Meet the Kings and Queens of New York’s Restaurant World

When I ask Laura Maioglio how old she is, she tells me, “Age is a number, and mine is unlisted.” I can give you one number, though: Fifty-five, the number of years Maioglio’s been the owner of the famous Manhattan restaurant Barbetta. She’s watched the New York restaurant industry grow and change before her very eyes, and as such, she’s been engaged in the complicated dance of adapting without compromising for decades.

Maioglio is one of many old-school New York restaurateurs adept at this particular dance. I spoke with seven of them, from downtown to Harlem, to better understand their industry — one that’s as publicly revered as it is storied and mysterious. Some have backgrounds as renowned chefs, others in management; some were born right here in the city and others across the globe. But despite their varied origin stories, they all have one thing in common: Each has played a part in shaping New York’s cult-like restaurant scene. Below, a little bit of their wisdom and perspective — the kind only decades of experience can bring.

Alexander Smalls

Smalls is the co-owner of Harlem Jazz Enterprise, which owns The Cecil and Minton’s Playhouse.

A former opera singer, Smalls ventured into the restaurant business in the ’90s. Three restaurants and a 10-year travel hiatus later, he debuted NYC’s first Afro-Asian-American cuisine at The Cecil, now incorporated into the acclaimed jazz club, Minton’s. Earlier this month, he published what he calls his “essential African-American cookbook,” Between Harlem and Heaven.

What sparked your interest in food and cooking?

Growing up, my family’s lives revolved around food, and the fellowship and community that came with it. After one meal, we were already planning the next.

My grandfather was a city farmer in Charleston, South Carolina. My parents’ backyard and my uncle’s backyard both connected to his garden. That was the center of our lives. As kids, we found ourselves in that garden with my grandfather planting seeds, tending [them] and learning about who we were and where we came from — his ancestors and his life. It became kind of sacred ground. My grandfather didn’t go to church, but the garden was sacred.

When did you know you wanted to open your own restaurant?

The first chapter of my career was in opera. I sang throughout the States and Europe. Living in New York as an artist and opera singer, I entertained a lot. With the money I made from singing, I threw parties. While I was still singing opera, I transitioned to catering. Friends would come to my party, and then they’d want my party at their house. They’d want it just like I did it. Before I knew it, I had a pedigree of celebrities and people in the industry and various interesting folks who were my clients. I was having a grand time.

A Grammy and Tony later, I hit the glass ceiling in opera. The classical music business was unfortunately riddled with racism, particularly for African-American males. At one point, I realized I needed to own my own stage in life, and I couldn’t afford to build my own opera house. It became clear to me that my next move was a restaurant. I chose to take my living room public and opened my first restaurant, Café Beulah, around 1993.

What was your experience like getting started in the restaurant industry?

First, I needed a business plan. As an artist, that was a foreign concept for me. Once I made a business plan, people took me seriously. I was fortunate to have a handful of celebrity types in my close circle, and my first restaurant was financed in that way.

My second restaurant was Sweet Ophelia’s, which I opened in SoHo. It was kind of a bakery-slash-jazz club on the weekends. The third restaurant was Shoebox Cafe in Grand Central Station. That was built around the concept of the shoebox lunch: In the time of segregation, African-Americans couldn’t eat in the dining cars on trains and instead packed their food in a shoebox for lunch. Because the restaurant was in a train station, I thought it was clever to model our heritage.

How did your time away shape your next restaurant concept?

After the 10 years away, [my business partner] Richard Parsons and I decided we were going to open The Cecil and Minton’s restaurants. I wanted to bring a new perspective and culinary discipline. I wanted to bring attention to the gifted talents of African people throughout the continents. I created a flavor profile and culinary discipline that spoke to that and called it Afro-Asian-American cooking. That’s how The Cecil came to be.

Minton’s is where bebop [a style of jazz] was first created. It was a legend before we got there; it first opened in the late ’30s or early ’40s. There was a huge reputation and legacy. My business partner and I had the idea to make it a supper club — which, in hindsight, was probably a little more elevated than what the community could really support. We made it the Rainbow Room of Harlem, with a tasting menu and white tablecloths. One year it was voted best-looking restaurant. It was an exciting place to be. My business partner is the chairman of the Jazz Foundation of America, and he wanted to have a place for jazz artists to perform. The focus was on elegance, really good food and a wonderful ambiance.

