Restaurateur Phil Suarez has built his successful business intuitively---perhaps proving that you can't succeed if you're bored.
Restaurateur Phil Suarez has built his successful business intuitively---perhaps proving that you can't succeed if you're bored.
Entrepreneurs may be unpredictable, but they're not unclassifiable. A helpful taxonomy would divide them into two categories. On one hand, we've got the fixed-focus obsessives, those annoying successes who've always known they wanted to start an airline or build a better PC company.
Their counterparts float through business with far less definitude. They have a wide-angle view of things, processing and scanning all the time. Let's call them Zentrepreneurs, because they are willing, in a way, to let opportunity find them--in the same way that, as E.B. White once wrote, successful New Yorkers are those who are "willing to be lucky."
Phil Suarez, who is arguably the Baz Luhrmann of fine dining in America today, is a preeminent example of Zentrepreneurship. Each of his successes--first a long career in commercial TV production, and now, at 61, royal standing in the elite culinary world--was unplotted. An opportunity coalesced. A door cracked open. And Suarez was there to weave things together, not with any great rumble of predestination, but with a relaxed, disciplined, and appreciative approach to his good fortune.
That's been the case for Suarez ever since, as a street kid from Manhattan's Washington Heights, he got his first taste of the Other World. His first unplanned opportunity happened when ad legend George Lois needed a softball pitcher. Suarez had a friend at Lois's agency, and Lois hired Suarez because of his arm. Not knowing what else to do with him, Lois put him in TV production, a career move that stuck; eventually, he would ratchet up that opportunity into his partnership with video director Bob Giraldi. Which in turn led Suarez into the restaurant business.
This unlikely trajectory went through my mind when I met Suarez for lunch, because that morning The New York Times reviewed his newest venture, a dazzlingly untraditional Chinese restaurant named 66. Few are the moments as future-altering as the public judgment of a Times review, particularly for a restaurant, particularly in the rarefied world of Manhattan competitive dining. Some restaurateurs get bumped and bruised--Michael Chow of Mr. Chow's once sued publishers of a guide for a review that said his pancakes were as thick as thumbs--but Suarez and his partner, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, have consistently had the reviewers on their side.
Of course, the focus of the reviewers' praise is less Suarez than Vongerichten, who is universally acknowledged as a chef of outsize talent and is credited with changing the face of French cooking, opening it up to Asian influences, and liberating it from the ancien régime of butter and cream. Vongerichten is in every sense Suarez's meal ticket.
As Suarez is his. Since 1986 Suarez has been dazzling the restaurant world with his flawless timing and his instinctive algorithms for staging haute performances that blend high style and high substance. In one restaurant after another, he gives Vongerichten an extraordinary stage. Today, with nine such cuisine-as-theater prosceniums--and more on the way, including chic futures in China and Japan--it's fair to say that Suarez and Vongerichten present better food to more people than anyone else ever has. Their restaurants include Jean-Georges, at the Trump International Hotel in New York City; Vong, the Thai-French fusion explosion in New York, London, and Hong Kong; and Prime, at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Prime grosses $14.5 million a year--making it the 10th highest-grossing restaurant in America--and it was recently clocked as having the highest per-check amount, about $75 per head, of any restaurant in the country. But here's my favorite way of quantifying Suarez's success: Lois Friedman, who has ultimate control over Suarez's reservation book, was recently named one of New York City's 50 most powerful people.
Suarez isn't one for glib philosophizing, and he certainly didn't follow a strict business plan as he expanded his empire. (He would never say it, but he would agree with the Zen proverb "The obstacle is the path.") When I pushed him on a business strategy, it seemed to come down to one word: stimulation. That works in two ways. Suarez and Vongerichten are constantly striving to give the public something new and unexpected. And that isn't just a marketing strategy; it comes from their passion. "We won't do something unless it interests us first," Suarez says.
This is a kind of business self-centeredness, but it makes perfect sense. You can't succeed if you are bored. So Vongerichten and Suarez find the culinary idea first, and then dig down to determine if there's a business logic inside it. That's valuable insight for business leaders, who are often told to focus on "market opportunity," the empty quadrant--a schematic and arid approach by comparison. Suarez and Vongerichten have married passion and profit, two dissonant ingredients that ruin many a dish. A Zen Buddhist text, writing of the Master, could be describing both Suarez and Vongerichten: "He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both."
Suarez's peers in the hospitality world talk about his timing, and there's no doubt it's impeccable. From Danny Meyer (who runs the top-rated Union Square Café) to Ian Schrager to Suarez's landlord Donald Trump, they have high praise for his instincts, business savvy, and people skills. They also recognize that Suarez has an impressive supply of his own creative chromosomes and an intuitive understanding of marketing, packaging, and the ineffable vectors of style. At Giraldi Suarez Productions, the company he formed in 1973 with Bob Giraldi, he produced television commercials for the likes of Pepsi, Mercedes, and Miller Lite. Three decades of working with the nation's leading marketers taught him a lot.
