Industry Insiders: Federico Sanchez-Ortiz, Developer Extraordinaire

Ever wonder what it would be like to work in paradise? Federico Sanchez-Ortiz, the developer and CEO of InterLink knows. He works every day in Bahia Beach, Puerto Rico. Visitors include Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, as well as Bill and Camille Cosby. Carlos Beltran and Oscar de la Hoya have bought homes at this tropical-looking Garden of Eden. In October 2010, the St. Regis will open a 139-suite hotel with a Jean-Georges restaurant, Fern, and Puerto Rico will have its first five-star resort. We recently caught up with Fede.

Tell us about the project. Bahia Beach Resort and Golf Club is a 500-acre beachfront property, just 16 miles east of the San Juan airport. It is surrounded by natural reserve, on the foothills of El Yunque Rainforest. We have a beautiful, two-mile natural, sandy beach with two reefs that flank the bay and protect the beach. We also have great vegetation. This was an old coconut plantation that was preserved over centuries.

How did it become designated a Certified Gold Audubon International Signature Sanctuary? We said the protagonist has to be the natural environment. It’s the right thing to do, but it will also be the spearhead of our development. Every building at Bahia will be below the tree line. We don’t want buildings towering over you, as you walk down the beach. We asked Audubon International to help us, and they created the guidelines for a habitat creation and transplanting trees. The golf course is irrigated and maintained in an environmentally-friendly way.

How long has Interlink been involved? Since 2003. It was a property owned by a group in California that had held it for over 15 years but never ended developing it. I went to Harvard School of Design for the Advanced Management Development Program. I did an independent, feasibility project of buying Bahia Beach and making it a world-class resort which I submitted in July ’03. We submitted it to our bank, Banco Popular, in September and we closed the purchase in November of ’03. We joined forces with a local real-estate firm, Munoz Holdings.

How many units will there be and what are they like? Probably around 700. We have a number of small, residential clusters, everything from golf villas, or condos that begin at 1700 square feet and range from $700,000 – $900,000 to beachfront townhomes that run about $3.5 million; to St. Regis-branded estate homes that are 6,000-10,000 square feet on an average of an acre of land, which range from $3.8 million to over $7 million. And they’ll have all the services, an a la carte list of amenities from the St. Regis, including butlers, housekeeping, room service and catered dinners by the chef.

Are Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony buying? They’ve been on property three times. Carlos Beltran loaned his house to them once. They were great guests. They’re of Puerto Rican descent, and they said they felt very proud that there was a place like this in Puerto Rico that they could show their friends from the States and from abroad. Jennifer would exercise by pushing her twins on a stroller around the property. She said she felt very comfortable, at ease, safe.

Can one stay by the night? Yes. It depends on the time of year and the unit, but a one-bedroom unit would be around $400 per night and for a St. Regis-branded estate home, it could be over $2000 or $3000. An average hotel room will be around $600 per night.

What’s the biggest appeal of Puerto Rico? We think Puerto Rico had its glory days when Conrad Hilton opened the Caribe Hilton in the late 40s, early 50s; then Laurance Rockefeller opened Dorado Beach in the 50s. And now, it’s a renaissance for Puerto Rican tourism. We have the best airlift in the Caribbean.

What do you like to do when you’re not working? People ask me about Bahia, ‘How can you work there and also have a second house out there? How can you relax?’ I enjoy it. I golf. I love being on the beach with the kids. I love to cook. I love to eat, of course. But being one with nature really makes me and my family feel very good. I love to travel, too.

What are some of your go-to places in the cities you frequent? In New York I love the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, Jean Georges, Perry Street in the West Village and Balthazar in Soho. In Boston I go to Via Matta restaurant in Back Bay. In Puerto Rico I love Casino Metro. Its bar/lounge is the coolest new spot in San Juan.

Is it in your new hotel, the Sheraton Puerto Rico? Yes, but don’t take my word for it! I’m just saying what the local newspapers are saying. Check out the Puerto Rico Daily Sun.