At one point, we realized that concept wasn’t serving us, so we changed it. We started bringing in young talent. We adapted the formula. We turned The Cecil into a party hall, and we moved the Afro-Asian-American concept to Minton’s, where we served the highlight dishes of what The Cecil had.

What’s something few people realize about what it’s like to own a restaurant?

If you open a restaurant in the community, you have to do more than feed its people: You also have to be part of the fabric of that community. One of the ways you do that as a small business is by employing the people there. You have them in all levels of your business. That helps to stabilize and give you the foundation you need to serve. In New York, you’re going to have people coming from everywhere, but having the support and foundation of the community you’re in is paramount.

When do you feel most grateful to be in this line of work?

I moved to the Harlem community in 1998 because I wanted to be part of a heritage African-American community. I wasn’t sure what the resources were going to be here. When we opened The Cecil and Minton’s, we made a commitment to hire local talent.

There was a young man who worked for me for years. He asked me if I could find a job for his wife. I said, “Well, what does your wife do? Has she been in the restaurant business before?”

He said, “No, she hasn’t had a job.” So I thought, How am I going to delicately and politely tell him this is not going to work? But he told me she runs the house and cooks and cleans, so maybe that was something.

I spoke with my chef and we hired her. She started out dusting, cleaning and doing maintenance. Then a job opened in the kitchen — beginner’s prep work, peeling and chopping vegetables. She went in there and did very well. Something later opened in pastry. She found her home in pastry, and by the time she left, she was running the pastry department. That is the icing on the cake. She had lived here for 10 years and only spoke Spanish, but her work brought her out of her shell. She started to learn English, she opened a bank account, she sent money home. It created independence for her, and she felt visible after previously feeling invisible. I’m committed to making situations better, and that makes me emotional because it was the best thing to happen to her. It’s one of my fondest memories.

Restaurants, in a way, have become the American factory — they’re places where unskilled workers can walk in the door and potentially be trained to run that restaurant or have their own one day. It’s not based on whether you have a degree or whether or not you passed geometry. It’s based on your ability.

What’s next for you?

I feel like I’m in the third chapter of my career now [chapter one being opera and chapter two being the restaurants], which is how I … am able to give back on a continual basis to people who are invisible in our culture. I’m now in the process of starting my own non-profit to be a satellite for other restaurateurs who want to create training programs that can transform lives. I’m interested in developing restaurant concepts in food deserts — communities where it’s challenging to find affordable and high-quality food. In doing that, I’d like to open this training program. I’m hoping that some of my new ventures that incorporate those values will debut next year.

Laura Maioglio

Maioglio is the owner of Barbetta.

Barbetta, opened by Maioglio’s father in 1906, is the oldest restaurant in the city that is still owned by the family that founded it. Born in Manhattan, Maioglio never intended to be a restaurant owner — she graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College in 1954 with an art history degree. Still, she put her degree to work in the restaurant when she completely restored and redecorated it to reflect an Italian palace so authentically that it’s landmarked by an Italian association for historic places.

Barbetta was founded by your father. What was it like taking over the restaurant from him?

I’m very sentimental, so I was aghast when I discovered that my father was selling the restaurant when I was in my late 20s. I went to the prospective buyer and started to cry. I said I wanted the restaurant to remain in the family, and the buyer was moved and pulled out of the deal.

When my father found out, he said, “How could you have done this?” I told him, “I don’t want the restaurant in the hands of strangers. You created it, and I think it should remain in the family. I will take care of it.” My father said it wasn’t for me. He knew that my inclinations were intellectual — I had a degree in art history and I was a collector. He didn’t feel that owning the restaurant would satisfy my aspirations. He didn’t really come around, but he had to accept what I had done.

How did you transform the restaurant and make it your own?

