Even as a kid, he didn’t eat like one. For sure, at 5 or 6 he’d kick his older brother, Tracy, under the table whenever his parents took the family to restaurants, but mostly he was paying attention, learning about the food of a time in Manhattan when the top restaurants served German, Swiss or other cuisines that are infrequently celebrated these days.
Drew Nieporent was born in 1955 and was obsessed with food by the early 1960s, before New York diners and newspaper critics became infatuated with everything French. “I had amazing exposure to restaurants of the ‘60s that nobody around today visited except my brother and me,” he recalled. “I had to parlay it into something.”
He forgot nothing, exquisite training for a child who would grow up to become one of New York’s pre-eminent front-of-the-house men and surely the most singular. Say what you will about his fellow empire builders like Danny Meyer, Keith McNally and Nick Valenti: As influential and successful as they have been as hosts, money assemblers and deal makers, none are still patrolling their restaurants with the same passion as Mr. Nieporent has.
In an age when marquee restaurants are often defined by their celebrity chefs, he may be the last of the great meet-and-greet men, a breed of owners who reigned over their personal dominions, the seemingly insignificant space between dining room and front door.
They assigned tables (momentous in Manhattan), communicated with their chefs, turned away the less fortunate (or less famous), dispensed perks of food and wine, and determined who was a V.I.P. and who was like the rest of us. At one time they personified their places of business and became as well known as their restaurants, especially if they were as revered as Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque), Joe Baum (the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, the Four Seasons) and George Lang (Café des Artistes).
These days you will often find Mr. Nieporent on the premises when you walk into Bâtard, Tribeca Grill or one of the two Nobus in New York that he oversees. He remains intensely hands-on at a time when franchising and financing are the priorities in an increasingly difficult business. Remarkably, after more than 30 years of opening (and often closing) restaurants, Mr. Nieporent has hardly changed.
His famously cramped office has always been in TriBeCa; when his Myriad Restaurant Group was headquartered on Franklin Street, he used to sit outside, smoke a cigar and conduct business at a table brought down to the sidewalk. During business hours he is now more likely to be on the patio of Tribeca Grill.
He never hired a public relations firm, preferring personal contact. He remains the best resource for those who know him, have his phone number and need a last-minute reservation at any restaurant in town.
“If you’re a friend of Drew, you get in any door,” said the comedian and actor Paul Reiser, who took a photography class with Mr. Nieporent at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. “The whole point of getting famous is to hope for a good table, but you can end that heartache with a shortcut, just by knowing Drew. I once wanted to go to Rubicon in San Francisco while he was in Japan. He got me in. He’s hospitable from 5,000 miles away.”
Wherever Mr. Nieporent (NEE-pour-rent) appears — and he seems to be everywhere — he is a commanding figure, never content to hover in the background. He lights up a room like a bottle rocket on a birthday cake. He greets everyone he knows (and he knows everyone) in a voice that booms like a bugle call at sunrise or a ram’s horn on the Jewish High Holy Days.
“Taking care of people separates him,” said Marty Shapiro, a Myriad partner. “Others feel that way, but it’s in his soul.”
As everyone knows, attention from Mr. Nieporent can come at a price. “He will say anything that comes to mind,” his daughter, Gabrielle, pointed out. “He has no filter.”
He does it for love of a punch line, and perhaps from a certain cantankerousness that comes from knowing that what he set out to become — the Manhattan restaurateur as arbiter of everything culinary — has diminished drastically with the rise of the superstar chef.
“He loves to tell you to your face what he thought of your cooking,” said Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin. “Mostly, it’s a compliment. He once said to me: ‘You’re the best seafood chef on the planet. Do you remember 30 years ago when you were at a charity event in New Jersey and you burned the tuna?’”Growing Up, Eating Out
He was always going to become a restaurateur, even before he knew what the word meant. Mr. Reiser wrote in Mr. Nieporent’s high school yearbook, “Good luck with your restaurant.” As Mr. Reiser explained recently, “He was the only guy our age who knew exactly what he wanted to be when he was 17 or 18.”
Mr. Nieporent’s father, who worked for the New York State Liquor Authority, received limitless invitations to dine on the house from owners hoping for an easy passage through bureaucratic channels. Such questionable largess was less scrutinized back then, although Mr. Nieporent recalls that Irwin Dubrow of Dubrow’s Cafeteria in the garment district — a restaurant he loved — would tape a $20 bill under the toilet for the health inspector, “until the wrong inspector showed up and blew the whistle.”
Mr. Nieporent said he remembers every restaurant he visited and everything he learned.