Photo: Richard C. Murray

A Clambake from Butcher Bay

A rustic room, a tatted-up chef, and a crazy neighbor ranting on the sidewalk give some reassurance that there’s still a little East Village left in the East Village. At least that was my experience at Butcher Bay, where I sat down with chef Eric Simpson. From the stage-like open kitchen in back, Simpson shows off the experience he gleaned working at high-profile spots like Ortanique on The Mile, Perry Street, and Tailor. His menu at Butcher Bay is simultaneously ambitious and unpretentious, kind of like the East Village of old. “Working at Tailor, it was this amazing million-dollar kitchen with guys covered in tattoos and blasting metal,” Simpson says. “It had a huge effect on the way I like to run this place, just that whole idea of a comfortable vibe, it’s an approachable East Village restaurant, but then trying to capitalize on surprising people. Because it’s fun when you realize you’re getting more than you expected.” Simpson was good enough to walk us through a hearty remix of a New England clambake.

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How well does this dish translate to New York? We have such tiny kitchens … This is a New York City kitchen-friendly dish because it’s one pot and that’s the whole idea. That’s how I cook at home. If I need more than one pan to cook my meal, that’s too much work. I don’t want to do dishes on my day off.

How hard is it to source? If you were cooking this for yourself, where would you get your clams? It’s one of the beautiful little aspects of New York City that you can usually walk and find all of the things you need. I live on Avenue D and I would actually go to the Associated Supermarket on C and be pretty comfortable with just a little inspection. It’s just like fruit — if you pick up a shellfish and it feels light and doesn’t have that “heavier than it looks feel to it,” that’s definitely a red flag. But littleneck clams are absolutely cheap and ubiquitous and every market should have them.

What comes next, after you’ve tracked down clams? The rest of it is kind of marrying it all together and just getting that combination of the flavors and trying to stay really, really traditional with it. Basically just clams, shrimp, mussels, potato, corn, and usually wilted greens. Lately I’ve been using Swiss chard because it adds something nice to the flavor of the whole dish. For the sausage, I’ve got stuck on a homemade andouille sausage that comes from La Frieda. It’s exactly what I want, for not being able to get what I see in my head. Growing up in New England, the Portuguese influence is huge in that dish, so if I had my way I’d use linguiça, basically just the sweeter Portuguese version of chorizo. I wound up with this andouille. It has a lot of black pepper to it so you get a slightly more savory and definitely peppery influence in the broth. People can’t figure out why the dish is a little more hearty than they’re expecting and has a little spice to it. The other thing I’ve been using in it that’s not traditional but it just works so well is salt cod. That’s one of the last things that goes in and it adds another layer of seasoning and it winds up being almost an East Coast version of a cioppino — brothy, with lots of shellfish. I wanted that whole New England, this is a wet paper plate on the beach, where you’re trying to eat all this awesome food but your plate’s falling apart and dripping the broth from a clambake.

How long does it take to put together? As long as it takes to open the clams. I start it off with olive oil and the clams. Then lightly roasting the andouille sausage, just developing that flavor a little bit. As soon as I’ve got a little heat out of those, adding the shallots and garlic, and a good amount too. Once they’re toasted it takes away the bite and winds up being a sweet vegetable influence in the dish. Everything else on some level has a little bit of building to it. These are potatoes that are pickled with paprika and sherry vinegar. Obviously not really traditional, other than the fact that there are usually steamed potatoes in a clambake. This just adds an acidic brightness to the dish. Then white wine and then a little bit of salt. These are proper Wellfleet, Massachusetts littleneck clams and they’re pretty salty, so you have to be careful with it. There’s maybe ¼ gram of salt. That’s a two-finger pinch, if you’re going by fancy-cook standards.

What would you drink with it? It’s definitely a dish that goes with beer. Of the beers we’ve got, I really like the DreamWeaver with it. It’s an American microbrew, but it’s a Hefeweizen, with kind of a brassy and almost yeasty flavor that is really good with it. If you’re not a beer drinker, then a spicier, light red wine. I do love the combination of a minerally and spicy, but approachable, red wine with this dish, and shellfish in general. Something like a Grenache. As far as whites go, I’m not all that much of a white drinker, but a dry sparkling wine would be good with it.