My father’s restaurant was handsome, but it was very simple in decor and not expensive. Around 1962, I decided to redecorate the interior. We have a family house in Italy from 1701, and I’ve been going there since I was a toddler. I knew the interiors of our house in Piemonte [Piedmont] — it’s like a little palace, a palazzo — and I’d seen all the beautiful interiors in Torino [Turin] and elsewhere. So I collected antiques in Piemonte and tried to reproduce as much as I could of 18th-century antiques. My father never saw the redecorated restaurant. We always intended to bring him down to see what I had done with it, but unfortunately, he had a stroke and died in his sleep before we ever did.

Today, Barbetta is elegant, but not in a garish way. In 1963, I created a garden. The garden in New York has been very successful because there really aren’t restaurants with gardens, especially not gardens that have trees that are [taller] than the brownstones. A year or two later, I added upstairs rooms in the brownstones the restaurant’s in, and I completely restored those rooms exactly as they were, with all the original details. Once I redecorated the restaurant, I realized I had to change the service, the presentation and the price to reflect that of an elegant restaurant. Barbetta has since been in [multiple] films and television shows.

We were landmarked by the Locali Storici d’Italia in 1999. We were the first restaurant in America to be designated as a locale storico (historic establishment), and I think we’re still the only one.

How has your Italian background shaped your restaurant and experience?

I have been exposed to Italy thoroughly. I saw when nouvelle cuisine first came to Italy and transformed the restaurants of Piemonte after it was created in France. Italian food became more refined and elegant and beautiful in presentation, with smaller portions. That’s the kind of cuisine we serve at Barbetta, the transformed Italian cuisine. My father was serving authentic Italian food, but I made it even more authentic because with plane transportation, it became possible to bring in foods that were perishable, like white truffles. We were the first restaurant in America to regularly serve fresh white truffles.

What has your experience been like, navigating such a tough industry?

The first six months, we had a hard time. It was a lot for me to run the restaurant. I said to my mother, who remained widowed and who had never worked in her life, “Why don’t you help me?” The last 20 years of her life were the best because she had a job and she loved being in the restaurant with clients. I remember, when the composer Leonard Bernstein came into the restaurant and kissed her on the cheek — we were also very interested in classical music — she said, “I’ll never wash my cheek again.”

My husband has never been involved in the restaurant, but he’s very much interested in restoration. He came to the United States with nothing as a refugee from Eastern Germany. He went to Rockefeller University as a postdoctoral fellow, which is where I met him. When he won the Nobel Prize alone for his work in cell physiology in 1999, he donated the entire amount — around a million dollars — to restoration projects.

What do you imagine for the future of Barbetta?

We don’t have children, and I was an only child myself, so if you ask who is going to carry on the restaurant…Oh my god! That’s my only answer: Oh my god.

Drew Nieporent

Nieporent is the owner of Myriad Restaurant Group, which has opened over 35 restaurants, including Bâtard, Tribeca Grill and several Nobu restaurants.

Nieporent’s extensive background working in restaurant management gave him the expertise to start a restaurant empire with dozens of locations around the world. He’s seen the industry change over the last 30 years, and he says the key to staying afloat is through honesty in business, which he considers among his top accomplishments.

When did you know you wanted to open your own restaurant?

I grew up in NYC. My mother was an actress and my father was with the State Liquor Authority that licenses restaurants. My father would take us to restaurants in the ’60s that were very authentic. There was a certain theatricality about the restaurants, which fit into the influence of my mother. The restaurant was like a stage, and the waiters were like the actors. It was something that I knew very early on I wanted to do.

How did you first get involved with the industry?

The restaurant business is best served by people with experience. A lot of people call themselves restaurateurs, but their experience is that they cut a check to open a place and never really [work] in the restaurant.

I went to work at McDonald’s as a high school student in 1972. It was an extraordinarily seminal moment in my career. In 1974, as an 18-year-old, I got a job on a first-class cruise ship, Vistafjord, an ocean liner serving 600 people breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. From an education standpoint, I got into the Cornell [School of Hotel Administration], which teaches hotel and restaurant management. I then worked in French restaurants in New York of high repute and managed Tavern on the Green, where we would serve a thousand people a day in its heyday. All of those experiences gave me the confidence and the professional knowledge, not only to open my own business but to inspire those who work for us.

