“The most famous restaurant space in America.”
Jeff how many restaurants do you and your partners in the Major Food Group have today?
We have 14 including the two new ones that are just opening, The Grill and The Pool, a steakhouse and a seafood restaurant.
Are the majority of your restaurants in downtown New York?
Yes. We have Carbone which is a mid-century Italian American restaurant, ZZ’s Clam Bar which is a raw bar, Santina which is a coastal Italian restaurant, Dirty French which is our version of a French bistro. We have Sadelle’s which is a New York Jewish style bagel bakery and restaurant, and we have Parm which has five locations and is a casual Italian American.
Is it right that before starting restaurants you worked as a banker at J. P. Morgan?
After college I thought it was what I wanted to do, but I discovered very quickly after I started there that my true passion was for food and for restaurants and for hospitality. I worked at J. P. Morgan for two years, and learned a lot about finance and numbers that still helps me today, but I realized I had to pursue my passion if I was going to be excellent at something. I started to work for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and from there I started working in a restaurant, and then I met my partners, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone.
Did you also run a website?
I started Always Hungry, a food content site about New York restaurants and food in general. It did video content, it did written content, it did reviews and it did news stories. I also built a private booking engine. When I sold both of those businesses I realized I didn’t want to be doing things around restaurants, I wanted to be actually building the restaurants. I was able to pursue that dream when I met my partners Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, who had opened a restaurant called Torrisi Italian Specialties.
In Nolita, on Mulberry Street. The food was incredible. We started talking about our dreams and what type of restaurant we wanted to create in the future. It felt like we knew each other our whole lives. We were all from New York, we were all around the same age, we decided that we would work together and the rest is kind of history. We started building restaurants and our first big one was Carbone in 2013.
What kind of food do you serve at Carbone?
Carbone is New York style Italian food that we all three of us grew up with. We wanted to do New York style Italian, but in a fine dining environment. We came together because of our passion for that theme. Meat balls, rigatoni vodka, Caesar salad, linguine and clams, veal parmigiana, the way that Italian food was translated when it came over from Italy to here in New York, and the cuisine that evolved from that. All of the classic dishes that you would find on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, done really well, using the best products, using the best ingredients, using the best techniques. We make the tomato sauce from scratch, we make the mozzarella from scratch.
You made popular food chic.
Is it very expensive?
It’s very expensive, but we don’t make it expensive just because we want to, we make it because we buy very expensive products.
Would you say that Carbone has been a success?
It has been very successful, and it still is one of the busiest restaurants and one of the hardest reservations in New York. No matter how good the food is, if you don’t have fun you don’t come back. You’ve got to create an environment where people enjoy themselves, feel relaxed, and are not intimidated. You go to a lot of fancy restaurants and the way the service is makes you feel very uncomfortable. We try to make sure that all of our guests feel very comfortable. We teach a style of service that’s a lot more personal and a lot more relaxed, while still upholding all the principles of fine dining.
Does that work well?
It works great.
With these two new restaurants you have now moved uptown and taken over and restored the famous Four Seasons Restaurant. Are you facing new challenges?
Yes, this is our first in a prime time location in midtown, in the very historic Seagram Building. It’s the only interior landmark designation restaurant in the city, in the space that used to be the Four Seasons Restaurant.
Did you always want to be there?
It wasn’t in our wildest dreams. This is the most famous restaurant space in America. The space was built in 1958 by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
What kind of space is it?
It’s a masterpiece of mid-century architecture. This space is in textbooks. When you read about the great work of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the Seagram Building and these spaces are significant pieces of architectural history.
Is it your intention to bring back the celebrity customers that went to places like the Rainbow Room?
We want to bring great food and great fun back to the greatest restaurant space. We hope to have the same type of exciting great crowd that we have at our other restaurants like Carbone.
What kind of cuisine will you serve?
The Grill will be very American. American Steakhouse. Different sorts of hams, and terrines, and classics like steak tartare. Dishes that you would have found in New York in the 1950s at American restaurants: fillet steaks, different steaks, chops and birds; squabs, ducks, pheasant. There’s a trolley with prime rib. Meat is definitely the specialty at The Grill, but done very elegant, very refined.
And what will you serve at The Pool?
The Pool will be modern seafood. A lot of raw preparations, a lot of whole, cooked fish, and more international flavors.
How many people will work in these two restaurants?
In The Grill about 100, in The Pool about 100. Half in the kitchen and half front of house.
Who will be the chefs?