Do you follow a set recipe for it, or do you improvise? Consistency is really important. I had it beaten into me, six years in three different restaurants, with a foot in my ass every day of my life basically having chefs go “I don’t care if you don’t like anything about this dish, you’d better dislike the same things every day.” Working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten in particular, every recipe is written down in a book, with things weighed out in a gram scale, and basically the food prep is done like someone with a marionette. There’s no room for interpretation in the dishes, it’s the same every time. And his food is very simple, it’s beautifully balanced, and it’s consistent.

How many people could you cook this for? It depends on how big your pot is. If you got a big stock pot, you could do it for 20 or 30 people in one shot. It’s a simple dish, really no manipulation. It’s all taking advantage of the natural flavors. The other places I’ve worked, this dish would be overkill and twice the price.

Clambake (ingredients for one portion) ● 8 littleneck clams ● 3 PEI mussels ● 3 shrimp ● 3 oz salt cod ● 2 oz vinegar-boiled potato ● 2 oz sliced andouille sausage or chorizo ● 1 oz Swiss chard ● 1 tablespoon shallot ● 1 tablespoon garlic ● 2 pieces roasted corn–2” on-cob chunks ● 2 oz evoo ● 4 oz white wine ● 4 oz water ● Salt to taste 1. Put clams in a hot sauté pan with andouille, shallot, garlic, and olive oil. Start to toast shallot and garlic and render sausage a little. 2. Add wine and water — pull pan away from flame to avoid igniting oil vapor. 3. Add potato, corn, and mussels. 4. After all shellfish are steamed open, add salt cod, shrimp, and Swiss chard. 5. When shrimp are fully cooked and chard is wilted, adjust seasoning in broth, and serve immediately.

The Bruni Breakdown: Our Guide to Frank Bruni’s Guide to Recession Dining

You could read all of Frank Bruni’s article (and supplemental blog post) on the sad ways restaurants and their respective owners are coping with the downturn (by offering customers various deals to help lure them in), or you can read our simple guide to the guide. The choice is yours, but we know what would save more time. Savings we pass along to you, the otherwise hapless consumer.

Chanterelle – A management consultant notes: “You can go to Chanterelle at the last minute now, in a way that you couldn’t nine months ago.” ● WD-50 – Anyone who orders the $140 tasting menu can get a bottle of wine — any bottle of wine — off of their wine list for half price. ● The Modern – Bottles under $50 are now appearing under a special section on the wine list as “wines for our times.” ● Perry Street – A $35 three-course menu that runs on off-hours (from 5:30-6:30 p.m. and 9:30-11 p.m.). ● Nougatine – Also, a $35 three-course menu that runs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. ● Matsugen – A $35 seven-course menu that runs all hours. ● Del Posto – The infamous 20-course meal price went down from $225 to $175; a nine-course went from $175 to $125. ● Daniel – From 5:30-6:30 p.m., three courses, with wine: $98. You need a reservation to get this one. ● Cru – Through 6:30 p.m. nightly, a $49 three-course menu. ● Compass – A lobster “sample sale”: a grilled three-pounder for $39, lobster salad for $13. ● TOM – Now open as Damon: Frugal Fridays, with $10 dishes cooked by Craft’s executive chef. ● Lever House – A $35, three-course menu going through March. ● Eleven Madison Park – Still has a two-course lunch that goes for $28.

And NYC Restaurant Week is getting extended by a bunch of the places that were original participants, including Le Cirque.

Industry Insiders: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gallic Master

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the superstar behind elite New York restaurants Jean Georges, Spice Market, Matsugen, Perry Street, Vong, Mercer Kitchen, JoJo, and Nougatine on passing up coal and engineering for cooking, getting wine for his birthday as a kid, and bringing food back to its origins.