You opened your first restaurant, Montrachet, in 1985. What about the restaurant industry has changed the most since then?

In 1985, I signed a lease for $1,500 a month, which equals $50 a day. Now, the rent for most places is $1,000 a day or more. It’s the economics of the business that has changed dramatically.

What was the most difficult lesson you learned on the job?

People move on. In the restaurant business, we’re not necessarily taking statistics of our staff, but we do see that some are superior to others at certain things. The problem is, so do your competitors. Then they steal the help that you’ve trained or nurtured. You constantly have to reinvent yourself or maintain a certain standard as you lose people.

What’s something few people realize about what it’s like to own a restaurant (or several, in your case)?

The logistics are mind-boggling — the idea that over 100 people go into a space, and you have a very narrow window of time to serve those people without making them aggravated if it takes too much time for them to get their food. We’re constantly balancing speed versus accuracy. There is no margin for error. People do not want to wait for their food. This is the constant battle.

What do you love most about your job?

My favorite part is that I call the shots. I can create and develop and nurture the restaurants over long periods of time. The first restaurant has changed a few times, but we’ve been in that space for 32 years. Tribeca Grill is 27 years. Nobu is 23 years. The effort that we put in has paid off.

When do you feel most grateful to be in this line of work?

I think it comes around Christmastime. We’ve done a brunch for the staff pretty much every year for over 25 years, and I dress up as Santa Claus for the children of our workers.

As a restaurant owner, you have to understand the tremendous burden, that you’re supporting literally hundreds of people’s lifestyles and you have a responsibility to all those people. It really doesn’t hit home that much until you see their extended families.

Melba Wilson

Wilson is the owner of Melba’s Restaurant.

After getting her start in 1987 at Sylvia’s, Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World restaurants, Wilson opened the legendary Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem. Known as the premier Southern comfort food destination in New York City, the restaurant is a go-to for celebrities and locals craving Melba’s iconic fried chicken and eggnog waffles.

You worked in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years before opening Melba’s. How did those experiences prepare you for your own restaurant?

I always had an interest in food growing up, but I didn’t know it would turn into a career and a love of mine. It wasn’t until I worked in the industry for many years that I realized this was what I wanted to do with my life. Working in other restaurants was about honing my skills and learning my craft. I look back at it now and say I got my Ph.D. in the restaurant business by working in a myriad of different restaurants. It always worked out well because I think whenever you’re putting your best foot forward and doing what you’re passionate about, there can be no losers in the end.

What was the process of opening your own restaurant like?

In the ’90s, I was doing an event for Robert De Niro and Drew Nieporent, representing the restaurant I worked in at the time. They were going around the table, talking about what everyone was going to bring. I was the only brown girl in the room. When they got to me, I said, “Why don’t you make fried chicken and collard greens?” It was funny, and afterwards, Drew Nieporent tapped me on the shoulder, and we talked subsequently over the next few weeks. One day we spoke about me opening my own place with them. I suggested a place up in Harlem, but the timing wasn’t right.

My realization wasn’t until I was on a flight returning home from somewhere when I heard the flight attendant say, “In the case of an emergency, put on your own mask and attend to others afterward.” I had heard that so many times, but for some reason, [on] this day I had an epiphany. I looked at my life and saw that I was taking care of everyone else first and not living my full life. That’s when I decided I was going to look under my mattress and see how much money I’d saved and hope it was enough for me to open my own restaurant. That’s when Melba’s was born.

Melba’s is known for amazing comfort food. Why did you decide on that type of cuisine?

I decided on American comfort food because I want us to be inclusive. When I look around the city and the world today, one of the problems is that we’re so divided. Food is a unifier. There are people who come from economic and social backgrounds very different from mine, and you can see those people sitting at the table or at the bar in Melba’s. That seems like confirmation that I’ve done the right thing.

What was the most difficult lesson you learned on the job?

I’ve had to learn how to reward myself at the end of a hard day, which is not something I used to be very good at. Somewhere along the way in the process of my restaurant, being married and having a son, I forgot about me. At the end of a long day standing on my feet, I would just hop in the shower and go to bed. I rewarded the people around me, but I wasn’t taking care of [myself]. I had to learn how to schedule myself on my calendar — get my hair done and get my nails done. Things have changed since I started to do that.

