The Incomparable Independence of Iacopo Falai
“I don’t know if I should be ashamed of this,” Iacopo Falai confesses, “but I have only one apron.” This from a man who operates three restaurants and one shop (don’t worry, he washes his apron every night) in the industry jungle that is New York City, a man who’s sidestepped the quagmire of contracting with YouTube tutorials, a man who somehow exists in Manhattan with only two pairs of shoes. Granted, one of them is Prada (and he wears those to the gym). But that’s the idiosyncratic efficiency of 2006 Rising Star Chef Iacopo Falai: independent, resourceful, intoxicatingly realistic New York restaurateur.
Building a mini-empire (four operations in six years and another on its way) requires an interesting personality, to say the least—that admixture of creativity and frugality that spies obstacle and opportunity with the same alert and slightly sideways gaze. And for Falai, it’s a mentality born as much of his family’s Italian culinary pedigree as his early roots in pastry. On one hand is passion and tradition, and on the other is precision and calculation. And connecting them is a guy who’s building, bargaining, and, oh yes, quietly pining to get back in the kitchen.
From his 60-seat flagship Falai opened in 2005, to Caffe Falai in 2006, Falai Paneterria in 2008, Bottega Falai this year, and the forthcoming Trattoria Falai, “Falai’s World” is hands-on and handmade. Falai is after speed and specificity, and most contractors (at least those Falai ever dealt with) either work too slowly or take on too many jobs, diluting their attention to detail—Falai’s detail, a major no-no. So instead of wading further into the murky waters of contracting, Falai took his inspiration, and himself, to Home Depot. And there, ever open to opportunity, he met one of the two handymen who—with the addition of an architect, Mr. Su—would come to flesh out the Falai in-house contracting team. “As we speak, they’re in the next space, the Paneterria” he says.
Instead of hiring contractors to clear out a space—“they knock it all down and give you a shoebox”—Falai gets to know every nook and cranny, and then he plays with it. Where a contractor sees an old fixture, Falai sees opportunity. “You can play around with your design—maybe with a door, a handle, a column, windows, doors, the ceiling, even the floor.” And that kind of creative control is something Falai is willing to sweat (and dabble at carpentry) for, presumably out of his apron.
There are “certain negative things to being by yourself,” Falai admits. But “the good part,” he quickly follows, “is you can control [things] better.” And this is the essence of the Falai operation: total oversight, from the build-out and the recipes to the retail and back. And it’s also what’s got the guy at its helm a little tired. “I’m starting to get exhausted,” Falai admits (albeit in a cheery Italian accent). “I would love to share my responsibilities.”
But with four operations and counting, those responsibilities are numerous. And the challenge isn’t just keeping up with Falai, who has his first cup of coffee at 6am and checks all of his four email accounts, every day. It’s learning to see things the way he sees them. The guy’s got an intuitive sense of resourcefulness. “I build with the profit of the company,” he says. “[Between operations], I try to use everything, every piece of wood, to recycle.” In the Falai world of restaurant ownership, operations feed each other, meaning someday in the not-too-distant future, the old floor of Caffe Falai will be reincarnated as a new floor with new purpose at the Trattoria. "At zero cost,” Falai says, with audible satisfaction.
It's also hard-earned satisfaction. When it comes to materials, Falai is a modern day urban forager, and the greater metropolitan area is his wilderness. He’s foraged three air conditioners from a friend’s shop, 15 steel cylinders from another friend’s restaurant (“steel can always be used for structure”), and his kitchen’s plywood from Craigslist—the Free section. “You see a lot of waste,” he says. And he should know. Falai worked in a variety of larger operations before opening his own, prepping for hundreds of covers a night and overseeing massive amounts of product. What he learned—beyond the fact that he wanted something much smaller—was the incomparable value of scale. “What you buy and what you really need—there’s a relationship,” he says. “I see so many people fail for this reason.”
Falai’s done the opposite of fail for the better part of a decade precisely because he appreciates this relationship, almost obsessively (although he admits he doesn’t think owning only two pairs of shoes is for everybody). “If I buy 10 kilos of chocolate, then I use nine kilos during the week,” he says, “I have a little left over on Sunday.” The same goes for wine. "In 2011 you are able to order wine like water, like cheese, like vegetables," he says. "You don’t need to have six cases of wine for one night." If anything, he errs on the side of running out of product. “It’s part of the deal.” The other, sweeter part of the deal is (typically) making 10 times the rent.
And it’s not just material he values; he has an intuitive sense of the value of space. “If you can use every centimeter of your space, why not?” And those centimeters can be anywhere. Falai is tinkering with the idea of installing solar panels on the Caffe rooftop. “Nobody thinks about it,” he says. “It’s almost 300 by 200 feet.” Although he won’t get the same kind of government backing he would get in Italy, even for a green initiative (presently New York State only subsidizes residential solar energy), Falai charges ahead, confident they’ll come around.
Whether the state government does catch up (insert dubious comments here), Falai’s finding centimeters elsewhere. Because Falai has a 60-seat capacity, Falai (the guy) buys stock from week to week. And because he uses the same products in his cooking as he sells in his Bottega (think the Prada shoes-equivalent of olive oil, pasta, honey, cheese, and meat), his retail space actually doubles as a storage space. “You can buy bulk but these are pretty select products,” he says. “I don’t want 60 pounds of olives sitting in my walk-in. Five pounds of olives is better.”
And that’s the rule Falai lives by, at home, at work, and everywhere in between: take only what you need, use what you already have, and respect your materials—plywood or pasta. It’s a rule as active in the kitchen as it is in construction. “You work and melt and temper chocolate, and [it] takes whatever shape you put onto it,” he says. “Cement works in the same exact way.”
It's also a rule that's already shaping the vision for the Trattoria, Falai and co.'s forthcoming pasta-focused ode to relaxed, casually authentic Italian. "This is like the main trattoria, the center villa in Florence." Not only will the restaurant take shape with reused materials (the foraged detritus of citywide building projects), but the simplicity of dish preparation will keep costs low. "I’m talking about straightforward, dry pasta," says Falai, who hopes to cap dishes around the $10 range. "If you come to Florence with me, you're not going to a tourist place. You're gonna go to a place with spaghetti with tomato sauce and pay 10 Euro, 20 Euro max."
Of course there’s a chance this kind of functionally frugal, one-apron, material-recycling resourcefulness could be mistaken for some kind of penny-pinching reluctance to “go big or go home,” as the unofficial mantra of excess goes. You might make this mistake, if there weren’t always such an incessant twinkle in Falai’s eyes. He’s watching, paying attention, learning. "I'm still gonna learn when I'm 60," he says. And that's thoroughly Falai: opportunist with a creative bent, artist with an eye for opportunity. If only he could spend more time in the kitchen.