Point of Origin: I’m from Strasbourg, a big city in Alsace. It was a pretty big house, and we were cooking for 20 for dinner, it was a big deal. We had all of our meals at home; my grandmother cooking, my mother cooking. It may have been a one-pot stew, so it gave me a taste for making food for a lot of people. Every morning, I remember the smells around me; when I was eight or ten, I could tell you exactly what day of the week it was by what was on the stove. And I always knew what I wanted to do: cook! In 1957 I got a bottle of wine for my birthday, but by the time I was 16, I had only been to six restaurants in my life and never really knew that somebody could actually make a living by cooking. I started cooking at 16 as an apprentice. I wasn’t going to school, but working with a chef. In 1973, I began as an apprentice at the Auberge de l’ιll, which has now been going for 50 years. In 1976, they gave us a test, and I was voted Best Apprentice. I went to Paris for the finals and received the highest score in regional France, but the apprentices competed against each other there, and I finished third.

How did you get your start? I was the oldest of my brothers, so I was supposed to take over my father’s part of the coal business, and at age 15 I was sent to engineering school. I hated every minute of it. My father was really, really upset and wanted to know what I wanted to do with my life. So I told him I wanted to be a chef and that I should be cooking. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I was totally unexposed to anything like the business of cooking. One day, my father took me to a restaurant, and the chef came by the table. My father asked if he was looking for somebody to train. I got lucky. I studied and cooked and am still the only chef in my family.

What changed your life? When that chef stopped at our table, it was like looking at my future, and my father just hoped I was just good enough to wash dishes! I went to his restaurant for two weeks on a trial basis, and they really taught me how to cook — the basic techniques of cooking — and it was great. At the time I began as an apprentice, nobody was really into restaurants, but it was the beginning of my career, a passion that turned into a business. I’m still passionate about it 35 years later.

Any non-industry projects in the works? There’s a lot of waste when we make food, so we have a lot of companies who come to pick up what we don’t use. Like Share our Strength, a great organization that does a lot of good for cancer, and the Central Park Conservancy. We’re helping left and right, we’re raising money for good causes. When you share what you have — your talent — it’s good for you, too.

What about your diversion into mondo condo land and hotels? I did it! I haven’t had any education since I left school at 15, and actually, I learned how to do this business in New York. I was 32 when I got my first restaurant, and went back to school in Manhattan at Hunter College to take a course on how to run a business in New York; how to get permits, a liquor license, all of it. You can’t take things for granted. I just wanted a hotel, built around a restaurant, but the architect found out that the property next door to it was available as well, so we went into construction there too, but for condominiums [Calvin Klein bought the first apartment as Vong had vowed to cook for the buyers.]

Favorite Hangouts: I’ve just got a house in Westchester, in Waccabuc, and I go to places around there, where I don’t have a restaurant. I get to relax every weekend. I turned 50 last year and decided not to work weekends. I have a garden, and I’m going back to my roots, cooking for a lot of people. It’s a one-pot meal with garlic and olive oil, and people serve themselves. I have friends over with my wife and daughter, whoever’s around.

Industry Icons: Everyone in this business has been so good to me, and it’s so hard to choose, but among my icons is my mentor, Paul Bocuse. I have a lot of other mentors and a lot of people I respect. You really have to set an example for all people. People are not easy, and the restaurant business is a big task.

Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? I mean, I’m not the type of person who goes much beyond my family — my wife and my daughter — nothing flashy. I don’t go out just to hang out.

Future Projects: Relaxing, that’s for sure on the weekends, but I’m thinking of going back to the old days when people decided to invent the “real food world.” I really want to go back to something super organic — scallops with a little garlic, very world friendly, ABC food. You take all of the superfluous away, and you get back to the essentials. When you’re young you try to impress, and as you get older, you get down to what’s important. Its how I look at life … I look at the essentials. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect and a chef, and now, I am! Of course, we’ve opened a new Japanese restaurant in the W in Atlanta, and will be doing the same in the Venetian, like the one in Vegas. There are so many restaurants in a place like New York, the economy cleans out the overflow.

What are you doing tonight? I’m driving down to the new place on Church and Leonard, on my way to meet Japanese investors.