What’s something few people realize about the restaurant industry?

I don’t think a lot of people realize how difficult running a restaurant is. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life. Our ultimate goal is to make others happy through food and great service. My motto is that regardless of what someone came in the door with — whether they didn’t want to talk to people or didn’t have a smile or were upset — my goal is to make sure that when they walk out through our doors, that feeling has been changed.

What do you love most about your job?

I feel grateful to be in the food and beverage industry every time I’m able to put a smile on a person’s face and every time I see that they’ve cleaned their plate. Those are the times I’m most happy, just knowing that I’ve done a good job with service and food and made a client happy.

What I love most about Melba’s is my ability to provide jobs for people within the Harlem community. The Harlem community is where I was born and raised, so I love being able to hire local chefs, knowing that hopefully, they’ll be legacies that live long after I’m gone.

Maguy Le Coze

Le Coze is the co-owner of Le Bernardin.

The first woman ever to be honored with the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, Le Coze has racked up numerous accolades for Le Bernardin since its New York opening in 1986. Initially co-owned by Maguy’s late brother, Gilbert Le Coze, and now by Chef Éric Ripert, Le Bernardin is the only New York Times four-star restaurant that has maintained its ranking for more than 20 years.

You first opened Le Bernardin in 1972 in Paris before opening a second one in New York City. Why did you choose New York, and what was it like transitioning from the Paris restaurant to focusing on the New York location?

I first visited New York in the late ’70s. Curiously, I noted that there was no fish restaurant. My brother and I saw that there was a real opportunity. The transition at first was the most difficult. One of the biggest challenges was sourcing good product, which was difficult at the time. In the beginning, we had to be creative, but then things started to improve and become easier. It was tough to run the two restaurants, so in ’96 we sold the Paris one.

What was the restaurant industry like at the time you opened, and how has it changed throughout your career?

The restaurant industry was very, very formal. There were not very many [restaurants]. Women would come in the restaurant all glamorously dressed up. Thirty-five years later, you don’t see that anymore. In Paris, there was what we called la nouvelle cuisine, which was a new wave of cooking that started in Paris that had not yet arrived in America. It was exciting for my brother and me to introduce that outside the city.

We had a lot of raw fish. I went to the dining room and saw that people would not eat the raw fish. So I pushed them: “Take [the] raw fish, and if you don’t like it, I will return it to the kitchen and give you something else.” I had to really push the customer. But now that has changed, and everybody is more adventurous.

How has your French background shaped your restaurant and experience?

We grew up in Brittany, in a typical French village. We were working with our family in a small restaurant. As soon as we could walk and talk during the holiday, they always gave us something to do. Hospitality was really part of our DNA. We knew that we wanted to open a restaurant in Paris. Those early days created our foundation. Everything that we learned when we were young was what we put back in the restaurant.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the hospitality. I also love working with a team and being able to inspire them and be inspired by them as well. They are younger, so I am very careful to see what they are doing, and I learn a lot from them.

What was the most difficult lesson you learned on the job?

When we opened the restaurant in Paris, we were young and excited. The first critic came and gave us a very good review, so we thought that we had made it. Then the second food critic came and destroyed us. After that review, the restaurant was empty. We were almost in bankruptcy. It hurt our profits, and we were almost going to close the restaurant. The lesson that we learned is that we can’t make the same mistake. You can never take anything for granted, and you must work and work and work, and then you succeed.

What has been your greatest accomplishment as a restaurant owner?

We received four stars from The New York Times three months after we opened the restaurant, which had never happened in New York. It was something that I will remember all my life. All the people from the Times had rented the small dining room, and everyone was there shaking our hands in the restaurant. Then we got three stars [the highest rating] from the Michelin Guide, and we were … a Zagat number one [restaurant] for a lot of years. In 2003, [Le Bernardin chef] Éric Ripert was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation. When we were on the stage — I’m very emotional about that — in a room filled with all the best restaurateurs and most talented people in the business, it was a wonderful moment in my life.

