When you think of West Village food, what restaurants come to mind? There’s a good chance you’re imagining Jeffrey’s Grocery or Joseph Leonard. Perhaps you’re thinking of cozy Fedora, or you’re picturing that burger from Bar Sardine. If we haven’t already nailed it, then we’ll guess you’re dreaming of that bucatini from Perla.
This morning we sat down with Gabe Stulman, the mastermind behind these five restaurants (plus Montmartre in Chelsea) to talk, food, restaurants, nutrition, and well… Kanye. Yes, we are nutritionists and no, these restaurants are not founded on the principles of health and #cleaneats. But if a healthy lifestyle isn’t about balance and moderation, then we would be missing out on the important things in life, like lobster spaghetti and caramelized cauliflower.
Gabe is graduate of UW-Madison, meaning he’s already #tovitaapproved. His welcome is warm and he makes us feel at home as we sit in the front corner of Jeffrey’s Grocery. He is a charismatic extrovert with a genuine demeanor. He is both humble and confident. We can tell he is not about to sugar coat anything (though salt is another story). We’re beginning to understand why Gabe Stulman has the Midas touch.
What would be your dream day of food?
There’s no single definition of a dream day of food. It changes constantly. What could be a dream day of food in December or January could be different in June or July. This answer should have an addendum: are we talking about just savory deliciousness or nutrition?
Let’s go with savory deliciousness…
If food has no calories, here is my answer: I love croissants. For breakfast I’d have me a croissant and baguette because I fucking love bread. And I’d have rich, salted, French butter. I’d lather it on by the tablespoon and I’d probably have extremely soft, silky scrambled eggs…and avocado… and a great cortado. Made by a great barista who knows how to warm milk; not too hot and not too foamy. So bread, soft scrambled eggs, avocado (preferably lightly fork-mashed with some red chili flakes, salt and pepper) and I think that’ll do it. That’s a good look.
For lunch, well, I love sandwiches. A delicious Cuban sandwich with great ham, pulled pork, pickles, cheese, mayonnaise, and Cuban bread with shoestring fries. Now that’s a winning program.
It’s a good idea to start dinner luxuriously and lightly. Oysters, clams, king crab legs. If money is not an object, throw in caviar, because all of that stuff is just fantastic. I love well-cooked skate wing with a beautiful seared crisp exterior. The chef here (Jeffrey’s Grocery) prepares a great one with broccoli rabe vinaigrette, fingerling potatoes and a little bit of anchovies.
Which of your restaurants would be the best place for the following:
First date: Bar Sardine.
Dinner with the guys: Fedora.
People watching: It’s a toss up. In the spring and summer, Sardine, because of the big open windows. For the rest of the year, probably Joseph Leonard or Jeffrey’s are pretty money.
Did you always know you wanted to own restaurants?
No. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. When I was deciding where I wanted to go to college, I had three requirements. I wanted out of state, I wanted big, and I wanted a good history program. Madison (Wisconsin) wasn’t Virginia, it’s big, and it has a wonderful history program.
I ended up working in restaurants because I needed to pay for school. When I chose Wisconsin (University of), my parents told me that we had X amount of finite money for education. It was enough for four years if I chose to go to a state school, but not enough for even one year at an out of state school. I chose to go to Wisconsin, which in ’98 was $22,000 not counting room and board for out of state students. I blew all of my college tuition and then I had to take out a loan to finish bridging the gap.
When I lived in Ogg east, it was the final year that there was a smoking dorm. If you chose to live in a smoking dorm, you were sure to be surrounded by some cool people. It was basically saying “I want to party.” I made a bunch of friends freshman year and by sophomore year we all got a house on Main Street. I deferred my enrollment that year so I could work, but I still lived with all of my friends.
I re-enrolled the following year and become a resident, so I could pay in-state tuition. I started working at a restaurant as a line cook, then a bus boy, then a waiter, and eventually worked my way up to being a bartender. Being a bartender in Madison was like being a professional athlete – it was the ultimate cool. This is how I fell in love with the restaurant industry.
My tuition then became $3,500. For the three subsequent years that I was in school, I continued to bartend at night and I went to school during the day. Bartending was like social currency. It was fun, cool, paid my tuition and my rent, and introduced me to a world of people. It was also great for my friends because my boys could come in and drink for free. Bartending allowed me to travel the world in tips. I went to Europe, South America, and Tokyo. I was able to do all of that and always come back to my job.
I think when I was a junior, I thought, “I don’t need this degree. I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to do this for a living.” My mother begged me to finish school and told me it would help me get an SBA loan. I’m happy I have my degree, but it did not help me get an SBA loan. So, by the time I was twenty, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
What were you going for when you opened your first restaurant, Joseph Leonard?
I was going for a great neighborhood spot. JL was conceived through everything that inspired me in New York and around the world. I wanted a place that could be your all day, everyday place, which to me, means that it needs to be free of pretention. It can’t be too formal and it can’t be too casual – often that can veer toward fast food, and that’s not the type of place you want to hang at. All in all, I was going for a great American bistro.
What is something in all of your restaurants that has “Gabe Stulman” written all over it?
