Marc Meyer, the chef and restaurateur behind two of Manhattans’ best known seasonal, sustainable restaurants – Five Points in Soho and Cookshop in Chelsea – and the recent re-vamp of the West Village mainstay Provence shares his philosophy on sustainability, managing, and success with Antoinette Bruno.
Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Marc Meyer: Initially, it was a means to an end. That mythical moment of inspiration didn’t happen at first. It was Marcella Hazan that got me interested, really – by way of her first book (The Classic Italian Cook Book, 1973). And there was a mother-son restaurant at UC Berkeley – that, and Hazan’s book, got me thinking about the simplicity of good food. But the impetus to be a chef really came from Patrick Clark of Odeon.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
MM: The seminal experiences were with Patricia Clark at Odeon, Larry Forgione at American Place, in Rome, and with Larry Vito at Green Street.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
MM: Patricia Clark was an obsessive chef. She was very particular about how it had to taste, how it had to look. She taught me how to be driven, and to be maniacal about quality. Larry was all about ingredients: how, where, the quality, how an ingredient added to or detracted from a dish.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MM: Don’t have expectations – just work. Too many people have it planned out and aren’t willing to take it slowly. You need to understand what it takes, and learn integrity.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
MM: More bad restaurants that are poorly run, and where people aren’t trained properly. Everyone rushes to open a restaurant without investing oneself in the industry first.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MM: Do it right, think it through, and taste it. Make sure people understand it, know the cost, and ask yourself: is there integrity?
My restaurants are seasonally driven, and based on the use of local ingredients. We go to greenmarkets as much as possible and practice trying to source things locally. I pay attention to where fish comes from, and check guides to what fish is safe and not overfished.
AB: What does sustainability mean to you?
MM: I think that is getting to be an overused term. It’s about humility; it’s about what you have versus what you really need. Not flying things from all over the world to impress someone…using ingredients that speak for themselves and stand alone…seeing what’s in your own backyard. It’s about considering what the ramifications and results of our actions are. I have motion detectors for lights and I recycle my cooking oil; it’s not just about menu writing!
I’m frustrated with the system – it shouldn’t be about exclusivity access. Sustainable goods are limited, and we have to question these limits. How can sustainable products be more available? We have to find an answer so that the masses will stop depending on big companies who are not producing sustainable goods.
AB: When did you open your first restaurant?
MM: I opened Five Points in 1999. I didn’t know a lot. If I thought about whether or not I was ready, I wouldn’t have ended up opening.
AB: What was the deal? How’d you get the money? Do you have partners?
MM: We raised money and sold shares. Somewhere along the way you meet people. Your equity is sweat equity – others put up the money. Usually it’s not 50/50 – investors get more. Others may strike different deals, but in New York you have to raise a mound of money. I found it necessary to give up a majority share.
AB: What’s your ownership structure?
MM: I have 3 restaurants and they are all separate deals.
AB: Does that create problems?
MM: No, it was out of necessity. It’s been a learning process with each one. Redefining the deal, trying to make less mistakes each time...
AB: What’s your concept? Are you chef-driven? How much creative control is your own and how much is left to the chefs?
MM: We are definitely chef-driven, but each one is different. There is a stylistic element that has been established. We start with the food and what we want it to be depends on the deal, the number of seats, the space, the numbers you need to hit, and so on. The challenge is trying not to compromise your original vision.
With Cookshop it was apparent what it was going to be. Joel [Hough, chef de cuisine] has taken it from there. With Provence, it was self-evident due to its history.
AB: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?
MM: I pay them well. I have dishwashers that have been with me for 8 years and cooks for 7 years. It’s treating them well and showing them respect and concern. I’ve also started giving shares and bonuses to key employees. You have to give them an interest in the business.
This stands true for vendors as well – they have to be paid on time! Employees, customers and vendors are the three main components of a restaurant, and they all require good will.
AB: What is your customer service philosophy?
MM: It’s all about knowing how you want to be treated. Service is a profession. I believe there is an art to hospitality, and it certainly requires strict standards. Your customer is spending their money in your restaurant – they should be treated well.
AB: What are your top 3 tips for running successful restaurants?
MM: 1. You go in everyday and you do it
2. Understand that it’s a business. You have to look at costs everyday: food costs, labor costs, the price of plates, etc.
3. Find a place for your true desires, and remember: there has to be a balance. Find a way to be the cook you want to be.
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