In A Chef-Centric Age, Restaurateur Drew Nieporent Has Stayed as Famous as His Toques
[Welcome to the second in a series of monthly symbiotic posts I’m presenting in partnership with Eater New York under the Kitchen Time Machine banner. Read my two-part interview with Drew Nieporent over there. – A.F.]
NEW YORK, NY — A former employee of Drew Nieporent once told me that, in his opinion, the restaurateur broke things off with David Bouley at Montrachet, in part, to assert his independence. This was in 1986. Ten years prior, owners were king. But things had changed: chefs—mostly anonymous just a decade earlier—were dominating the limelight.
I asked Nieporent about the comment in a recent book interview. Had that indeed been a motivation, to make it clear that it was his joint at the end of the day and that, regardless of the consequences, he wouldn’t subordinate himself to a chef, even one of the best and most exciting ones in the country?
He thought about the question for a moment, looked me straight in the eye, and said, simply and emphatically: “Yeah.”
Drew’s been at it for a while: He graduated Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management in 1977 then worked on cruise ships and at such New York hotspots as Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern on the Green before opening Montrachet in 1985. His company, Myriad Restaurant Group, has launched more than three dozen restaurants around the globe, among them Tribeca Grill, in partnership with Robert DeNiro, in 1990, and the first Nobu, with Nobu Matsuhisa and DeNiro, in 1994. (The latter has, of course, spawned a worldwide restaurant collection.)
In our Kitchen Time Machine interview over on Eater, Drew insists that he has always put the chef front and center, but he’s also, over the years—whether intentionally or not—created businesses that were in some regard, chef-proof; of them all, only Nobu bears the head whisk’s name on the awning or shingle, although he ultimately decided that Corton wouldn’t be Corton without Paul Liebrandt.
Many of the restaurants launched by Myriad have come and gone but the honor roll of chefs who have passed through its kitchens is extraordinary: In the wake of Bouley, Montrachet was run by Debra Ponzek and, later, Harold Moore. Then, when the space became Corton, it was the home of Paul Liebrandt’s career resurrection. Don Pintabona lorded over Tribeca Grill for many years. Traci Des Jardins ran Rubicon in San Francisco. Pat Williams helmed the hearth at City Wine & Cigar and Berkeley Bar & Grill. The list goes on and on, and when you factor in now-famous chefs who did a turn on the line in those restaurants, the number multiplies exponentially.
And, yet, nearly thirty years after Montrachet served its first meal, Drew has managed to keep his name and punim in the limelight as much as any of those who have run or worked in his kitchens.
Credit that, in part, to the fact that while more than a dozen of his projects have shuttered, the jewels in his crown have always been concentrated just a few blocks apart from each other in TriBeCa. He wasn’t the first to colonize that neighborhood: The McNally brothers and Lynn Wagenknech had opened Odeon five years earlier in 1980. But he’s more closely associated with the hood than anybody else in the business: The space that was Montrachet and Corton and will soon be Bâtard, is a stone’s throw from Tribeca Grill, Nobu, and Next Door Nobu. That locality has conferred upon Drew the unofficial mantel of mayor of Tribeca, and granted him an aura of unbroken success whatever the fates of his other enterprises may have been at any given moment.
But more than that, Drew, whose mother was an actress and then a casting director, is as big a personality as any toque who’s worked for or with him, and he simply loves the business and the spotlight. He’s a showstopper, a scene stealer, unabashed ham, and legendary raconteur. At a birthday celebration for Gael Greene in December, he was among the guests invited to toast or roast the guest of honor. He read from her original New York Magazine review of Nobu, turning it into a roller coaster of a monologue. In the documentary A Matter of Taste, which is about Paul Liebrandt, he owns some of the film’s most memorable moments, as when he and Corton’s reservationist realize they’ve sleuthed out New York Times critic Frank Bruni’s bogus phone number, or when he reads Bruni’s rapturous, three-star review to the troops. (Not featured in the documentary: the lines where Bruni hypothesizes that Nieporent may have been partially responsible for the accessibility of the food at Corton. How many restaurateurs merit that kind of consideration?)
Drew’s judged on Top Chef, paneled on Charlie Rose, and even took to Ozersky TV to go after Michael White when a bunch of Corton’s cooks ended up working in Altamarea Groups’ kitchens. (Thankfully, the two are all hugs and kisses at social events these days.) Whenever the broader topic of honor among colleagues comes up, as it does in the Kitchen Time Machine interview, it’s with chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten that he groups himself, rather than owner-contemporaries such as Danny Meyer or Phil Suarez.
That’s telling, and fitting. Drew came into his own as chefs attained commodity status, but through sheer will and dint of personality, he never ceded the center stage. In the age of the celebrity chef, he’s proved over and over again to be a most unusual creature: the celebrity owner.