At night, the music. There’s a lot of hip-hop playing, and that’s something that I like. Another thing, my staff doesn’t wear uniforms.
We can always count on Jeffrey’s and Joseph Leonard for some Jay Z or Kanye. Who chooses the music?
Everyone. Everyone gets to play their own music. There are just some guidelines. Certain music I just don’t think is good to eat food to. Techno, house music, jungle, heavy metal, ACDC – it’s all good music, I just don’t think I would eat halibut to it.
I love me some Nina Simone, I love me some Miles Davis, but I do not think it has a place in the restaurant after 5 pm. I love hip-hop, but we better not play Rick Ross or 2 Live Crew. I’m okay with curse words, but I’m not okay with nasty, filthy lyrics. If your vocabulary only consists of four letter words describing what you pretend to do to girls, I’m not into it. I mean, let’s be real, you didn’t have sex with 8 girls before your show. You just didn’t.
Jay Z or Kanye?
Kanye. It’s a controversial answer, but it is a fact that Kanye is the better all around artist because he has the ability to produce his own songs and rap to them. Kanye is responsible for a lot of Jay Z’s hits. Kanye has produced many of Jay’s number one singles. It is without any argument that Kanye West has launched and exploded peoples’ careers. For instance, Alicia keys. Her first Grammy “I don’t know your name.” Kanye West produced that. John Legend’s first album was entirely produced by Kanye. Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj - she wasn’t on anybody’s shit ‘till she was on Kanye’s album. Bon Iver got put on Kanye and now he’s got millions of fans. Mr. Hudson – same deal. He was a little known artist in the UK, and then got featured on Kanye. The Clipse, same thing. Did Madonna ask Jay Z to produce a track… or did she ask Kanye? Did Pharrell ask Jay Z to produce a track… or did he ask Kanye? It’s just quantitative at this point.
You're hosting dinner at one of your restaurants. Who are you inviting dead or alive? Where are you taking them?
My wife, Lebron James, Wes Anderson, Mos Def, Rene Magritte and Muhammad Ali. I’d do it at home.
You have the coolest staff. What's a go-to interview question for new hires?
“Why are you leaving the place that you are at?” That’s a very important question and it offers a lot of insight to the character of a person. If they talk shit or they don’t have an articulate answer, it’s not a good quality. There are really a lot of silent indicators that are telling. For example, punctuality. It will amaze you how many people show up late to an interview. If you can’t be on time when you’re trying to get the job, what kind of impression does that make? You can fill in your own answer.
Food motto to live by?
Under promise, over deliver. It’s more of a service motto.
One ingredient you can’t live without?
Any food you won’t touch?
Nettles. It’s a leafy green that I’m allergic to.
What's the best advice anyone has ever given you?
My Uncle Claude told me to never ask a girl about her past relationships because you have nothing to gain through that knowledge. If you go digging through the dumpster, don’t be surprised if you find trash. If you ask a girl how many guys she’s been in love with and she says you’re the only one, you won’t believe her. If she says twenty guys, you wont like the answer. It shouldn’t matter. All that matters is that you love each other.
If your son wanted to enter the restaurant business, what advice would you give him?
My advice would be two-part. First, make fucking decisions. Second, be comfortable with failing. It’s part of the process. Don’t be scared to make decisions even if you are alone. Persevere.
What’s the first thing you notice when you walk into a restaurant that’s not your own?
There’s not one thing. I digest 100 things at once. Lighting, music, design. I process that before the doors open. Next, the greeting. I notice the warmth and kindness of the place.
Is nutrition something that you consider when developing a menu?
Yes. It doesn’t guide or drive the ethos of a dish, though I don’t want to create a menu that’s all foie gras and maple syrup and short ribs. I’m not passionate about eating raw or vegan. I know there are ways that our menu could be healthier, but I like butter and I like salt… like, to the level of buoyancy. I think it’s important to have a balanced set of options.
What’s the hottest food trend right now?
Everybody’s trying to build the next Shake Shack. Everyone is trying to do what’s called “fast casual.” There are a lot of people chasing an IPO.
Another thing: everybody now wants to create vegetable-focused menus. And come up with some bullshit reason as to why they want to do it. Let’s be real, the concern isn’t really sustainability, but vegetables are popular right now. It’s true that dining habits are adjusting and people are becoming more aware of food choices. The reality is that if you don’t (add more vegetables) you will lose diners.
What NYC restaurants do you love right now?
Reynard in the Wythe hotel. Andrew Tarlow is a good friend of mine and has a fantastic restaurant. Will Guidara, the guy behind the NoMad and Eleven Madison Park, he knows hospitality and has amazing food. I also love Marta. Danny Meyer, Nick Anderer and Terry Coughlin crush it.
As new kids on the block, any advice you can leave us with?
I would tell you the same thing that I would tell my son. Also, find out what your purpose is. Why you are doing something is different than what you are doing. Once you figure out your purpose, you need to have a combination of conviction toward your purpose, and malleability to modify things, to an extent. For instance, I could probably open a taco joint right now, and it might be pretty successful. But I don’t want to open a taco joint. There’s a thin line between curbing your purpose toward something that will be successful and not letting it get so far away that you will have no ties to its meaning.