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Drew Nieporent on Critics, the Difficulty of Opening in NYC, and the 6 Degrees of Drew

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Continuing Eater Lounge coverage from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Right now: New York City restaurateur Drew Nieporent:

[Photo: Eater]

So how's Aspen so far? This year is already a stellar, stellar year. This is I think my 22nd year, because 24 years ago, 1989, Debra Ponzek was my chef at Montrachet, she was named one of the Best New Chefs, as was Nobu Matsuhisa. But that was when [the festival] was at Snowmass. I've been coming pretty much every year, I've only missed a couple.

So you're the Food & Wine expert. Historian. I'm not an expert on anything.

How's everything in New York post-Sandy? People have been really good and have certainly supported our downtown restaurants. We're still in the throes of a terrible conflict with the insurance company. In our case, it's a huge amount of money, and we were told to do the work so we could reopen, so we're out of pocket a huge amount of money. So that's kind of sad. I've paid insurance on Tribeca Grill for 23 years, and the two times I've had to collect, it's the most ridiculous lawyered process, like a chicken and egg reason. So that's about the only negative we really have, but we have zero satisfaction out of that. Terrible.

What's your next step in that process? We'll probably have to go through legal action. I've been patient, but every time there's a deadline they tell us the exact same defense. So I hope it goes into some kind of legal arena where it can be adjudicated correctly.

What else is new? The Nobus are doing tremendously well, they recently opened the Nobu hotel in Las Vegas. Malibu is one of the most beautiful, but New York, on 57th and downtown, next year will celebrate 20 years. Nobu's here for Aspen Food & Wine, he also was honored as a Best Chef in '89. Matsuhisa opened in '87. Nobu opened in '94, so next year it'll be 20 years. Tribeca Grill is 23 years now, doing fantastic. It's been a pretty good year in New York. I miss Rubicon in San Francisco, but of course my last chef Stuart Brioza and his wife Nicole Krasinski opened State Bird Provisions. Danny Bowien, who of course was the James Beard Rising Star this year, his first job was at Tribeca, so it's still six degrees of Kevin Bacon — no, Drew. So it's kind of a great feeling to see a lot of the people who work with you in all different capacities doing their own thing.

What's your management philosophy to encourage that? I think I'm very hands off. I'm pretty laissez faire. I want to have a very high standard of quality, and intelligence when it comes to service. Meaning, treat the guest the way you want to be treated, put the shoe on the other foot and treat someone civilly, cordially, and nice. I give a great deal of space for people to become innovative, and it's only fair that if someone has aspirations to do their own thing, ultimately they do it. Most cases they've worked for us for a very long time, so hopefully something they learned on the way helps them. I stay very close with them, if they have little questions about opening a business that are confounding them then they'll usually bounce things off me.

How do you know when to say no to projects? Good question. We used to call it the deal of the day, we used to joke about it. We said no to 9 out of 10. The criteria would be location, where we want to go that we feel would enrich our lives. Where we feel we're wanted, you can't just plop down in a foreign city and expect them to be waiting for you. Be strategic and have a local partner. We've opened 36 restaurants in 28 years, and every time we have a strategic partner in that city, from South Beach to Martha's Vineyard to London. I was one of the first people to go to London with Nobu of course, in 1997. Now there's two Nobus there and they're both unbelievable. But again, we had very good partners in both those hotels and it's worked out well.

Anything new? I've said no to certain things but some things are still incubating. It's like going to the dance, when you get to the dance you don't want to step on anyone's toes and there's a feeling out process. I unfortunately feel that doing new things now is way more difficult than it had been based on real estate. Rents are ridiculous, there's a lot of interference by the government. Every agency somehow descends at an inopportune time to fine us. Not only the health department, but the ADA and so on. So it's much harder now to do new things because you're just up against so many regulations that you could sort of navigate around when you were younger. I still have a couple of very significant ideas that I hope I can actuate in the next few years. I'm on the record as saying I want to do a great Chinese restaurant, every young Jewish restaurateur wants to do a great Chinese restaurant.

What do you think about the current state of food critics? Can critics being cut loose from major journals have an effect on restaurants? We used to whine a little bit when we felt critics from powerful journals had too much power and didn't use it wisely. I would tell you that the movie, A Matter of Taste featuring Paul Liebrandt, deals directly with the New York Times critic and how he felt he was slighted. We've had two since that critic, and it seems their power has diminished incredibly. The public seems to rely more now on the blogs, and you guys. I think it's clear. Aspen is very important because there's a fraternal thing here that Dana Cowin, Christina Grdovic, they don't forget who laid the bricks in the first place, be it chefs or other people. When you create a fraternity you have a lot of people who are rooting for you.

What's happened with the journals, or specifically one paper, every time they make these switches they don't regard history as being important, so the new critic wipes the slate clean, there's no continuity. In some cases they don't even like each other, so they don't go out to lunch and say, what was your criteria for giving a 3 star review? So what a 3 star review is, is constantly changing. The people buying the paper see the same headline and they're confused. It doesn't seem to be the power of a 3 star, 4 star, and of course they're very stingy. Meanwhile Zagat goes on as it always has with a great reference point, and Michelin has also entered the market in terms of this, but the individual critics have allowed their own power to diminish.

Is it hard to evaluate each new critic? Eating in restaurants is very idiosyncratic and every critic is as well. In the 70s you had Mimi Sheraton and Gael Greene and they didn't get along. One liked their fish undercooked and the other obviously didn't. One got very upset if you thrust the pepper mill in front of them. So yeah, you sort of had to understand their own idiosyncrasies to understand them. There was this incessancy to get out first, to be the first one to get out, so then once you're out first then the other one sometimes reviews the other's review versus their own personal observations.

Recently with Carbone, Adam Platt gave it one star, Pete Wells gave it 3. Wouldn't you be confused? Is there really that big of a disparity? One star is really not very good, 3 is something you work your life to achieve. At the end of the day, information in our field, in the field of food, is so fast. I go up on your site and I'm like I better stay on this and go to page 4 because I missed all this. I might be out of the loop. I don't need to know about every restaurant opening in Brooklyn, but I do believe I have a place in the order of food and beverage in New York City, and I don't want to be marginalized. I want to be involved with it, and the way you do that is you don't make yourself ignorant of news.

I can tell you we had this huge article on Paul Liebrandt in Wednesday's Times, and I thought all my colleagues would say something about it. Very very influential people say they haven't read it or haven't seen it. What does that mean, they have the Times on a desk somewhere waiting for them to pick it up and read it? No, by now it's done, it's passed. An article like that in the past would have resonated a million ways. One person saw the picture and said I thought you had your four stars and I said yeah, it was a lot different than that.

You went to London for the World's 50 Best Restaurants. How was that? First of all I love London, we've had a restaurant there close to 17 years. Nobu was always part of the 50 Best, then we dropped out, based on I believe a controversy over the tuna issue, because of specific journalists involved with that event perhaps, again I don't know. I don't care, there are a lot of restaurants that drop out, but to go from the top 50 to dropping out of the top 100... One of them, the London or the New York Nobu deserves to be in the top 100, so I kind of went there just to judge it a little bit. I'd been several times when we were in their rankings and this time we weren't. That's like a fraternity, a great group of people and it's a wonderful event that gets all those people together in a wonderful venue. London, by the way has a very vibrant food scene, it reminds me of New York 10 years ago. Fine dining still has its place, but a lot of those chefs kind of burn out and now they're doing gastropubs. There's almost an inexhaustible list of places to go in London.

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