A Conversation with Major Food Group
Always Be Learning
Major Food Group is headed by the trio of Chef Rich Torrisi, Chef Mario Carbone, and business partner Jeff Zalaznick. In 2010, the two chefs created the “New York Times” three-starred Torrisi Italian Specialties in NYC’s Nolita. Within a year, they’d had partnered with Mr. Zalaznick to create a popular sandwich chain, Parm.
Over the past five years, the group has also opened the high-end Italian restaurant Carbone (in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong); Dirty French (in The Ludlow hotel on the Lower East Side); Santina (coastal Italian beneath the High Line elevated park); ZZ’s Clam Bar (raw bar and cocktails in Greenwich Village), and Sadelle’s (bagels and smoked fish in Soho).
Carbone, ZZ’s Clam Bar, and the now closed Torrisi Italian Specialties all received Michelin stars, and both Carbone and Torrisi Italian Specialties received James Beard Award nominations for Best New Restaurant in America. Some of the group’s upcoming projects include revamping the Four Seasons space into multiple restaurant concepts under one roof, as well as opening a Carbone in Las Vegas.
Mario and Rich, you met at the Culinary Institute of America. When did you first know that food was going to be part of your future, and that you might study cooking in a formal way?
Mario Carbone: I always assumed that I would find a place in the industry, somehow. I was never really interested in school; I was never really a very good student. College—no. Work with my hands—yes.
Rich Torrisi: My story is a little similar. For me, it started very early with just eating. And as I became really obsessed with eating, the more obvious it became that I should consider a career in the kitchen. So as a young teenager, I took a job in the kitchen, and then I found that I really loved the environment. By the time I was probably about 15 or 16, I knew that I was going to be a chef.
Mario Carbone: Rich and I met at school [in 1998], and we eventually became friends. Then he wound up getting a job for Daniel Boulud. I was working for Mario Batali, and then I left and took a job at Café Boulud [in 2003], which is where he was. That’s where we sort of became legitimate friends, working together. Eventually we became roommates and then, while living together in 2006 or 2007, sort of hatched this plan of how to build something of our own. Then in the last couple of days of 2009, we opened Torrisi.
Jeff, how did you get involved with these two?
Jeff Zalaznick: I met them after they opened Torrisi. I was very, very passionate about food growing up as well, but was never professionally trained. I originally was in finance, and then realized that I needed to change my life. Since I was always around food and hospitality, I started working in different capacities in hotels, and started a couple of different websites that were based around restaurants and food [AlwaysHungryNY.com, and DinePrivate.com, for booking restaurants' private dining rooms, with restaurateur Joe Bastianich]. And what I realized was I wanted to create my own restaurants, that I want to be on the creative side of it. I sold my businesses right around the time they opened Torrisi. I was focused on Italian-American food as an idea, and they were doing Italian-American food.
You know, all three of us grew up with this kind of New York parenthood, so what they were celebrating played right to a lot of my interests. Then I just started eating there, and we started getting to know each other. One thing led to another, and then we ended up all partnering up.
Jeff, what was the first venture that you were involved in?
Mario Carbone: The next one, Parm, which we opened next door. Parm was essentially created at Torrisi. So we had two very distinctive concepts under one roof. In the daytime, we were a sandwich shop; at night, we were a restaurant. So after about a year of that and both of those ideas independently going well, the space directly next to Torrisi became available. So we took it and separated the two ideas. The sandwich shop got its own restaurant and the nighttime space got its own too, and Torrisi and Parm were separate.
Jeff Zalaznick: From early on, we always talked about the importance about having a different idea that we could roll out in multiple locations, along with having a fine-dining presence. Parm was set up as that vehicle, from a business perspective.
So you planned the expansion (to the Upper West Side, Brookfield Place in Battery Park City, and Yankee Stadium) that it’s seeing today? Do you plan on expanding internationally?
Jeff Zalaznick: For us, Parm was always a thing that we felt we could replicate and that we could expand on. Right now we're working on our initial New York expansion. We’re opening in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a couple of months, and then we’re going to start looking elsewhere. No limit to where we think we can put it.
You mentioned your love of Italian food and New York–style Italian. What else did you see in each other that brought you together?
Rich Torrisi: You know, we’re all New Yorkers. We all love the same things about restaurants, about food. We were all gunning toward Italian-American food. But at that point, it didn’t really get much love in the food media and the fine-dining world. And our plan was to go huge on the New York Italian-American lifestyle. That was what united us from the beginning.
