Aasif Mandvi meets me on the exceedingly pleasant pool deck at Jimmy, a posh cocktail lounge on the 18th floor of the James hotel in lower Manhattan popular with models, actors, and bewildered European tourists. It’s late afternoon and the sun is high in a cloudless sky, taking its sweet time floating across the Hudson before disappearing somewhere in western New Jersey. Johnny Swet, who runs the cocktail program at Jimmy—and also owns, with Larry Poston, the elegant Hotel Griffou—is going over with us the details of the evening’s cocktails, a collection of summer drinks that represent innovative takes on the classics as well as a few new ideas.
What’s a chef to do when numerous, unsatisfying jobs leave him down? Open his own supper club, of course. After David Santos left his last restaurant, Hotel Griffou in 2011, he decided he wasn’t going back to that world unless the job was really worth it. Instead, he started running an 18-seat supper club called Um Segredo (which is Portuguese for “it’s a secret) in his Roosevelt Island home. Santos brings skills from his training at Per Se, Ryland Inn in New Jersey, and Bouley, and mixes it with food from his Portuguese roots and whatever theme he has decided on for that series of dinners. Past meals have centered on truffles, breakfast for dinner, and everything duck. The next series on July 5 and 6 deal with American classics, and then, for July 12 and 13 he does an ode to summer. At $55 to $95 for a five-plus course meal and a BYOB policy, it’s high-class meal for the price. After delving his spicy-themed dinner, I caught up with the chef to find out more how he got started and why.
What made you decide to leave your job at Hotel Griffou and start a supper club?
I left Griffou because I got tired of working for the wrong people. People in this business are the kind that smile to your face and stick a knife in your back. That’s what they were there. I told them at one point they were wasting their money, my time, and that it would be better if we just parted ways. They said, “No, no, it’s not like that, we love you and your food.” Then, about a month later someone left an email on my desk from one of the owners’ computer that was a correspondence between him and a couple of the investors that stated they hired another chef and were planning to fire me at the end of August.
I would have had some respect for them if they came at me like men, and I would have understood because the fit just wasn’t there anymore. So, between that fiasco and the 5 & Diamond fiasco, I told myself I wouldn’t just take another job, and, that I was either going to open my own place or get into bed with the right people. Finding that right job proved to be harder then I imagined, but, I stuck to my guns. Finally, I said, “Why the hell can’t I do that sort of thing on my own?” So, Um Segredo was born and I have never been happier.
Would, you ever go back into a commercial kitchen?
The end game for me is a restaurant called Um Segredo. I do this to fulfill my needs and keep my name on peoples’ tongues so that when it comes time to open my place, I will be known.
What are the benefits of cooking at home?
There are a lot of benefits. It’s comfortable and inspiring to be creative in your own home and to push the limit of a home stove is awesome. But the thing that’s best about it is that people have such a great time and their enjoyment is right in front of you. It’s a type of satisfaction I’ve never had before because I’m always stuck in the back working my ass off. It’s really, really nice to be able to see people enjoying my food. Plus, looking at it from a guest’s perspective, where else can you go and chat with the chef who is cooking your meal right in front of you.
How do you come up with themes?
The themes come from a lot of places. Some things are events during that month and some are requests I get. Mostly, I just let my daily life inspire me. I never wear headphones while I’m out on the subway because I’m afraid to miss something interesting and inspiring. I did a bayou menu once because I was watching one of my favorite shows called Swamp People, and the main character was cooking with his family and they were just so happy. So happy that it made me happy and I started smiling thinking about what a great family he has and how they got together around food. It inspired me to create my version of a bayou dinner based on the foods they were eating.
Also, I saw you cook, it’s like nothing happened in that kitchen yet you brought out like five gorgeous courses. How the heck do you stay so clean and cook for all those people?
