Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Danny Meyer On The Red Carpet!

The Restaurateur, a documentary more than 10 years in the making had its New York debut at the 92 Street Y recently.  It was also the only place in New York to view the award-winning film.  You can buy the DVD, available this month.

I’ve heard Danny Meyer speak in the past at an American Express business seminar where he shared his successful business strategies with the audience, followed by a book signing of his memoir and life in restaurants: "Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business."  

At the movie screening, he was the “star” but in a markedly different way.

Director Roger Sherman launched the program telling the full house of audience attendees (despite the night’s impending snowstorm) how he began the film 1998 with Danny Meyer and his restaurant partners to chart the launch of two New York City restaurants – both to open within weeks of each other. 

Danny Meyer is a restaurateur legend and icon with Union Square, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, and Shake Shack, among others, in his stable of successful dining establishments, known for their farm to table recipes, support of farmers, greenmarkets and local communities.  And especially for their hospitality. 
And he also builds restaurants in or near Parks! 
Chef Michael Anthony, Gramercy Hotel is a featured chef in my upcoming book, Homegrown NYC.

The fact that the documentary took 12 years to make, due to financing, in some ways enhanced the narrative.   We, the audience view the story from the vantage point of knowing the outcome.  Credit to the director, Sherman, for keeping the viewer engaged and curious despite knowing how it all ends, is a credit to his storytelling and editing.

To see the younger Mr. Meyer and Chef Tom Colicchio brought happy laughter to the audience.  Time has been good to them, but there is maturation.  Danny is showing Chef Tom how the Eleven Madison of his dreams will emerge from the cavernous hollow shell of a space.
Another striking chord is hearing Mr. Meyer lamenting that labor is so hard to come by: from the construction trades to the restaurant staff.  The audience let out a collective “ha,” in light of the present economic woes.  Sigh. How different it all was not that long ago….

The documentary tells the story of Danny Meyer opening two restaurants, at the same time: Eleven Madison and Tabla.  Drama enough.

We see the background of what it takes to make a restaurant successful: from the vision to the design and construction.  It’s amazing to see the blank spaces that soon became glamorous, landmark interiors. 

It was so intriguing to view the focused detail and struggles of finding the right chemistry fit for the executive chefs.  Eleven Madison changed reins two times – with the toque going to Kerry Heffernan who takes over and saves the day right before the opening; but after garnering only three-star reviews, is re-purposed to Danny’s catering business, and management eventually finds gold after a nationwide search that yielded Daniel Humm, who does bring home the four stars.   The story tells what a personal, gut wrenching decision it was for Danny to make the changes.  But he always does things in a professional, dignified way. 

At Tabla, they made all the right moves: stuck by the chef, Floyd Cardoz .  Curiously, the film frequently shows Chef Floyd developing recipes at his suburban home during construction. We got it – the restaurant wasn’t open yet.  It was a bit jarring to repeatedly see Floyd out there by himself in his modest family home in order to show his heritage cooking influences.  I could only wonder why he wasn’t in another of Meyer’s professional restaurants trying out the very upscale Indian food that eventually found it’s way to the menu. 
I loved Tabla and ate there with some frequency. It was magical.

We also witness Danny creating a luscious décor and struggling with the casual and formal menu split personality of upstairs/downstairs.
But after a good run, and despite the excellent three-star reviews and extraordinary food, Tabla was the first and only one of his restaurants to close.  This too was done in a dignified way, with proper notice to staff and vendors – he noted no memo pasted on the door in the middle of the night that too many restaurants do. 
The movie tells the tale of Tabla from recipe development, pride of introducing a new cuisine to a New York clientele and then the heartbreak but inevitable business decision to close the establishment – to end on a high note, so to speak.
I thought, that took guts.

Eleven Madison became a very upscale glamour puss with exciting award winning food.  And don’t get me started on Roberta Bendavid’s glorious, incandescent floral designs that transport the ambiance of the restaurant – and she does at all of Danny Meyer’s restaurants.  I saw Roberta in the film, but there was no attribution for her L  And flowers are such an important ingredient of the restaurants’ success.  Missed opportunity on Sherman’s part, especially given all the screen time given to the construction crew…

I found the movie very entertaining. It moved along with good editing from beginning concept, to the struggles and triumphs of getting the restaurants from a Dream to the grand openings and the move to become part of the Danny Meyer hospitality New York empire.  The film was not bogged down by extra details or distractions.
The New York foodie audience loved it too.

Following the film, Roger and Danny provided an on-stage conversation and Q&A.  

You could tell the closing of Tabla remains a bitter pill, despite the continuing, soaring success of other openings, especially the multiple Shake Shacks.  Danny did offer that Tabla was the only restaurant in his stable that was not an All-American and not a cuisine that he “feels” and knows.  Despite the rave reviews from restaurant critics, including three stars in The New York Times, “I just feel that a lot of people when considering a reservation at Tabla had to ask, ‘Honey, do the Smiths like Indian food?’  And if you don’t know, you don’t want to chance a Saturday night restaurant dinner and consequently choose a place where you know that guests will find something they are sure to like.” Sad but pragmatic outlook on Danny’s part …
After tearfully closing Tabla, they sold the Tabla artwork to dining patrons along with a lot of the interiors.  He joked that if anyone wanted an oculus to let him know!

Noting that the audience was probably eager to leave because of the snowstorm (no one was moving) Danny Meyer said his restaurants would offer a Free drink or bottle of wine for the next day’s lunch menu at any of his restaurants if guests would venture out in the blizzard.  We were Tweeting that offer as fast as we could type.

The Sonoma International Film Festival named The Restaurateur “Best Documentary Food” and “Best Domestic Documentary.”

You will enjoy the DVD, available this month: 

Watch the movie, followed by a dinner at one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants to discuss the cinematic drama of dining.   Or just enjoy the theater of the restaurant….

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