October 3, 2007

Cornell Connection: Drew Nieporent '77

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Drew Nieporent ’77 is kind of a big deal. The hotelie alum runs Myriad Restaurant Group, which owns some of the most prominent establishments in the business like Nobu, TriBeCa Grill, Montrachet, and many others. The guy basically owns New York’s restaurant scene, but he has spots in London, San Francisco, and even Louisville, Kentucky, so he may very well be taking over the world, one filet mignon at a time. The Sun talked to Drew about his time at Cornell, cruising the world, his restaurant partnership with Robert De Niro, and being on a diet while surrounded by some of the best food in the world (which is probably the most depressing thing we’ve ever heard.) Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

The Sun: What was it like at Cornell for you? What was your favorite aspect of Cornell and what was your least favorite?
Drew Nieporent: Well, certainly what I enjoyed the least was the harsh winter snows and weather, but I somehow made it. What I enjoyed the most was certainly the beautiful nature of Ithaca and the freedom that you had to roam around the campus and the gorges. When it was nice, it was spectacular. I really loved the physical beauty of Ithaca.
Sun: How did you end up at Cornell, and how did you know you wanted to be a hotel administration student when you applied?
D.N.: I grew up wanting to be an Ivy League student, and I didn’t really have the grades, but any excuse to get into Cornell was a good one.
Sun: So you didn’t have specific Hotel School goals when you applied? It was just sort of your way into Cornell?
D.N.: You know, here’s the deal: I wanted to go to a cooking school. I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York, and one of my classmates said, “Oh, Cornell’s got a Hotel School.” And I was like, “Cornell? I’ll never get into Cornell. I don’t have the grades.” ‘Cause at Stuyvesant, everyone is a genius. But I got in. And so for me it was a dream obviously to get in, and the first year when I was a freshman — guess who the first person we met up there who was visiting: Colonel Sanders.
Sun: Wow.
D.N.: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Once that happened, I knew I had arrived. I met the Colonel.
Sun: When you came to Cornell, did you have to have experience in the hospitality industry to get into the Hotel School?
D.N.: Yeah, they do require work experience, so I had worked at a McDonald’s in 1972.
Sun: [Laughs]
D.N.: Which was a terrific experience for me. I had been a kitchen boy at a camp, but McDonald’s — that was the industry experience. I was a Quarter Pound grill person.
Sun: Which McDonald’s did you work at?
D.N.: 23rd Street, between 1st and 2nd. We opened the country with the Quarter Pounder. I think I was one of the early Quarter Pound grill men.
Sun: What kind of stuff did you do while you were at Cornell for your Hotel School required hospitality internships or jobs?
D.N.: My freshman year, when I was 18 years old, I worked as a waiter on a cruise ship called the MS Vistafjord. That went to Leningrad, Dublin, Oslo, Hamburg, Amsterdam. My freshman year I was a waiter on a cruise ship — 600-passenger cruise ship.
Sun: Did that fulfill all of your hours for the entire four years?
D.N.: No, no, but I wound up going on 15 other cruises over the four years I was up at Cornell.
Sun: That’s amazing — did you get to see pretty much the whole world that way?
D.N.: Yeah I did. Every Christmas: Caribbean cruises, during the summer: North Cape-Baltic Sea cruises, and Mediterranean cruises during Easter break. It’s a first class cruise liner and I was really one of only two Americans because the other students from Cornell, there were only six of us out of a crew of 60, were all European because you get so many Europeans in the Hotel School.
Sun: What other kind of stuff did you do at Cornell outside of the classroom? Did you have any other extracurricular activities besides working?
D.N.: Concert Commission — I cooked for the Beach Boys.
Sun: Wow.
D.N.: … Jackson Browne, Harry Chapin … So I did that. But the big event for Cornell is the Hotel Ezra Cornell, HEC. And also I was Quill & Dagger.
Sun: That happened your senior year, right?
D.N.: Quill & Dagger was my senior year.
Sun: What’s your fondest memory of the Hotel School in specific?
D.N.: Vance Christian was a professor there. He was like a 350-pound guy — looked like Fat Albert. He was somewhat inspirational. I always enjoyed the wine course with him. I also got a great kick out of meat science. I also took a theatre course for one of my electives; I took acting.
Sun: Were there any other professors, in addition to your wines professor, that guided you?
D.N.: Yes, I would also say Steve Mudkowski who also taught some of the food classes, and he was always behind us. He cared a great deal about us.
Sun: Were you always more interested in the food and beverage aspects of the Hotel School education than the business aspects?
D.N.: Totally. Never interested in the business side; always interested in the creative side.
Sun: So what did you do right when you graduated?
D.N.: I had interviewed with three companies and I was rejected by all three.
Sun: [Chuckles] So what happened after that?
D.N.: I went back on the Mediterranean cruise, and then I took a job with Warner LeRoy at Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern on the Green in New York.
Sun: How long were you there and when did you end up creating your restaurant group? What was the timeline?
D.N.: I was there for over a four-year period. Tavern on the Green is one of the most spectacular restaurants in New York.
Sun: In the world.
D.N.: Mmm hmm. It was a great proving grounds for me, and it gave me an opportunity to gather up professional knowledge and confidence whereupon I could open up my own place and be successful.
Sun: What was your job at Tavern on the Green, or what were your different responsibilities?
