Interview with Restaurateur Matt Levine of IndieFORK, Chalk Point Kitchen, and The Handy Liquor Bar - New York, NY
Joe Sevier: You've noted that, even as a teenager, your first passion was hospitality. Yet, your initial entrepreneurial endeavor was a men's clothing line. What inspired that detour and what is it that pulled you back to hospitality?
Matt Levine: Born in Brooklyn and raised right by JFK airport, I’ve been throwing parties in NYC since my early high school days. But my first true introduction to back of house was as a bar-back in middle school, then as a server in high school, and eventually tending bar as a means to get by financially in college. However, I always had a passion for art. I was always drawing & sketching, and still occasionally channel my graffiti days for our Chalk Point Kitchen daily specials board.
I created a clothing line and dabbled in fashion for 3 years—it was an amazing experience. Then in 2008 I found this little bar on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side, and purchased my first lounge at 26. That became The Eldridge, and spurred my love for food and beverage. At the time, my job was my clothing line, and The Eldridge was “just a hobby,” another creative outlet to implement concepts and ideas from the traveling I was doing via the fashion industry. But The Eldridge just kind of took off!
Being back in the hospitality industry gave me the opportunity to conceptually create an idea, starting with the architectural and design process and hone in on all of the details that enhance the guest experience. I was able to combine my creativity, the marketing I’d learned developing my clothing line, and my experience bartending and producing special events. It’s all the small details that enhance the vision and truly have your concept come to life. I always tell my team, “it takes a lot of little pixels to create that clear HD picture.”
JS: Your promotional videos go beyond the standard, "Here's who we are, here's where to find us," trope. What inspired you to make these "odes" to a neighborhood as promotion.
ML: When it comes to promotional videos, I think it’s important to take the “teach, don’t preach” and the “help, don’t sell” approach. New York City has such rich history, it’s important to showcase our community and our neighborhood. I do that by steering some focus on the past in order to understand our future. When Sons of Essex opened, I had my employees tour the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to get a true understanding of the LES’s history. More recently, at Chalk Point Kitchen [CPK] we went through a series of history lessons on the evolution and growth of SoHo, which included the foundation and meaning of our name [Chalk Point was a location in what is now SoHo that Dutch settlers so named because of the mounds of chalk-white oyster shells left by Native Americans] and the inspirations behind our cocktails’ names, each taken from SoHo’s rich past. We even decided to line our kitchen ceiling with Basquiat prints, not only to inspire our team’s creativity and passion for their craft—food as art—but to pay homage to Basquiat’s influence on the downtown art movement, especially in SoHo.
Building on our “odes to neighborhood,” we created a “Meet Our Team” video to acknowledge the handiwork of our staff, and even expanded upon that with our “Day in the Life…” series, showcasing our employees, such as our wonderful server, and yoga instructor-by-day, Amy; and John, our hardworking chef de partie and artist.
JS: In the video "Sons of Essex," which went viral when it was released in 2011, you approach people on the streets with the question, "What is the Lower East Side?" So, what is the LES to you?
ML: Hmm, the LES to me…creative, entrepreneurial, and gritty. The Lower East Side has such a sense of community, so many of my memories are just being able to kick-it, collaborate with, and support other entrepreneurial spirits. I love watching other businesses evolve and witnessing the overall growth of the LES as a whole.
JS: So how has that transition from the LES to SoHo been?
ML: I still live in the LES and still frequent and support the business’ there, but I’m loving SoHo. The transition has been pretty smooth, as it’s only a few blocks away. A lot of my previous LES regulars—like Luke Wessman of Wooster St. Social Club and Troy Denning of Invisible NYC—frequent CPK, but a large part of our clientele has been the SoHo community. Our regulars are local SoHo residents, our neighbors. Ever since opening, the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly supportive. It’s important to build inside out; so, similar to what I did on the Lower East Side, rather than press tastings upon opening, we first did local, neighborhood tastings. You could feel the word-of-mouth spread organically. And, as we’ve been getting busier, we’ve [kept that neighborhood feeling alive] by creating a neighbors-only email address, solely for residents that live in our ‘hood for last minute reservations. We will always have a table available for our regulars. In fact, we have several guests that eat here three to four nights a week—it’s humbling.
