse...a lot of my family works there now, so it was definitely very foreign when I was like, "I'm gonna move to New York, and I'm not gonna work for the company for now." I did finance, and finally got back into the restaurant industry, after culinary school when I went and worked for Georgette.
Georgette: Katina's a great number cruncher. She's a business school grad, which I'm not. I think I have a very strong sense of what I don't know, even though I've been through accounting and stuff, I'm hopeless at numbers. Katina is a very quantitative person, so she does everything I do the rest.
Was there really just a moment when you said, "Ok, I can't keep working for anyone else"?
Georgette: No. In my last two or three years with Daniel I was going, "I'm so scared, I'm so scared, but I have to do it...I'm so scared," There was really a long time that went by, until that fear sort of chips away. And then even when you start the process, when I first started to write a business plan for the restaurant, the more I would put it on paper...it's not less fearful, but every step you take it's like, "Well, I guess it's real now. I guess I told people I'm doing this, I have no choice."
So were you talking to Daniel about this at that point?
Georgette: That was actually the hardest thing for me to do. He's like a big brother. He's the most loyal and devoted person, so I had this little fear factor in my mind like, "Oh my gosh, how can I be this disloyal, how can I leave Daniel and go do something else?" It took me a very long time to build the courage to go to him and say, "It's time." And he's such an amazingly generous person, the first thing he said was, "Alright, I know if you're telling me this it means you've really thought about it, so how can I help?"
And did he help?
Georgette: Oh yeah, in every way.
Katina: He came in to see the space when we first were looking at it.
Georgette: He started sketching our dining room...
Katina: Where things were going to go, how things were going to look...
Georgette: When we were hiring a new chef – because we did not exactly start off on the right foot there, despite our collective experience – I thought, it's not his problem, it's my problem, but I'd be stupid if I didn't tell him I was looking for a new chef. And I did, and days later he said, "I have the guy for you." Talk about generous, that's one of the most important things in your business, and it made all the difference.
Do you ever wish that you had left the job with Daniel earlier?
Georgette: As a purely practical matter, I would be further along, maybe. But I do think things have to align. As much as I come from this very entrepreneurial background, where part of being an entrepreneur is being a risk-taker, I am not actually a risk-taker at all. I always said I wouldn't do it without the right partner who compliments my skills. I had to have the confidence. It would have been wise, but I wouldn't have been ready. Even with being ready it's still scary. And there's a push and a pull. It's amazing to work for a company like Daniel Boulud's group. Why would you leave? One of the great things about Daniel's group is that you're surrounded by all these really smart, incredibly qualified people, and I thought, "When I'm out on my own, how will I do it without all those people?" And then what you find is actually you start to build your own team.
So at what point, Katina, did you come on board?
Katina: I'm trying to remember...We had dinner at Red Farm, and Georgette slid this thing across the table and was like, "Don't tell anyone."
Georgette: The business plan without the numbers.
Katina: I was the director of operations at that time of ‘Wichcraft, and that was just a very different side of the industry. I'd been there a year since business school, and I realized that that kind of quick service, fast-casual wasn't really where I wanted to be. I always thought that anything Georgette did, it was going to work out, and it would be great. So that was the big thing that pulled me towards joining. I gave my notice probably three months later.
What did that really early plan look like? How close was it to what Rotisserie Georgette actually is?
I spent my life working in pretty much the fanciest restaurants that exist.Georgette: You know what? It was exactly what it is. I mean, there are some little fine-tuning details, but it was always going to be a rotisserie with this very focused menu, and a combination of high-end ingredients, preparation, and food quality with completely un-fussy service. Non-white tablecloth. So what has changed since the idea? Early on, I also thought it would be nice if you could carve the birds table-side, but Brett, the director of operations at Daniel got me over that one pretty quickly. There's not enough room, and you have to really prioritize space balanced with the comfort of your customers. If we needed room next to the tables to carve every bird, and there was grease flying everywhere, that would be a disaster.