Mario Carbone: I think we’re the epitome of a team. I mean, we all fight for a common goal, but you have to have different skill sets. You can't make a team of jump shooters. Everyone has to play a role and have a different skill set.
Going back to the first restaurant: What do you think set that apart and set the tone for what was to come?
Mario Carbone: Torrisi was a very unique restaurant and it had a very strong idea, but a lot of what we did and the ways that we went about doing it were out of necessity. Through that necessity, something really amazing and unique came out of it. We had to serve this one menu every night because we had five dishes we could make, and that’s all we could make, and that became its own thing. And this deli that we were passionate about needed some revival pretty badly, so the way that we went about it—Torrisi, as a whole, was a project that we really hadn’t seen yet in the States.
Local ingredients were a big part of that.
Mario Carbone: I mean, we made Italian food without any Italian ingredients. And I think that to make that statement on our first project said a lot about who we were, that we were not born in “the boot.” We were born in New York, and we were New York Italians, and we were going to celebrate it here. Some really interesting ideas came out of forcing ourselves to abide by those rules.
After Parm, your next project was Carbone. Tell me how you went from this restaurant that was super-accessible to Carbone, which was on the higher end.
Jeff Zalaznick: Carbone is really what brought us together, initially. We all had this dream of bringing back Italian-American fine dining, both separately and together. From all of our childhoods, there was this nostalgia for these types of restaurants.
This was the type of food that we would go out to eat and spend good money on, and it was never ever that good. We loved that type of food so much that we would eat it overcooked, underseasoned, from a can, however they put it out. And the idea was, “What if we actually made this really good? What if we use the best ingredients and cook it the best way? It was really well-done renditions of this classic New York dining experience that we all love so much.
Rich Torrisi: Taking Italian-American into the fine-dining realm.
And then Carbone received a James Beard Award nomination for Best New Restaurant in America, and a Michelin star. What was that like?
Jeff Zalaznick: The biggest thing for us and Carbone was getting three stars from the “New York Times.” When we created it, that was a really big goal that we set for ourselves. And I’d say that was the biggest achievement for us. There were lots of other accolades and achievements, but the “New York Times” felt like the biggest stamp of approval.
From there, ZZ’s Clam Bar came next.
Jeff Zalaznick: We got the space as part of the deal when we took Carbone. So we had this little space that we wanted to do something special in, that evolved in time into ZZ’s Clam Bar. And that opened about six months after Carbone.
What’s the inspiration behind that restaurant’s name?
Jeff Zalaznick: “ZZ” is my nickname. “Zalaznick’s” doesn’t sound so good—it doesn’t have the same ring.
Mario Carbone: It doesn’t say “raw fish and cocktails.”
Jeff Zalaznick: ZZ's was totally not Italian. Two of our favorite things to do, for all of us, is eat raw fish and drink great cocktails. We had this very cool 10-seat restaurant, and we decided to build something that reflected those passions, which was incredible raw fish and cocktails. So it became the kind of creative hub for what became a very large cocktail program across all our restaurants, and it also really celebrates raw fish in ways you don’t normally see.
All three of us love eating sushi, so how do we do raw fish without making it sushi? The approach that we took was breaking it down into all of the different components—carpaccio, cured, ceviche, crudo—and then building flavors on top of that, combinations you really don’t see anywhere else. So it’s a fun and interesting and exciting way to have a raw-bar experience.
Then you opened Dirty French, then Santina. How do you decide at each moment, “This type of cuisine is our next phase, or this type of space is what we want to fill?”
Mario Carbone: Just feel it out.
Jeff Zalaznick: Yes, everything has to be organic in some way. Whether it’s the space that informs the concept or whether it’s the other way around, everything has a reason and a purpose. We're not dart-throwers.
Rich Torrisi: Part of the difference between me and Mario is that we cook very different styles of food, we have different types of training, so that allows us to do different styles. That dramatically expands the bandwidth of what we can do as a concept.
Talk about the decision-making process when you’re creating a new dish. Do you develop a dish together, or does one of you come up with a concept and the others give notes on it?
Mario Carbone: It can come from absolutely anywhere. When we're working on a dish, we’ll start sooner on development than, I think, anyone else. I think that's one of our secrets and one of our strengths—how many times we work over it and do it again. We’ll take nearly a year in the development of each restaurant’s menu. And we’ve done it five or six times now.
Jeff Zalaznick: We’ll eat a dish 100 times and it won’t even come close to the menu. We do a lot of development; we spend a lot of time in the creation zone and iteration, iteration, iteration, iteration. This is valuable for people to understand—that it’s just as big of a win sometimes to not put something on a menu or to not do a certain concept. That helps us a lot—a constant desire to come to the best solution for everyone. “Your idea’s better? Great. Let’s do that.”
Mario Carbone: Usually, you find a person who’s just happy it was their idea. But for us, as long as the best idea was found, that’s all we care about. We don’t care who it is, as long as it happened.
Do you have particularly memorable sources of inspiration of late, like a specific country or a restaurant or a cuisine? What inspires you?
Mario Carbone: We're revamping The Four Seasons. We're right in the middle of it right now, and it’s just a huge source of inspiration for so many different reasons. We’re going to be doing a lot of traveling with that, and we’ve done a lot of research and we’ll continue to do a lot of research. For us, the fact that it’s a New York landmark and institution—it has all the things that really get us going when it comes to being creative.
Rich Torrisi: It's going to be Continental American.
Jeff Zalaznick: I think we’re all very open to finding inspiration everywhere. Every time one of us travels, whether together or separately, we get something. Whenever we go to a new place, we get something. We’re all constantly cataloging different things that we like. We like the vibe or we like the style or we like the dish, or maybe the idea behind it.
Mario Carbone: As we grow, we become more and more diversified.
Jeff Zalaznick: We have three Italian concepts, we have three non-Italian concepts. We’re pretty balanced in that regard. The first three restaurants were Italian, so it’s definitely where our roots are, but we all do take a lot of pride in not being that one thing. Having that range is very, very important. It keeps it exciting for us.
Rich Torrisi: Because we know we can keep doing Italian and we know that we’ll be successful, but for us, it’s so boring to think to do that again. We have to do something different.
Can you also talk about Sadelle’s, your newest restaurant in New York? You partnered with Melissa Weller, former head baker at Per Se and Bouchon Bakery. How did that partnership come about?
Jeff Zalaznick: Sadelle's is a bakery and a restaurant, and obviously has a kind of a New York-Jewish heritage. Someone brought us her bagels. They were the best bagels we had ever had, and we went out to find her. None of us could really understand why it was so hard to get a great bagel in New York, so we decided to all work together to bring that to people. And that evolved into Sadelle’s. It was kind of our take on that classic Barney Greengrass, Russ & Daughters–style restaurant, done our way and brought into the current day. It followed a similar approach that we had taken to restaurants in the past, which is kind of looking back at historical places that we love and bringing them back to life in one way or another.
It seems like you guys have had hit after hit. Can you describe what might account for your success rate, given the normal success rate of restaurants?
Mario Carbone: We don’t buy into fads, we don’t follow trends. We’re not here to make—
Rich Torrisi: Small plates.
Mario Carbone: Yeah. I mean, I'm not going to do descending dots of balsamic vinegar on a plate.
Rich Torrisi: No microgreens.
Mario Carbone: When you stop cooking for prizes and you start to just do things that you love, build restaurants that you love, make people happy, and you stop caring about medals around your neck, then things start to go your way. But you have to have a strong foundation, a strong base. We all put in the years, and the product shows. But then what do you do with your experience? Do you chase the next thing that’s really popular, or do you trust in yourself that what you’re going to build is going to be the next popular thing?
What do you still want to learn? What are you still aiming for?
Mario Carbone: With every new project, if you do something different every time, if we’re not stuck to being the one-trick-pony restaurant group, then all of a sudden, you’re reading books you wouldn’t normally read; you're experiencing places in the world you wouldn’t have known about; you’re referencing new foods, styles of cuisine, time periods, regions.
We do everything ourselves. We’re picking the music and the uniforms and the plates and the china. All of that needs research, and you’re learning along the way.
Jeff Zalaznick: If you’re not always learning and you think you've figured it out, you’re wrong, and you’re not going to do that well. Anyone successful can tell you that. That's how you stay creative and stay exciting, and how you’re able to stay relevant and continue to create great products. ABL: Always Be Learning.
What else would you advise for potential culinary students who think, “I like cooking, maybe I’ve worked in a restaurant or two, but I don't know if I should be putting both feet into this industry”?
Mario Carbone: That’s the answer right there. If you’re saying that to yourself, you should stop right now.
Rich Torrisi: If you don’t love it, stop right now.
Mario Carbone: If you’re not obsessed, infatuated with this, you should stop immediately and start something else. This is not a “liking” issue.
Rich Torrisi: Even if you do love it, it takes time to be good. Things don’t happen in just a few years. It takes you a really long time to really be good at something. So you need to have patience. Nowadays, you have people who come out of cooking school and they just want to jump into the business and start this thing, start that thing. You have to learn to cook first.