It’s really about preparation, menu strategy, and leaving the complicated steps for prep. I got a lot of that mentality from Thomas [Keller] and [Jonathan] Benno at Per Se. The actual service at Per Se for me was fairly easy because all you had to do was execute correctly. The hardest part was the prep. But that’s where the battle was won. If you did all your prep right and had everything set the rest was easy.
Is it hard to get people to come to Roosevelt Island to eat?
Sometimes, but I think it’s part of the mystique as well. People get a kick coming out here, but we shall see what the summer holds in store. I might be changing things up quite a bit.
What is there to eat in Roosevelt Island?
There isn’t a ton, but there are some. My two favorite places would be Fuji East and the Riverwalk Bar and Grill. I’m actually teaming up with the guys that own River Walk to do a summer project out here with some of my favorite summer fish dishes. It’s going to be awesome and hopefully bring a lot of attention to the island and how nice it is out here.
Have you had any big name guests?
The editor of Maxim magazine loves us and come to the events; Josh Ozersky came to one of the events and he was a lot of fun to meet. A lot of food people have been out here as far as bloggers and such but nobody like a movie star or anything—yet.
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.
David Santos is excited about the heat. One afternoon last week, the Executive Chef at New York’s Hotel Griffou impatiently awaited the arrival of late spring cherries, “jet black and loaded with sugar,” and later strawberries, peaches, and nectarines, which will flavor the many menus he’s planning for the restaurant’s summer season. Santos has a compulsive need to change at least a quarter of his menu every month, especially the most popular dishes, which he sees over and over again while expediting a busy dinner service. “I have menu ADD,” says the 32-year-old. “I’m always very much into a menu when I create it, but soon I start to get bored with it and can’t wait to change it.”
Less than a year ago, Santos left an executive chef position at Harlem’s The 5&Diamond to take control of the kitchen at the decadent, cleverly-designed 1920s-era Hotel Griffou. The restaurant occupies the entire basement floor of the building that was once Madame Griffou’s boarding house, with later incarnations as the infamous Penguin Club and Mary Lou’s.
Nowadays, Santos is focusing on a series of monthly tasting dinners at the restaurant, which allow him to break the bonds of the regular menu and offer his guests a less conventional dining experience. He sees these ever-changing meals as the true vessel for his creative needs. “The tasting dinners are really about me expressing myself,” he admits, “An opportunity to do what I want.”
For an upcoming dinner on June 20th, Chef Santos is planning a “signs of summer” menu with a wine-pairing theme yet to be announced. In the meantime, here he is taking a breather from a busy afternoon of butchering to answer a few questions.
You aspire, like many other New York chefs, to create a seasonal menu. Is it more than a trend? Growing up, my family was very seasonal. When my parents emigrated here from Portugal, they brought with them a part of their lives and culinary traditions. We had a garden with rabbits and pigeons, and we ate what grew there. In the summer we pickled vegetables from the garden. My Mother was a very picky produce shopper and would never buy peaches and nectarines in the winter. The mentality of farm-to-table was installed in me since. That is why the idea of a ‘signature dish’ always seems odd to me because ingredients change. I’m glad to see that restaurants are serving more seasonal things. Food is better when you buy it exactly when it tastes good, and not have it shipped from miles away. I’m also concerned with the whole issue of the carbon footprint on the environment. I drive a Prius
It is hot out today. What are you looking forward to cooking this summer? Summer is my favorite season. Spring is fun because you get tired of braising meats all winter and you finally see something green instead of all those roots, but there’s still not much available in the markets. Summer into fall is really the best time to be a chef, since it’s most versatile. You have sweet corn from Jersey, Peaches and nectarines – its like shooting fish in a barrel.
You mentioned your Portuguese heritage. What are some staples of your childhood kitchen? The one thing we always had in the house was piri piri oil. It went on everything, giving food real character. Grilling is a very prominent cooking technique in Portugal, and my dad was always grilling outside, even in the winter. My mother is one of the best cooks I know. She could make just about anything. She made meatloaf like it was nobody’s business.
