The Dream Team: Behind-the-scenes players that make a restaurant unique

In today’s hyper-competitive restaurant world, some of the most influential players are not in the front- or back-of-the-house. Behind many acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs are the designers, purveyors, suppliers, real estate developers, financial wizards and other talented pros that help launch a successful concept and keep it ahead of the pack.

Just such a group was assembled on October 12 for “Trade Talks 2012”during this fall’s New York City Wine & Food Festival. Their panel, titled “The Butcher, The Baker, The Candle Stick Maker,” featured these industry insiders:

  • David Rockwell, architect, The Rockwell Group
  • Pat LaFrieda Jr., meat purveyor, Pat LaFrieda Meats
  • Steven Kamali, principal, Steven Kamali Hospitality
  • Jonno Pandolfi, ceramicist/tabletop designer
  • Melanie Dunea, photographer

With Jennifer Baum, founder and president of Bullfrog & Baum Public Relations as moderator, the panel shared their insights on how they make teamwork tick, the best ways of doing business and where their dreams are taking them next.

JB: How do you combine your own creative vision with what a chef or restaurateur thinks is best?
DR: Collaboration is very important. The best clients don’t rip out a lot of photos and tell me they want their restaurant to “look like that.” We have to find the “DNA” that integrates food, service and design. Most of all, don’t alienate the architect from the budget process.
SK: Functionality has to make financial sense. We sometimes have to reign in the big personalities in the business.
MD: You have to give the client what they want but also lure them into what I want.

JB: How did you get started?
JP: I found a niche as a ceramic artist who markets himself to chefs. No one else was doing it at the time, but when I approached high-end chefs and asked if they would purchase custom-designed plates, the response was very positive.
DR: I started as a theatrical designer and my first restaurant project was to renovate Le Perigord [the venerable New York City French restaurant]. I only had four weeks, so I brought in the scene shop from La Mama theater. Directors and chefs are similar—they are both interested in ideas and movement. Designing restaurants allows me to combine three of my favorites—dining, socializing and Broadway theater.
PLF: My first client asked for a custom burger blend for his restaurant, so I tweaked my grandfather’s recipe a bit and fulfilled his request. Word spread—mainly through bloggers—and more restaurants requested custom blends. I had to break from my grandfather’s way of doing business—delivering the same blend everywhere. These days, restaurants want to differentiate from their neighbors.

JB: What’s your advice for working behind the scenes?
PLF: As butchers, we want the restaurant to take credit for a great dish—not the meat man. For example, the restaurant NoMad got rave reviews for its roast chicken dish and some of the reviewers pointed out that it was sourced from Pat LaFrieda Meats. We didn’t want the credit—it was the chef who made it a signature. We prefer to stay behind the scenes.
DR: When it comes to the design of the space, we don’t want credit either. By the time a restaurant is finished, we’re on to something else anyway. It’s always been my policy to “stay curious” and move on to the next project.

JB: Can you share some tips for managing a restaurant project?
JP: Sometimes it’s necessary to be very “hands on.” For Nomad’s dinnerware, I had to drive back and forth to the factory in Ohio several times to supervise production and make sure everything was turning out the way it should.
DR: Table layout is very important to the success of a restaurant design. I encourage chefs and restaurateurs to move around the tables for several days in a row to understand and get a feel for the arrangement. I think about table layout as a “landscape.”
PLF: When developing a custom blend, I start by asking the chef what kind of steak they like to eat. The chef at Minetta Tavern, for instance, likes highly marbled dry aged beef, so that’s what we gave him for his burgers.

JB: Is there a key trend you’re tracking right now?
DR: A focus on local craftsmanship. This is tracking from upscale to less expensive restaurants. There are more opportunities to source design from local artisans, which also helps eliminate some lag time in the delivery of goods. You can get things to market faster.
PLF: Local sourcing is the buzz, but to select meat for all our different clients, we have to deal with thousands of small farmers from coast to coast. Supporting small family farms is more of a trend with us.

JB: Where are you headed next?
DR: I want to continue to take creative risks and get out of my comfort zone. Portability is what interests me now, like pop-up restaurants. Pop-ups celebrate something transient; environments that can morph and change. I’d love to do a restaurant that transforms into a cooking school. I’d also love to work for Alice Waters.
PLF: I would like to work with one small French bistro that has staying power. I’d take it over a restaurant chain anytime—I like working with the same customer every day over a lifetime. Chains have lots of changing of the guard.
JP: Right now, I’m getting away from traditional four-piece place settings, designing dinnerware that’s versatile with pieces that work together for different seasonal menus. I completed a project for 11 Madison Park along those lines—a 20-piece stoneware collection. Some day, I’d love to work with Morimoto.
SK: I’m excited about exploring different venues for restaurants. Airports are a natural, but we’re also working with galleries and other institutions. A restaurateur I always wanted to work with is Keith McNally.

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