This winter, three New York restaurants celebrated anniversaries significant not only for longevity, but for their continued popularity. As other restaurants shutter and checks dwindle, Daniel turned fifteen; Tabla remembered ten years; and Hearth looked to the next five. We invited these contrasting veteran chefs Daniel Boulud, Floyd Cardoz, and Marco Canora to discuss with each other the evolution of the industry, tips for longevity, and a glimpse at the future.
What has changed most about the restaurant industry in the five, ten, fifteen years you’ve been open?
Canora: The work ethic of the cooks. I think back to my line-cook years at Gramercy Tavern. If you didn’t perform, you were booted out. And now it’s the opposite. All these young people think they’re gonna be Tom Colicchio or Daniel Boulud and it’s just like, man, you haven’t even cooked for two years. You almost have to massage their feet after service every day so they stay and do good.
Boulud: You definitely have to do a lot of socializing, making sure that they feel good. Nobody ever asked us if we felt good. They dream of quick fame. Either they quit or they dream too much.
Cardoz: Everybody thinks they can go to culinary school and come out in a year and be a chef. They don’t realize you need to learn to cook before you can be a chef.
Since consistency is one key to doing well, how do you resist getting bored?
Cardoz: You got three chefs here whose menu changes pretty frequently. And for us, that’s what’s important.
Boulud: What drives you every day is the food and customer and the staff.
Canora: The challenge isn’t in the new dishes, it’s in the mundane. It’s striving for cooking that duck perfectly, keeping your station cleaner, or being more efficient, more effective. These are the challenges of cooking every day. Not in black garlic or wasabi foam.
Cardoz: If you expand, it’s where you hold true to your original message. Your second restaurant is as good as your first. I’m going to be doing Mexican tacos at Citi Field.
Boulud: Is that right? I love tacos.
Cardoz: The other reason you want to expand is you have some people who are very loyal, who are very good for your business, and you want to take care of them because if you don’t, someone else will.
Boulud: Also for me, it’s cultivating your customers for a different price point. If they go to the most casual restaurant and have a wonderful experience, they’re going to look up, and say “I may want to try the big one because I’ve never been and want to see what it is.” The chefs are going to be trained in my mold and that’s a benefit. Ten, fifteen years ago many restaurants were not run by chefs. So there were a lot of casual restaurants in New York, but they were kind of casual lousy. I think the success of a chef expanding, it’s almost better for everyone.
What are you doing to face the challenges of today's economy?
Canora: My partner Paul and I sat down four or five months ago and really looked at Hearth and our price points and what we were offering. Our fear was a stigma as the most expensive restaurant in the East Village. We did $5 bowls of soup at our bar with a glass of sherry for another $6. And then we did a Cucina Povera — poor-cooking of Italy — menu, which was three courses for $35. We did veal-ricotta meatballs every Sunday night and people loved them, so we decided to put our veal-ricotta meatballs out every night of the week. We renegotiated with all of our purveyors, we did a lot to stay relevant.
Cardoz: Most prix fixe restaurants do expensive items with a supplement, and what I’ve done now is cut back on the supplements, and [that way] we can be more creative with the menu. If something is available, good, in season, we buy it and change the menu. We renegotiated our paper products, dry goods; that helps us not translate the cost to our guests.
Boulud: But I think that the most dramatic thing happening right now is that the media are pulling people into a depression rather than the recession. Why? When you take this month’s Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, it’s all about cook at home, cook cheap, buy cheap, stay at home, don’t go out.
Canora: Thanks a lot.
Boulud: Yeah, thanks a lot. We love you. I hope next month they can say ‘Let’s go out, here’s a sandwich that’s a great bargain.’ People don’t understand that trying to cook at home unless you know what you’re doing is going to cost you more money or you’re going to eat very lousy.
What are the most common mistakes you see restaurants making?
Canora: They focus too much on the shtick and less on the substance. Great food, great wine, and great hospitality. How about that?
Cardoz: If you support your farmers, you get the best product from them. And young, new restaurants go away from that.
Boulud: I think the mistakes happen when you open a restaurant and have to build a team from scratch. I’m building a new restaurant and pulling key people from my other restaurants. I know them; they work with me; it’s easier.
Canora: I think a mistake a lot of new restaurant operators make is that they don’t really value and cultivate the sense of a team and a family in the restaurant itself.
Boulud: Not only to have people invested, but constantly educating them, challenging them, is the most important thing, because at the end, they really feel they are holding on to something which is not a routine job — they are learning as well. Even for us, from the runners all the way up to the maître’d’s, there are classes almost every day of service.
What's the last restaurant you knew would have trouble surviving and why?
Canora: There’s this new, very opulent place in Tribeca I saw online and I was like “My God, how on earth will that place ever make it?” For one, it’s got 200-something seats, which is very difficult in this time. For two, it’s very opulent, which is not really what’s happening right now. And the food, I’m sure it’s very good, but I wouldn’t call it recession comfort food. So that’s a lot of things going against one space.
Boulud: Also, expensive Japanese restaurants. I go to Sushi Seki at one o’clock in the morning and spend $200 for two. If I was a little bit more hungry it would be $250 to $300 at the bar. I think the price point is out of whack. In good times, what blew me away was how much money young people spend in places that are more trendy than good. Is that logical? It’s more expensive for sushi than a restaurant like Daniel where you have 140 employees taking care of you instead of three guys behind the counter.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Canora: I have so many ideas and concepts that I would love to do. I wish there was some sugar daddy who was just there to finance me and make it happen.
Cardoz: I have another ten years on my lease, so I still hope to be in my restaurant. But I’d like to do more with Indian food. I do 5 percent Indian food in my restaurant. There’s still 95 percent to attack and things to eat. There are sausages, there’s goats' feet, you know, spare parts.
Boulud: For me, I always dreamed of doing a place with Sottha Khunn, a Cambodian sous-chef I had at Le Cirque. He made me so happy all the time about cooking Vietnamese and Cambodian and Laotian food, that maybe together we’ll do a little restaurant. They’re French colonies down there. That whole region would be a natural choice for me to go. At Daniel, I had the chance to buy the real estate. So I can always shrink back to that one and stay home.