The Portuguese mark is evident on the menu, but so are influences from the Middle East and Asia. Where are these flavors coming from? When I create a menu, it is as much about the places I’ve been as it is about where I want to go. I love Middle Eastern food. My favorite place to eat in New York is the Hallal cart on 53rd and 6th avenue, which I visit at least once a week. The idea for the tuna dish (with Middle Eastern kebe spice, jasmine rice, and cucumber yogurt) came from watching an episode of Andrew Zimmerman’s Bizarre Foods filmed in Egypt. Every year brings with it new trends in food that seem to take over menus all over town. What’s your take on this year’s hot culinary trends? I think that food trends are brought up by a need or interest. Take a hamburger, for example. They are great, but do they need to be on everybody’s menu? I wish they didn’t have to be. But given the state of the economy, I think they are still a necessity. I accept it but try not to follow too much, and do what I think is right. But listen, there are many people out there right now making ton of money selling lobster rolls…
You worked in some of New York’s most prominent restaurants. Who are the chefs that most inspired you? Thomas Keller [with whom he worked at Per Se] taught me about everything that is beautiful about food. He taught me how meticulous and exacting food can be – the way he sourced the best ingredients, the many influences he drew on to create his food. It was always based on perfect technique. David Bouley, with whom I worked for over a year, is probably one of the most talented chefs I ever met. He taught me cooking under pressure. Working at Bouley was emotionally and physically intense. We worked 100-hour weeks and someone was always quitting. In that chaotic kitchen, I learned how to be good and how to survive. He was always there, always watching. At Bouley you had 250 people dining and you were beat, and the worst thing you can do is make a mistake. I was always a very composed person, but after I finished at Bouley it seemed that there was nothing that could be thrown at me that would rattle me. To last a year at Bouley was a feat that only about 4-5% do. I was there for a year and 2 months. So as much as I learned form Per se and the beauty there, I learned from Bouley and its craziness.
And your own kitchen – is it managed like Bouley’s or Keller’s? I like to sit right in the middle. I embrace a little bit of awkwardness and difficulty in the kitchen because it’s important for a cook to learn to deal with it. But I always want my food to be beautiful, to be sound in technique, and to taste great. I love the craziness and I live the order.
How often do you get to dine out in the city? Just about never. Accidentally, last night I dined at Brushstroke [David Bouley’s newest restaurant]. It was the first time I’ve gone out to eat in about a year. Taking up a kitchen in a new restaurant, you work so much just to make it work. There is a pressure of getting your name out there and proving yourself, so I find it necessary to be here all the time. But with summer coming up I’m hoping to find the time to dine out more. I want to check out The Dutch, eat at Daniel for the first time, and go to Le Bernardin again.
You are trying to establish yourself in a city chuck-full of celebrity chefs. Have you ever considered taking the reality TV path? I was asked to go on the Food Network’s Chopped a few times, but I rather stay away. I actually believe that my experience working at the kitchen at Bouley would have made me a good competitor, but I am so involved right now with my work that I’m not into becoming a celebrity chef. I see myself as very out going, easy to talk to, camera ready. But it is not my focus. My focus is making people happy. I think that is how you make a name for yourself. So you may not see me on Chopped any time soon, but you might catch me on Food Network’s Best thing I Ever Ate. Chef Ann Thornton nominated my venison tartar.
Last night, at Casa Tanteo in Soho, two mixologists went head-to-head in a boozy battle for the tequila brand’s popular “Mexican Standoff” series. Kevin Denton of The Roof Top at Gramercy Park Hotel and Ben Demarchelier of L’oubli were put to the test behind the bar, where they whipped up drinks for a panel of judges that included Tanteo’s in-house mixologist Jason Mendenhall, Johnny Swet of Hotel Griffou, James Jung of NBC’s The Feast, Renee Lucas of CITY magazine, and CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Serena Altschul.
