Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: restaurateur Drew Nieporent
What I feel happiest is, that over the years, we've probably had about ten Best Chefs. The first year, I know was Debra Ponzek, in 1989, and then in '08 or '09, Paul Liebrandt, and in between there and here, it's been almost close to ten people. That's a pretty good representation. Look where we are — it's a phenomenal setting and it gets better as the years go on.
How's your new restaurant Bâtard?
It's just been very gratifying, because it's sort of incalculable how much goodwill you create when you open a restaurant that lasts as many years Montrachet did, 22 years. When we opened Corton, we made pretty drastic changes to the look, but we had this goodwill from Montrachet. The first customers to go to Corton were Montrachet people. Of course, there was no real vestige of what Montrachet was about in Corton.
Now, Bâtard is somewhere in between the two. Obviously, calling it Bâtard is going back. What's amazing to me, in goodwill, is watching these people come in and say, "Man, we used to go to Montrachet. We really loved Montrachet." It's usually when they first sit down. It's really interesting, when people go to a restaurant and they want to have a good time, generally speaking, if you deliver the good food, wine, good service, they will. A lot of times there's a preconceived notion of a restaurant and you come in thinking you're not going to like it. Goodwill is an intangible asset you have if you hang in there long enough and work hard.
Have you seen a critic come in?
We were trying for the trifecta the other night. We had two, two nights in a row.
I'm not supposed to know they were there, right? You guess, and I'll tell you if you're right or wrong.
That's interesting. No, it wasn't him. What's always interesting is now he's taken the posture that he's not going to be anonymous, but of course, the reservation isn't under Adam Platt. But he seemed to enjoy himself. In the other corner was the esteemed critic from GQ. That's the hint. And then the next night, it was Ruth. Well, Ruth Reichl isn't really a food critic anymore, but she was.
I think we're ready. It took a little bit of time for it to come together, as does every new restaurant. We're confident and the feedback has been very positive. 99.9 % positive. There's interesting comments that you see. Even yesterday, a comment on Eater thought we should pour the soup from a different container. If we're really going to split hairs like that, I'm fine with that.
There was one comment about the staff standing around and it took 15 minutes for us to get our bread. Well, Markus Glocker, our chef, wanted to fire the bread once the order was taken. A lot of times when people first come to a restaurant, they're waiting for other people, so there is a long lag before you get your bread. After reading that, I thought, these people didn't wait from the time we fired the bread, they waited from the time they walked in. Now our procedure has changed that you give people bread right away, because we don't want to incur criticism for things that are easily rectified.
Do you read Yelp for comments like that?
Generally speaking, I don't. But of course, we were new, so I picked up the Yelp right away. I think the first one was "This restaurant's not sure what it wants to be." And it was a little like, "It's noisy. But the food's good." And there was a second one that was very nice. And then there was a third one that was over the top and they edited that out. I guess there's a scientific way of finding out that somebody's shilling.
It was over-the-top positive?
The third one. I wouldn't say so over the top. And then there was one, when I read it, I said, "Oh my god, this is perfect." Somebody was interpreting what we were doing, and it was so well written, I couldn't say it better myself. That one fell into the filter. Get this: we've been open almost a month and how many Yelp reviews are there? Two. That original first one, which was idiotic because it was the first night, and the second one, which was very nice, and the one which I thought was unbelievable, and would be intelligent for people to read, and not shilled by us. I guess the answer is, I read it, but with a grain of salt.
You've opened a lot of restaurants in your time.
39 restaurants in the last 29 years.
You keep count?
Well, I don't actually. Sometimes I'm asked, and I'll count. When I turned 50, my invitation showed all the restaurants, what year they were, and the people that worked there, and where they went. It was startling. It was like an amazing family tree. It ended in '01, because after 9/11, I thought it was a moment to reassess everything and take care of what you had, not to worry about creating opportunities or businesses. This invitation goes to '01. Now I'm about to turn another ripe old age, and I'll probably do another invitation. I'm sure the family tree will be more unbelievable. It's gratifying.
