Nelson Hernandez was a teacher for ten years before he decided he’d rather make art than teach it. He now performs around town as a singer-songwriter and pays the rent by waiting tables at Marco Canora’s joint Insieme. Since Insieme is located directly across from the darkened Winter Garden, we thought Hernandez might be just the person to tell us what the scene has been lately at a restaurant that caters both to theatergoing tourists and to homegrown aficionados of contemporary Italian cuisine.
Did you get to wait on reviewers when Insieme first opened?
I waited on Frank Bruni a couple times, Gael Greene, Ruth Reichl.
Did you have to pretend not to know them?
That whole New York restaurant-review dance is silly. It’s unfortunate they have to stay in character so much — lot of service comes down to the personality of the person that’s dealing with you.
How many people who go there are tourists?
During the 5:30 seating I’d say it’s 90 percent. The second seating at 8:30 p.m. is mostly foodies.
To what degree has business dropped off because of the Broadway strike?
The theater guests dropped in percentage maybe about 20 to 30 percent. People still come in for the first seating at 5:30 p.m., but a lot of times since they have so much time and nowhere to go, they just linger.
You must feel pressure to turn over tables in situations like that.
Yeah, we do, since we don’t have a bar. The liquor license is pending, and I believe it’s about to come soon. If they come in twenty minutes earlier or later for their reservation, it could create a logjam.
What’s the main difference between serving tourists and foodies?
At the end of the day, be it tourist or foodie, you’re coming to be entertained. It’s like a sweet and savory cinema — it’s a journey.
Sure, but your menu is divided into “traditional” and “contemporary” — do the tourists tend to play it safe?
I always assume that they’re going to, and then they surprise me.
What’s good this season?
We’ve been featuring a lot of white truffles. We immediately tell people how much it is because it’s not cheap. When they teeter, what I say is, “When you want to order a high-end specialty item, you want to order it from someone you trust. If I chose someone to make a white-truffle dish that I’m paying $140 for, that would be Marco Canora.”