Henry Kallan and Jozef Juck will open their new restaurant Montenapo in New York on Wednesday, May 13th. Located in the the New York Times building in a space just next to the 41st Street entrance, the upscale resto will serve Italian cuisine, with a full bar and a menu built around organic ingredients. The partners have a long history together, as both immigrated from Slovakia and entered the hospitality industry stateside. Kallan is a hotel mogul (he’s president and owner of HKHotels), while Juck is the manager of Italian powerhouse restaurant BiCE. (Update: Juck left BiCE in February 2008; Doug Alexander is the current GM. Montenapo itself closed in December 2009.) The pair — who interact like long-time friends or brothers — gave us a peek into the new joint.
What difficulties have you seen opening a restaurant in this economic climate? Henry Kallan: It’s always tough to build something in New York from a construction point of view. And now, surprisingly, building the restaurant, it wasn’t any less expensive than it would be in good times when everyone is really busy. That was an issue. We spent a lot of money, but it was self-inflicted in many ways because we always build the best, quality-wise. And because of that, it’s an occupational hazard that I can only build the best. Sometimes we say there is first-class and there is no class, and nothing in between. Oscar Wilde said, “I have very simple taste, but I only like the best.” So, that’s our approach, and I think you can see what we build in the kitchen, in the dining room, around the bar — you can recognize that we spend a lot of money.
How are you choosing the staff for Montenapo? HK: We require around 70 positions, including the chefs, cooks, waitstaff, cocktail waitresses, and busboys. Based on what Jozef tells me, we had over 1,000 applicants, and they’re people from many walks of life. The key to hiring the right people in the service world is that they have to be positive and enthusiastic. So, personality plays a key role. These are not very good times for many people, so one needs to consider that. When you look for a certain personality in an individual, you become very selective and not all of the qualified candidates have the personality we’re looking for. It’s very difficult to bring someone on as part of a team unless they truly understand and appreciate that they are here to serve the customer. I’m not saying the customer is always right, which is typically the way people would like to receive it, but at the same time, you have to be flexible and you have to be willing to do almost whatever it takes to create an ambiance and comfort level. People want to feel very much like they’re in somebody’s guest house, and that’s the kind of personality of the restaurant that we would like to create.
How did you decide on the design of the space? HK: Initially, we had a design firm, who were a very savvy group of young people who had great ideas. We gave them a budget of $3-4 million, and they came back with a budget of $8 million. So without mentioning their names, we had to terminate the relationship. We then decided to take a different approach, and use our expertise and experiences to create the space here today. We had two very instrumental architects, and with the proper lighting, the birch tree garden, and the green sod, it will have such a special ambiance here. I think this is one of the most beautiful rooms in the city with a lot of mahogany, granite, and beautiful wood floors. We tried to follow the vision of Renzo Piano, who designed the New York Times building.
How did you two conceptualize this idea? HK: I like to test myself, and I think it makes a big difference having Jozef as my partner, who is my childhood friend. We have quite a story behind us. He was 18 and I was 20 when we left Czechoslovakia. Then, he went his own way and owned several restaurants in Dallas, then he went on to Hawaii. I was in the hotel business, and I developed venues in Prague and the Czech Republic. I had some difficulties there with my partner, so I asked Jozef to come and help me out. He later took over BiCE, and he really saved the restaurant. Initially, when we came up with this idea, there were other partners, but at the end of the day, the other partners ran out of money. I think they panicked because of the economic situation, so, here we are, just Jozef and me. We’re ready to do what it takes to make it a success. So we can fill in all the gaps.
Did you have to take all of the windows into consideration? Jozef Juck: The number one issue with the windows was the transparency. When Renzo Piano was commissioned to design the building for the New York Times, he made an agreement with the city and the stated that he would have a certain transparency — that means that you could see through the building from 40th Street to 41st without any obstructions. Of course, when you design a restaurant, to have a kitchen, a dining room, and a bar, it was rather challenging. We had to redesign the restaurant twice.
What sets Montenapo apart and positions it for success? JJ: Things are very different now than they were two years ago, and we knew that we had to go the extra step, be a little bit more creative and more innovative. In the kitchen, we use the best ingredients — organic vegetables, free-range poultry, humanely raised meats — plus wild fish instead of farm-raised. In the kitchen, we use stainless steel instead of aluminum cookware. We’re going the extra mile for the customer to give them a reason to come to us. Besides that, the menu is so modern and new. Italian cuisine has not really progressed in the last 20 years in New York City, so we’re taking this to another level. We’re using recipes with healthy, natural ingredients. We make our own pastas with semolina, we bake our own breads, we’ll make our own desserts, including ice creams. This is the reason why I feel that we’ll succeed: when there is a little economic slowdown, the first thing a lot of restaurateurs do is cut down on the quality of the products, and I feel that we are doing just the opposite. We’ll buy only the choicest ingredients because I believe that you can have the best chef in the world, but if you don’t have the right product to start with you won’t be able to prepare excellent food.
Why Italian cuisine? JJ: I think everybody has certain flavors, and besides classical Chinese cuisine, Italian cuisine is the best and healthiest food in the world. It consists of natural ingredients prepared simply. You don’t use butter or flours in the sauces, and the natural ingredients are preserved. Italian cuisine also has a tradition. If you go back hundreds of years, Italians prepare exactly the same food. It’s also great comfort food. We’ve decided we’re going to feature Italian cuisine from all regions of Italy, complementing them with wine lists also from the same regions. We will feature French champagne — like Veuve Clicquot, Cristal, Moët & Chandon, Dom Perignon, Dom Bernardino — to complement our menu.
Photo: David Ferino