Industry Insiders: Donatella Arpaia, Sleek in Greek

Once upon a time, restaurateur Donatella Arpaia was a corporate lawyer. Nine restaurants, several TV show appearances (including guest judging on The Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and Bravo’s Top Chef), and one Michelin Star-honored eatery later, New York foodies are grateful for the legal system not being her cup of tea. Donatella recently made time out of her insanely busy schedule to talk with us about what it’s like being a powerful presence in the restaurant business, how she felt about her partner (and executive chef of Anthos, Kefi, Mia Dona, and the newly opened Eos in Miami as well as Gus and Gabriel in New York) Michael Psilakis cooking for President Obama, and why she’s excited about Cooking in Heels.

So, I hear you’re currently filming in California. Can you tell me what for? A show for The Food Network. I can’t really say the name of the show right now, but that’s what I’m doing.

You just began guest blogging with the women’s company, iVillage. What sort of advice will you be giving? I’m writing the blog as we speak. I had a couple conversations with the iVillage people, and at first they said, ‘We just want the life of a restaurateur,’ and I think that’s great, and that’s really a part of who I am, but it should also relate to women across America. Sometimes my life can seem so glamorous, and it’s so not. I’m going to talk about my restaurants and what it’s like, but also aspects of being a woman in business, because I always try to lay it out, and I think everything is relatable: how to deal with difficult people, how to manage recipes that I’m making in the cookbook, how I entertain when I don’t have time. I really want it to be my life, and all the aspects of it, and the restaurateur is part of it, but I don’t want it to be all that. Anything and everything about my life—that’s what I’m doing.

You are now the face of a significant lifestyle brand. Back when you were a lawyer, did you ever consider—or hope—that would happen? I remember when I left law for the restaurant business, and it was like I was in a candy store; I was so happy. If you’d asked me ten years ago if I knew I’d end up where I was, I don’t think so, but I’ve always known that I was, extremely driven from a young age. I would say in the past few years of doing this, people were constantly interested in how I lived my life—from how I dress, to my home, to how I cook, to how I manage people. I had so many women coming up to me every day, looking to me for advice, and I really like giving advice and I like mentoring, and apparently they were interested in what I had to say. I have a restaurant background, and I just happened to know a lot about food, and hosting, and how to throw a party—because I do it for my life—and how to do it when you’re very busy. And also, at the same time, remember that I am a woman, and I’m on display all the time, and I have to manage my weight, my look, my everything. My life became an example of how to deal, of how to live and how to advise people, so I kind of became a natural.

How did your relationship with Michael Psilakis come to be? Michael and I met about seven, eight years ago. A mutual friend told me about this guy who was cooking Italian food on Long Island. I grew up on Long Island, so I was like, it can’t be good, because I know what Long Island food is all about. But this foodie friend of mine was like, ‘No, this guy is amazing!’ So, I went out there, and he cooked this ten-course tasting for me, and it was just unbelievable. So we became friends. And he really was a self-taught—and when I say self-taught, I mean no culinary school, no other chefs. And so we were talking for a while, and I had just opened up David Burke & Donatella, to tremendous success, and I knew David and I were very successful there, but that’s where it was going to end. So, I said, ‘Michael, you’re Greek. There’s a gazillion Italian restaurants out there, but no one has taken Greek cuisine to another level. That’s what you should do.’ He went all Greek, finally, when we opened up Anthos, which is the only Greek Michelin Star restaurant in the country. Then we just started expanding—Kefi, Eos, we’re about to open Gus & Gabriel—and I think it’s the strength of the partnership, and partnerships are not always easy: restaurants fail you; people don’t always know what they’re doing; they just got into it because they think they have a perception of what it is; they’re either under-funded; they’re successful in the partnerships but the ego gets in the way. That’s something that we have to work on by communicating constantly, and we really are supportive of each other. The more press he gets, I’m happy; the more press I get, he’s happy, because it just comes back to that common goal. For most people, it’s a simple thing, in theory, but in reality, it’s very hard to facilitate.

How did you feel when Michael was asked to cook for Obama? I was upset that I wasn’t going with him! It was just this spectacular moment. I remember that we were sitting down, and he’d just read the review for Kefi, and he wasn’t happy with it—even though the restaurant is a tremendous success—and then he gets a call from the secret service. We thought it was a joke, almost. They were like, ‘We want you to cook for Obama in two days.’ It was just the biggest whirlwind. I said, ‘Mike, this will never be the day where you got a bad review in the New York Times, it will be the day you got a call to cook for Obama! It’s awesome!’ And he said it was the most thrilling experience. He met Obama and he said, ‘He’s very tall, much taller than I’d thought, and he was just so nice. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.’

Do you get to veto menu items, or do you leave that entirely up to Michael? We both have our defining roles in our restaurants, where I’m more front, and he’s more back. But that being said, if he sees a problem with service, he’s going to say something; if I see a problem with food, I’m going to say something. And when we do taste things in the beginning, we’re so much a part of everything. Especially, for example, the Italian cuisine at Mia Dona, because that really is my background and it’s reflecting my heritage and my food—I had a lot more to say in that area. But I’ve never vetoed anything; it’s not like that. I would never say, ‘Take that off the menu,’ because we don’t have that kind of relationship. Everything is talked about, and he asks my opinion, and we have a very open relationship in that way, which is great. But, he’s so talented that we don’t really run into that at all.

