A Hamburger Today
We Chat With West Village Restaurateur Gabriel Stulman
"When we hire new people I tell them, 'treat it like a dinner party in your own home.' It's no different in a restaurant."
During our interview at Jeffrey's Grocery, restaurateur Gabriel Stulman stops quickly to say hi to his sister—one of his upper managers—as she stops in to drop something off. Later he guides a customer who's come in ten minutes before opening to Joseph Leonard, which is open across the street. Both times he returns to our conversation without missing a beat. When I ask a more complex question he asks it back to me, then breaks it down in steps as he processes what he thinks and comes to a conclusion. The man is focused.
It's clear why he's taken the West Village restaurant scene by storm in the past few years, with five locations on his list of successes (Fedora, Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey's Grocery, Perla, and the brand new Chez Sardine), and one more in the works. His restaurants feel both urban and rustic, clean but comfortable. His chefs plate food full of flavor with dynamic ingredient combinations, but lacking in pretension. His staff is connected and attentive but not stiff. And it all seems to boil down to Stulman's near obsession with familial comforts, high expectations, and need to make everywhere feel like home.
You focus on making neighborhood restaurants, places that locals can go to. What about the idea of the neighborhood joint calls to you personally? I think it all sort of starts with where I worked in college...
Café Montmartre. Café Montmartre. Well done. I worked at a place that seemed to go beyond just the fabric of serving food and beverages—it was a meeting and gathering place for its neighborhood and community, and the owners had relationships with everybody that hung out there. That made a huge impression on me. I really, really appreciated the fact that I saw through them that you can create a space that is meaningful for people in their day-to-day lives.
Do you see a lot of crossover between restaurants with your clientele? A tremendous amount! I'll see somebody who's eaten oysters here on Monday having pasta at Perla on Wednesday and is then at Joseph Leonard for brunch on Saturday. And in between will be grabbing a cocktail at Fedora. There's a tremendous amount of that.
Now you have people that work for you—Work with me.
Work with you. Lovely. Nobody works for me. We all work together.
That's delightful that you made that correction. What did Café Montmartre teach you about the kind of boss you'd become? They created an atmosphere for everyone who worked there and allowed us all to have a voice. They let us come up with cocktails and put them on the menu. I ended up hosting weekly "nights" there. They gave me a tremendous amount of freedom to create my own energy and a tremendous amount of trust. So I think I learned to guide people there, but if somebody's willing to work really hard, to trust them.
Another thing I learned is that it's so important to acknowledge a customer. Even if you're too busy to make that person's drink right now; just to say that you see me, that you know that I'm there and I'm on your radar. And whenever you finally get to that person, give them your attention. Stop. Give them eye contact. I found that's a mile in hospitality. Mostly, just be genuine. And I think the rest of that I take from my family.
What did hosting mean in your family? I grew up in a very religious Jewish home, and my mother loved to have people over. Every Friday we were put to work! Whenever my parents were having people over, it was three kids dividing household chores. It was a rotation: somebody's vacuuming the whole house, somebody's dusting the whole house, and the other is setting the table and polishing silverware. When people would come it was simple things; when we would have aunts and uncles and cousins come spend the night I would give up my room. When people walked in, snap! "Go get their coats." "Go get ice, we need it!" At the dinner table, if the water pitcher was running empty, it would just take a look for me to go refill it.
Did you enjoy it? I loved it. I love being around that many people. My family is so tight knit. I f'ing love my family. My sister works here. My wife works here. All of our upper management are college friends who I consider family at this point. My family is very close, so I loved having them all over. When we hire new people, I tell them, "treat it like a dinner party in your own home." It's no different in a restaurant. Clean the bathroom before guests come in, offer to take somebody's coat, offer them something to drink right away, have the table set.
What were your first impressions of hospitality when you moved to New York? My first introduction to hospitality was complete rejection. I probably got ignored at no less than 200 establishments. This is something that we've made a huge mission to be against—there seems to be this mentality of many New York operators that if you don't have New York experience, your work can't be relevant. Which is asinine, rude, and so incredibly ignorant. I bartended at a busy place that had high standards. They made it imperative that I knew my wine descriptions. I had to know menu descriptions and I had to know how to work fast and efficiently. And you know what? That's Madison, Wisconsin. We care there, too.
What about a sense of the unique neighborhood joint? What was missing for you when you got here? I think the idea always existed; I just wanted to put my flavors on it. I don't like uniforms for staff; I could talk to you about my opinions on uniforms ad nauseum. Or I like to listen to Jay Z and Mos Def and Kanye, and I think it goes great with a wonderful filet of halibut; I don't think we only need to listen to slow jazz or U2. Put on Wu.
Your restaurants' design have that similar high-brow / low-brow feel. Thank you. I take that in a positive way.
But as much as your restaurants are uniquely their own, they're also a sign of what we're craving right now and what our visual trends are. Let's say you weren't to open another restaurant. How would you want your existing ones to age with the times? What would they look like in five or ten years from now? That's such a hard question, because how do I want to age? I can only hypothesize about it, so I can look at some of my own tastes that have changed over the years: the way that I dress has become more and more monochromatic. I call it "finding my 'grandpa style.'" And I'm really comfortable with that shit. Also, what has changed with the music that I listen to? And with the artwork that I like? I know what has changed to get me here. I don't know what evolutions I'm going to go through.
I would say that the average age demographic of the restaurants right now is probably mid-thirties. I hope that the restaurants are still appealing to all of my friends when I'm fifty. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of New York, and I think it's important to pay attention to changing notions and trends in fashion and music. It's also important to keep yourself surrounded with people who are younger and older than you; I love our regulars in their seventies; they're the f'ing best. They're full of wisdom. When I'm fifty, I hope that people don't think I'm a fuddy-duddy, and that we still have some waiters and bartenders that are in their twenties. I want to feel young while I age but still celebrate changes that come along.
Do the holidays bring on any new stresses this time of year? What I love about owning restaurants during the holiday season is that I can decide whether or not we're open during the holidays. I was always frustrated when I worked at places that were open on the holidays, and the rule was you had to work if you were on the schedule. So we close on holidays. I want to be with my family. And most of the colleagues that I've worked with would rather have it off.
Is there anything particularly gratifying about seeing clientele during this time of year? I'm a huge dork for the holidays. Me too. Huge dork for the holidays. I think there is a holiday spirit in people. People like to go out with their friends before Christmas. You see people at tables exchanging gifts, you see companies taking their employees out to show appreciation. I think there is a general uplifted spirit in people around the holidays. That sounds really corny, but I think it's a period when a lot of people say "thank you." A lot of that celebration and energy happens in our restaurants. And that's awesome.
So speaking of thanks, what are you most thankful for right now? My wife and my son. Hands down. My wife is the best. She makes me so excited every day. I'm so thrilled that I get to spend my life with her. I'm so grateful for how smart and talented she is. I'm so lucky for how good she is with Simon. I love how supportive she is. I'm most grateful for her. There's not even a close second.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook who is listening to Michael Buble's Christmas album while dunking a cookie in hot chocolate at this moment. Alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.