The general manager is often the most senior and experienced position at any given restaurant. The GM manages the wait staff. The GM oversees the kitchen staff. The GM makes sure the chef is keeping food costs under control, that the beverage director is buying the right wines, that the bar is taking its cues from guest preferences (not liquor distributor shenanigans), that the expeditor is coping with the flow of orders, that the servers are coping with the never-ending flow of guests, and that the restaurant, of course, is making money. The GM hires and fires. The GM is the boss. The GM, like the chef, is usually a man. And that’s unfortunate because it’s usually one of the highest paying jobs at a restaurant.
Prominent general managers around New York have included hospitality lifers like Will Guidara, as famous as his Eleven Madison Park co-owner, chef Daniel Humm; La Grenouille’s legendary Charles Masson — who practically overshadowed the entire dining room, never mind the food — and La Vara’s own Kimberly LeVine.
Wait, who’s Kimberly LeVine?
That’s a good question. Before she became general manager at the city’s best Spanish spot, she had little more than a year’s worth of experience working at an actual restaurant, and she hadn’t spent a single day at any culinary or hospitality management school. Her degree from Boston University is in neuroscience. And to be fully accurate, she only ended up holding that general manager job, a position some hold onto for life, for 17 months. After that she was promoted to director of operations for all four of Alex Raij and Eder Montero’s acclaimed Iberian establishments.
So essentially, she’s now the general manager of a small restaurant empire. I mean, I’ve been dining at La Vara longer than LeVine has been working in hospitality.
In addition to the Sephardic- and Moorish-influenced La Vara — where I’ve regularly waited 90 minutes for bar stools — she oversees the Basque-inspired Txikito, the tiny tapas bar that is El Quinto Pino, and the daytime cafe known as Tekoa.
“Just so I’m not misrepresenting myself, I haven’t been doing this for too long,” she told Raij during her job interview. LeVine had already given up a career in nonprofits — she was jack of all trades at a children’s mental health foundation — to see if she could make it in the culinary world.
“In all my free time, I was thinking about food, and where to eat, and where to cook next,” she tells me. The beginning was not glamorous; she started off as an online reservationist for Wylie Dufresne’s Alder, but she soon took on accounting, financial modeling, permitting, marketing, and social media responsibilities.
About a year later Alder closed and Raij tapped LeVine as general manager of La Vara, a job she landed after viewing a listing via the Toklas Society, a networking organization for women in the hospitality industry.
“She was coming from a nonprofit, and we’re not-for-profit,” Raij joked when I asked her about the hiring decision. But seriously, why’d she do it? “I felt like she had that agency to do many tasks and wear lots of hats,” Raij said. “In terms of personality, she has what I call emotional intelligence. We believe you learn this profession on the job. We’re sort of a crazy peasant family, not a hyper-polished restaurant group. We wanted somebody who understood our culture and our core values but that would continue to grow with us.”
As director of operations, LeVine’s work now includes ensuring compliance with health insurance regulations, picking out new point-of-sale systems, and managing anything else that lets the individual general managers focus more on service (like maybe getting walk-ins seated faster at La Vara).
Or for a bit more perspective: LeVine is now the No. 3 person in the restaurant group, which has no formal name, after Raij and Montero. When this group continues to grow even further, and let’s hope it does, she’ll be right there, helping fueling that growth.