JS: Your philosophy has been quoted as, "Don't read the book, write the book." Can you explain that? Does it suggest an aversion to culinary or restaurant management school?
ML: I think it’s important to create your own identity, ride in your own lane. Following a culinary biography or guide, you will never exceed the writer’s accomplishments. While it’s important to take a “sponge-like” approach, absorbing content and information as you go, it’s also important to follow your own heart and gut. Seek advice, get inspired, then do it on your own terms.
I’m not averse to culinary or restaurant management school, but I think our culture is leaning towards a more creative thought process, which I find encouraging. I personally like to hire creativity and passion, over resumes—it’s not what you’ve done in the past, it’s about your goals for the future, and how you will translate that art or creativity or grassroots approach and passion into helping us grow our restaurant, and overall food and beverage platform.
JS: Who in the restaurant or nightlife industry do you consider a mentor?
ML: Last week I was able to catch up with a dear friend of mine, Richie Notar. I look at his transition from nightlife [Studio 54] to restaurateur, helping create and establish Nobu as a globally recognized brand, and the more recent development of Harlow and Harlow East—the General Tso’s Cauliflower there is bananas! And of course, what Andres Balazs has created is truly inspiring: a fusion of hotelier and restaurateur, channeling his concepts in a creative and non-traditional manner—a grassroots ‘cultured’ approach! Last, but not least, I look at what Keith McNally has done. He’s a true innovator with his “if you build it, they will come” approach, creating Pastis in the Meatpacking district before the Meatpacking was established [as a posh nightlife destination], as well as opening up Schiller’s Liquor Bar in a time prior to the Lower East Side’s most recent transformation.
JS: How do you choose a project?
ML: There really is no formula in choosing a project. You just have to follow your gut—the no risk, no reward approach—and not be afraid of failure.
In the past, I created a concept, chose the direction of the menu, and would be extremely hands on with back-of-house. Working with Chef Joe Isidori, we shared a vision for a market-to-table, vegetable-emphasized approach. While I enjoy dabbling in the kitchen, I’m by no means a culinary master. I like to consider myself the “behind the scenes” dude, putting it all together, making it happen, taking the macro approach. I couldn’t be happier with our entire kitchen team—big shout out to Chef Joe, Chef Freddi, and Chef John!
Chalk Point Kitchen
The Handy Liquor Bar
JS: How did the concept for Chalk Point Kitchen come together?
ML: My approach to the restaurant business has always been local first, build inside out—it’s that entrepreneurial spirit in me. Living on the LES for the past 8 years, I was truly impacted by the multicultural influences. If Manhattan is the melting pot of the world, the Lower East side is the melting pot of Manhattan. With markets such as Asia Market Grocery and Hong Kong Market, not to mention the Hester Street Fair, New Amsterdam Market, and Union Square Green Market, it’s inspiring to see the possibilities you can bring to a menu. Yes, New York City is a concrete jungle, but there’s always an abundance of artisans, green markets, and purveyors just footsteps away!
I wanted to create a true “market-to-table” restaurant that provided a variety of options, a well-balanced, healthy menu with bold flavor profiles and high-level composition, which was also extremely approachable and creative. I met Chef Joe, and he shared a similar vision, plus he’s a pioneer in sustainable seafood and his resume not only includes a Michelin star, but a devotion to local and organic as well!
[CPK sources from all of the places mentioned above], we like to say it’s “Chinatown meets Union Square Greenmarket.” Chef Joe really takes the edge and flavor of Downtown NYC markets and combines them to create a mix of local, heirloom, organic, seasonal, and sustainable menu items. We’re committed to this, we’re committed to local. Chef Joe implements that mission statement in the kitchen, and I implement it with the FOH.