One side was the chefs and the other side were the wine personalities and pastry chefs. At Montrachet/Corton/Bâtard, we had this amazing pastry chef Bill Yosses, now he's at the White House as the pastry chef. Claudia Fleming, Gerry Hayden, Montrachet, Tribeca Grill. Of course, at Corton, we had Shawn Gawle and Robert Truitt. Sometimes people say, "He's lucky," — you're not lucky when you've collaborated for so many years with so much talent. It doesn't happen by accident. And obviously those people went on to a lot greater things.
Is it any easier these days to open a restaurant?
It's ten times worse. Unbelievably nuts because there's so many more hurdles. I think the biggest thing, now, is we've gone from a labor pool to a labor puddle. There's so few people. I don't know if you've seen this, but Daniel Boulud's, for instance, weekly newsletter says he's looking for people here or a general manager or a sous chef. It's not like they are lower level positions. These are hard positions to fill. We need talented people with experience.
That's the hardest thing?
It's really hard, because, keep in mind, we're supposed to know what we're doing. How much time do we have to train staff so that they think and work like us? It's a daily vigilance. I'll walk by a table and hear a waiter say something, if they said it to me, I'd feel pretentious. My entire career has been, let's throw all the BS out. We're working in a restaurant, we don't have to play restaurant. Here's the biggest thing: a lot of people who work for you have never been guests in restaurants. They may go to pubs or maybe informal restaurants, but they really don't have the experience of being a customer in a restaurant, in many cases, on a level where they work. What we try to do, is we have the staff sit in the restaurant and experience the dinner and see what its like to be a guest, so they have a greater appreciation of how to serve.
The important thing in a restaurant is basics. Get the people what they need as swiftly and efficiently as possible. There's so much flowery nonsense. I was in front of a restaurant right down here that was doing a goat cheese salad and the cheese is from down the block and this is all a great story, but if they ask you where they get the cheese from, then you can say down the block. Read the customer.
What gets you going right now?
It's not fair for the Health Department to show up in the middle of service. Would they show up at Yankee Stadium in the seventh inning and stop everything? Would they show up at Metropolitan Opera? This is our theater. This our performance. I believe in the Health Department. I believe in sanitary conditions in a restaurant. It's just not the right way. There are customers there, and depending on who the chef is, the chef is the food handler and has to chaperone the inspector throughout the process. That takes that person off the line. Explain what industry that could happen in, except ours. That's totally wrong. I find that's wrong.
And, then, good for OpenTable, they sold for $2.6 billion, but could they solve one problem? Such as, when people log on and make reservations and either don't have the courtesy to show up or call — that's a no-show — or they do call to cancel, but guess what, they clung on to that table for 30 days. I could show you the cancellation reports, which they generate at OpenTable. 54 people last Saturday canceled. It's only a 60-seat dining room. That means I replaced the entire dining room. It's insane.
What percentage of your restaurants are no-shows?
I don't want to obsess about it anymore, but you understand my problem. The Nobus are so popular that if someone doesn't show up, there's someone at the bar to take their place or there's going to be a walk-in to take their place. Those restaurants have that luxury because of their locations. That works okay. At Bâtard, I'm 29 years [in that location], and at Montrachet/Corton, you'd get a handful of walk-ins. So it really hurts when you no-show.
Then there are circumstances we have to bear with, like we had an 8-top the other day when Barack Obama was in town, and we know what that does for traffic. Three people showed up and the rest didn't, so they left. I lost 8 covers. It's nuts. When I was younger, every single thing bothered me, because every single dollar meant something. It was my life savings on the line. And now, 29 years later, the good news is that I'm still into it. I'm going to use all my experience to make it a great experience for the guests.
What's the craziest opportunity that you've turned down?
First, I would tell you, it's the people that turn down my opportunity. Honestly, the Animal guys, Todd English, I've danced with everybody. Maybe OpenTable stock. I was offered $1 million in Priceline stock and I said to my accountant, "What does that mean?" He said that I was going to owe $350,000 in taxes. I said, I don't have the money, I just have the stock. If they go belly up, I'm out the $350,000. So I made a decision not to go with them and they did go belly up. I use OpenTable, but as we know Danny Meyer sits on the board and he made a point of letting me know that and I made a point of him picking up the check.