During three 15-minute segments, the mixologists conjured up creative cocktails using Tanteo Cocoa, Tanteo Jalapeno, and Tanteo Tropical, and the evening’s secret ingredients: kumquats, fennel, and cardamon. Denton was eventually crowned the winner, scoring top points in two out of three rounds. And lucky for you, we managed to get our hands on the recipe for Denton’s prize-winner, a perfect Valentine’s Day cocktail.
If There Ain’t Pink in It, I Ain’t Drinkin’ It
2 oz of Tanteo Cocoa .75 oz of Lime Juice .5 oz of Orange Juice .5 oz of simple syrup 3 Kumquats 1 Orange Peel Add ingredients into shaker, muddle Strain into highball glass and top with espuma
This week temps dipped a bit, but that didn’t stop partiers from putting on their best spring impressions. Posers were Patrickmcmullaned at top spots like the The Ace Hotel, for Ruffian’s party and the Hotel Griffou for the launch of the new fashion brand Porcelain for which Sting showed faced. Other faces from a week of parties after the jump.
Fresh Face: Candice Swanepoel Event: Victoria’s Secret Celebrates the 15th Anniversary of the Swim Catalogue Venue: Trousdale, Los Angeles Notable Attendees: Paris Hilton, Miranda Kerr, Kat Von D. Look: Veronica Lake curls get extra points for standing up against LA humidity. Recommendation: Curls are just curls, but they get the Veronica Lake treatment with the side part. Get the curls to stay frizz-free with a moisture barrier finisher like John Freida Frizz-Ease Style Moisture Barrier Hairspray.
Fresh Face: Olivia Ma Corwin Event: Porcelain Launches in New York Venue: Hotel Griffou Notable Attendees: Trudie Styler, Amy Sacco, Arden Wohl, Genevieve Jones. Look: I’m obsessed with these how these braids bring a beachy look to an overall fancy get up. Recommendation: Oh, I have no idea how to get these braids. I’ve tried to french my own hair when that bang-braid was big last summer. I suck at it. But if you’re decent enough, I’d suggest a nice texturizing creme to make your hair more pliable. We here at BlackBook happen to be major consumers of Sebastian Microweb Fiber Flexible Elastic Texturizer. Work into hair before you attempt such a feat- and good luck.
Fresh Face: Kelley Hoffman Event: Olivia Palermo and Roberta Freymann Celebrate the Launch of their necklace collection. Venue: Roberta Freymann Notable Attendees: Olivia Palermo, Kipton Cronkite, Jack Bryant. Look: Hoffman, usually seen with a heavy fringe, gets all springy with a sleek top knot. Recommendation: Gather dirty hair (second-day hair sounds so much more polite) into a haphazard top bun and keep the bangs slicked with a bit of strong-hold pomade like Umi Sitewax Styling Pomade.
Fresh Face: Atarah Valentine, Jacob Troy, Anne Koch, Gavin Mcleod Event: Ruffian for Threads & Heirs launch hosted by Macy’s & Paper Magazine. Venue: The Ace Hotel Notable Attendees: Irena Shayk, Heidi Lindgren, Jessica White. Look: Four examples of how not to look contrived in nighttime headwear. Recommendation: Whether you’re in all black, or matching your floppy 80’s head scarf with your skirt, get playful with your toppers.
I’m not sure how to pronounce the name of the flat iron restaurant Ilili. I don’t know the origins of its name. Alls I know is that I had dinner there the other night with publicist Kelley Blevins and a special friend, and it was great. I’m not sure if my blog readers read BlackBook magazine as well; I have an article in there every month. I and all the other people associated with the magazine are asked each month to list their current favorite hangout. My entry from the August issue was “Nightlife Correspondent Steve Lewis Ajaxx (NYC).” Ajaxx was the rooftop restaurant/lounge my partner and I were designing for Greg Brier at the Stay hotel in Times Square. It’s Tokyo 2050 graffitti design has not seen the light of day due to tip-toeing by economy-influenced decision-makers and all sorts of bureaucratic bureaucracy.
These staff picks are done way in advance, and Ajaxx was due mid-June. Getting things open in this town is not easy, and Ajaxx’s reality will be next spring. I’m offering Ilili as my substitute pick. I spent an evening having the most wonderful meal amongst trendy adults — a group that more and more new establishments are catering too. Hotel Griffou was refreshingly age appropriate for a an old codger like me.
I worked with Kelley Blevins at Palladium and Tunnel and Spa and Life and all my good joints. He used to be a promoter-type person, but his PR-based approach brought great events and fabulously frocked people to the fray. He has consulted over the years with companies like Dolce & Gabbana, Emporio Aarmani, H. Stern, Bulgari, Diane von Furstenberg, Salvatore Ferragamo, John Varvatos, and architects Ricardo Bofill and Alison Spear. Back in the day he was working for that fabulous lolipop company, Chupa Chups, and we had them coming out of our ears. He promoted several hotels — 60 Thompson and Cooper Square in New York, the St. Augustine in Miami, and Gregory Peck’s Crescent Hotel group based in Los Angeles, among others. Kelly is one of those movers and shakers that the public rarely hears about, even though they’re aware of the brands he’s pushing. He invited me down with a fervor. He believes in Ilili and made a believer out of me.
The joint is beautiful. Architect /designer Nasser Nakib’s design stunned me. Rich woods, soft lighting, and an innovative pattern that repeats on the walls, floor, and ceiling has raised the bar for future Lewis & Dizon projects. Chef Philippe Massoud brings a modern Lebanese cuisine that made me full but not stuffed. There were so many things to choose from, such an assortment of flavor and texture, that I hardly got a word in over dinner — and that rarely happens. I even had a glass of wine, and I never do that. The large dining room with ceilings that must be 16 feet high will host parties like few rooms can. Phillipe had many a moment at joints I ran, and he has an eye and an ear for sound systems. Ilili has a great one, and I can’t wait to attend a special event. I don’t write many puff pieces; I have walked by Ilili about 2oo times without considering it. Now if you’re looking for me, you know where I’ll be.
The tragedy of the Cameron Douglas arrest is playing out as predicted. The story seems to be that the addicted spawn of stars turned to selling some to use some. He had been cut off from the family money, but the need for speed remained. A person close to the action told me “he hasn’t made a rational decision in years.” It’s the same old story — a fight for love and glory, then a hard crash to the pavement as three of his street associates ratted him out for a softer ride. The only question remaining is whether the feds want him to lead them to his sources — rumored to be California-based — or will they just let the media frenzy of a trial be a great deterrent for America’s youth. A long sentence in a bad place could be their plan. If he is lucky, they will ask him to give up his supplier in return for a lighter punishment. Supporters offer that he’s “not a violent guy” and that “his addiction is a disease best dealt with in a facility for people in need of treatment.” They say “he shouldn’t be held responsible” for the inevitable need to deal drugs as a result of his long-term addiction.
Yet despite the addling affects of drugs, there is no doubt that Cameron knew what he was doing was wrong and absolutely illegal. He also knew he had choices. Cameron was born with a silver spoon that could keep the Hotel Ganesvoort — where he was busted — in cutlery for a century. My source tells me that the family strategy was to “let him bottom out as everything else had failed,” and “no matter what we tried, he continued to hang out with those lowlife friends of his, and look what happened … they got busted and ratted him out.” I was asked why I didn’t recognize him right away as I surely knew him. I answered that he was heavy and ghost-white, and there wasn’t a great deal of life in his eyes. He used to have a light in those eyes. It used to sit just in front of his eternal sadness. Now I’m afraid sad is all that’s left.
So, are restaurants really the new nightclubs? Check out these multitasking contenders.
● Minetta Tavern (Greenwich Village) – A night at Minetta, complete with Barry Diller, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Harvey Keitel sightings, spawned this thesis. Your visit will confirm all the copious booze, packed interiors, and loud soundtracks of a nightclub, but you’ll also be served top brasserie eats. ● Hotel Griffou (Greenwich Village) – Stealth-posh scene-stealer serves up vintage dishes, but the elaborate array of intimate rooms is just as big a draw. Big enough to draw Leo, Chloe, and Kanye, among a glut of bold-faced names. ● Monkey Bar (Midtown East) – Graydon Carter’s latest monkeyshines lays down a hierarchical supper club scene, with banquettes for the literary elite and tables in the pit for you. Oysters named for Rockefeller, meatloaf named for Ephron. But it’s all about the scene.
● The Waverly Inn (West Village) – High-wattage crowd in low-wattage light, with cozy, clubby feel that preserves the charm of the original. Still unlisted digits; go bathe yourself in the self-congratulatory vibe of the inn crowd inside. ● Charles (West Village) – Exclusive enough to start its run behind papered-over windows. But that’s how the peoples wanted it, and the unlisted number and email-only ressies just make this loungey supper spot all the more desirable. ● Delicatessen (Soho) – Corner attraction rocking enough lumber to show up a Lowe’s. Steers focus away from the food and onto the scene, which is tight, attractive, and ready to put away a few fancy-pants cocktails. And maybe eating. ● The Stanton Social (Lower East Side) – Lofty, tri-level space is sleek and energetic; draws in the Yorkville types looking to experiment with “ethnic” food. On the nightclub side, the music’s loud enough to make a Pacha DJ wince. ● Buddakan (Chelsea) – Stephen Starr’s sixth-borough export still catering to overflowing MePa mobs scarfing down fusiony fare. Stunning, mansion-esque space delves deep. Able to accommodate every single person heading over to Kiss & Fly and Tenjune later, all at once. ● Double Crown (Greenwich Village) – AvroKO design masters follow up Public success with vintage vibe, sprawling space. Come colonize another stretch of the Bowery and let the pretty people distract you from the just so-so food. ● bobo (West Village) Ring the downstairs doorbell for Boho-Bourgie dinner party scene. Kitchen still not fully sorted, but that’s alright with the frisky crowd lounging about the elegant townhouse digs.
“This seems like one big Republican party,” an unnamed guest with a distinct southern accent noted last night at The Gates. “Either that or it’s a Yale reunion.” Amid all of this week’s summery soirees, I was most happy to find myself at UNICEF’s Next Generation Launch Event. With Jenna Bush Hager as a committee chair, Grey Goose-sponsored cocktails, and Josh Madden playing DJ, this one particularly disinterested party guest could not sour the bunch — regardless if the bunch was made up of Republican Yalies or not. The event was hosted by the members of UNICEF’s Next Generation Steering Committee, a group composed 30 thirty young scenesters, including Barbara Bush, Lauren Bush, Maggie Betts, and David Lauren, who banded together to party for their very first initiative: Project Sprinkles, as they pledged to raise $175,000 for the program. Not to worry — the program isn’t raising awareness for your Crumbs habit, though the delicious cupcakes were passed at the event. These sprinkles are sugar-free and save lives.
UNICEF’s “Sprinkles” is a nutritional supplement in the form of a powder designed to be sprinkled over food, instantly fortifying the meal with iron, vitamin A, zinc, vitamin C, and folic acid. About 25,000 children die every day from preventable causes such as malnutrition. Though this number is worldwide, the group chose to set their sights on Guatemala, where rising food prices are compounding the problem, and the number of daily deaths is on the rise. The packets are known as “Chispitas” in Guatemala, and look much like small sugar packets — though, as one passionate UNICEF member admitted to me, they are tasteless.
The goal of the Next Generation Committee is to not only raise money for these Chispitas but also to engage younger generations in supporting the world’s children. They hope to reduce the number of daily preventable child deaths to zero through charitable donations, education, engagement, and advocacy. The young group certainly made headway last night, selling raffle tickets for ritzy dinner packages to the Waverly Inn, Hotel Griffou, and Kingswood. Ultimately, between cupcake bites and vodka sips, they were able to raise $45,000.