At this point, is opening a new restaurant always a new experience, or does it start to feel ordinary? No, it never feels ordinary. I think it’s because we’re not opening a chain restaurant, we’re always expanding into new cuisines and new concepts. When we first opened Dona and Anthos, I was known for the glamour, the high-end, and he was known for the cerebral foodie-chef. Next, we opened Mia Dona, which was casual, rustic Italian, and people had problems with that, because people like to define you in the press. But in the end, it’s worked to our advantage, because it gives us a lot more breadth. And then we opened up Kefi, and now we’ve opened Eos, which for the first time is a small plate concept, and it has Spanish influence, and Latin influence, and that’s really a result of being in Miami and understanding that market, so that’s exciting to Michael, too. And then we come back here, and we’ve got Gus & Gabriel’s, which is an American gastro-pub. Every opening is always exciting, and always hard. I don’t know if it gets easier. I mean, I think we know more. It was a little less intense this time, but it’s still exciting to me.

Do you think that the recession will prove to be the end of fine dining, or do you think restaurants will just have to reinvent this concept? No, I don’t think that fine dining is going to die. I think it’s going to go through a very difficult time right now, and I think it’s because there was a lot of excess going on, and there was a lot of mediocrity out there that was doomed, no matter what. People want comfort; they don’t want to pay $10 for a glass of water. But, ultimately, and eventually, I think that it will come back. It’s kind of like when you look at fashion: the need for couture, as opposed to the need for ready-wear—that’s the comfort. I’m not afraid to say it—we’re in a bad economy, and ours is the one that got hit the most. I like to be realistic about things and then deal with it, and we struggle because we don’t want to compromise our brand, change it, or dumb it down. You can’t.

Have you altered your restaurants in any way to make them a bit more recession-proof? At Anthos, we decided to take the banquet room, which we used for corporate parties, and we turned it into Anthos Upstairs, which is tapas-style, small plates, where people can eat Anthos food, but a different version of it. It’s a little more accessible. So, that’s helping us right now, because that’s become very busy. And I think Anthos is still doing relatively well, compared to other restaurants that are completely dead. Even though it’s a high-end restaurant, it was never exaggerated—the price for what we offer—and I think we will survive these times. Like anything else, the strong will survive.

What advice can you give to those restaurants that are struggling? I’ve always stressed hospitality, service, and personal attention. Instead of going out to a fancy restaurant three times a week, or once every two weeks, somebody is going to go back to the place where you cared about them—whether times are good or bad. And I think that’s something that I’ve always stressed, and that’s a big part of what I bring to the front of the house. I’m obsessed with service, in terms of technique and hospitality. You can’t fake it—it’s like a relationship.

Of all your restaurants, which has your favorite menu, or your favorite selections? I always get that question, and it’s like asking which child I like the best. I think that Anthos is truly something special, because I don’t think that you can get that food anywhere—in the country, or the world. I’m so impressed, constantly, with the quality of the food we put out on such a consistent basis. It’s so inventive, and so different, and yet it still takes you home. When I go to Mia Dona, I love the Zeppole; they’re not oily or doughy. And I would say the Gnudi—it’s the signature dish, and I love it to death.

In terms of the décor, do you aim to conceive restaurants that reflect your personality, or do you think your restaurants take on individual personas of their own? That’s a good question. This is something that Michael and I focus on more and more with each restaurant. We make our mistakes and we learn, [but] everything has to come back to the same message. Like Kefi is a rustic Greek restaurant, so everything should be in your face that says rustic Greek. Maybe that’s not my style, but I appreciate it, and I think that it’s the right type of décor for that restaurant. I think there are other restaurants that have reflected my style, like davidburke & donatella, and Dona, which I really had a lot of say in. I love the idea of getting dressed up to go out—I think that it’s a lost art in New York—and I like to create restaurants where you feel good in, and you feel pretty. So, it depends. I mean, Mia Dona was really casual. We had to do a casual restaurant, and it was a difficult space: it’s a long, railroad space, so I came up with the idea of doing different rooms—a lounge, a living room and a library. And I have a say in everything, and if I don’t like something it’s not going to be in there, no matter what. But you have to cater it to what the identity of the restaurant is, and then, ultimately, the restaurant decides what it wants to be.

When you’re not eating at one of your restaurants, where do you like grab a bite? For pizza there’s a new café that I’m just adoring—it’s called Keste—on Bleecker Street. For sushi, I love [Sushi] Yasuda. For traditional Italian food I go to Fiorini—they have the best eggplant parmesan, and the fact that it’s my Dad’s restaurant has nothing to do with it, I swear! For Indian, I love Dawat; the tandoori chicken with rice is just incredible. Jean-Georges is still an icon to me, and I love going to his restaurant for a special occasion.

You’ve got an entertainment guide and cookbook coming out, no? Cooking in Heels. I think it really talks to the girl that I want to talk to—the 25-to-40, urban girl; [she’s] very bright, very stylish, very busy, and very used to doing things well, but when it comes to cooking, she was never taught and doesn’t have a clue. I think there’s really not a voice out there talking to that girl. The menu items are largely Mediterranean, and there’s cooking, but there’s also the presentation that’s involved. That comes out in Spring 2010.

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