D.N.: My title was “restaurant director.” I took it very seriously. I was like the director of a movie. The restaurant serves a thousand meals a day, and with a huge staff. I had to motivate all those people and direct all those people.
Sun: When did you create Myriad Restaurant Group? Just after the four years at Tavern on the Green?
D.N.: I worked until about ’81 at Tavern on the Green and then I opened a couple of other restaurants for people. In 1985, I opened Montrachet, which was my first restaurant. I’ve opened 29 restaurants in 22 years.
Sun: And they’re all over the place right, not just in New York? You have one in San Francisco and one in London …
D.N.: Exactly. Boca Raton, San Francisco. Rubicon San Francisco we have. I’ve opened in Seattle. I’ve opened one in Louisville, Kentucky.
Sun: How do you manage your time between all of those restaurants in all of those different places?
D.N.: You know, it’s like kids. You’re a parent to children and you guide them and then at some point, they take on their own responsibilities, and then it becomes a friendship. They become more self-sufficient. There’s many moments where I’m very laissez-faire; I let things just sort of be.
Sun: How did you meet your celebrity restaurant partners? Did they approach you, or was it your idea to partner up?
D.N.: No, Robert De Niro specifically came to my first restaurant, Montrachet, and proposed doing this restaurant together. From that, that’s been a 17-year partnership at TriBeCa Grill and we have Nobu now for 14 years.
Sun: What’s your daily schedule like?
D.N.: It’s never the same two days in a row. It’s very free-form. It’s very disjointed. It’s very different.
Sun: What would you say your overall responsibilities are that you might have to deal with in any given day?
D.N.: Everything and anything. It’s always a nonstop vigilance, solving problems be they internal employee things, be they external government issues, be they developing new ideas and new opportunities for people. We call ourselves Myriad Restaurant Group because myriad means endless and countless. That’s kind of the journey we’re on.
Sun: Do you have your hands equally in the business and culinary aspects of the restaurants?
D.N.: Yeah, I believe so. I do it because it’s my love of food and wine, so I’m not doing it as a business person in a restaurant business. I’m a restaurateur. I’m a real restaurateur. I’m a restaurant person in a business that is serving food and wine.
Sun: Is owning a restaurant in New York different in any way than owning one somewhere else? That’s where you first started.
D.N.: New York is totally different. The competition is keener. There’s greater talent. The costs are greater. The upside and the downside are more risky in New York than in any other part of the world.
Sun: What was your diet like when you were at Cornell?
D.N.: A lot of Sage-burgers at Sage Hall. Statler had the best food on campus. I was a West Campus person for four years. I was an RA, and I lived in Sperry for three of the four years. I was humbled by all the wonderful food at Noyes Center.
Sun: What was your favorite restaurant in Ithaca while you were here?
D.N.: Cabbage Town Café.
Sun: Where was that?
D.N.: That was in Collegetown. Also, Auberge du Cochon Rouge. That was really good. Etienne Merle, my friend, did a great job. That was on the Ithaca College side.
Sun: What’s your favorite thing to eat?
D.N.: Right now my favorite food is salmon, whether raw or cooked in any form because I’m on a diet and it seems to work for me. I loved poached salmon with lots of lemon and herbs. But overall, nothing beats Italian cooking.
Sun: Is it hard to be a restaurateur that’s on a diet?
D.N.: It’s impossible, though you have to use the kid in the candy store analogy the other way around, which is you eat the goods things and stay away from the candy.
Sun: Do you meet a lot of other hotelies or Cornellians in general in your business?
D.N.: Yes. We’re a pretty close-knit group when we stayed together, but most of my fellow graduates are not in the food business. They’re in other parts of hospitality.
Sun: Is there anything that you’ve done with your restaurants or in any of your other ventures that was influenced by Cornell at all in way? Or any reference to Cornell in anything you’ve done?
D.N.: I happen to be with a friend of mine right now who has a restaurant called SD Street, which is named after where he lived on campus. He has a restaurant in New Jersey. So some of my classmates were more influenced that I was. I don’t have a Big Red Stew, nothing like that.
Sun: What are some of the crazier or humorous experiences you’ve had with your restaurants?
D.N.: There’s a lot of irony in what we do. The interesting thing is everybody you read about in papers, all the titans of industry, all the great actors and actresses, all the finest musicians, they’ve all been to our places. Whether it’s Tony Bennett and Bruce Springsteen, whether its Bill Clinton or George Bush or Laura Bush, whether it’s Gandolfini or Tom Cruise or Sean Penn, they’ve all appeared at one point or another in all of our restaurants, and it’s kind of an interesting voyeuristic opportunity to see other people outside of their own realm of what they do.
Sun: What’s the most fun thing you’ve been able to do in your line of work, something that maybe you never thought you’d ever do?
D.N.: Hang out with Bruce Springsteen.
Sun: What has been your secret in keeping your restaurants successful year after year in a notoriously difficult business?
D.N.: Knowing what you’re doing, being honest with the people you work with, and not being greedy.

To read more of The Sun’s conversation with Drew Nieporent ’77, visit www.cornellsun.com. To eat some tasty food and drink some potent potables, check out TriBeCa Grill at 375 Greenwich St. or Montrachet on 239 W. Broadway in New York City. Tell them you’re from Cornell, and I’d bet you’ll get your water glass filled with an extra helping of love. (That love will cost $50 extra.)