Industry Insiders: Mark Strausman, Johnny Swet, and Larry Poston

When Johnny Swet (left) and Larry Poston (right) opened Hotel Griffou in New York’s Greenwich Village in 2009, it immediately attracted a host of bold-faced names to the eclectic, exotic space that brings to mind a 19th century boardinghouse. With its reputation firmly established, the duo decided to push things even further last year by bringing on board a dynamic new chef with a serious pedigree. With experience in restaurants in both Europe and the U.S., including the much loved Fred’s at Barneys New York and his own Agriturismo in the Hudson Valley, Mark Strausman (center) brings a new touch of creativity to the Griffou kitchen, while continuing to turn out the dishes that made it a neighborhood favorite. 

What do you have planned for the menu at Hotel Griffou? Mark Strausman: I came on board in mid-September and wanted to make the food a little bit more approachable. I’m someone who believes that when you take over a space, you have to remember what the space was before you got there. And it was very loose before I got there, kind of like a downtown speakeasy but with a little bit of an Italian and a little bit of a fish thing going on. So my idea was to make good Italian country food that people could share, but keep it in the New York vein. I wanted to do something fun, so we’re doing individual pizzas made the artisanal southern Italian way, with handmade dough and really good farm ingredients. I have a restaurant in the Hudson Valley and I bring down the hamburger, I bring down the suckling pig from the Valley. We’ll also have sliced, cured, and dried meats – the kinds of things that people can eat with Johnny’s cocktails, and go well with a glass of wine.

What’s your restaurant in the Hudson Valley called?
MS: It’s called Agriturismo, and I still run Fred’s at Barneys New York. I’ve been at Fred’s for 15 years, I’m the managing director there. It’s a very upscale, white table cloth kind of place. So when the opportunity at Griffou came along, I thought Wow, what a great thing to have a downtown restaurant. That’s kind of different. Creatively, it’s fun.
What is the difference between a white table cloth uptown place compared to a downtown place like Griffou?
MS: You’ve got to keep it simpler. At Fred’s we can do things at dinner more elegantly, with an elaborate table service. Here the tables are smaller and we have fewer deuces coming in and more parties of four women together or four guys together, just hanging out, and the food is really good, or course, but it doesn’t get in the way, it’s not fussy. At Fred’s it’s a little bit more international, we have people from all over the world over there. 
What’s it like working with Johnny Swet and Larry Poston?
MS: I thought it was a fun challenge and I really hit it off with these guys. I respect their sensibility, and they were just looking for good food. What I love is, I don’t have to worry about the front of the house because you got Larry and Johnny out there, so it’s a great team. I can just concentrate on the food and the kitchen and not have to worry about who’s sitting where and all that stuff. And I love the staff they had in place. My whole thing is, I don’t want to put anyone on unemployment. Everyone said, “You’re going to bring your own crew.” But this is New York City. People have rent to pay, no one can follow you, and we really didn’t lose anybody. Anyway, what do you want to lose a cook for? He knows where the lemons are! They’re good guys, they’re really generous and easygoing.
Where did you grow up?
MS: I grew up in a city housing project in Queens. I have a degree in hotel management. I worked in Europe for four years, in Amsterdam and Germany.
What was that like?
MS: It was all classical French cooking. We had so many white truffles in that hotel in Germany. We used to get five kilos at a time of white truffles, you could smell them down the block. You know, because the Germans are real gourmands.
Are there any particular ingredients you like working with?
MS: We have a purveyor that we buy wild mushrooms from, and I love working with mushrooms like chanterelles and porcinis. Right now I’m trying to work with as many local ingredients as possible and then getting a few things from Italy, like these amazing wild dandelions that are grown outside of Rome. I always say, eat as much local as you can and then you don’t have to worry about the carbon footprint. When everything on your menu is coming from all the way around the world it’s not cool. I prefer to use pears this time of year instead of raspberries, things like that. 
Johnny, how has it been working with Mark so far? 
Johnny Swet: I think things are working out well and Mark brings a maturity and a great reputation throughout the city – people know his food. We’ve always been kind of a fashionable downtown spot and with Mark working up at Barneys and that crowd also, now there’s a place to have his food downtown, so that’s exciting. It seems like kind of the missing link. It fits together well.
Do you have any favorites on the new menu?
JS: I love the suckling pig, and I love all the pastas. What I like about the menu is that you can come down three different nights a week and try completely different dishes each time. It’s all about how you really want to eat, which is great with the cocktail program we have. When you’re sitting down at the table and you see people eating and smiling and talking and they’re just caught up in the moment it’s just what you want a restaurant to be. 
Are you just focused on Griffou right now, or do you spend a lot of time at Jimmy?
JS: Yeah, Griffou’s my baby. I love Jimmy because it’s a fun diversion for creativity with all the cocktails, but my main focus is Griffou.
Larry, how are you feeling with Mark coming aboard? 
Larry Poston: I loved all of our other chefs in the past, they’re great guys, but you do get an amazing sense of experience and know-how from Mark. Also, I like that he’s been a chef in New York City for a long time and has a loyal following, not just customers but people he’s worked with. It’s a very small world, I suppose. We get to know each other the longer we live in New York City. The restaurant business is tricky for anyone and you have to have a sense of humor about it, and Mark has what it takes.
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