His mother taught him (wrongly, he points out) to twirl spaghetti with a fork, then capture it on a spoon, when the family was dining at San Marino. He was eating egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork at China Song, next to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the night in 1964 when the Beatles first performed there. He learned the difference between Wiener schnitzel and schnitzel à la Holstein (which is about anchovies and capers) at Janssen’s. He sighs when recollecting his first chicken Kiev and the thrill of its bursting butter, at Two Guitars, a Russian nightclub in a basement on 14th Street.
“Eating out in the ’60s was for the privileged and the wealthy,” Mr. Nieporent said. “We were neither, but we were treated so well that I wanted to be a part of it. We’d sit at the table with the old-school guys who ran the restaurants. They’d ask my father, ‘What does he want to be?’ He’d say, ‘He wants to be in the restaurant business.’ They’d reply, ‘It’s getting terrible.’ They’d moan and bellyache. They were always crabby, always in a bad mood. But I would feel the aura.”
He graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and worked on the cruise ships Vistafjord and Sagafjord during summer vacations, carrying trays of food up escalators from the kitchen. “You had to know the proper names of six kinds of potatoes, all the different soups,” he said. “And if you dropped a platter, which I once did, the other waiters were pissed at you.”
After graduation, he recalled, “I worked all the La’s and the Le’s: Le Périgord, Le Regence, La Grenouille, La Reserve.” He was assistant restaurant director at Warner LeRoy’s celebrated Maxwell’s Plum and later restaurant director at Mr. LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green.
Mr. Nieporent eventually caught the eye of Mr. Baum, the man he calls his idol. Mr. Baum brought him in for a job interview and remarked, not speaking of himself, “There are two people in this room, and one of them thinks he’s Jesus Christ.” They never did work together, but Mr. Nieporent loved the compliment. (Yes, he considered it that.)
He became general manager of the restaurant 24 Fifth Avenue, where he made an executive decision that would forever influence his professional life: He hired Leslie Revsin, an exceptional but difficult chef. Mr. Nieporent always sought talent, ignoring the potential for anxiety. Decades later he would hire the gifted, mercurial Paul Liebrandt as chef at Corton, which received two stars from Michelin and three from The New York Times but brought Mr. Nieporent no peace.
“I wanted roast chicken on the menu,” Mr. Nieporent recalled. “He experimented. After a week, he brought me roast chicken ice cream.”
Mr. Nieporent’s signature squabble occurred not long after he left 24 Fifth Avenue to open Montrachet in TriBeCa, where only one restaurant thrived at the time, Mr. McNally’s Odeon. Mr. Nieporent and his partners hired David Bouley, then an unknown chef working in San Francisco. It would become the most memorable move of Mr. Nieporent’s career, but by no means the most triumphant.‘A Risky Venture’
The year was 1985, and TriBeCa was unfamiliar territory for many New Yorkers. So, too, was the notion of the celebrity chef. The food world was just learning about Jonathan Waxman, Larry Forgione and Wolfgang Puck.
“Back then, the chef was anonymous unless he had named the restaurant for himself,” Mr. Nieporent said. “Today, chefs are all Clint Eastwoods. They consider themselves directors/restaurateurs. They don’t want to take direction from people like me.”
Montrachet eliminated stuffiness and initiated casual elegance. “We didn’t need the bowing and the tuxedos,” he said. The location below Canal Street was considered so remote by some diners that Mr. Nieporent recalled “having to run out of the restaurant and up to Broadway to find customers when they got lost.” And while he is known these days for his girth, he could really run back then, having completed the New York City Marathon in 1983.
Most surprising at Montrachet were the prices. The year before, he had eaten lunch at Joël Robuchon’s Jamin in Paris, where the prix fixe was 185 francs at a time when the exchange rate was about 10 francs to a dollar. “I said if Robuchon can do it for $18.50, I can do it for $16,” Mr. Nieporent recalled.
And so the inexpensive dinner prix fixe was born. Montrachet received three stars from The Times, and not long afterward, Mr. Nieporent said, he and his partners discovered that Mr. Bouley was shopping for investors so that he could open his own restaurant. (Mr. Bouley did not respond to requests for an interview.)
The partners were shocked. “At the time it was a risky venture,” recalled one, Michael Chin. “We were all about 30, and we put all the money we had into the restaurant.”
Mr. Bouley and Montrachet parted ways after 13 months, and the new Bouley, just a half-dozen blocks away, became a celebrated New York restaurant.
Mr. Nieporent’s resentment endured for decades, even as Montrachet thrived with a series of other chefs. His wife, Ann, said, “In the old days, there was such bad blood between them that if both were working the same food event, the organizer would have to put them on opposite sides of the kitchen.”
The feud ended in the aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Nieporent said, when both men worked separately to feed rescue workers and help save the neighborhood.All Over the Map
Mr. Nieporent has opened more than 40 restaurants in 32 years, not an enormous quantity in this era of branding and franchising, but he was never interested in multiple variations on the same theme. He now says that was a financial mistake.
“I never wanted to make the same movie over and over, Nobu being the exception,” he said. “I approached restaurants with new things, new people. I didn’t realize until much later the power of the brand.”
His restaurant menus have been Middle Eastern (Layla), Italian (Zeppole), American (Tribeca Grill), Japanese (Nobu), heart-healthy (Heartbeat), seafood (the Coach House, on Martha’s Vineyard), Mexican (Centrico) and Californian (the seminal Rubicon). He regrets not opening a Chinese restaurant, a passion obvious when he showed up for a recent interview carrying a shopping bag of dim sum.
He is currently a partner in five restaurants: Bâtard (in the former Montrachet and Corton space), Tribeca Grill and three Nobus (Nobu Downtown, Nobu Fifty Seven and Nobu London). Among his partners in all but the first is Robert De Niro, who introduced Mr. Nieporent to the chef Nobu Matsuhisa.
“Bob used to come to Montrachet,” Mr. Nieporent said. “He always sat at the last table, his back to the room. One day Toukie Smith, then his girlfriend, came over and said to me, ‘Want to open another restaurant in TriBeCa?’ Bob knew Nobu from Matsuhisa in L.A., and he wanted him to be the chef. Nobu came and saw the space that would become Tribeca Grill and said, ‘Maybe I can do a small sushi restaurant with you.’”
The relationship between the two men seesawed over the years, especially after the replication of Nobu across the globe proceeded without Mr. Nieporent. He says there was a “strong disagreement” between him and the other three partners over expansion and control; he continued overseeing the Nobus in New York and London, and the brand kept growing without him. “We didn’t really break up, and we continue to work together today,” he said.
Montrachet, the original Nobu and Tribeca Grill were the foundations for the development of TriBeCa as one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan. While Mr. De Niro could rightfully take credit, the actor demurred, saying, “It would have created itself.”
Asked about his relationship with Mr. Nieporent, Mr. De Niro laughed and said: “Drew is a character. We’ve had our ups and downs.”
Mr. Nieporent said: “He’s too busy to have a lot of fights with. I am sensitive to who he is. I’m careful. I understand the relationship, and I give him credit for what he proposed.”A Fab Foursome
The marriage of Ann and Drew Nieporent has lasted 31 years. “Few in the business can say that,” she said.
It has endured a separation of a few months (“She threw me out,” he said) and his apparent inability to turn down endless invitations to festivals, restaurant openings and culinary events. “My wife still reminds me I never changed a diaper, but she’s wrong, I did it once. My son’s.”
Ms. Nieporent claims she was fooled decades ago by her husband-to-be during a brief but magical time when he was not working restaurant hours, in the months before Montrachet opened.
By all accounts, Mr. Nieporent has remained in character as father and husband. Which means that the marriage and the raising of children have been about food — although his wife points out that he is also besotted by their cocker spaniels. She said she was in the kitchen one day and overheard her husband in the next room. “He was talking to Chloe, sweetly saying to her: ‘You just had your hair done.’ He doesn’t notice when I’ve had my hair done.”
Mr. Nieporent is the family cook, a position he rightfully earned after decades in the kitchens of the restaurants he owns or oversees. “He is an excellent cook, his food perfect,” his wife said. “I suspect he drove all his chefs crazy over the years because he has strong opinions how dishes should be made.”
The Nieporents and their children — Andrew, 29, and Gabrielle, 25 — seem to have never missed a meal.
“It was nonstop,” Gabrielle said. “On weekends, we’d talk about food. When we went on family vacation, we’d plan lunch, we’d plan dinners, we’d roll home at the end of the trip.” Andrew said his father still likes to sit next to him at family gatherings. “He takes a small percentage of my meal and a large percentage of everything else on the table. He’s very systematic.”
Mr. Nieporent said he has one more restaurant in him, perhaps his last, considering that New York rents have become exorbitant and New York chefs uncollaborative. It will be Chinese.
He vividly recalls the meal he ate the night the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Theater, and the scene outside was pandemonium. His most treasured memory of that historic New York evening? The egg rolls.
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