Why did you want to go with the no-tablecloth sort of style?
Georgette: I spent my life working in pretty much the fanciest restaurants that exist. Not just in the world of Daniel but also my training before that, whether it was in five-star hotels or three Michelin star restaurants. So I wanted to keep that quality level but remove all the fuss. We wanted it to feel like this place that you could just walk into.
Katina: And we also wanted it to be a place that you wanted to come back over and over again. Not that you don't want to go back to the finest restaurant you've ever been to, but we just wanted some place that felt very approachable but still had this fine dining bent.
Georgette: We have customers who have been here almost 30 times.
Katina: People come in for lunch and then they come in for dinner with their husband, or on a date.
You mentioned your first chef, David Malbequi, who did not stay on very long. Why was that?
Georgette: The thing about making mistakes is recognizing them, and then having the courage to make a change. I would be the first to say that he's an exceptional cook. But we were really not a good fit in temperament. We intend to grow. We're not ready to open the next restaurant yet, but we're definitely thinking about it. So we were looking for a good chef. To be a good chef is not just being a good cook. To be a good chef is being a leader, a manager, a planner, an organizer, a teacher. We realized fairly early on we had not chosen the right person for us. We had chosen someone who was a really, really good cook, but who didn't have those qualities and managerial skills that would give us a very stable kitchen that we could grow with. We looked at each other late one night after service and said, "This is not it."
It actually took us less time than we thought, thanks to Daniel, to bring in this new person, Chad [Brauze], who is a superb cook but also has those human and managerial qualities. He has the decency and also he's a planner, he's an organizer, he's a trainer, he's incredibly respectful to the people around him. That doesn't mean he isn't tough and doesn't have high standards, but he does it with a decency and gentleness that fits with the kind of environment we want to work in. So if you make a mistake, have the balls to first of all admit it to yourself, and then fix it.
There's that ongoing discussion of the fact that men outnumber women in the restaurant industry. As high-powered women who are in the industry, do you wish there were more women in it? Do you think they're overlooked?
Georgette: I both love and hate this question. I have very strong opinions about this, and some of the things I say are maybe going to be non-PC. First of all I come from a background of very hardworking, very successful businesswomen. My grandmother and my mother have been killing it in their fields forever. So I grew up thinking, "That's what girls do." We were always taught it's not about being a boy or a girl, it's just about working hard, striving to be the best you can be, doing more than is expected. But the whole thing about women in hospitality – hospitality is all about nurturing, and taking care of people. Who is better suited to that? So I think women are very well suited to this business. I think there aren't more women in this business not because people don't want to make room for them or give them opportunities, but because as a general rule, many women don't want to work every night, every weekend, every holiday. Is the kitchen a tough, macho environment? Yes, but that's changed. The first kitchens I worked in, I got my butt kicked for being a girl, but I also got a little leeway for being a girl.
Going forward, are there things you want to do in the next year? In the next five years?
Georgette: Yes. We have this great bartender, so I think we need to share that more. We're also ready to think about the next restaurant, which will be rotisserie. It will be like this one. Will it be smaller? Will it be bigger? Will it be focused more on like an eating bar sort of thing? We're not ready to sign any leases or anything like that. But we're at least ready to think about the next location.
Katina: And we've got such amazing people in the organization right now, we want to leverage them more, and put them out there in these new positions and new challenges that could give them those opportunities.
You've been in this business in this city for close to 20 years. What are the most noticeable changes you've seen over that time?
Georgette: I would be fascinated to know: How many restaurants opened in New York City in 1970-something? Or in 1980-something? Because obviously the food culture has exploded and people are fascinated with food. More people want to be in the restaurant business, so the proliferation of restaurants has changed enormously. I think there's more high quality on the casual end than there used to be, because the sophistication and the food savviness of the customer has changed enormously. And because more restaurants open, I also think more restaurants close. There are still people who go into this thinking, "Oh this will be fun." This is not something you go into as a hobby. You should do this because it's the business you know how to do.