Dynamic Duo: Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato, the force behind the ever-expanding Geisha, Brasserie Cognac and Serafina empire, on their bold plans for Miami, aborting projects because of the dire economy, and why you must strive to be exhausted at the end of the day.
Point of Origin: Vittorio: My mother is Italian; my father was Jewish Lebanese — I was born in Egypt in Cairo, but my father died in the early 1960s, so I grew up in Italy all my life. I started as a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, then returned to Milan where I was an assistant to an Italian stockbroker. Then I started to work for an advertising company there in fashion, briefly, and ended that career with Gianfranco Ferré’s photo. In 1985, I came back to New York where I started Portofino Sun Center and then I had a restaurant called Café Condotti covered with paintings by Andy Warhol over the walls. I didn’t last that long. I got my money back and I left to focus on Portofino. But in 1994, I opened Sofia, which became the first Serafina on 79th and Madison Avenue. The rest is the growing process of history. Fabio: I had a dream and worked for it!
Any non-industry projects in the works? Vittorio: This goes into philanthropy. We support every charity in New York, certainly all of the food related charities. Right now we’re doing City Harvest. They asked me to sit on their board, but I really don’t have time as I’m starting to travel a lot to open Serafina’s outside of New York City. Miami will be the first in the W Hotel in Miami Beach, both in the hotel and on the beach where we’ll serve the convention rooms and room service. Then we go to Istanbul and São Paulo. But then there will be other developments in New York City when the economy gets better. It’s super scary this time. I saw the ‘87, ‘92, ‘95 recessions, and this one I have a feeling is going to be even worse. Those were limited as to the extent of the damage: this time it’s huge. When you see an insurance company like AIG and the credit swap, they insure every package of mortgages sold to Wall Street. They have a 50 or 60 trillion dollar security and only 8% is in default — so far. The economic package was nothing compared to what they lost, they’re just pumping into the system without curing the problem. Why didn’t they just freeze every mortgage sold after 2000 and keep them frozen for 30 years to save homeowners from going broke? Those guys were making salaries of $2 million a week, and they created this tragedy. If I did that in my company, we’d be bankrupt. Fabio: Travel and go around the world.
Favorite Hangs: Vittorio Assaf: My job is my favorite hangout — I work day and night seven days a week, and when I’m free I like to go to St. Barth’s in the Caribbean, perhaps eight or nine times a year. It’s a great, great level of cuisine with all of these French chefs who come to the islands to work for a year, a great mix of culture. It’s an island that has nothing to do with the Caribbean. There are no locals, as just about everybody there comes from Paris or St. Tropez. They go back and forth all the time. It’s my dream. Fabio: I spend time at all of our restaurants, Cipriani and 1Oak.
Industry Icons: Vittorio: Eric Ripert is a famous chef who is one of my best friends. I love his cuisine, it’s very light and made with quality ingredients. And of course, I like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, another one who is just amazing, outstanding, an artist. I admire, in general, the dedication of great chefs, their effort and energy that top chefs put into the industry. I wish what they produce could be more affordable, but the ingredients are costly. Fabio: Restaurateurs that I admire are the Cipiranis’, Steven Hanson and Daniel Boulud, David Burke and Jean-Georges Vongerichten are all people I admire in the industry.
Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? Vittorio: I’d like to be seen more with my wife! Being a restaurateur is the worst job possible — all you do is work seven days a week. When people are coming out for lunch or dinner, I have to start early in the morning to deal with construction, repairs, deliveries, tasting. You deal with thousands of different personalities; there are roughly 100 employees at each restaurant and it gets very personal. You get exhausted, and if you’re not — there’s something wrong. Fabio: people in general, our customers and my family,
Projections: Vittorio: We were opening two restaurants in Anguilla, but with all of this financial turmoil, I think this has stopped, but I’m opening a Mexican restaurant here! I would like to tell you my dream: the one to make this company grow, but the economic picture is not the most brilliant. Fabio: I would like to expand my brand everywhere, let people enjoy what I do in the States and Europe. Vittorio: I now have to consolidate and concentrate on the quality and customer service, not the market position we have, but on the bright outlook, a positive outlook. Perhaps we’re going to be able to renew our lease on more favorable terms than in the past when it’s been a landlord’s market.
What are you doing tonight? Vittorio: Tonight I’m working on an event — it will be quiet because of the Jewish holiday, but I have to work! New York has an amazing capacity for reinventing itself. We have an incredible, atomic energy! Fabio: I always go out with friends, party at my new apartment, socialize or go out occasion.