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Interview with Ken Friedman

I Don't Want to Have Regrets - An Interview with Ken Friedman

Born in Los Angeles, Ken Friedman attended UC Berkeley, where he discovered San Francisco’s lively music scene. He left college to pursue a full-time career in music as a concert promoter, first independently and then working for the impresario Bill Graham. He moved to London to manage bands such as The Smiths and UB40, before finding himself in New York City, working with the renowned Clive Davis at Arista Records.

When Friedman turned 40, he decided to make a career change. Opening a restaurant was a natural next step: He'd already spent many nights frequenting New York City’s best restaurants while entertaining his clients, and friends continually offered to invest in his first project, sure it would be a success.

Thus, in February 2004, Friedman opened New York City’s first gastropub, The Spotted Pig, with Chef April Bloomfield. Since then, the duo has opened The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, The John Dory Oyster Bar, Salvation Taco (with a second soon to come in
Williamsburg), Salvation Burger, White Gold Butchers, and Tosca Cafe (Friedman's first venue in San Francisco), all to critical acclaim. He is also a partner in The Rusty Knot, The Monkey Bar and Locanda Verde, with Andrew Carmellini. In 2016, Ken was honored with the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.

How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?

Ken Friedman: I was the high school kid who had no idea what I wanted to do in college. I decided to go to UC Berkeley as an art major, with American history as a minor. What happened in the ’70s and ’80s was pretty much everybody in the art department at Berkeley, and Stanford and California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute—we all formed punk rock bands. I did the same.

That led to me putting on concerts and working for a guy called Bill Graham, a legendary concert promoter in San Francisco. All of a sudden I found myself on the business side of things.

I dropped out of Berkeley and moved to London and managed bands, then moved to New York and worked for record companies. I was basically living in nightclubs. I was really fascinated by public assembly in general, and restaurants specifically, which are sort of clubs for adults. I found myself looking at the chefs and speaking to the chefs as the artists.

I was living in New York an throwing parties and barbecues in the Hamptons; it was a creative outlet for me. I loved hosting dinners. People told me how great the food was and how great the experience was. So I started to realize that I should either be a chef or open a bar or open a restaurant. I’ve got a good ear and eye and nose for upcoming talent.

Then I was inching toward 40 and I wasn’t really all that happy in the music business, so I started to think, “Do I want to be that guy who looks back on his life and says, 'Damn, I wish I had tried that; maybe I would have been good at that'?” I don’t want to have regrets.

Maybe the most important part of it is that when you’re an artist, a novelist or a songwriter or a painter, if you write a song and it’s a hit song, for the rest of your life you get paid for that. Not just when you perform the song, but if you’re sitting on a beach with a beer in your hand and someone is buying that record, you get paid for it. I was only getting paid when I was awake; I wanted to get paid when I was asleep.

What do great artists do—great songwriters, great novelists, great painters? They make work for themselves. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t say, “I’m going to make a record that sounds like what’s being played on the radio now.” He just makes a record that he enjoys and it works. So I thought, well, I’m going to do that when I do my restaurant.

How did you know what you wanted in terms of the venue, the menu, and the beverage service?

Ken: I was a punk rock musician. I was an alternative thinker. What didn’t New York have? Well, British food wasn’t really a thing that people took seriously. People thought British food was fish and chips. They didn’t really know that there’s a great tradition of fabulous seasonal British food. I’d lived in London for three years, and I’ve always been kind of an Anglophile from music, so I kind of knew that.

I knew about the gastropub phenomenon, where all the best young chefs in London who didn’t have the money to open restaurants would just go to the old pub on the corner. Four people would sit there all day Sunday, and there’d be no customers Monday night. So the chef would go to the owner and say, “Give me Sunday and Monday nights and let me cook. You get the bar proceeds, and I get the food proceeds.” And that’s how gastropubs first started. I also thought it would be cool to have a female chef, because there just aren’t enough.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to actually find a British female. She thought the way I did and she was obsessed with America, and specifically Chez Panisse. When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I worked there to pay the rent, so that was my introduction to working in restaurants: Chez Panisse, the best restaurant in the country. We shared that.

So The Spotted Pig was born. And design-wise, I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder, I love going to flea markets and thrift stores, so I had a bunch of stuff. I liked the way pubs are designed with a photograph of the local prizewinning cow, or a photograph of somebody who just caught a bunch of ducks.