My partners. Mario Carbone is the head chef at The Grill, and my other partner Rich Torrisi will be the head chef for The Pool. The three of us are the Major Food Group.
Most of your restaurants are downtown or in Chelsea. Why did you move uptown?
Because of this opportunity. It’s only for this opportunity that we come to midtown because it’s such a special opportunity.
Is midtown back?
I think midtown is coming back because new young exciting people like us are coming to midtown. More and more are coming now that we came in. Midtown dining is going to come back and that will bring it back to life. This is the beginning of what I’m calling a midtown dining renaissance.
How were you able to get the space?
We heard that this space was going to become available and Vito Schnabel helped introduce us to Aby Rosen, the owner of the building. We had very long discussions with Aby, and at the end of the day a lot of our vision for the space and our dream was similar to what Aby wanted. And so we partnered with him to do the restaurants, and that’s how we got here.
What makes the space so special for restaurants?
So many things. It’s a truly one of a kind space. In New York today you would never be able to find a place that’s so open, that has such beautiful windows, that sits on Park Avenue. It doesn’t exist. A space like this could never be built today. It only could be built in the late 1950s when it was built, because at that time the expense was possible. They built these spaces especially for restaurants. To have this kind of scale and this kind of air and this kind of space now is unheard of.
How big is it?
You have 20 foot ceilings and 10,000 square foot spaces, restaurants that are so comfortable. The sense of space, of privacy, of theater, of luxury and elegance, and also how beautiful it is. To be able to dine and eat incredible food in a truly historic environment is a very special thing. It becomes something that you feel in so many of your senses. You’re not only enjoying the food, but the atmosphere is something you would come to see, even if it wasn’t a restaurant. Putting all that together is a very incredible opportunity.
What is your aim?
To bring the best food and the best service and what the space deserves, to bring an experience that is at the same level of the space itself.
What makes a success? I mean you love food but you are also a businessman.
We take a lot of pride in the fact that we create different stories and tell different narratives and each brand, each place has its own identity. The way that we grow is through our passions, between the passions that me and Rich and Mario all share for a concept. We all come together and collectively create these concepts that excite us.
Is it a good business?
So far it’s a great business for us. The restaurant business is a high risk business, there’s no one that can tell you otherwise, but we try to mitigate that by creating concepts that we believe in that we think can sustain the test of time.
Don’t people love restaurants?
People love restaurants, but there’s also a lot of them. So you need to be able to differentiate yourself, and you need to be able to consistently put out a very high quality product.
How important is wine?
Very important. We are going to have one of the great wine cellars in New York, and we have one of the top wine directors in the country, if not the world. We do everything as it pertains to wine at the highest level. One of our partners is the biggest collector of Château d’Yquem in the world, and he has given us his collection to use here.
Is there always an element of fashion?
Listen, we always say it’s not hard to be full when you open. It’s hard to be full after one year, two years, three years, four years, that’s the business that we’re in. Everyone wants to go see the new shiny toy. It’s how many times they want to come back. And that’s the business that we’re in, people coming back.
How do you launch a new place?
You have to put out a great product. People care about food. People care about fun. They care about the environment. Some people come to our restaurants because they love one dish. People come because they have a great time.
How much can a couple spend for dinner?
A person can spend as much as they want. Depends on what restaurant, so per person if you look at all of our restaurants we have everything from $35 all the way to a hundred and fifty dollars
What is your favorite dish?
That’s like choosing a favorite child.
Do you like cakes and desserts?
We love them. At The Grill we’ve got a very classic cake program, we have chocolate cakes and Charlottes and meringues and flambés, and all these classic mid-century desserts. Next door at The Pool will have very modern desserts.
What is the key to the job that you do?
We try to consistently tell our story and our message and make sure that the food, the experience, the service and every different element tells that story. And that’s what myself, Mario, Rich, all three of us do. We have blurred all those ‘In the front’ or ‘In the back’ lines, and really what all three of us are doing is we’re all focusing on how we make sure that we’re telling that story and sticking with that narrative all the time.
If I understand well, your philosophy is food first and then taking care of your clients?
Exactly. All the details are important. The silverware, the uniforms, the music and all the little things. The music is the thing that sets the scene, ties to the concept, connects the food to the atmosphere.
How much time do you spend in your restaurants?
We spend a lot of time in our restaurants. We try to spend as much time as possible. We like to be in them. That’s the best way to do it.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with a friend.
New York, May 2017