Industry Insiders: Drew Nieporent, Emperor of Eats

Drew Nieporent of Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Montrachet, and countless other iconic endeavors gives us a glimpse inside as he conquers the known world.

Point of Origin: I was born and bred in New York City, an original New Yorker. I went to Stuyvesant High School, then known as Sty Hi, before going to Cornell Hotel School in Ithaca, NY, pretty much my first time away from home, not counting sleepaway camp.

Occupations: After I graduated, I was the chef de rang (a.k.a. foodie honcho) aboard the Sagafjord and Vistafjord cruise ships, then worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in Manhattan — La Grenouille and Le Perigord — and was the captain (in a tux!) at La Reserve, before the Plaza Athénée’s Le Regence French restaurant between 83rd and 85th streets. We earned three stars from the New York Times only seven weeks after we opened — a little like winning the lottery in those days.

Later, I was director of restaurants for Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern on the Green. But as an owner my first was Montrachet in 1985. And once you open your own restaurant, you’re the restaurateur for the rest of your life! It wasn’t long before I opened a restaurant with chef Leslie Revsin at 24 Fifth Avenue, where I was also general manager.

When Sean Penn, Bill Murray and Robert DeNiro proposed what would become the Tribeca Grill in 1988, no one knew that DeNiro had already done a little “chef casting” of his own and had quietly flown Nobu Matsuhisa into New York to meet me. It wasn’t a great casting, and we went ahead with our original choice, but I always kept Nobu in mind for something in the future. The Tribeca Grill was a big hit, instantly. With Francis Ford Coppola and Robin Williams we opened our first out-of-town adventure, Rubicon, in San Francisco. East Hampton isn’t that far out of town, and Della Famina opened in the early 1990s, followed in 1993 by the Harley Davidson Café. In 1994, we finally opened Nobu — in August. Summer failure could have meant the end of our friendships and partnership, but it was a hit! The East Hampton restaurants were pretty much the beginning of the Myriad Restaurant Group, and over the past 22 years, Myriad has opened 30 restaurants, including Centrico (the Mexican place on Broadway, with Zorella Martino’s son [Aaron Sanchez] … a very Iron Chef).

Anywhere in the world you can’t eat in one of your own joints? Like W.C. Fields: Philadelphia!

Any non-industry projects in the works? You’ve been honored by the Liver Foundation and by the Tourette Syndrome Association, and you’re about to be honored by C-CAP, and I was downtown one night when you were hosting a table full of ancient veterans. I’m also interested in autism; the numbers are startling, and the spectrum is vast. Over the years, I’ve been on the board of charities like City Meals on Wheels, the Food Allergy Initiative with Robert Kennedy Jr., City Harvest. Let’s see, non-industry? I was in a musical directed by Mark Tarlov, a singing role, and was also in Simply Irresistible with Sarah Michelle Gellar. I got a nomination for my only line — as a “Food Critic”! I opened Crush Wines & Spirits three years ago, a new wave-y wine and liquor store. But that’s about it, so far.

I’m still hung up on your singing career — when do you have time to just hang out? I’m a big sports fan and music fan, so I adore all of the New York teams and spend a lot of time at Madison Square Garden, whether it’s Bruce Springsteen, U2, or the Police the other night. The Yanks and the Mets are both priorities. And then I like to go to places like Benito’s II in Little Italy or other “simple” Italian restaurants I don’t own. And I smoke a lot of cigars!

Industry Icons: Of course, Richard Melman is one of my heroes. And certainly the late Jean-Claude Vrinat who just passed away — and, yes, I recently made the pilgrimage to Ferran Adrià.

Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with, other than your wife and kids, of course? All of my childhood friends are still friends. Other than my partners, I’m friendly with the native tribesman Stephen Schirripa from The Sopranos, the sporting goods mogul Mitchell Modell, the comedian Robert Wuhl, and some of the wine personalities like my partner Larry Stone in San Francisco. There are old, old friends like Joe Joe Bastianich, Lorraine Bracco, Hedy Marshall (at the Yankee Games), and Philippe Petit, who he came to my 50th birthday. Have you seen his new documentary Man on a Wire?

Projections: I think it’s wonderful how food has become the most important part of my life. After all: chefs are the new models. Look at Bobby Flay! I still think there are a lot of dreams and ideas I have that I’ll be able to actualize in the coming days, a lot of battling, but a lot of wins. My partners are opening the first Nobu Hotel in Herzliya, Israel. Any possible crazy thing that has ever happened to anybody in life has happened to us. Just when you think you know the business … it doesn’t get easier; it seems to be harder.

It’s your own fault. You keep raising the bar. I work hard at having fun.

What are you doing tonight? Tonight I’m doing Neil Diamond. I don’t know just why I’m going to see him perform, but he’s an interesting part of our culture, and Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons’ partner in Def Jam, is producing him … so it should be interesting to see where he’s going. I’m dining at Tribeca Grill prior to the show — you know, summertime, Fridays. My kids are at home still, so after a long week, I get to be Dad.

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