Industry Insiders: Michael Stillman, Meat and Potatoes Guy

Michael Stillman, president of Fourth Wall Restaurants (Park Avenue Winter, Quality Meats, Maloney & Porcelli, Post House, and Smith & Wollensky) calls mid-town steakhouse Quality Meats his “baby” while giving us a tour of the space, speaking of each architectural element with grand hand gestures and obvious satisfaction with the finished product. Stillman is the son of famed restaurateur Alan Stillman of T.G.I. Friday’s and Smith & Wollensky fame, and plans to expand his empire, much like his father in the next calendar year. His newest venture being the Flatiron Tiki-Polynesian outpost, The Hurricane Club. More details after the jump.

On being born into the business: I really didn’t know I would steer in this direction at all. It wasn’t something I was pushed towards. I fell into it after college as one of the many things that I had an interest in so I tried it and loved it. In some ways, I think my dad’s taste for aesthetics is what was passed down to me, and that’s what makes me love the restaurants as much as he does rather than this natural “I grew up in restaurants” kind of thing.

On his favorite room in the place: My favorite is the butcher room. The logs on the wall are all reclaimed logs from the Arkansas River where trees have fallen. This logging company literally goes down and picks them up from the bottom of the river. Then they bring them up and make these beautiful end cuts. It was a nightmare to put up but it’s super cool.

On starting at the bottom: I worked for Danny Meyer when I got out of college, and I ran food, checked coats. I’d do anything. I was completely useless and a smart alec, and they really got me to feel the nuts and bolts of the business. Danny is extremely talented and is a very different feeling from my dad. It was good to see that.

On his steak preference: Charred to medium rare. I grew up in New York so I love charred steaks.

Does the way someone orders a steak say anything about them? We never judge! Only behind closed doors!

Best steak of his life: I’ll always go for the Smith and Wollensky steak when it’s extra aged. The most fantastic experiential steak I’ve had was on a ten day trip through Spain. At one point, we thought we were lost in San Sebastian, but we got to this little place with crates outside and thirty seats inside. They just cooked one steak right after another on top of the open fire. It was spectacular, very downtrodden but still high end.

On expanding Q.M. like a Friday’s franchise: We’ve been looking around in London. I think it’d be a very interesting place to take Quality Meats. They’ve started to have more American meats, but nothing with this look and feel. A lot of the British clientele here love it. We just wanted to be really careful with this and expand it the right way. I’m more interested in “one-off” restaurants and new projects. But if we expand a project I want it to be special with personality. I don’t want it to feel monochromatic.

On the biggest misconceptions about steakhouses: Steakhouses get a natural bad rap because they’re expensive and “for bankers.” They’re not for “real foodies”. Ironically, though, the foodie culture has become so market driven and focusing on the elements and raw ingredients. Steakhouses were some of the first places to emphasize the quality of products. I think when you go to the best steakhouses they’re really ahead of other places in brining in the cleanest, simplest product and not taking away from it.

On his new joint: It’s called the Hurricane Club. It’s supposed to be a modern take on Trader Vicks and a Tiki-Polynesian restaurant. Our idea for the menu is what I call “inauthentic” cuisine. We’ll have all these cool new modern Tiki-cocktails. There’s a less serious sensibility, but equally high-end. I don’t think it’s a summer thing because, what’s better than coming into a place in cold weather and relaxing and drinking out of a coconut? There’s going to be a big bar lounge. It’s a little farther downtown for us, so I think it should drive a big crowd. It’s a little bit of a lower price—50 to 60 dollar range as opposed to 80 to 90 dollar range. It’s at 26th and Park with around 250 capacity.

On changing Park Avenue from Winter/Autumn/Spring/Summer: Each one is scary. We close down the restaurant for two entire days and we change the walls; we take down the ceilings; change the light fixtures and materials; we put in installations; we change the music, the food. We’ve got it down to a science. We knew that we were putting a big bull’s-eye on our back because it sounds so kitschy. But we literally build four new restaurants every year, and we try to make it feel like how you would want to feel in that season.

On bonding with the the Stillman senior: I took my dad to see Lady Gaga. It was hysterical. He’s like 74. I went with some friends, too, who had gone to Sacred Heart with her. We remember her doing stuff down at The Slipper Room. She puts on a good show—not really my cup of tea but it was fun. I loved watching my dad. That was second to none.

Go-to places: Bilboquet. It’s a classic UES show. It’s simple, but it’s got a punch and attitude. Another place is Balthazar. An oldie but a goodie. You can’t go wrong there. For Asian, I go to Kuma Inn on the LES. It’s been around six years. Chef King does some Thai/Filipino tapas, and it’s BYOB.

Worst habit or guiltiest pleasure: American Idol might be both.

Industry Insiders: Chef Kevin Long, Travelin’ Man

Kevin Long stretches his expertise over state lines on a daily basis. He serves as executive chef at both SHRINE Asian Kitchen, Lounge and Nightclub at MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Scorpion Bar, located in Foxwoods Casino. Long also heads the kitchen at Tosca and Caffe Tosca in Hingham, Massachusetts. Humbly starting his career at family restaurants on Boston’s South Shore, Long rose to work alongside one of his idols, Thomas Keller, at The James Beard House and the Park Avenue Cafe.

What’s in a typical day for you? A lot of my days are consumed with driving, as the restaurants are two hours apart, and I oversee all of the operations in the kitchen, menu development, sourcing, and trying to keep connected with the food.

Commuting alone sounds like a lot of work. I’m a workaholic … I never really think about it, but I’m very passionate about my work: one restaurant is a high-end Italian, very creative. The other is fun Italian, another is an up-market nightclub and the last is a Mexican restaurant. And I can pick and choose what to eat every day!

How’d you get your start? I’d gone to college, working for a computer science degree, putting myself through in kitchens. I hated washing dishes, but got into the cooking very gradually — one of those things that started when I was 16 and got to prep the food in a small, local restaurant, and then it became what I was interested in.

When did you realize cooking was your passion? When I was starting out, I worked with some great chefs who exposed me to different aspects of the business. I love to travel, I love to eat out. Every time I walk in the wilderness, I see food. It’s amazing how it becomes your life, whether you’re looking at food on television shows or perusing a small town’s restaurants, I couldn’t imagine doing something else. There are people out there who hate themselves and their jobs, and I just thought, I’ll never be that person.

Go-to spots? I love The Violet Hour in Chicago, it’s off-beat, hip, really great. In Nantucket, I like Corazon del Mar. To go to Boston and visit my roots, I like Locke-Ober under Chef Lydia Shire. It’s Kennedy’s Boston, so fabulous … just sitting at the bar is a little getaway.

Other chefs you admire? Any chef nowadays calls on Thomas Keller, who has been a massive inspiration; I’ve had the luxury of working with him, and he’s just one of these guys who is going to be known forever as the modern day Escoffier, one of those guys who recreates everything in modern restaurant. The guy branches out and still maintains the quality.

Worst part about the recession in relation to dining? Something unhealthy — I hate to be a dark cloud — but the market right now has constricted people’s wallets which makes it tougher. Everybody wants lavish dining. It’s so much fun for us to produce it, but it can really put a damper on the cost-conscious.

Something people might not know about you? Everybody thinks I’m a monster, but I’m really quite approachable, a very nice guy. It’s just that I have an intimidating air in the restaurants.

What gets you through tough days at the restaurants? I love streaming radio and can’t get enough of it. It’s very hard for me being so busy working seven days a week. I don’t have time to manage my iTunes, so this is at your fingertips, instant gratification. It’s really quite a ride for me.