When I sat down with Suarez for lunch at 66, it was several hours after the Times had rendered its verdict: two stars. Most restaurateurs would be joyful, but Suarez was disappointed, although not deflated. He is used to higher culinary SAT scores. He mused about whether or not his superstar chef is being held to a higher standard. The Times' reviewer, William Grimes, praised Vongerichten's "infallible" career, noting that he and Suarez have an "uncanny knack for developing an appealing, innovative culinary idea, packaging it attractively, and putting it in the right spot...a complex, lucrative equation." Grimes found the design of 66 "flawless" but the food "hit and miss," although he did say that "make the right choices and you'll have the meal of your life."
The idea of tricking out traditional Chinese food with a modern, Vongerichtenian torque--dumplings filled with foie gras, or pea shoots and tofu--sprang out of a trip Suarez and Vongerichten made to Shanghai for a restaurant project. They ate street food and let opportunity and ideas wash over them, wide-angle style.
As for the architecture--a key Suarez ingredient--the "flawless design" is the work of Richard Meier, the fabled architect of the Getty Museum. For Suarez, Meier invented a space that's so cool it's frosted: frosted glass, muted resin tabletops, a whispery visual quiet that manages to both calm and alert. And yes, it does feel Zen-like and calming--although at night the music and the din aren't exactly meditative. Other than a gash of red banners over the communal table--and the flitter of phosphorescing fish in the tanks that separate the dining room from the kitchen--it is a color-free zone. You'd never know it's just a dumpling's throw from optically nutty Chinatown, where restaurant design is often an insurance agent's calendar stuck next to instructions for performing the Heimlich maneuver.
The story of 66 also reveals that as much of a businessman as Suarez is, he's not just a flageolet-counter. He struggles to balance the dramatic flair his restaurants require with bottom-line obsession. "This is more exact than running a normal business," Suarez says, "so you need to make people accountable. Maybe you don't need as many sous chefs, people may have to work a little harder." At the same time, he reflects, "I wish it had cost me less, but that's the way it goes. Once I have a project going on, I don't say to Richard and Jean-Georges, 'Hey, guys, you can't have it." As an example, he could have saved $48,000 by using a less expensive frosted-glass wall behind the communal table, but "I'm not going to stop now. You hope you're going to do enough volume to recoup." According to Suarez, it usually takes three years--sometimes as much as five--for one of his restaurants to make real money.
Suarez and Vongerichten present better food to more people than anyone else ever has.
Over lunch, which included the lemon sesame chicken that sent Grimes into a tailspin of disappointment--"a letdown...sweet, glutinous"--Suarez sketched out his organization. Supporting his far-flung restaurants requires a staff of 1,500 people--the majority of them being kitchen and dining room staff, the rest including operation managers, a food and beverage department, and an HR department. Each restaurant's bottom line is assessed separately and daily. Restaurants work on very slim food margins (booze is a different story), so profitability can fly out the exhaust vent should costs spin out of control. Suarez says that Vongerichten has gradually arrived at a fuller understanding of this and has become a better businessman; he has innovated to keep costs from spiraling out of control while still using the best ingredients and letting his imagination dance. But the way Suarez has educated Vongerichten about culinary arithmetic is very Zentrepreneurial: Let the student come learn when he's ready. "It's great that Jean-Georges has made the bottom line part of his mindset," Suarez says. "I don't think the creative guy should come back and make the business guy fix all the problems."
Many businesses--from publishing to fashion to architecture to filmmaking--require the integration of a creative sensibility with business reality. Suarez has done it without apparent compromise, and his relaxed business style is largely responsible. He and Vongerichten are kindred spirits, despite their different roles. "I think they constantly work at their relationship to make sure they stay together," says Daniel Boulud, another celebrated chef and the proprietor of Restaurant Daniel. Suarez is the business partner chefs dream of, not least because he has made it possible for Vongerichten to avoid a fate that befalls so many chefs, a repetitive life in a single kitchen. "A great chef needs to diversify, to have the opportunity to explore other ideas," says Boulud, "and Phil is providing Jean-Georges with that. We all admire what Jean-Georges is doing."
As for Vongerichten, he allows that Suarez, by assuming the business responsibilities, frees him to be Jean-Georges: "He frees my mind to do what I want. He is my spiritual father, you know he's there for you when you need him."