Daniel Boulud

Boulud is the owner of The Dinex Group, which has opened several restaurants, including DANIEL, Café Boulud and db bistro moderne.

Born outside Lyon, France, Boulud grew up on his family farm before working as an apprentice in the kitchen at a Michelin-starred French restaurant. He worked his way up at several different restaurants in France and Denmark from cook to sous chef to chef de cuisine. He came to New York in 1982, where he held multiple executive chef positions. A little over 10 years later, he boldly opened his first restaurant with French cuisine inspired by the seasons.

You first opened DANIEL over 25 years ago. What was the transition from chef to owner like?

It required risk. I didn’t have the capital to be able to open my own restaurant, so I had to find investors. One day, I met someone who wanted to invest totally. Once that was done, I wanted to make sure I was protecting my job at the time. No one knew anything until I had found a space, signed a lease and was ready to build a restaurant. I have seen so many chefs who have announced that they were going to leave, and they may have had the money but not the space, or the lease fell through, and then one or two or three years go by. That’s the worst.

What was the restaurant industry like at the time you opened DANIEL, and how has it changed throughout your career?

The review, good or bad, was always important. Today, with the effect of social media, it’s difficult to go to a new place you haven’t seen plenty of already. You see pictures of places everywhere, even pictures of the food and reviews written by anybody. There’s a lack of surprise and expectation.

How has your French background shaped your restaurant and experience?

Every restaurant has to have an identity. French cuisine is all about having the best ingredients. The seasonality, the ingredients and the repertoire of French cuisine is so vast. The history of French cuisine in America has always inspired me a lot.

What do you love most about your job?

When do you feel most grateful to be in this line of work?

I have earned myself many honors for being a chef, but when you are voted best restaurant, it’s for everyone. It’s for the chefs, the service, the whole team. That’s the greatest compliment. Every accolade I earn along the way has always been about the restaurant and the team. The finest reward is when others get to win through my business, through the team we have. For example, our pastry chef, Ghaya Oliveira, won this year’s James Beard award for the best pastry chef in America. That was so rewarding for me.

How have you left a legacy in the restaurant industry?

We have created a foundation called Ment’or BKB. We do fundraising all over the country to help young chefs today keep rising in their careers. The support is all about the future generation, to motivate and inspire them. It has little to do with my business and a lot to do with it at the same time. It’s a continuity of my investment to this profession.

It is obvious that I take the most pride in seeing how many generations of young new chefs have come out of all my restaurants in the last three decades. I have thousands of alumni who have worked with me, and hundreds of them have produced hundreds more young chefs. I think, to me, the beauty is in the evolution of our industry in America. Thirty years ago, there were not as many schools and opportunities as there are today. I’m proud of the mentorship we have given to this young generation.

Lidia Bastianich

Bastianich is the co-owner of Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto, Lidia’s Pittsburgh, Lidia’s Kansas City and several Eataly restaurants.

A chef, owner, cookbook author and television personality, Bastianich has been in the business for over 40 years. She’s seen the culinary aspects of the industry change throughout the decades, and she’s stuck to her Italian roots through it all.

What was your experience like getting started in the restaurant industry, and what was the industry like at the time?

We opened our first restaurant, Buonavia, in Forest Hills in 1971. My ex-husband and I both had experience in the restaurant business and wanted to open one of our own. At the time, Italian restaurants served Italian-American food, so our menu was a combination of those Italian-American favorites and some of the foods from our own region [Lidia is from Pula, Croatia] like yota [sauerkraut and bean soup] and fresh pastas such as krafi and pasutice. It was a little like the movie Big Night, where customers came to try their favorite Italian-American dishes while slowly being introduced to traditional foods from our region. We worked long hours, but the customers were happy and kept coming back; we felt very rewarded.

A decade later, in 1981, and after a second successful restaurant in Queens, we took a big risk, sold both of the Queens restaurants and went to Manhattan, where we opened my flagship restaurant, Felidia. At Felidia, I officially became the chef, and the focus on the food was regional Italian from all 20 regions of Italy, versus the Italian-American food that we had been mostly serving in Queens. The hours continued to be long, but the payoff was worth it as customers from Queens followed us into Manhattan and the press helped to get the word out to new customers. The biggest challenge in the opening was the financing. We were over budget and late with the opening. The banks were skeptical about loans for new restaurants.

