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Chris Smith on Photography, Collaboration and Todd English

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The Pearl, Nantucket.
The Pearl, Nantucket.

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a column in which Eater National joins with the forces of Curbed National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating.

Chris Smith oversaw a swag of big-name restaurants, including Nobu, before setting up his own shop, CMS Architecture & Design. He’s completed an impressive roster of projects: Charlie Palmer Steak restaurants, the Pearl in Nantucket, and Dylan Prime and Hotel Pennsylvania, both in NYC. Next up, he’s working on the new Todd English restaurant Cross Bar, in NYC's Limelight Marketplace, a sushi joint in Waikiki for Rocky Aoki’s son, Kevin, and a farm-to-table restaurant in Union Square with chef Don Pintabona. We spoke to him about Charlie Palmer’s strong opinions, English’s take on bad press, and chefs on reality TV.

Name some trends we should see more of.
Pop-up restaurants and food trucks. So many restaurants now have a take-out section. Balthazar [in NYC] did that first, as I recall. Smaller plates and eating at the bar. People don’t want to sit down to a big heavy meal all the time.

What was it like working with Drew Nieporent?
Most of the time chefs have demands. They have detail-oriented jobs — it doesn’t just fall away when they're out of the kitchen. I think chefs don’t always have specific design ideas formulated in their heads, or the ability to express it well. There is a lot of brainstorming with chefs. I want them to be happy. That is my main goal.

How about Charlie Palmer?
He’s another guy with strong opinions. But he’s done it many, many times. He’s experienced. The banter is a little less with him than with younger chefs. Younger chefs want to talk about everything — color, pattern, texture palettes. Charlie certainly looks at everything, but doesn’t overly question it. There is always a bit of back and forth, but at end of day we do a good job and I think it shows in the design. Charlie is very particular about chairs and stools — he’s a big guy. He’s concerned about the comfort of seating but he lets us run with the overall look.

Tell me about some of the Charlie Palmer steak houses.
In Vegas, it was a beautiful space to re-work, but not a large budget. I thought art would be amazing here. I got Eric Buechel to do these beautiful black-and-white photos. He went out to Red Rock Canyon and photographed rocks and trees and nature and had them printed. There is one on the ceiling—it is pretty big. He used a fisheye lens that distorts these palm trees. He shot up into the sky so when you are standing in the central space, it has that kind of context projection. You know they are palm trees.

You’ve also used his art at The Pearl in Nantucket and at Cross Bar for Todd English, right?
Yes. At Cross Bar he went around New York and photographed gargoyles and fountains — references to that style of architecture — and made a collage montage.

Tell us about Cross Bar.
It’s very one off. It’s a very specific space. I remember it when it was Limelight, the nightclub. It was always an irreverent use of that space; it was a [landmarked Gothic] church, so it was de-sanctified, but it still has that cruciform shape. We went with that as a motif. At the time I started with Todd, he was getting a lot of press from local papers. We were sitting around talking about it. I said, "Great, now you are going to put a bar inside a church [...] you’ll have a cross to bear with the press." The name went from Cross to Bear to Cross Bar.

How did Todd handle the bad press?
He does not like it, but it just rolls off his back. He doesn’t look in the rear mirror. This was my first project with him. I've known him for 10 or 12 years. He’s always threatened to hire me, but this is our first project together. He was very hands on. We would always meet at his apartment or site, and go through the latest ideas. It kind of evolved. Once we came up with a name, everything fell into place after that. Some people design spaces, and then need to come up with a name.

What are your thoughts on chefs on reality TV?
I think a lot of those chefs should stick to cooking — not reality TV. That’s my opinion, but everyone does what they want to. I think some enjoy the TV spotlights more than the kitchen heat lamp.

What else are you working on?
We are doing two other restaurants with Todd — one is his original baby, Olives, in Charlestown, Boston. We are re-doing that into Fat Olives. We are enlarging the bar area, giving it a different look, making changes to the kitchen. It will still be an open kitchen but we’re shrinking the size, putting in a new open brick oven, and giving it a little bit more of a pubby, tavernish feel. We got rid of the coatroom and put hooks on the wall so it’s more casual. We’re also working on Kingfish in Faneuil Hall in Boston, and are in the planning stages. One of my best friends from Rockwell designed it, David Mexico. It’s funny to be ripping out the work.

Head over to Curbed National for the rest of the interview. >>>

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