Suarez is also bringing in other talented chefs, providing them with the infrastructure they desperately need. The Spice Market, Suarez and Vongerichten's upcoming restaurant in New York City's meatpacking district, will involve Gray Kunz, who was the chef at Lespinasse, a four-star restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel that closed several years ago. Kunz and Vongerichten know each other from their days together at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong. Bringing Kunz into the mix makes perfect sense; it's the restaurant equivalent of the independent film model. (William Grimes likened it to Miramax.) And they recently opened a restaurant with Wylie Dufresne, a young chef who once worked for Vongerichten at Jo Jo (the first collaboration between Suarez and Vongerichten, from 1991). That spot, on the Lower East Side, is cunningly called wd-50.
The Suarez-Vongerichten partnership also works, it seems, because it has a soft set of boundaries. Each partner has legacy restaurants that predate the relationship, and that's not a source of tension. There is a calm acceptance, rather than a forced all-or-nothingness, to their structure. Vongerichten has Market in Paris and Dune in the Bahamas, and Suarez operates Patria and Gigino in New York City. Vongerichten's cookbooks are outside their partnership, as is some of Suarez's consulting. He is advising the developers of the AOL Time Warner building on the food and beverage side, and the building promises to be a veritable theme park of the country's best restaurants, including a New York rendition of the French Laundry, Thomas Keller's revered Napa Valley restaurant, and a restaurant from Charlie Trotter, whose self-named establishment in Chicago is also a foodie Lourdes. Suarez and Vongerichten will have a restaurant there, too, a steak house modeled on Prime.
A week after the two-star review, I met Suarez at his light-filled office in downtown New York. Considering the far-flung nature of his operation, it's a small place, suitably warehousey. There were menus, blueprints everywhere, and in one section, Gray Kunz was busily menu-tweaking. I felt like I was in a food Los Alamos. Suarez talked excitedly about his restaurants in development, including the Spice Market, which will feature the street food of Asia in an environment created by the French architect Jacques Garcia. It will be "a little Somerset Maugham and Kipling, with great alcoves, vaulted ceilings," Suarez said. He showed me photos of some of the architectural elements that will be used, antiques salvaged after an earthquake in India.
Suarez and Vongerichten are also developing two Far East restaurants, both of which are scheduled to open later this year. The Tokyo project started as a joint venture with a Japanese company that ran a chain of cream-puff stores. But the deal fell through, and Suarez is now meeting with potential new partners. In Shanghai, they are partnering with Handle Lee, CEO of Shanghai GT Courtyard Cultural Investments. They are developing a classic 1920s building in the Bund district, with Michael Graves as the celebrity architect. In both places, Suarez persuaded the landlord to pay for the build-out. ("He's a great dealmaker for us," Vongerichten says proudly.) Suarez knows he has the upper hand because a Vongerichten restaurant provides an incalculable image-lift to a property.
The visibility of Suarez and Vongerichten does have its downside. The August issue of Vanity Fair contained what can best be described as a culinary carpet-bombing of 66. A screed by the British critic A.A. Gill demolished the place: food, architecture, service, the entire ecosystem. (He called the shrimp-and-foie-gras dumplings "fishy liver-filled condoms.") The piece started quite a stir in the little ramekin of Manhattan fine dining.
When I spoke to Suarez about this, he floated serenely above the fray. "It's done, and I'm a big boy. But to go after Jean-Georges's food, hey, at its worst, it's better than most. It's not a restaurant review, it's comedy. So I can't even be mad."
Even though he has six projects on the drawing board, Suarez is looking beyond. He wants to get into the lodging business using the Jean-Georges brand. "It's an obvious progression in our business plan," he says. "It's time for us to get involved in the hospitality world, creating a chain of boutique hotels that we can have our stamp on. We believe we are capable of doing the whole package. We've learned from Trump, from the Bellagio, from the Barkley, the Mandarin. And Jean-Georges's whole background has been hotels."
As for selling the entire operation one day, Suarez has a plan for that, too. He thinks he can take one of its concepts, say, Prime, and open branches all over the country, then sell that entity. "We'll own 14 or 15 restaurants with different formulas," he says. "Imagine if we had one formula." Suarez recognizes that a standardized, scalable restaurant is more saleable than a collection of quirky, individualistic culinary marvels.
"People look at me and say, 'Phil, you should calm down," he says, not calming down at all. "And I say, 'Why, that's the fun, that's what keeps me going.' You're making something happen, you're producing, which is what I love doing."
It's a clear path for a guy who didn't always have one. George Lois reminisced to me about a conversation he had with his wife, his mother-in-law, and Suarez. "My mother-in-law naively asked, 'Phil, what do you do?' It was a time when he was still drifting, and he said, 'Well, I haven't found my forte yet."
Ask the hundreds of people begging for a reservation for eight o'clock on Saturday night at one of Suarez's restaurants, and they'll tell you he's found it.
Adam Hanft writes Inc.'s Grist column and is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy.