The Most Hated and Loved Man’s Birthday & The Vinatta Project Gossip

All the unusual suspects will gather for DJ-club god Michael T’s birthday. I have never loved or hated someone as much as Michael, and that’s in the first 10 minutes every time I meet him. He can be oh-so-sweet and oh-so-sour, but his heart is always in the right place. There was this one time — I’m going to stop there, as we all have stories. He remains my favorite DJ who isn’t named Paul Sevigny. How can someone so ageless have so many birthdays? He’s celebrating two on one day…tonight.

The first of Michael’s birthday parties, according to the invite, is from 8pm till 1am at La Bottega at Maritime Hotel, 363 W. 16th St. The second runs from 11pm till 4am at Beauty Bar, 231 E. 14th St. There seems to be an overlap, and I suspect that the wily Mr. T is employing one of those Tupac hologram thingys or something like that. I’m always confused if it"s Michael Tee or "T.” In either case I will show up at one of these soirees to celebrate my friend’s fabulousness – probably at Beauty Bar so I can dine at IHOP right after. Michael is so thoughtful like that.

Everybody I know (from some circles) is off to Sundance to overpopulate the tiny hamlet of Park City, Utah. I spent a year there one night. I am being inundated with invites, but everyone knows I gave up the snow years ago. I’ve actually never gone to Sundance, as ski slopes and roller coasters and jumping from airplanes are for my next incarnation. I do love a good film though, and I hear they’re showing some in between, before and after all those parties. Noah and his Strategic Group have taken over some underground garage facility, decorated it, and snazzed it up, and are ready to show all how it is done. I would love to check out Park City Live, the newly renovated hot spot that always books national acts. My pal Kathryn Burns is living her dreams there.

Monday (after BINGO) I will attend the Benefit Concert for Animals hosted by Wesly Wang, Geri Gongora, Dava She Wolf, and sponsored by Alacran Tequila and Forever Young wine at Sullivan Hall, 214 Sullivan St.  The Bashers – featuring musicians from Guns N’Roses, Soul Asylum, X-Pensive Winos, Uptown Horns – and others will lead the way. The Planets will also perform. Bands start at 9:30pm and they’re asking for a minimum of $10 at the door.

On Sunday the rockers will descend on Manitoba’s for the 14th annual anniversary extravaganza. It’s billed as the first great party of ’13 – and I’m a believer (unless someone actually plays that track). It’s running from 1pm to 4am, and is a "15-hour rock and roll party at 100MPH.” There will be munchies and drink specials, and the football games will be shown. Handsome Dick Manitoba and his lovely wife Zoe Hanson will host.

The other day, a reliable source whispered to my always open, rather large and sometimes naive ears that the building where The Vinatta Project thrives was bought by Matt Levine. It simply isn’t true. Matt reports: "I have no involvement at 69 Gansevoort at this time. Let me get The Rowhouse Inn open first before myself and Michael start opening up more spaces in the Meatpacking, haha."

Well, at least my boy got that Rowhouse part right. Rael Petit, a friend of mine and partner and manager over at Vinatta, 69 Gansevoort, asked me to clarify. He’s at Sundance doing diners for his Mulberry Project and Vinatta. I caught up with him before he jetted off. He told me Fridays and Saturdays are slammed at Vinatta with a great crowd listening to resident DJ Mok. He tells me the Tuesday-through-Thursday crowd are filled with the locals and are for my tastes. I’m summoned to check it next week when he’s back. The official line from them is :

“The Vinatta Project opened its doors in November 2011 in the bustling Meatpacking District. In the constantly evolving restaurant statosphere, The Vinatta Project embodies all of the components of a perfect night out–delicious food, complete beverage program, friendly service an a hip yet inviting atmosphere.  The menu features a selection of Contemporary American dishes including Paella Spring Rolls, made with Shrimp, Chorizo, Jalapeño and Smoked Paprika Aioli, Tuna Tartare with a Crispy Wonton and Wasabi Greens and NY Strip, served with Chimichurri, Polenta Croutons and Pickled Red Onion.

Vinatta also features a robust beverage program, complete with hand-crafted bespoke cocktails created by some of the best mixologists in NYC, and a selection of artisan spirits. Vinatta is open for weekend brunch, special events or even catered parties.”

Yesterday,  my very secret whisper-in-my-ear source, who obviously is right most of the time but not all (the price of being fast and first), says that The Shadow space on W. 28th St. has a new operator. Shadow was owned and operated by the old-school, wonderful Steven Juliano.  He, according to my source, has settled on a buyer which my source says is one of the premier operating  groups. I know who it is, but I’m going to double and triple check before I tell you.

Industry Insiders: Jason Zukas, East Coast Chopper

Jason Zukas is recognized most often as a winner on Food Network’s TV show Chopped, but the Tom Collicchio look-alike has achieved more than 15 minutes of reality TV fame. A Queens native, Zukas couldn’t afford culinary school, so he taught himself to cook with the help of a Culinary Institute of America instruction book. The education paid off; Zukas has worked at some of the city’s most reputable restaurants, including Ouest, La Bottega and Blue Water Grill. In August, Zukas was named chef at Charles, filling in for Kristine Mana-ay (on maternity leave). We met Zukas at Charles midday for a quick chat about the ups and downs of the restaurant biz.

When did you know you wanted to be a chef? When I was a kid. Just having Sunday dinners with my grandmother, growing up in a house filled with food and family. I’d call my grandmother asking for recipes. Everyone in our family got together because of food. I always knew I wanted to cook. I started pretty young.

You’re self-taught. Do you think there’s an advantage for chefs who went to culinary school? No. I think there’s less of an advantage. They don’t have the passion. Someone who didn’t go to school really works to achieve a goal. Some people just go to school, learn a couple techniques and think they’re chefs. But it’s the total opposite. Being a chef comes from the heart, not from what you learn at school.

You’ve worked at some great restaurants. Where did you enjoy working most? That’s a tough one. All of them had their good points. I really enjoyed working at Ouest. That was a good time, and there were celebrities every night, one after another. Everyone from Bill Clinton to J-Lo, De Niro, Steven Spielberg.

The most exciting person to cook for? It would probably be when Steven Spielberg called up and said that his helicopter was landing, and he came in with Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Bruce Springsteen. We kept the restaurant open a little later for them.

You were recently asked to fill in for Kristine Mana-ay at Charles. Do you plan on changing the menu? I’ve probably changed 70-80% so far.

What would you describe as “your” food? My food is Mediterranean soul food.

Could you give me an example of the quintessential Jason Zukas dish? That’s tough. That’s really tough. I hate when people ask me questions like that. I love doing slow, braised meats with a little bit of a Mediterranean flair. My lamb shank on the menu really describes me. Slow cooked over Israeli couscous. It’s really, really good.

Any plans to open your own place? Yeah, of course. That’s my dream.

What neighborhood would you choose? I’m loving the West Village right now. It’s a great spot.

Tell me a little about being on Chopped. Great experience. Being on Chopped opened up a lot of doors, even though it was very, very nerve wracking. I didn’t think I was going to win at all, didn’t think I had a shot, going up against the competition I was against. But it worked out and I won.

Would you do it again? Yeah. 100%.

Charles doesn’t have a listed phone number. You can only get a reservation via email. What are your thoughts on the whole mysterious restaurant-as-nightclub vibe? I think it’s great. It gives a little mystery to the restaurant. People don’t know what to expect. It’s all through word of mouth, like an old speakeasy. You’ve got to know somebody to know somebody to get in. Just makes the experience better.

Do you think it puts more pressure on the food? Yeah, definitely. Because people want to see something a little different. They’re going to say, “I waited this long to come here.” They’re going to want something amazing.

What’s the hardest part about being in the restaurant industry? Probably not having any time to yourself. When I get home, I’ve been thinking about food since 5 in the morning. You have no life. Your life is the kitchen and the restaurant. That’s the hardest part.

What are your go-to spots? My favorite bar to go to is 5 Burro Cafe in Forest Heights, Queens. A Mexican restaurant. Really good Mexican food. Good margaritas. Tequila.

If you could eat with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Mick Jagger.

What’s your favorite meal of the day? Big dish of rigatoni with meatballs and sausage. That’s my favorite meal ever. From an Italian grandmother.