Julian Niccolini, co-owner of The Four Seasons, dishes Clinton’s dining room etiquette, fifty years without change, and the pleasure of getting stung by bees.
Point of Origin: I’m Italian, from a small town in Tuscany. When you’re young, you like to see many places, experience it all, so I went to school in Brooklyn, worked at the Palace Restaurant, then the most expensive restaurant in America. The late Craig Claiborne said it was the greatest outside France, and James Beard of course, was always kind.
Occupations: It’s a matter of education. I’ve been working in this restaurant for almost 30 years–it feels like yesterday. It started out in 1977, and it was a tremendous period of crisis in this world, particularly in the restaurant industry. When I arrived, I was the manager of the Grille Room at that time, and everybody was eating in the Pool Room for lunch. We had a lot of advertising executives still based on Madison Avenue, and they’d all come here. The people in the Grille Room were mostly writers, editors and others in the publishing business. Actors, but not too many bankers or politicians as they have today. It became very successful and in 1979, the famous ‘power lunch’ word was coined when Lee Eisenberg of Esquire dubbed it “the place for the power lunch.” This restaurant will be 50 next year, but it’s not really that old, and they’re not built the way they were being built then – it’s a landmark restaurant. Nothing has really changed. All we’ve changed are the trees and the uniforms.
Any non-industry projects in the works? I do have a project or two. I have a house in Bedford and we make honey. We have five big hives and we collect between 150 and 300 pounds of honey–we bottle it, and last year it was sold to Dean & DeLuca for a lot of money and it gets sold out. It’s not that difficult to do, but it’s time consuming, and when harvesting the honey you get stung. Ours is really pure honey, no spraying. The bees are alive and well because they’re not sprayed. The whole world, we want it both ways. We want the bees, and the fruits not to be attacked by fruit flies, but you have to decide which way to go.
Favorite Hangs: Another restaurant I go to is close by: La Grenouille. It’s right down the street. The food is excellent, the location, the people are really nice–if I didn’t have to eat here, I’d go there.
Industry Icons: Alice Waters is a tremendous individual to look up to. She made a difference to people and what they’re eating locally, and I think she’s made a tremendous difference by shifting where the ingredients come from. As far as the wine side, there are a lot of people out there and doing a tremendous job. I was out there in California not too long ago, and I was having a conversation with Leslie Rudd, the man who owns Dean & DeLuca. This man brought D&D to northern California; a really beautiful store in this part of Napa Valley. These people have opened a restaurant attached to the store, ‘Press’, and they should give him a medal for what he’s achieved. I find what these people have done means one stop shopping: wonderful food to take home, fine wine if you want it. It’s genius.
Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? I don’t know, most likely restaurant people or wine makers and owners. I’m not really going out with models, but we know our patrons, and they treat you very nicely. When I go out to another restaurant, they’re seated at a different table, sometimes they send a bottle of wine, or pick up the check–fine with me. You’re nice with the people who run this restaurant. The first time Jackie Onassis came to the Four Seasons we seated her, the next time she knew your name. It’s like when President Clinton comes over, he knows your name. Before they go out, they make sure to say hello to everybody. When President Clinton and President Bush Sr. were here recently with Colin Powell (whom they were honoring), they took over the whole place, and before Clinton left the building–and remember, he’s not running for any office–he went to the kitchen to thank everybody. President Bush Sr. sends thank you notes, handwritten. There are some nice people out there. We have had people here come in for many, many years–regular customers–a few of them know all of the people who work here. They just show up. Then there are those who are special.
Projections: I think we’re in a period of not knowing what’s going to happen next. The economy is in a terrible situation and the problem in this country – especially in the city – there’s the lack of confidence. They don’t seem to enjoy themselves, so it’s going to be a period of watching what they’re doing, and considering our economy related to this financial situation in the city. It’s not just Wall Street, it’s real estate and real people because everything effects everything else. We have to see what’s happened with this unregulated economy. I don’t know if it’s possible. It’s really shocking. People should understand that they have to go out, eat very good food and very good wine, and enjoy themselves as much as they can. I think we’ll be here for a very long while. When I leave, I’ll just do something that’s maybe not related to the Four Seasons, something less structured. I can see now, considering, when I was in California that they’re not as strict as we are, nobody’s wearing a jacket any more. The way of the future is much more casual.
What are you doing tonight? The Four Seasons is sold out tonight, so I’ll have my hands full. Daniel Craig was here for lunch, and nobody could figure out who he was – they knew that he was the new 007, but nobody knew his name. Typical crowd today: Diana Taylor, Barbara Walters, and all of these financial people like Stephen Schwartz and Sandy Weill. Life is a different matter. You have to have a wife that puts up with you. It’s not very complicated. I’m married to my job, but if you’re smart enough you can find a way not to be married to it every moment. Every time I stay in the city, we go somewhere else after the job is over.