What inspired you to write this book, how long did it take to write?
It took me two years to write - at a certain point I realized that my Dad was not well and going to pass and he was kind of the "original gangster" restaurant man and I felt compelled to document that portion of my life - the last four decades that I had spent in restaurants - and how they've evolved from immigrant-driven blue-collar-type businesses in Queens, to the kind of restaurant that we have now which is more media-driven, more of a spotlight kind of thing. The evolution of the restaurant business in those four decades is very much intertwined in the evolution of my life.
What do you think is the most common mistake restaurateurs make in the first year of business?
I think that the biggest reason why restaurants have such a high mortality rate is that people don't really understand how to make money in a restaurant. You can have great food, and have great passion and hospitality but without profit the restaurant doesn't exist. Commerce without margin is, in my words, a hobby.
We recently ran an article entitled 10 Telltale Signs of a Bad Restaurant. What do you consider to be glaring signals of a poor restaurant?
Here's my top three list. #1 is smell - if you can walk in and it doesn't smell right, run like hell. #2: Dirty, food-stained menus, run like hell. And #3, this is a just a personal thing, if they don't have at least a couple decent wines by the glass it's a pretty big bet they don't give a sh*t about anything else - run like hell again.
What dishes do you think are the biggest rip-offs, pastas, appetizers?
Some people might say pasta, but especially handmade pastas require a lot of labor so the food cost might not be high but the skill level required to make good pasta good is very high. I sometimes think that high-end appetizers, people sometimes charge more than they need to. It's difficult to say in broad strokes because it really depends on the restaurant. If you're really looking to insure value, go toward premium high-end proteins. You know that if you buy high-quality proteins yourself, everything costs money these days.
As someone who's worked in the restaurant industry all his life, did you ever think food would become as "trendy" as it has?
I mean I think that the world of the internet and blogging has transformed our industry because everyone is a critic now. The dissemination of information is so lightning fast. It just ramps up the game so you better be ready from minute one to deliver at 110%. What I did see that happened in the last four decades, aside from the internet, is that the customers demands much more from restaurateurs these days. They want to be entertained, educated and bedazzled all at the same time. People don't just want to just go to eat they want to make an evening at the restaurant, they want music, they want beautiful people, they want an sommelier that's going to inform them and teach them, they want servers that are going to charm them and now there like so many elements that you have to deliver on all fronts.
How do you think your career would have been different if you hadn't met Mario Batali?
I don't know, I'd still probably be doing the same thing just in a very different way. Meeting Mario was one of those fortuitous moments in my life where we became friends and we were lucky enough to be able to open restaurants together. It's been a good run for us. We've been lucky.
It's safe to say that 95% of the dining public still knows very little about wine, any tips for clueless diners on picking a good wine?
If you have a restaurant that's serious about their wine program, ask them who buys the wine and speak to that person. You have to put yourself in the hands of good, responsible people and if you can find someone that's passionate about wine, they'll never steer you wrong. If they love wine, they really love wine. You have to find someone who really cares about it to deliver their passion to you and communicate and interact with them. Whether it's a wine director or sommelier, wine has become a much bigger part of the economic equation of the restaurant so there's definitely people investing in personnel to put on the floor to be able to sell the wine. It's very much a part of the experience now more than ever.
You've accomplished so much - anything left on the list?
Well I mean we'd like to evolve Eataly, currently we're expanding to Chicago and LA, maybe Sao Paulo, Brazil. There's so many things to do. We just opened our fist restaurant in Hong Kong, we're opening another one in two months. We're gonna have our first restaurant hopefully in Shanghai next year. Singapore has been amazing, we opened two years ago. I'm really excited about what we do in the Asian market because it's so huge.
Do you have another book in you?
[Laughs.] I don't know if i have it in me emotionally. It was pretty raw and cathartic and it was very real. I kind of put it all out there. I don't have much left to say at this point!
I'm assuming at this point that your mother Lidia has read the book, was she surprised at all by all the pot smoking?
She spanked me the first time she read it. And then over the last three months she's kind of been able to digest it. But yeah....the pot smoking, especially at such a young age, disappointing. It was another time in 1977. It was very different than it is now.