Often pubs didn’t have names, or didn’t have signs with letters because people couldn’t read. “Pubs” is short for public houses. So I thought, well, a spotted pig is super-visual, and I don’t need to put a sign up that says “spotted pig.” I can just hang a pig sign.

How did that first meeting with April Bloomfield come about?

Ken: I was introduced by Jamie Oliver. We just started emailing each other, and I liked her right away; she liked me right away. So I flew her to New York and my friend Mario Batali and I took her to a farmers' market and a few other places, and he said, “Yeah, she’s perfect.” And I said, “How do you know? We haven’t even tried her food yet.” He said, “She’s worked at all your favorite restaurants in London. That’s an indication that she’s got the same taste.”

And he said, “She’s got all these burns on her arms.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “She’s a badass—she reaches into hot ovens and she’ll do anything to make sure the food is treated right, and that’s a big deal.”

So I hired her and made her a partner right away. I believed that restaurants co-owned by the chef were cooler and better, and the chef would care more.

During the initial opening, how did you settle on a menu? How do you keep that menu continually fresh?

Ken: I worked for record companies—Arista Records, London Records, Interscope Records. When I would sign a band—I was always an A&R guy, a talent scout—I’d sign a band that was great or had potential to be great, and give them money to make a record.

But my philosophy was very much, “I’m not going to tell you how to make your record. I’m a failed musician. My job is to keep the rest of the record companies away from you so that you can be an artist and not have to talk to a bunch of suits and bean counters about your art.”

I have the exact same philosophy when it comes to April and other chefs I’m partners with in some other restaurants. I never, ever tell them what to do. I think the worst thing you could do to an artist is start advising them on how to make their art better.

It’s hard for me to say, “You should put sesame seeds on this bun instead of poppy seeds,” or “These pickles are too garlicky.” I love April’s food, and it totally fits in the places we do. If she does something that I think isn’t perfect, I know she’ll figure it out.

She doesn’t get permission from me. If she wants to buy expensive tomatoes instead of cheap tomatoes, I understand. The dirty little secret of chefs—the thing that separates great chefs from not-great chefs—is ingredients. So we spend a lot of money on the best ingredients. That’s okay because we sell them all and we mark them up enough, we make the profit, we pay all our employees.

What are some of your favorite offerings at your own restaurants?

Ken: I love April’s burgers. I love her veggie burger, now that I’m trying to eat less meat. April does pretty incredible vegetables and salads. The lamb burger at The Breslin is awesome. The roasted chicken at Tosca is another favorite.

April had never even heard of a Cubano before she moved to New York. I took her to a Cuban place, she had one, she flipped out, and she put on the menu at The Spotted Pig. It’s won all kinds of awards for the best Cubano in New York, so I love that.

I’m also partners in Locanda Verde with Andrew Carmellini, and the same goes for him. I love his pastas, and I love his chicken for two.

I’m lucky—I get to eat great food for free at my places. I always leave a big tip, though. It’s not fair for me to eat for free and the staff still has to do the work, so I always tip the kitchen and the front-of-house staff.

What was your next venture?

Ken: Our second venture after The Spotted Pig was the first John Dory, which failed. Luckily we believed in the concept still, so we moved it to Ace Hotel. Closing your second restaurant is like your first album is a big hit, and then your second album doesn't even make the charts. So we remixed it and put it out again.

Then The Breslin was our third one and that was a huge hit; it still is. That was us getting back to what we were best at. We went back to the gastropub concept in a hotel had been renovated and changed to Ace Hotel; we called it The Breslin because it had been the Breslin Hotel since the late 1800s.

The nose-to-tail trend took off at least partly because of The Breslin. How were you so attuned to that movement?

Ken: To do this American thing where you eat the tenderloin and throw the rest of the cow away is kind of dumb. And the most humane thing to do if you’re going to kill an animal is eat all of it.

When we opened The Spotted Pig, April would go to the meat purveyor and say, “What do you do with your chicken livers?” They'd answer, “Oh, we just give them away. Nobody even wants them.” So we got chicken livers for free from the meat purveyor.

The chicken liver toast that she did, which she called “chicken liver parfait,” was and is one of her bestsellers, and that’s all profit. Instead of charging $70 for a steak, we can charge $46 because we’re making so much money on the other parts of the same animal. We basically got to the point where we were buying whole cows and pigs because we were using every part. It wasn’t a movement as much as, that’s how people used to eat.

