What are your favorite places? My favorite restaurant is La Siesta in Sperlonga, in a small beach town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Not cheap, but the food and style of service is basically perfect. Stresa in Paris is another. In the city, really, there’s a small Argentinian restaurant on the Lower East side called Azul Bistro. The food is always consistent, the service is very casual, but if it’s any type of date or business meeting, I can always count on things going the right way there. If you pay attention to the ceiling, it’s plastered in old Argentinian pin-up centerfolds, but a lot of people don’t notice.
The A60 rooftop is finally open for summer. Yes. The week we decided to open the A60 roof garden, it seemed to rain forever. I’ve had the opportunity to go up there at sunset, and the view of the water towers on the rooftops is still my favorite sight in New York. Miles and miles of water towers. It’s just very much a New York experience that you can see all the way uptown to the Empire State Building. This view with a mojito makes you feel as if you’re on the private terrace of a penthouse.
Isn’t it a private terrace? It is. It’s just for members and people in the hotel. Regardless of when you go up there, you never have to worry about being shoulder-to-shoulder with the teeming masses. I hope that doesn’t change for the future.
The view is really spectacular. I really need to make more of an effort to spend a few more nights of the summer up there. One of the great things is seeing the 4th of July fireworks from the rooftop. Last year I had my mom up there, and she started tearing up and having a New York moment. We employ a lot of kids, college kids who work for us who have moved away from home, and whenever their parents come in, they want to take them to the roof to see their adopted city. It makes the parents feel good about where their kids are. In New York, waiting tables could mean anything. When they come and they see their kids working in a hotel like this one, in this environment, they feel good about the situation.
What’s the Thom Bar famous for? It was one of the first lounge bars in a boutique hotel. That’s where all the cocktails in the building became famous. The DJs we have there work seven nights a week. I’ve always had a strict rule: they could only bring in vinyl, no CDs. That makes a big difference. We’re always able to shift the type of music for the crowd and the vibe in the room. For a period after 9/11 there was no restaurant in the hotel, and Thom Bar became the heart of the hotel. We spent a lot of time perfecting the cocktails. I think the lychee martini is the top seller; although other places have their version, people keep coming back for more. My personal favorite is the strawberry Limoncello, a muddled drink that’s an unusual taste combination.
How was the concept for Kittichai conceived? After 9/11 the restaurant Thom closed, and for a year there was nothing. One of the investors, Robin Lee, had been in Thailand and had heard of Chef Ian who was doing a television show that was seen in 45 countries. Robin went to the Four Seasons to meet him there and after he did a personal tasting for the owners, Kittichai was born in New York. I call him Chef Ian, but his name is really Charlerm Kittichai. Rockwell designed the restaurant; they did an amazing job transforming the space into a memorable experience in Thai food. It was tough to bring the orchids in over the pool. Until Kittichai, a lot of people weren’t familiar with anything but fast Thai food, so Ian put his culinary skills to work in a sophisticated taste test, with more of a western approach. When we opened, we were amazed at how well it was received: for the first two years it was packed every night. People really needed a high-end Thai restaurant, and they keep on coming. After dinner, the procession moves to the sky.
Who do you admire in your industry? Jean-Marc Houmard, for sure. Even though the circles he travels in are high-flying, the humbleness he displays is admirable. The staff in all of his restaurants really love him. Mario Batali is another one. He’s been able to do a lot with the restaurant industry. He’s a customer here, so I’ve had to chance to talk with him. A very humble guy.
Current trend in restaurants that you like? There’s a lot of negative talk about “fusion,” but going to Whole Foods and watching the Food Network lets you know what we can do. Customers are a lot more adventurous than they used to be. They’re well educated, and it really excites chef and staff. The possibilities are endless. Before, French restaurants dominated, and people wanted to stay in the old-fashioned concepts of what restaurants should do and be. Now cuisines available from all over the world. When you travel, sometimes you see Chinese-Italian restaurants, which would have once been scary. Now there’s a fascination.
Trend you despise? A lot of restaurant owners have become businessmen instead of restaurateurs. Maybe this recession will teach some respect in an industry that has brought them so much. There’s a place for that — if you’re going to franchise and go the corporate route, that’s fine. I believe in the old-fashioned dictum that every restaurant has a soul.
Something that no one knows about you? I appreciate meditation. I studied Taoism in Los Angeles. It’s not one particular form, but I start my day meditating for 10 minutes before the chaos begins. Now, when things really get nuts, I go to a Burmese temple in New Jersey.
Any non-industry projects in the works? I have a plot of land in Italy in a small section about half an hour from Sperlonga, Lenola, with about 60 olive trees. It’s a little-by-little project I’m getting together.
What are you doing tonight? After work I’m going swimming, and then I’ll cook for myself — I got into work at 7am this morning, and will be here until closing …