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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Drew Nieporent

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-31

"In New York, you have to continually reinvent yourself," Drew Nieporent, the founder of famous city restaurants such as Montrachet, Nobu and Tribeca Grill, said yesterday. "I learned that from my mother, who was a well-known child actress and then a casting director. Life in New York is theater. She would always say, 'The show must go on.'"

"And it was my father who exposed me to the fine spots of the city, the glamorous restaurants, places where they extended you a warm welcome, refined places where the service was delectable but unobtrusive, where the craft of hospitality was elevated to a higher level," Mr. Nieporent said, gesturing languidly around the restaurant where the reporter had invited him. "And that's how my dream began -- I said to myself, 'I'm going to own a restaurant in this city.'"

As dreams go, this one was especially dicey. New York City has 17,312 eating establishments, according to the New York State Restaurant Association, and the state as a whole has 55,893 eateries that generate some $23.3 billion in annual sales. Some 200 restaurants open in the city each year, and about half that number close down. So in order to start a restaurant and sustain it, Mr. Nieporent was going to face some pretty formidable odds, not to mention competition.

But he knew what route to take. After graduating from Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, he went to Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. He spent summers working on cruise ships. He studied culinary arts in France. He obtained jobs at Tavern on the Green, Le Perigord and La Grenouille, where he became a captain.

"They were my years of acquiring hands-on knowledge of how things work in the restaurant business, they were years when I acquired deep understanding of the culture of the New York restaurant scene, they were years when I had my finger on the pulse of the customer," Mr. Nieporent said.

They were also years when his dream of owning a restaurant intensified. But the actualization of that dream was the hardest part of it all, of course. Why?

"Because I would have to leave the comfort and security of working for someone else, and start out entirely on my own,' Mr. Nieporent said."However, I had developed tremendous self-confidence. I truly believed that if I started something, it would take off."

But first he had to find space to park his dream.

One Sunday morning in 1982, Mr. Nieporent happened to spot an advertisement in a local newspaper for a 1,500-square-foot facility on West Broadway. The rent was $1,500 a month.

"Renting space is somewhat like meeting a person for the first time," he said. "You form instant impressions. That space was misbegotten. It was below Canal Street, in an area that was then -- how to put it? -- uncharted. It was hardly an ideal location for the kind of restaurant that I wanted to start. But I just knew that I wanted that space."

Using $50,000 of his savings, he transformed that space into a restaurant called Montrachet, named after a French wine that he'd discovered while at La Grenouille. The prix fix menu was $16. His mother helped out by answering the phone. His father, Andrew, would stop by to offer quiet encouragement although, as Mr. Nieporent put it, "at first he thought that I'd lost my mind to empty out my savings and pour them into Montrachet."

Within seven weeks of opening, the New York Times gave the restaurant a three-star rating.

"After that, I could have filled it with crowds the size of Shea Stadium," Mr. Nieporent said. "It was such an important moment in New York dining. Montrachet changed the mentality of New Yorkers. It now became fashionable to go deep downtown for a unique dining experience. I became a sought-after man. Everyone would call me, asking for reservations." (Montrachet's monthly rent is now $7,500.)

Indeed, some of his earliest -- and still loyal -- patrons happened to be in the same dining room yesterday. A few waved cordially. The restaurant's owners, Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder, fussed over him, as though he weren't a competitor. Others stopped by the table to chat. Debrah Lee Charatan, a prominent realtor, turned over tickets to a forthcoming Yankees game that she'd promised Mr. Nieporent.

Do such gestures ensure that their makers get coveted tables at his various restaurants?

Mr. Nieporent chuckled. Ever tactful, he said:

"The restaurant business is a people business. And your business is only as good as the customer's last meal with you, and the customer's most recent experience with you. The owner sets the bar. What drives most restaurateurs is the fear of not fulfilling people's expectations. It doesn't matter how good your reviews are, or how many stars your restaurants get. You've got to earn people's patronage every single day."

And that, Mr. Nieporent said, takes dedication. It also requires humongous sacrifices.

"To be successful in this business, you have to be particularly driven," he said. "I think through my company, the Myriad Restaurant Group, we've brought new respect to the industry. We've motivated our workers; we've always looked after their interests. We've trained a new generation of restaurateurs. But it's come at a price."

Mr. Nieporent acknowledged that he never been able to find "that balance" between his family at home -- his wife, Ann, daughter Gabrielle, and son, Andrew -- and his family of "exceptionally loyal associates" at his restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Washington, Boca Raton, Martha's Vineyard, and London. He acknowledged, too, that as he prepares for his 50th birthday on June 4, "it's dawning on me that I'm not ready to hang up my spurs yet, that I still have long miles to go in this business -- one reason why I've just started Crush, my wine store in Midtown Manhattan. As my mother always said, 'The show must go on.' I got my ego from her, just as I got my tactile, hugging nature from my father, who always hugged us a lot."

His father died in 1986, and his mother died in 2000. She'd been bedridden with lymphoma at her home in Manhattan's Peter Cooper Village. Mr. Nieporent and his older brother Tracy -- who's Myriad's marketing director, and restaurant chairman of NYC & Company -- were with her one late-spring evening. They watched one of her favorite shows, the televised Tony Awards, and each time Drew Nieporent tried to change the channel to a basketball game, she showed irritation. The Nieporents left for their respective homes in New Jersey around midnight.

A few hours later, the Nieporent brothers received a call from a nurse that Sybil Trent had died. She was 73 years old. Her son, Drew Nieporent, had turned 45 that day.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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