April grew up poor, and her mom would buy cheap cuts of meat and boil the hell out of them and season the hell out of them. That’s what pastrami is, that’s what corned beef is. The cheeks are the best part of the pig. To make head cheese, April takes all of the bones out of the pig head, boils it, rolls it up and ties it and slices it—and you have this beautiful meat like bologna or mortadella.

April makes liver and onions that bring tears to people's eyes: “Oh my God, this is what my mom used to make us.” It’s a feel-good thing that’s good for the environment and good for the soul.

How has that philosophy continued with White Gold Butchers?

Ken: We get whole animals into our store on 78th and Amsterdam, and we sell and use every part of the animal. One of our bestselling dishes is beef heart.

People on the Upper West Side and others go there to maybe get a skirt steak for dinner, but they end up buying a bunch of cuts of meat that they never really knew how to cook because Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest, our partners who are the butchers there, are right at the counter. They say, “Here is what you do with this cut. Oxtail is really just the tail of a cow, and here’s how you make soup out of it.”

We do and will continue to sell any and all cuts of meat, including the innards and the offal. Hopefully more and more people are getting hip that it's a good way to eat. Sometimes we even know the animals' names. We go to the farms and pet them, so we know what we’re eating and we know what our customers are eating.

What's your advice to people who want to be in the same position as you someday?

Ken: Life is full of trial and error. If I don’t succeed at this thing, I can go try something else or go back. Don’t think you’re stuck in one kind of career, unless you actually are—and even then I would take a look at how you can get out of doing something you just hate. Your hands aren’t tied, you know? If they are, untie them.

As time goes on, people are realizing, “I’m in charge of my own life. I can do whatever I want.” I switched careers at a point when everybody said, “You’re crazy.”

Say a young restaurateur has an idea, but not the money. How do they overcome those financial hurdles?

Think small at first. Instead of finding a shoe store and spending millions of dollars to transform it into a restaurant, find a building that was a restaurant, so you don’t have to spend too much money. Or, if the owner spent thousands or millions of dollars on
infrastructure and kitchens and exhaust systems, that’s great. Make them a partner instead of giving them a bunch of money to walk away.

Don’t focus too much on rent. Pretty much 100 percent of the time when a restaurateur says, “I moved out because the rent was too high,” they’re not telling the truth. They moved out because butts stopped sitting in their seats. If the rent ends up being five or six days' sales, you’re in trouble—but usually it’s not. If you’re doing well, rent could be three days' sales, and that’s where it should be.

I’m not a bean counter. The way I solve every problem in my restaurant is get more customers in. Everything else falls into place. Your labor costs go down. Your food costs go down. Everything goes down by having more people there, so focus on doing something great.

For our readers who are coming from the chef side, what is your advice on forming a partnership with someone like you?

Ken: Be smart. Don’t be like a lot of chefs who think it’s all about them. It’s not. Chef-owned restaurants are boring. Chef-and-another-person-owned restaurants are not boring. A chef wants a blank canvas to show their art. They want no music, they want no other art on the walls; they want nothing to get in the way of their beautiful creation that they slaved over on the plate.

Customers don’t really want that. They want a casual, fun place, or a not-casual fun place. If you want to eat by yourself in quiet, stay home. If you want to go out, you want to go to a place that’s packed with people who are great to look at and interact with.

Food is the most important part of a restaurant, but it’s not the only reason why you go somewhere—in New York especially. You’ll walk by ten places that are empty and wait for an hour at the eleventh one, because you want to be there.

So my advice to chefs is: It’s not all about you, and stop trying to be on TV. Be a restaurant chef or don’t be a restaurant chef, but quit acting like you’re a restaurant chef when you really just want to be a TV star.

What's next for you?

Ken: We’re in a lot of hotels—I have Locanda Verde in the Greenwich Hotel. We have two restaurants and a lobby bar in Ace Hotel. We have a restaurant in the Pod Hotel on 39th Street, Salvation Taco—and Salvation Burger in a Pod Hotel on 51st Street. We’re opening up Salvation Taco in a Pod Hotel in Williamsburg. I’m a part of the Monkey Bar with Graydon Carter, the editor of “Vanity Fair,” in Hotel Elysee.

People always come in The Spotted Pig and say, “Why isn’t this a hotel? Why don’t you have rooms upstairs that have the same kind of country pub feel?” Maybe that’s what we’ll do next.