JS: What have you found to be the most reliable avenues for funding?
ML: Financing is one of the most challenging obstacles an entrepreneur has to overcome when starting a business. Start small, your first stand alone F&B project should be a manageable one from both a financial and operational standpoint, including from a funding standpoint. Be realistic with your expectations. You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to learn to navigate through unexpected obstacles. It’s a learning process.
Get creative. Utilize your personal relationships and resources—i.e. your aunt, the accountant; your cousin, the contractor; your neighbor, the chef—to help minimize start-up costs, and be prepared to be a renaissance man or woman yourself. You’re going to need to educate yourself with unfamiliar skill sets. There’s a lot of risk involved. Just believe in yourself and understand your business plan. [But remember], it’s just that—a plan—be willing to adapt and revise as necessary. Business plans are a constant work-in-progress, conceptually evolving to achieve your hospitality goals and financial objectives. As your experience grows, and as you build your customer base, you will naturally and organically build your potential funding pool with suitors familiar with your brand, [who are] willing to invest into not only your next concept and vision, but also your work ethic.
JS: What restaurant project do you wish you’d thought of first?
ML: Anyone that is living out their dream, putting their plan to action. The restaurant business isn’t easy, so it’s important for food and beverage professionals, and restaurateurs to support each other. I fully support any and all entrepreneurial endeavors, and it gets me excited, as well as inspired. Whenever I see a new restaurant project popping up in the LES or SoHo, I try my best to support it, support local.
JS: You started out so young and built a loyal following relatively quickly. What's your best advice for someone who's now in the same frame of mind you were in 10 years ago?
ML: In all honesty, I’m still learning everyday. I learn from my staff, I learn from my guests… There’s no right or wrong. I look at my projects over the years, and they have all changed with my personal experience and taste. You’ll grow as an individual, you’ll grow with experience, but it’s important to stay true to your brand and concept. Just because it’s never been done, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. You can set the precedent. Don’t doubt yourself. Once you believe in your vision and your team believes in your vision, your guests will as well.
And, oh yeah, be prepared to work 24/7! Be a creature of habit—consistency is key. Once you lay down the foundation and steps of service, follow those steps every day and train your team to do the same. Whether it’s your first or fifth time dining with us, at any of our properties, our goal is to exceed your expectations each and every time, and that comes with consistency.
JS: Where do you see yourself 10 years from today?
ML: I honestly don’t even know what I’m having for dinner tonight, haha! But when it comes to business, I certainly have further aspirations and goals. Much of that [currently revolves around] the development and growth of our staff. From opening my first lounge, The Eldridge, at age 26, to now CPK at 32, I’ve realized that I can’t do this alone. It’s all about teamwork to enable growth. I really believe we have an exceptionally artistic, creative, innovative, and talented team here at indieFORK. I get inspired daily—whattup Chef Joe, Chef Freddie, Georges, Lee from America, Courtney, Peter, and the rest of our squad!
A personal goal for myself—and the indieFORK team—is to break ground on boutique hotels with a “market-to-table” bed and brunch component, so we shall see. In the meantime, we’ve had a couple of pretty cool pop-ups and projects: we catered 9 Fashion Shows for NYFW2014, including Jeremy Scott and Opening Ceremony, as well as the Official ‘IMG x Samsung’ Backstage VIP lounge at Lincoln Center. It’s important to create content for your restaurant brand through non-traditional outlets—for me that means using a grassroots approach.
But, right now, CPK is still in its developmental stage. Believe it or not, it’s only been 5 months. We’re constantly looking at guest feedback. I personally read every comment card myself, and [identifying] areas where we can improve. As Peter, our CPK maître d' regularly reminds me “Matt, our feedback cards are way too long!”