How has the industry changed since you opened Felidia in 1981?

The customer now is more informed, more traveled and educated about food and has higher expectations than years ago. Today, customers understand the difference between Italian-American food and regional Italian food. They are aware of the traditional Italian products and their unique flavors and appreciate the nuances of local influences that have touched our menu.

The flavors and the foods in our industry are more multi-ethnic now than in the ’80s. Our executive chef, Fortunato Nicotra, cooks in the traditional Italian way with the seasonal, fresh philosophy in all of the food served at Felidia but regularly introduces something a little different on a “special” or thematic menu. And customers love to come and join the chef for his thematic special dinners. Our wine program echoes the same philosophy. We have a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list with an extensive selection of Italian wines — over 1,000 labels.

How has your Italian background shaped your restaurants and experience?

My fondest childhood memories were at my grandmother’s home in Busoler, a few kilometers from Pula, where I was born. My grandmother had her own vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens, goats and pigs. She procured almost all of our meals with her own hands. The vivid and delicious taste of the eggs, figs, cherries and vegetables never left my memory; and I am always searching out the freshest and most delicious ingredients, which are embedded in my mind, almost like a library of flavors. My food philosophy has always been that 50 percent of a dish is in its ingredients. This is a very Italian philosophy that has shaped all of our restaurants throughout the United States.

What was the most difficult lesson you learned on the job?

Being a chef and a restaurant owner is not an easy profession, especially for a woman. One of the most difficult challenges was raising a family with children and working as a chef. I had to learn how to schedule my time properly and utilize every free moment. Planning and scheduling [were] essential.

What has been your proudest accomplishment as a restaurant owner?

I had the honor and privilege of cooking for Pope Benedict during his trip to New York years ago. It was simply magical to have that opportunity, and I even helped him to cut the birthday cake we prepared for him. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better than that, I had the opportunity to cook for Pope Francis when he visited New York.

Cooking for two popes in my career thus far has been the most rewarding experience.

What’s something few people realize about what it’s like to own a restaurant (or several, in your case)?

Everyone hears that the restaurant industry is hard, but I don’t think most people really understand how hard it can be. It involves long hours, holidays, always making sure the customer is happy and lots of risk. When you have a family, be prepared to miss some of the highlights, because the restaurant never closes. I was lucky to have my mother helping when the kids were young and, as they got older, they often found themselves at the restaurant after school. But that’s not always an easy thing to have happen. Owning a restaurant is a way of life, not a profession where you have your designated hours; you are always on call.

You are also an Emmy Award-winning television host and best-selling cookbook author. At the beginning of your career, had you planned to be on TV and write books?

I always loved communicating with my customers. I had no idea that this natural love of teaching and communicating could eventually evolve into becoming a television talent. However, once we moved into Manhattan, the press gravitated toward Felidia and just loved it. Magazine interviews turned into radio interviews and, eventually, I found myself on the morning shows. Talking to the camera was like talking to my restaurant customers; it came naturally, and I loved it.

However, the beginning of my television career happened after I met Julia Child at Felidia. She visited several times and was interested in my cuisine, especially the risotto. She asked me to teach her how to make risotto, and we became friends. Then she asked me to be part of Julia Child’s [Cooking With Master Chefs] series in the ’80s, and my episode was nominated for an Emmy. Soon after, her producer asked if I would be interested in my own show, and I hosted my first public television show in 1998. By 2004, I created Tavola Productions, and the rest is history.

I love working on the shows, the cookbooks and then going out to meet my customers and fans in the restaurants and at the book signings. It gives me such satisfaction to hear them say they are following my instructions, are encouraged by my instructions, gaining confidence in the kitchen, and are not afraid to make a dish their own. That’s what cooking is all about!

Photos by Lucas Vasilko. You can see his work here and follow him on Instagram @lucasvasilko.

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan is a journalist, writer, and proud owner of an indoor s’mores maker for the rainy days.

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